Jesse Outlar. You got to be old Atlanta to remember him. Or just old.
I read his sports column in the big city newspaper that magically appeared on my front porch every morning from the time I was 3 years old until he quit writing — which was after I had a 3-year-old of my own.
OK. When I was 3 I was sitting in my daddy’s lap and he was helping me with the words, but by the time I was 4 I could do it all myself. Jesse Outlar is one of the reasons my column is here for you to read today.
A little aside. When I was 3 — and until I was 12 — we lived in a four-room mill village house. There was a cold water tap in the kitchen, but no hot water and the bathroom was out back. And yet my daddy had the morning newspaper delivered to our house every day. I am so thankful he had priorities. I still have to hold a paper in my hands and read it every morning. I wish more people did, but that’s another story for another day.
I loved reading Jesse Outlar’s column because he was a gentleman and never mean-spirited. He knew that you couldn’t brighten your own shine by dampening someone else’s. He wrote the truth, as he saw it, without trying to put anybody down. His talent was in the way he manipulated words, not people.
He was as big a sports hero to me as the people he wrote about. Plus, he was admittedly a tiny bit biased toward the Georgia Bulldogs, because his favorite college athlete of all time played there — his son, Barry.
Jesse Outlar lived to the ripe old age of 87, but was almost cut down in the prime of life. He was shot in the stomach in the parking lot of the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in 1973, after filing his story on an Atlanta Falcons game. The culprit was a thug trying to steal his briefcase. Thankfully he recovered and was back at work in a month.
They caught the 16-year-old who shot Jesse Outlar, but the teen went free because Jesse refused to make a positive identification. “I just wasn’t sure,” he said, “and I’d rather set a criminal free than send an innocent boy to jail.”
That’s the kind of man he was. Here’s my Jesse Outlar story. It was 1979. Georgia was playing Vanderbilt in Nashville. I was coaching football in deep South Georgia, far below the gnat line. I had driven to Atlanta in the wee hours of Saturday morning and caught a red-eye flight to Music City to see the game. I was standing at the car rental counter in the Nashville airport, attempting to rent a vehicle. I was 27 and did not know that a credit card was required. They wouldn’t let me have a car.
Jesse Outlar walked by and noticed me standing there, in my Georgia red blazer. It was polyester — $39 off the rack at Walton Clothes. He didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat. He just saw a fellow Georgia guy — one close to his son’s age — in distress and came to my need. He walked over and said, “What’s the problem, Bulldog?”
I explained the situation.
He said, “Is that all?” and handed the man at the counter his personal credit card and said, “Use this. My man is good for it.” Wow! Jesse Outlar rented a car for a total stranger.
I told you all of that to tell you this. My favorite Outlar column of the year was always on the first Saturday in May. That was — and is — the day the Kentucky Derby is run in Louisville. Jesse loved the horses. He loved watching them and he loved betting on them and he loved writing about them. On Derby Day each year, he wrote a column entitled “Straight from the Horse’s Mouth” in which he would “interview” each participant in the race and tell his readers what he thought the horses would say if they could talk. It was great, great fun and always served to make me keenly interested in the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been a fan ever since.
And this Saturday, the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, for the first time in my life, I will be in the grandstand at Churchill Downs when Jennifer Nettles sings the National Anthem and when the University of Louisville Band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” and when they lead in the horses in this year’s running — the 145th — of the Kentucky Derby. I’ll be the good-looking guy in the seersucker suit, holding a betting stub for Omaha Beach, on the nose. My whole family will be with me. I’m sure I’ll shed a tear. I tend to do that when lifetime dreams come true.
And I will lift high a mint julep as the horses go by and offer a toast to Jesse Lamar Outlar of Omega, Georgia, and will thank him for all the years of wonderful memories and for making my time on this earth just a little bit more enjoyable.