Wojo: Jerry Green deeply respected the game and his craft, right to the end

Detroit News

The press box table was too high and the chair too low. He’d stand up and strain to see the field, sit back during the timeouts, then stand and strain again.

Jerry Green had come all this way after all these years and he was going to watch Matthew Stafford in the Super Bowl the same way he watched every Super Bowl ever played. In person, not on TV, not described by someone else, because that’s what writers do.

Eventually, an NFL official found a taller chair and Jerry settled into his seat in SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles to witness Stafford lead the Rams to the Super LVI championship. By proxy, it was a Detroit moment, as Stafford played 12 years with the Lions and Jerry respected the quarterback’s travails. From my seat next to him on that February night in 2022, I watched as Jerry watched, and could only imagine the sights those eyes had seen.

From the eyes to the mind and then into words, it was what Jerry Green did, dutifully and elegantly, as long as perhaps any sports writer who ever lived. He passed away last week at 94, after 67 years as a newspaper writer, mostly with The Detroit News. Just a few weeks earlier, he’d ended his historic Super Bowl streak, the only writer to attend all 56, his lungs and his body too frail to reach 57.

He joked that at least he tied Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, but he said it sheepishly, not boastfully. Jerry came from a different time but was never tied to time, always eager for the next event, the next season, the next Super Bowl. He deeply respected the games, the profession and the people he covered, and clung tightly to his objectivity.

I’ve thought a lot about Jerry in the days since his passing. Visitation is Tuesday and Wednesday at A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home in Troy. I see him forever in his unpretentious flak-like jacket that looked like a fishing vest. In the final few years, it was harder to communicate with him, but if you listened closely, you’d be happy you did.

Jerry was not one to pontificate about the old days or drop heavy philosophical advice. One message I remember well, uttered to me about five years ago in the Comerica Park press box: “Don’t get old, Robert.”

Jerry was in that press box as often as he could, filling out his scorebook, watching every pitch. Widowed in 2002 when his wife, Nancy, died from cancer, Jerry wasn’t going to let another love leave him. He was there last spring the day before Miguel Cabrera collected his 3,000th hit, and he brought the Sept. 25, 1974 edition of the Detroit News, in which he’d chronicled Al Kaline’s 3,000th hit.

He posed for photos, happy to talk, grateful to connect eras and stars. He famously was one of a handful of writers poolside with Joe Namath in 1969, back when the Super Bowl was a fledgling little event. He listened as Namath touted how his New York Jets were going to beat the powerful Colts in Super Bowl III, an upset that ushered in a new NFL era.

A couple of months ago, Jerry crafted one of his finest columns, after the Bills’ Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field. It was the most horrifying scene anyone had ever witnessed in an NFL game.

Well, not everyone.

Jerry was in Tiger Stadium on Oct. 24, 1971, when Lions receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed late in a game against the Bears, the only on-field death in NFL history. And Jerry did something amazing in his column. He didn’t just remind people the Hamlin incident was not unprecedented. In his graceful prose, he actually brought Hughes back to life.

Jerry wrote about the death itself, but from there he fleshed out the man, the 28-year-old backup who wore No. 85 only because he was denied his favorite number, 13. Jerry took us to one of the best times of the man’s life, to the previous season after the Lions beat the Rams in Los Angeles on Monday Night Football. That night, Jerry wandered into the hotel room where Lions players were celebrating and saw a man behind the bar, laughing and singing with his teammates as he opened bottles of beer. In the mind’s eye, Hughes was alive again.

Jerry was soft-spoken, almost shy, but he stood proudly, and sometimes loudly, on his principles. He was a graduate of Brown University and served in the U.S. Navy. He wrote as he lived, with understated passion. When he and the late Joe Falls worked together in the late 1980s at The News, they were opposites, and, at times, adversaries.

Falls was the bombastic orator who filled a room and a column with laughter and opinions. Green was more apt to snark and quip, and his writing had clever, sarcastic turns. After joining The News in 1963, Green was the Lions beat writer from 1965-72 before becoming a columnist, and like many, he was critical of the Lions and the Ford ownership.

The newspaper competition was vicious back then, and larger-than-life personalities dominated. His style clashed with Falls’, and Green was removed as a columnist for a period, but kept writing. He retired in 2004, although he contributed columns to The News virtually until the day he died. Slowed by age, he went on to be celebrated for it, honored by the NFL and many other organizations.

One of a kind

The truth is, at 94, a person doesn’t have many contemporaries. Jerry is the only known journalist to cover championships by all four Detroit pro teams, back to the Lions in 1957. Oh, what the eyes have seen, even straining at the end. In the SoFi Stadium press box, it was hard for him to get around. Writers came by and chatted, but when the game was on, his gaze returned to the field.

As it neared the end and Stafford rallied the Rams past the Bengals, I was tapping away on my computer, writing feverishly against the clock. Jerry said something, but I was lost in my own screen. I finally turned when I heard him say softly, “Sorry, you’re on deadline. Don’t let me interrupt.”

He was jotting down his own thoughts in a small, well-worn notebook. For a moment, I felt bad, and then very quickly, I didn’t. He was doing what he loved, to the end. He was determined not to be a burden or a distraction.

The next day, I sat in the airport with Jerry and his daughter, Jenny, who traveled with him. He didn’t want too much help but knew he needed some, and she was happy to be there. The night before, I’d posted on Twitter a picture of Jerry from the SoFi press box, and the comments were tumbling in. Many said he was the newspaper voice of their childhoods. Some praised specific columns. Others said they liked him more than that acerbic Joe Falls.

Jerry spotted that post and shook his head.

“Nah, Joe was always more popular than me, I understood that,” he said.

He stared at more messages, as I kept scrolling. He was mostly smiling, but then his eyes watered and he politely waved the phone away. He knew he’d just covered his final Super Bowl. The writer who witnessed and chronicled everything was now being chronicled himself, and it was uncomfortable. His daughter patted his arm, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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