Sunday, November 24, 2019

He loved the games

Gregg Mace loved to show off the tourist attractions
in the Harrisburg area. This is from 1981.
Let's start with one basic fact. Gregg Mace, my friend of more than 44 years who died on Saturday, loved to go to sporting events of any kind. I think he loved them more than anyone I've ever met. Give him a game to watch on any level to attend - high school to pro championship game - and he was happy. And he saw a lot of games in his 65 years.

Is it any wonder, then, that most of my memories about Gregg involve games? They serve as a reminder of the length and quality of our friendship.

Gregg and I met in late March of 1975. We were both students at Syracuse University. He was involved with the student radio station, WAER, and I worked at the student newspaper, the Daily Orange. We both flew out to San Diego when the Orangemen reached the Final Four. It was an easy way to become friends, as we discovered we had so much in common. He was good-natured and fun to be around. Besides, we looked a bit like each other at the time. "Say, who is that good looking guy?" one could say about the other. (This did not last, thanks to some premature graying hair on his part.)

I don't have any photos of Gregg at the 1975 Final Four
in San Diego, but a shot of our hotel for the weekend
survives. It's been remodeled since then. 

The next fall, we started to run into each other frequently at football games and the like, and became closer. Gregg and his three roommates were all radio-television types, but they put up with the visit of a newspaper person at their apartment once in a while. They were all smart and fun, and you could tell they'd do well.

Fast forward several months - I remember watching the 1976 Democratic Convention one summer afternoon, and seeing Gregg standing behind Dan Rather. I called him the next week at home - and Gregg told me that WAER letterhead had led to a press credential to the entire show in New York that year. Gregg was really good at using that stuff. As sports director, he wrote every major college and pro team asking for media guides and news releases. Gregg received more mail than any other employee of the radio station - and that still was true 10 years later. My friend Paul Peck was at WAER in 1987, and knew Gregg's name because of all of the mail.  

By our senior year, Gregg and I started having "adventures" together. Two quickly come to mind. It was a dull winter Friday night, and Gregg suggested that we head to downtown Syracuse to watch the Blazers play. That team was in the North American Hockey League, which supplied some stories for a movie called "Slap Shot" a little later. Syracuse was playing Broome County, and Gregg said on the way down there, "These games usually are kind of boring."

We got to the War Memorial, and the Blazers had proclaimed it "Noise Night." Broome County's fans filled up a few buses for the trip up from Binghamton, and apparently alcoholic beverages were served along the way. The game was filled with noisemakers, goals, fights (on and off the ice) and other bizarre occurrences. I remember a Blazer diving into the penalty box in order to avoid a pounding from one of the tougher Dusters. Syracuse scored two goals in the final two minutes to win, 7-6. I said to Gregg, "That was the most exciting hockey game I've ever seen!" He answered, "Honest, they usually aren't that good.' We talked about that game occasionally for decades.

In the spring of 1977, Syracuse qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament. Its first round game was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana against Tennessee - right at the start of an 11-day spring break. Gregg, Bill Epps and I hatched a scheme to drive to Louisiana to cover the game for our respective media outlets. We figured we'd see the game, watch Syracuse lose (the Volunteers had Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld that year), and then spend the rest of spring break on a Florida beach looking for girls in bikinis. Remember, it was winter in Syracuse then.

Off we went in Gregg's car - changing drivers every two hours and buying the local newspaper every time we stopped. The back seat was filled with sports sections by the time we reached Alabama. I believe once we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, we spoke in bad Southern accidents and started to address each other as "Colonel Bailey," "Colonel Mace" and "Colonel Epps."

The WAER Sports team uncovered many
developments in its full coverage of the Orangemen.

We made it to Baton Rouge, and had a frog's leg lunch sponsored by the NCAA that featured some coach from the University of Detroit as the main speaker. It was Dick Vitale, I can still recite his jokes. The game offered a surprise - Syracuse won in overtime. Therefore, it was off to Lexington, Kentucky, for the next round (which meant more newspapers) instead of Clearwater Beach.

Let me assure you that there were no bikinis in view in Lexington in March. But we did stop on the way at a place in the French Square in New Orleans that featured women wearing less than a bikini, so I guess we rebounded nicely. Gregg thought a photo outside the establishment could be a good recruiting tool for potential male members of WAER Sports. We also stopped on the drive north in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. The three of us hopped a fence to get into the mammoth football stadium, and ran around the then-novel artificial turf before 85,000 empty seats.

In Lexington, we all got a tour of NBC's production area from their unit manager. We all even played a game of pickup ball at Rupp Arena in our dress shirts, ties and socks (no good shoes on the court, please). Alas, Syracuse got smoked in the NCAAs by Cornbread Maxwell and North Carolina-Charlotte. The three of us headed back to Syracuse, stopping in Cleveland to watch a Barons' NHL game while waiting for an ice storm to subside. Yes, even then Colonel Mace found a game to watch.

"Quiet. I'm putting" That is Gregg's roommate,
Roger Vanderhorst, waiting for his turn.
Gregg was a good-sized part of my life that year in college, and not just because he ate a lot of late-night pizza at the Varsity with me and our mutual friends. When he needed an emergency talk show guest on the air, I was on the top of his call list. We didn't have many listeners, or calls, but we had fun. When Gregg wanted to play Putt-Putt once spring sort of arrived, I was instantly ready to go along.

Graduation - mine, not his (too many games, I think) - arrived in May of 1977. I recall visiting his family in August of 1977, noteworthy for the fact that both Elvis Presley and Groucho Marx died that week. We saw the Redskins, Phillies and Colts within a week. The following spring, I met up with Gregg in Washington to take part in a workshop that could have led to jobs as press secretaries for Republican candidates for the House of Representatives. We lasted for about two days, and then both realized that if we made the cut we'd be sent to some place where a Republican didn't stand a chance of winning. We bailed early to see a game - naturally - between the Spurs and the Bullets in the NBA playoffs.

Finally, we got on some sort of career path. Gregg thought it was pretty funny that I popped up in radio for a while before moving on to public relations and newspaper work. I thought it was funny that he was the only one driving toward Three Mile Island during the nuclear meltdown, because he was doing weekend sports at Ch. 27 in Harrisburg. We both stayed in touch reasonably well, with email and social media making it easier to do so in later years. When I happened to see Gregg on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, I called him up and he told me how it was a little odd to be doing national reports about subjects like sexual abuse involving a football coach. No matter what the circumstances, we always could pick up where we left off the last time. Kids, that's more rare than you'd think.

Gregg was too busy to clean up his apartment
when his wedding day arrived in 1983 --
at least that was his story at the time.
There were a few trips to Harrisburg along the way. I did go to his wedding there, gawking at the absolute mess in his apartment on the morning of the ceremony. All of the guests noticed that when they drove to the ceremony, they went past a billboard with giant photos of the Ch. 27 news team - meaning we had to see Gregg's head at 50 times its normal size. Another time as my friend Glenn and I drove around Harrisburg with Gregg, we were astonished at how many people would smile and wave upon recognizing him. Glenn and I started shouting at pedestrians, "Look! It's Gregg Mace!" in fun. He'd wave and say "Thanks for watching!" brightly.

My last contact with him came in August, when I wondered if he'd be at the Buffalo-Penn State football game. He wasn't going to be there, and the trip fell through at my end. There was silence about his activities until Friday, when I saw a Tweet from his son saying that Gregg was very ill and needed prayers. While his closest friends knew about his various health problems, I had no clue. Gregg died on Saturday. As Bill Russell said when Wilt Chamberlain passed away, "I am unspeakably injured."

Since then, the outpouring of love and grief on social media from Gregg's many friends and viewers has been enormous. That raises a couple of concluding points. There are always people like Gregg Mace in the media of smaller markets, pros who stay put for decades rather than working their way up the ladder. If they are class acts like Gregg, they go out of their way to be helpful to others and those in their communities - even though they probably could have gone on to bigger things professionally. Their contributions are made one person and one story at a time, and are priceless. The effort adds up over 40 years.

It's obviously sad to see Gregg leave us, and many, many people will miss him in different ways. If there's any consolation to this, it's that this was someone who did exactly what he loved for his entire adult life, and did it well while making the world around him a happier place. We all should be so lucky.