Bill Millsaps towered over folks. Indeed, with broad shoulders, barrel chest and meat-cleaver hands, he resembled an offensive tackle more than he did a sports columnist.
Rarely was his imposing presence more evident than on a sweltering October Saturday in 1985.
The venue was Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, aka Death Valley, where the Tigers had just defeated Virginia for the 25th time in 25 meetings. The final score was 27-24, and Saps had a tough, but fair, question for UVA’s George Welsh, then the reigning ACC coach of the year.
Why, Saps asked, had Cavaliers tailback Barry Word, the conference’s leading rusher, carried the ball only seven times? Why only twice in the second half?
An All-America quarterback at Navy, Welsh was small in stature, and the contrast with Saps, a former basketball player, was striking, especially in our media cluster. But Saps’ tone was not adversarial, and Welsh tried to explain Word’s minimal role — he didn’t touch the ball after Clemson scored the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Though you could tell Saps wasn’t convinced, he didn’t disparage Welsh in his Times-Dispatch column. He simply presented the facts: Not only had Word logged just seven carries, but tailbacks Kevin Morgan (15) and Howard Petty (12), plus quarterback Don Majkowski (13), had combined for 40.
“Welsh said Word might have gotten more carries except for the fact that the Tigers were extremely conscious of [Virginia’s] tailbacks on pitchouts,” Saps wrote. “That was, said Welsh, one of the reasons ‘why the tailbacks were not getting the ball as much as we’d like them to.’”
Given Morgan and Petty’s usage, the explanation was lacking, but Saps let Welsh have his say and moved on.
‘Twas quintessential Saps. He was subtle and graceful rather than brazen and belligerent, a role model for all he inspired during nearly four decades with the Times-Dispatch.
Saps died Friday at age 77, at home with his beloved wife, Nancy, at his side. He retired in 2005 after 11 years as the paper’s vice president and executive editor, but at his core, he was a reporter and writer.
“Willie Nelson sang that his heroes have always been cowboys,” Saps said in 2011 when he accepted the Red Smith Award, sports writing’s highest honor. “MY heroes have always been sports writers, such as Blackie Sherrod, Jim Murray and Red Smith.”
Saps worked alongside, and socialized with, those heroes from Dallas, Los Angeles and New York, and like them, he wrote elegantly and authoritatively from virtually all the large events: the World Series, Super Bowl, Final Four, Masters, Kentucky Derby and Olympics. He earned the trust of athletes, coaches and politicians.
But even as he and other iconic columnists — the Washington Post’s Dave Kindred, Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Furman Bisher and Roanoke Times’ Bill Brill were confidants — traversed the country and globe, Saps befriended and counseled the next generation back home.
He taught us to report and prepare tirelessly, especially as a columnist, and never to take ourselves too seriously. I learned those lessons, and much more, throughout the years, never more than on an early December evening in 1989.
Virginia’s basketball team had just lost a Sunday afternoon game at Vanderbilt, and Saps invited me to join him for dinner. He asked if I liked steak.
Don’t eat much red meat, I replied. You will tonight, he said, and I wasn’t about to argue.
Saps treated me to the finest filet, medium-rare, a glass of high-end Cabernet and more stories than I can recall. Man, it was awesome.
He then suggested — demanded is probably more accurate — that we retire to the hotel bar for an after-dinner drink. “Loud mouth soup,” he told the bartender, “for both of us.”
The bartender was clueless, but Saps provided the simple recipe: Baileys Irish Cream, Frangelico and Godiva dark chocolate liqueur.
“The more you drink,” Saps said with a wry smile, “the louder you get.”
Saps was right about loud mouth soup. Saps was also right about Barry Word, and George Welsh knew it. After the Clemson loss, Word averaged 26 carries and 144 yards over UVA’s final five games. Media voted him the ACC player of the year.
“I think he’s one of the best backs in the country,” Welsh said during that closing stretch. “I can’t say enough about what he’s done for this football team.”