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September 2001

Larry Felser - The Next Edition

by Vince EVANS

The sportswriter, responding to a question about a ballplayer, echoes: “He’s the best there was, best there is, best there’ll ever be.”

This clip, taken from the movie ‘The Natural’ forms a story line for the characters in the film. But for real-life sports writers, story lines must be developed, shaped and nurtured until the final cut is ready for publication. It’s hard work. One of those sports writers is Larry Felser, the recently ‘semi-retired’ sports editor and columnist for the Buffalo News. After 50 years in the business of giving us, retrospectively, 50 yard line seats to major sporting events, Larry walked away from the high-profile, more-than-full-time job he held, to nurture and develop other parts of his life. From the beginning he had a game plan that called for him to remain in his beloved hometown of Buffalo, New York but his reach would extend far beyond the Niagara Frontier. He would use what came naturally to him - words. Like precious coins, he would spend them wisely, investing in stories that had the greatest return for readers. Along the way, he would discover opportunity, his destiny and himself.

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With mom and dad, Mary and Lenny. Pony Express, later Courier Express.
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Proud Beverly and Larry with Ellen at 1. Felser Family’s winter wonderland.

Though not unaccustomed to this side of the writer’s pen, there have been only a few articles written about Larry, largely focused on his professional persona and career. But the Larry Felser out of the press box and away from the typewriter is a fiercely private family man, a homebody, guarding and guarded by a small inner circle of loved ones. His demeanor is self-effacing, his appearance professorial. He has influenced many—not only by his writing and wit but also by his genuineness. Though comfortable in the company of kings, it would be safe to conclude that outside the familial he would prefer the familiarity of friends. He’s an unapologetic Buffalo guy, who had opportunity and reason to leave the area but chose to stay. True to his roots, he grew where he was planted.

As the only child of Leonard and Mary Felser, Larry was born on the east side and raised in the University district of North Buffalo. Not coincidentally, he developed a strong work ethic and lifelong desire to learn from these neighborhood influences and family. His father was a self-educated accountant who, at 14, worked as a bookkeeper for the Reisman Steel Company in Buffalo; his mother, one of 11 children and, at 4’11”, was known as ‘Little Mary.’ One of the footnotes in the Felser family archives is that Leonard Felser and his brother, Carl, married two Harris sisters. With the Felser and Harris families doubly joined, Larry grew up in a large but close-knit clan, and he thrived in it. He especially loved spending time with his grandfather, Charlie, who also lived on the
eastside and had worked for the Pullman Car Company. His grandfather would tell fascinating stories and often took young Larry on walking excursions, “cruising the neighborhood” as Larry describes it. Stopping to chat with the meat cutter, the bartender, the barber, the florist and others, Larry would make the rounds with his grandfather - as if a little reporter -asking questions and learning about people, events, issues and opinions. Always opinions.

Larry’s interest in sports started early, playing softball, basketball, and organized baseball while attending St. Joe’s Grade School in the city. During these formative years, his academic studies sparked an interest in writing but if not for divine intervention of the second kind, Larry might have chosen other paths. His third grade teacher, Sister Agnes Patricia, wrote on one of Larry’s compositions “You have a natural gift for writing...follow it.” Larry carried this Yoda-like advice with him through Canisius High School (where he played football) and into Canisius College, majoring in English.

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The artist at work. Contemporary country at M&T concert.
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Felser, Jenner compare hair styles. Beverly checking Training Camp calories.

While still in college, Larry landed a job as a copy boy at the Courier Express with the help of his friend, Jim Whelan. “We had to watch the wire service machines very closely for news items and get the news to the editors quickly; we also had to get food and beverages to the editors quickly, but we learned a lot by everything we did.” In addition to his friend Jim, Larry befriended two other Courier copy boys, Frank Drea and Gene Jankowski. Together this copy boy band of four learned all they could about the news business and over the next several decades would go on to distinguish themselves in their respective journalistic endeavors: Jim Whelan, who covered the sinking of the Andrea Doria for United Press International, became the first editor of the Washington (D.C.) Times and was publisher of the Sacramento (Calif.) Bee; Frank Drea won the Heywood Hale Broun Award for outstanding journalism and Gene Jankowski became President of CBS television.

After graduating Canisius College in 1954, Larry spent two years in the Army as a cryptographer in the signal corps. He returned home, and to the Courier Express. “ I wrote as a police reporter and general assignment reporter, starting as a vacation replacement,” says Larry. That window of opportunity never closed. For 12 years, Larry wrote sports for the Courier Express - covering the Buffalo Bills from day one - earning a solid reputation, before Paul Neville of the rival Buffalo Evening News stole Larry from the Courier. “I moved over to the Buffalo News before the Courier folded; it was an opportunity that held much promise.” As did he. Melding together his two childhood passions not only earned him a living but also earned him an identity, one that would put him on an equal field of play with his three former copy boy colleagues.

In 1960 Larry was assigned as the News’ beat reporter covering the AFL and the Bills. He took to the league and the team, describing events with depth, drama and professional detachment. Readers took to his coverage and insiders took notice. He demonstrated that a home-town sportswriter covering his home-town sports team could ply his craft without being considered a home-towner. Larry developed an uncanny ability to predict events and news involving the Buffalo Bills to such a degree that former Bills’ trainer Eddie Abramowski labeled Larry the “Swami” long before Chris Berman borrowed the moniker. His stories of the Bills and later his columns and opinions concerning a range of athletics, sports issues and personalities were viewed as insightful, fair and far-reaching. Owners, coaches, players and others inside the games appreciated Larry’s even-handedness and his knowledge of their sport. But above all, they were moved by his integrity.

His writing wasn’t confined to the Buffalo News. So comprehensive was his understanding of football that Larry wrote for over 30 years as a freelance sportswriter for the venerable Street and Smith’s Football Annual and other syndicated publications. He also wrote children’s books, parts of anthologies, feature stories on sports stars for Scholastic Magazine and contributed scripts and research to HBO for its documentary on the old AFL. Nationwide, he garnered considerable respect with his words, written and spoken.

It was actions that spoke louder, however, when he first met the woman who would later become his best friend and soul mate. In fact it could be described as a ‘last ditch’ effort. Larry was in his 30’s and living a busy bachelor’s life when he and some friends rented a house in Canada for the summer. On Labor Day weekend they invited some people to a party at their house. Driving to the party were two very pretty young ladies, Beverly and her friend Maureen Leahy. As Beverly drove up to the bachelors’ house, she didn’t see the deep ditch in front of it - and once in, she couldn’t drive out of it. One of the fellows to come to the aid of the young ladies in the car was Larry. One look was all it took for Larry to fall for Beverly. They dated only a few times and remained friends. One day out of the blue, Larry received a call from Beverly telling him she was about to get married - now it was Larry’s spirit that fell into a ditch—but not for long. When the engagement broke off, it was Larry who went to comfort her and seized the opportunity; they’ve been inseparable since. Larry and Bev were married in 1966 but before they wrote one thank you card, an opportunity came to Larry at a less-than-opportune time. Early one morning while on his honeymoon, the phone rang at his Miami hotel - no one except immediate family knew their whereabouts but one Raider found out. The caller was Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders and new commissioner of the AFL. Larry had known Al for several years and Al knew Larry’s work; he was calling to offer Larry the position of director of television for the AFL. A power position with power perks, but Larry pulled the plug on it. In his mind, his game plan was working and he didn’t want to leave his hometown.

With his career in high gear, more professional recognition soon followed. He received accolades including the Page One first prize award for his story on Cassius Clay’s brother Rudy. In 1971 he was elected, then re-elected two years later, as president of the Professional Football Writers of America, a coveted and influential post for the nation’s football writers. From 1974 to 1976 he earned three consecutive Page One Awards for his stories on Howard Cosell, Miami’s Super Bowl victory over Minnesota - judged best in the sports news category - and for his piece on Terry Bradshaw. He knew where he was going... and was about to learn more of where he came from.

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Larry and OJ in better days. Broadway Joe and audience at Hall of Fame.
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Commissioner fetes Felser. Van and Larry admire Bills’ silverware.

After one of his articles appeared in “The Sporting News”, Larry received a letter from a William Felser in Maastricht Holland. Asking about lineage, birthplaces and Felser connections, the letter ignited an intense interest in genealogy that led Larry to Felsers far and near. Accompanied by his eldest daughter, Ellen (a high school student at the time), Larry began researching city and county documents and discovered that Felsers have lived in Buffalo since 1838. “They were all peasants - like me.” He was able to trace his Felser roots back to 1600 and Western Germany; there, he discovered a town called Felser located in the Eifel section of Germany, near the site of the Battle of the Bulge. He also researched his mother’s ancestry - the Harris and Swinton families - that had migrated to Canada from Scotland. Larry was surprised to learn that his great-great-grandfather and his great-grandfather were casket makers in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This little-known family profession may not come as a complete surprise to some sports personalities who found themselves entombed in one of Larry’s ‘opinionated’ columns.

Since the early 1960’s Larry covered most of the major sports news, from Super Bowls and World Series to Olympics and amateur events and wrote about major and minor sports celebrities. He traveled extensively and his business trips with colleagues became legendary. Rarely at a loss for words, he was often just plain lost when it came to following driving directions. Friend and former Buffalo News colleague Vic Carucci, who traveled with Larry on many such business trips, told him that by popular request Larry would forever be the designated passenger. Larry with directions was subject to Rule 222: he would take twice the time, double the mileage but only get half the way.

Traveling with his wife and two daughters, Ellen and Niecy, wasn’t as circuitous. The family ventured out many times domestically and occasionally internationally to such places as London, Madrid and Majorca. Because of the football season, Larry never took an autumn vacation or a cruise; these are things he plans to do with Bev. He may even write a book on a subject he knows well, the Buffalo Bills. Now, instead of traveling with his eldest daughter, Ellen, he travels to her. Ellen resides in the Philadelphia area with her two young sons, Ryan and Reid and husband Marc, a landscape architect. The teenager who helped her father research the Felser family history now works as a museum archivist for DuPont’s Hagley Museum. Larry’s younger daughter, Niecy, who taught at Williamsville South High School, lives in Williamsville with her husband, Dr. Chris Deakin, a psychiatrist and two sons, Nolan and Colin. They also own a 225 pound English Mastiff known as Winston (or Winnie - after Niecy’s favorite childhood story) that occasionally takes Larry on walking excursions - cruising the neighborhood, part two.

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The Felsers, with Patti at Budd Thalman’s retirement. Dad with Niecy at her high school graduation.
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The little girls grown up. Williamsville gothic.

For his contributions to his profession, Larry received numerous awards and national recognition. He was honored by the Pro Football Writers Association for being one of nine writers that covered all 35 Super Bowls; he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Canisius College. Larry was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2000; he was acknowledged in the Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck book about Timothy McVeigh. In his induction speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Marv Levy expressed gratitude to him for his nomination support. And Larry, too, entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984, as the youngest writer ever to receive the Dick McCann Memorial Award for long and distinguished reporting of pro football, the ultimate honor for pro football writers. Upon his retirement from the Buffalo News, Larry was presented with jerseys from the hometown sports franchises and was given a special chair in the press box at Ralph Wilson Stadium by Mr. Wilson himself—a rare and distinctive honor.

Larry credits great mentors in the business such as Phil Ranallo and Charlie Barton with giving him his template to success and his models to follow. He followed, and in so doing led the way to setting new standards for journalistic excellence. Characteristic of his wit, Larry claims that the best advice ever given him was “Never take a loss on your expense account.” Of editors, he muses: “The definition of an editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff... and makes sure the chaff gets into the story.” Disciplined by deadlines, interview techniques and space constraints, Larry won on the chessboard of life by staying three moves ahead. It was his master game plan and he executed it to perfection.

Never one to join a club, Larry prefers independent pursuits. He is a voracious reader and a historian with a very full home library. To stay fit and maintain vitality, Larry suggests: “Don’t practice to get old; keep your mind active, get new interests, keep reading, travel, broaden yourself.” He stays active writing a Sunday column for the Buffalo News and appearing on WNSA radio and Empire Sports Network each week. Nowadays he can be found in his new home near Tonawanda Creek working in his garden. “I’m an avid gardener by marriage.” His wife Beverly is handy around the house, restores antique furniture and, according to Larry, can make friends over the phone with wrong numbers! To this he adds: “I’ve never had a boring day in my married life; we do many things together - travel, gardening - we’re just down-home people. I’m the luckiest guy - I married the only woman I ever wanted and stayed my whole life in my hometown.” He counts among his fraternity of close friends people like Dick Procknal, Jerry Greaney, and Dick Baldwin and has maintained longstanding friendships with Will McDonough, Curt Gowdy and John Madden, among others. His best interview? “Chuck Norris - before he jumped into acting he was a judo champion and great guy.” Worst interview? “Robert Duvall while he was filming ‘The Natural’ here in Buffalo. I always liked his work but the interview was terrible, it blew apart - and so did the story I wrote - I smelled napalm that morning.”

Family means everything to Larry Felser. It always has and always will. From the inquisitive little boy on the east side to the knowledgeable reporter in the east, Larry held close to values and traditions and encouraged his children to know their roots and spread their wings. His life exemplified what he taught.

‘The Natural’ was about a guy whose plan for the big leagues went awry. If Sister Agnes Patricia and others had their way, it would have been about a man from Buffalo devoted to his family, endearing to his friends, who had a plan and a natural gift - and followed them. Perhaps the line that echoes from the movie could be said not by the writer but of him.           

Vince Evans is a freelance writer.


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