I met Dennis Freeland a year and a half before his death and in the time since I did not give myself enough of the simple, obvious pleasure of knowing him as well as I should. Not that any amount of time would be enough.
Dennis is the guy who told me that the newspaper would teach me three times as much about writing as any writing program. Dennis is the guy who told me to talk to a football squad's offensive line, because the athletes there get too little respect, and are smarter than most other players on the team. He's the one that taught me that good editing is essentially subtraction and that good stories take a long time to write. And Dennis is the guy who taught me first, and most importantly, that a good story is not necessarily the one with the flashy headline. A good story is one that rings most true.
That last bit of advice is closest to what I will remember about Dennis; that advice which cuts closest to this wise, unassuming man's core. Dennis was the nicest guy you could meet, the least threatening, and the least obvious sports writer in the room. Of course, when he entered, you would notice that the entire press box or press room turned his way. And a minimum of two or three of the top sports reporters in Memphis, they would all come over to chat with Dennis.
Like knows like and the best sports reporters in Memphis knew that Dennis was first among peers. Dennis would laugh and talk back. He would have so much fun that one might believe he wasn't there to work.
Yet he was. He attended every event to work and expressed to me some guilt when attending and (rarely) not reporting. And his work showed a man committed to the idea of sports and to athletes. A guy who understood that sports are, on the large scale, a new source of unity in this world, and, on the personal scale, that every player in the game, no matter how good, is at the end just another kid with a dream to play ball.
That's the story that rings true. No headlines about firing coaches, or mega-trades, or new teams (or arenas) were the real stories to Dennis Freeland. The real story was in the impact of sports and the players who make the game.
That's part of our loss, those that Dennis left behind. We will have to journey through this new world of Memphis sports -- with a new semi-pro baseball team, a new professional basketball team, a resurgent college basketball team, a growing college football team, and a host of other worthy sports. And we do not have the benefit of Memphis' greatest storyteller.