Photo credit: Katherine Lambert

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  • William Nack stands as a monumental figure in the history of sports journalism, a wordsmith and dogged reporter whose distinctive prose is admired by readers and colleagues alike.
By Tim Layden
April 14, 2018

He was sitting in the darkness, silhouetted by the blue light from a first-generation portable computer, while nearby we all drank deeply from glasses and bottles and cans and talked a little too loudly about the events of the day and the evening. It was the summer of 1981, at a house party in Saratoga Springs. The Travers had been run that day, and the celebration of that horse race had carried into the summer night. We were finished with our work, but in a cramped study off the kitchen, Bill Nack was still doing his. I stood outside the door and watched as Bill typed, wondering what genius might be unfolding in his words. He was 40 years old, three years into a remarkable 23-year career at Sports Illustrated. I was 25, a local newspaper writer, dabbling in horse racing coverage. Bill called me in and asked for a clarification on a quote from that afternoon. I haltingly provided it, and Bill thanked me. I stole a peek at his screen.

Before the night was over, Bill would finish his work and join us on the deck. He made the night better, like he made every night better, filling the humid air with stories about Bill Shoemaker and Woody Stephens and Secretariat. Of course, about Secretariat. In the small hours, Bill put one arm on the railing, raised his chin and recited—no, performed—the last page of The Great Gatsby, not for the first time, or the last. It was stunning and fun, and it was magical.

William Louis Nack died Friday, at the age of 77, at his home in Washington, D.C., of complications from the cancer that he had been fighting for several years. He is survived by his wife, Carolyne, four children and six grandchildren. Nack was a towering figure in the history of sports journalism, a literary wordsmith and tireless reporter whose distinctive and soaring prose is revered by his peers and generations of younger writers. He stands among the best sportswriters in the history of the genre, and in many ways, among the best writers of any kind. When he stopped typing, he was a giant personality, full of endless good charm, disarmingly well-read and all times, given to entertain.

The palette upon which Nack painted his most vivid portraits was horse racing, in particular, Secretariat. His story entitled Pure Heart, published in the June 4, 1990 issue of SI, was an emotional remembrance of the horse and the story that was the centerpiece of Nack’s career, Big Red’s run to the Triple Crown in the spring of 1973. Pure Heart, written several months after Secretariat was euthanized, was a passionate remembrance of a transcendent racehorse, but also of a man who had immersed himself in the story, and now found himself counting the passing of years and tasting the familiarity of his own tales.

Oh, I knew all the stories, knew them well, had crushed and rolled them in my hand until their quaint musk lay in the saddle of my palm. Knew them as I knew the stories of my children. Knew them as I knew the stories of my own life. Told them at dinner parties, swapped them with horseplayers as if they were trading cards, argued over them with old men and blind fools who had seen the show but missed the message. Dreamed them and turned them over like pillows in my rubbery sleep. Woke up with them, brushed my aging teeth with them, grinned at them in the mirror.

And at the end of story, when Nack recounts the moment he at last heard the official news of Secretariat’s passing. And here the reveal: The story was, most of all, about a love affair with a racehorse and a man growing old.

I phoned Annette Covault, an old friend who is the mare booker at Claiborne, and she was crying when she read the message: "Secretariat was euthanized at 11:45 a.m. today to prevent further suffering from an incurable condition...."

The last time I remember really crying was on St. Valentine's Day 1982, when my wife called to tell me that my father had died. At the moment she called, I was sitting in a purple room in Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, waiting for an interview with the heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Now here I was, in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.

Horse Racing
Pure Heart: The thrilling life and emotional death of Secretariat

It was almost preordained that Bill would become the greatest turf writer in history. As a child growing up in Skokie, Illinois, Bill worked cleaning a neighbor’s horses’ stalls and in his teens, he started going to the racetrack with his father. His first favorite horse was 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps. There was a story Bill loved to tell. (There were a lot of stories Bill loved to tell, and as great as he was at writing stories, he was every bit as good at telling them aloud, and maybe even better). This was a story about going to Washington Park a few weeks after the Derby, when he was 14 years old, just to see Swaps, and how Swaps walked over to the rail, lowered his head and licked the back of Bill’s hand. The last time I heard Bill tell this story was at a dinner in 2016, with Art Sherman, the California Chrome trainer who rode Swaps as an exercise rider. Art loved Bill’s telling. "That was Swaps, all right,’’ he said. And he and Bill had a great laugh.

Bill went to the University of Illinois, where he met Roger Ebert. The two men became lifelong friends. "He was a great American prose stylist,’’ wrote Ebert in 2008, part of long homage to Nack’s erudition and his love of books and words. After college, Nack enlisted and served a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army, including a tour in Vietnam in 1968. After his discharge, he got a job covering local politics at Newsday, on Long Island. Then, in another story that Bill loved telling: How, at the Newsday Christmas party in 1971, editor David Laventhol, a horseplayer himself, got to talking with Bill about racing and before the party was over, wrote Bill, "I was a sportswriter,’’ covering racing for one of the biggest papers in the country.

Bill dove into the job, but never more passionately than in the spring and summer of 1972, when he discovered a barrel-chested two-year-old named Secretariat, and followed him to racing’s first Triple Crown since 1948 a year later. He won seven Eclipse Awards for excellence in writing about thoroughbred horse racing, the first in 1978, the last in 2003. But truth be told, it’s an award they could have given to Nack every year. In a story published in SI in March of 1989, Nack profiled jockey Robbie Davis, whose involvement in a spill that killed a fellow rider triggered memories of being abused as a child. Nack followed Davis to a motor home in Idaho to get the story and told it in riveting detail.

But Nack saw more than just the beauty in racing. He saw the ugliness. In 1992, He wrote an investigative story for SI about the epidemic of thoroughbred breakdowns at American racetracks, and the connection to using painkilling injections, a battle that is still being fought today. That story got Nack shunned at racetracks across the country. He didn’t care. The story was more important than access.

Sports Illustrated
Best of William Nack's Sports Illustrated Stories

But it’s selling Bill Nack woefully short to describe him as just a turf writer. He was a general sports columnist at Newsday before he came to SI in 1978. At SI, racing was just a small part of his job; in more than two decades, he wrote remarkable profiles of athletes living and dead. In 1991, he looked back on the tragic life of former heavyweight champion Charles (Sonny) Liston.

So, as the end of 1970 neared, Liston had reached that final twist in the cord. Eight years earlier he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world—a 6'1½",215-pound hulk with upper arms like picnic roasts, two magnificent, 14-inch fists and a scowl that he mounted for display on a round, otherwise impassive face. He had won the title by flattening Floyd Patterson with two punches, left hooks down and up, in the first round of their fight on Sept. 25, 1962; 10 months later he had beaten Patterson again in one round.

Nack found precious details and wrote them seamlessly into his pieces, building indestructible houses. His 1993 profile of former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano included the unforgettable quote, regarding The Rock’s sexual appetite: "We had girls every single day and night. I carried a suitcase full of vibrators. I mean, we used to call Rocky the vibrator king.’’ Six years later, Nack recalled former Colts’ defensive end Gene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb like so:

It was more than 35 years ago, on Sunday, May 12, 1963, and Eugene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb, dressed in a white silk tie and midnight-blue suit, was lying handsomely in state, in an outsize casket rimmed in pillowy white. He looked larger in death than he had in life, all 6'6" and 306 pounds of him: larger than the legend he had spawned, with his size 56 suits and custom-made jockstraps; larger than the memories of his exploits on the football field, on which he nailed 225-pound fullbacks with one-arm tackles and chased down halfbacks; larger even than his ravenous appetites for women and whiskey.

Horse Racing
SI 60 Q&A: William Nack on what 'Pure Heart' and Secretariat mean to him

Nack was versatile as he was gifted. He profiled Rick Pitino and Keith Hernandez. He looked back on the short, tragic life of Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, whose death from cancer had affected Bill as a college student. He chased after Bobby Fischer. Nack wrote: To find him, to see him, had become a kind of crazy and delirious obsession, the kind of insanity that has hounded other men in search of, say, the Loch Ness monster.

In 1998, he teamed up with reporters Don Yaeger and Tegan Clive to produce The Muscle Murders, a deep dive into the trouble world of bodybuilding.

It's a bizarre world of beetle-browed loners with eggshell egos who are engaged in an obsessive quest for self-mastery; of men posturing before wraparound mirrors, casting illusory reflections of strength, masculinity and virility from which hang, metaphorically, their steroid-shrunken testicles; of cartoonish characters chiseling and tanning and oiling their hairless bodies to camouflage impoverished self-esteem; of fat-free, high-protein starvation diets that can heighten the irritability and anxiety brought on by steroid abuse; and of all those needles and vials and pills--whole families of anabolic steroids, hormones and diuretics, insulin and speed.

Bill left Sports Illustrated in the spring of 2001, but he continued writing. His last Eclipse Award was for a 2003 profile of thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert, which was published in GQ. In 2017, he was presented with a PEN/ESPN Award for literary sportswriting. That is very definition of Nack’s work: Literary. He remained a presence at the racetrack, often taking care to see the Next Great Horse in person, to see the comparisons to Big Red were valid. After the Belmont Stakes in June of 2014, when California Chrome failed to win the Triple Crown, I walked with Sherman back to his barn and found Bill and Carolyne getting into their car.

He loved writing and he memorized much of it, starting with Gatsby but going on from there. My former SI colleague Mark Beech, who worked with Bill (and later, me) on the horse beat tells the story of how Bill loved the Deep Throat/Haldeman op speech from All The President’s Men, and carried a folded-up, typewritten copy of the speech in his wallet. "He used to produce it, and read from it every once in a while,’’ says Mark. In 2008, at a resort in Mexico, Ebert staged an event in which the star was Nack, reading prose aloud.

The last time I saw Bill was in December of 2016, when we were asked to appear together on a panel at a racing conference in Tucson. We would both tell our racing and writing stories. I had followed Bill onto the racing beat at SI, an honor and, of course, a curse. Nobody follows Nack. (But we were friends, too, and when Bill sent me a note complimenting something I had done, it was especially meaningful). Mostly that day in Arizona, Bill talked and I listened. He told this incredible story about sitting outside Robbie Davis’s mobile home at dawn, and how he knew he could approach when he saw smoke come out of side of the home, signaling that people were awake inside.

We flew together the next day to Detroit and got off the plane into the marbled-floored concourse. Bill had a connecting flight to Washington and I had a connection to Hartford. Our gates were in opposite directions. Bill was wearing a rumpled Cubs hat. We embraced and Bill said, "It was an honor to appear with you.’’ I cut him off, which was very hard to do with Bill. "No,’’ I said, keeping my hand on his shoulder. "It was my honor more.’’ And then I put my fingers to my lips, shushing Bill. He laughed and nodded.

It has been our honor to read Bill Nack’s words. It’s our privilege that they remain behind, even while he is gone, beseeching us to remember.

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Eagle (-2)
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