Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 11, 2013
SALISBURY — N.C. Sportwriter of the Year Lenox Rawlings typed his farewell column for the Winston-Salem Journal last December, and for the sportswriting fraternity it was the equivalent of Duke — or UNC, if you prefer — announcing it was leaving the ACC.
“You ask yourself how time went by as fast as it did,” Rawlings said softly in his Southern drawl. “And as you get older, you realize just how precious time is.”
Rawlings, 63, produced wry, insightful copy for 42 years for newspapers. Since June 23, 1976, he’d performed at an MVP-level for the Journal. He turned phrases fluidly. He often made you laugh out loud and he always made you think.
Harried writers on deadline often must hammer out rushed stories to the best of their ability, but when you read a Rawlings deadline product, there was never a sense that any hammering had taken place. Sentences flowed like he’d had a week to craft every word.
“He always was the last one to leave the pressroom after a game,” said the Winston-Salem Journal’s Dan Collins, who worked with Rawlings 35 years. “He’s the most responsible sportswriter I’ve ever known, and he wanted every story to be as right and as accurate as it possibly could be. He’d sit and read his story four or five times, and his copy would be immaculate.”
Just taking a Rawlings column at random, he commented last November on Wake Forest football’s slim-and-none chances of achieving an upset at Notre Dame.
“That sounds like a pigs-can-fly order for the No. 106 scoring offense against the No. 1 scoring defense,” he wrote. “Pigs can fly, but the act generally requires a tornado.”
Growing up in Wilson, Rawlings was introduced to big-time sports at age 9, when his father drove down snowy roads to get to the 1960 ACC basketball tournament at Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum.
His first sportswriting gig at the Raleigh News & Observer came while he was still a college student at UNC.
He graduated from UNC’s journalism school in 1972 and made a few stops, including Atlanta, before settling permanently in Winston-Salem.
Despite his baby-blue background, his sly literary barbs skewered Tar Heels as frequently as anyone else.
“I was taught in journalism school that you detach yourself,” Rawlings said. “I have no (team) bias. You just pull for the great story.”
He had an opportunity to pull for a lot of them.
“The World Series every year for a very long time,” Rawlings said. “My first Masters and my first Final Four go back to Jimmy Carter’s administration.”
The awards piled up, the years piled up, the things that come with the years piled up. Stacks of brochures, programs and clippings accumulated like mountains.
He wrote of his choice to retire that the “internal scrimmage inside my head went three overtimes.” It was a wrenching decision because even on his final day on the job, the joys far exceeded the bad moments.
“I never got tired of what I did, but there was a lot of repetition,” he said. It was almost starting to feel a little bit like work, and I never wanted what I did to feel like work. So it was time.”
The games aren’t the same as when he started. His once tight ACC has been expanded to geographical absurdity in the chase for dollars.
“The ACC once had so much tension and passion,” Rawlings said. “How much tension is there when BC plays Virginia Tech? That’s like non-conference.”
Rawlings could have been hilarious on social media, but the Journal never asked him to go that route.
“Just as well,” he said. “You’re always one tweet away from unemployment.”
He had a major health scare in March and underwent emergency surgery.
“My heart rhythms were out of whack, but they put in a Pacemaker and I’ve felt really normal since,” he said. “I was feeling tired before. I thought maybe I was just getting old, but it was my heart.”
Heart and integrity and wit are the things he brought to N.C. sports for decades.
“Lenox did things the right way,” Collins said. “He was never a bully, but he was fearless. If a question needed to be asked, Lenox was the guy who asked it.”