By Andy Kostka
Edwin Pope was a legend.
About Edwin Pope
HOMETOWN: Okeechobee, Florida
EDUCATION: University of Georgia
BORN: April 11, 1928
DIED: Jan. 19, 2017
It’s an overused adage, but one that fits Pope’s character — at least until new diction is formed to properly and distinctly describe the high esteem in which Pope is held.
Every year, people waited for Pope’s newest creation. It was never the same, always changing but forever satisfying an insatiable appetite, eager for his latest work. So, when Pope would finally arrive with a freshly-made, steaming-hot pot of soup, Ed Storin’s Christmas parties were at last complete.
“He was that kind of a guy,” Storin, a longtime friend and co-worker of Pope’s, said. “That became kind of a legend. Every Christmas, everybody was waiting for that teddy bear soup.”
Oh, and his columns for the Miami Herald were good, too.
Beyond his culinary creations, Pope was the voice of sports in South Florida. There was Shirley Povich at The Washington Post, who area readers waited to read each morning for 75 years before forming their opinions. And there was Edwin Pope in South Florida, who knew how to make a column bite when it needed to leave a mark but wasn’t overly critical without purpose.
He built mutual respect between himself and the subjects he wrote about, making him an indelible columnist for the Miami Herald from 1956 until his death in January 2017 (though he appeared less frequently after his semi-retirement in 2003). He was present for the sporting world’s biggest moments: from Bart Starr’s Super Bowl I triumph to Joe Flacco’s Super Bowl XLVII heroics; from Muhammad Ali’s tour bus en route to fight Sonny Liston in Maine to Nebraska’s “fumblerooski” play in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
“Every city had a sports columnist who was the rock, and sort of epitomized the city’s feeling toward sports,” said George Solomon, a one-time stringer for the Herald and eventual Washington Post sports editor. “And Pope was very much that way. … He had the pulse of Miami on his typewriter.”
A legendary start
As the legend goes, a young Pope sat beside his radio listening to the 1940 Orange Bowl game between Georgia Tech and Missouri, keeping notes of the plays during the 21-7 Yellow Jackets’ win.
Then, he sat down at his typewriter, banged out a story and walked down to the Athens Banner-Herald, his local newspaper, to see if they wanted to run it. They offered him a job. He was 11 years old.
To start, he covered local youth games. He then got called up to high school sports about a year later and wound up covering the Georgia Bulldogs and coach Wally Butts by the age of 15.
As all true fables are, the age in which he started may have been exaggerated. Perhaps it took longer to become an editor and to cover Georgia. But the point remains that Pope had a natural gift, one that started beside the radio and transferred seamlessly to the press box, watching the action for himself rather than hearing it second-hand.
“He might’ve been a little more than 11,” Storin said. “But they were very impressed. So they paid him something, not very much.”
But the pay didn’t seem to bother Pope to start, and he rose the ranks quickly.
“At first,” he told Georgia Trend in 2006, “It was pure ego. I wanted to see my name in print. At the Banner-Herald I used to sit in the pressroom and grab the first paper to come off the press. I wanted to see my byline, ‘By Edwin Pope.’”
He’d see that byline nearly every day for the rest of his life. Pope graduated from Georgia in 1948 and worked for United Press International, the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution for brief periods. He wrote a book in 1954 — “Football’s Greatest Coaches” — that propelled him out of Georgia and onto the Miami Herald in 1956, taking hold of a new market and making it his own.
“The difference between Georgia and Florida is extreme,” said Dave George, a longtime sports writer at the Palm Beach Post who shared many press boxes with Pope. “Guys like him sometimes find that they don’t take to it real well, but Edwin did. He really liked the community, he liked everything about being in Miami, and you could tell that in the way he wrote.”
At the Herald
Miami took to Pope, too.
In the days before sports talk radio and all-day ESPN programming, a city’s local columnist provided analysis and steered the fanbase’s thinking. He joined the Herald as assistant sports editor in his late 20s and became sports editor when Jimmy Burns retired. And while Storin was executive sports editor, calling the shots, there was one columnist who did things his own way.
“Nobody directed him,” Storin said. “He did what he wanted to do.”
And as Pope grew, so did Miami. As the city transitioned from a college sports city to a professional sports hub, Pope’s job expanded. What was once a beat that focused on college teams, such as Miami, Florida and Florida State, the Dolphins, Marlins and Heat came to town and added more to write about. The added scale, Storin said, helped Pope gain even more of a following.
Pope couldn’t be pushed into writing a negative piece if he didn’t feel the need for it. But at times, Pope would deliver a quick punch. It wouldn’t be mean, but it was to the point. It often came during squabbles with Joe Robbie, former Dolphins owner, who Pope called “Old knucklehead.”
The nickname drew ire from high-level staffers at the Herald, who enjoyed the use of box seats for Miami games, as much as it drew exultation from fans. Pope didn’t stop using it, though.
“He was his own guy,” George said, “and he had his own voice.”
Despite that, when Robbie was searching for a new head coach in 1970, the Dolphins beat writer (Bill Braucher) for the Herald knew Don Shula from school and recommended him for the post. But Pope’s endorsement of Shula carried considerable weight and led to a love-hate relationship between the coach and columnist. When Pope criticized Shula in a story, he made sure to go to practice the next day, available to talk things over and maintain a working relationship.
“Edwin was instrumental in me coming down here,” Shula said in a 2015 interview. “I had so much respect for Edwin. He was a wordsmith, one of a kind. Great writer.”
Pope built relationships with players, such as Dan Marino. Muhammad Ali respected him to a level where he allowed Pope to ride in his bus before facing Sonny Liston. And Pope’s final column for the Herald recounted that journey in remembrance of Ali’s life, recalling how Ali would say, “Pope, you ain’t nuthin’.” Pope never argued that point.
Pope went on to win a myriad of honors, including the Red Smith Award and Bert McGrane Award while being inducted into the Pro Football, College Football, Florida and National Sportscasters and Sportswriters halls of fame. The Dolphins’ press box is named in his honor, too.
“He was the conscious of South Florida,” Solomon said. “He had a real feel for it.”
After the pair covered a game at Notre Dame, Pope asked Dave George for a ride back to Chicago for a flight. During the long, late-night drive through snowy Indiana, Pope asked George all about the latter’s life — his family, where he was from, what he has covered, what he wants to cover, his favorite stories.
“He was asking questions of me,” George said, “like I was some big deal to be interviewing, which I certainly was not. But that’s just the way he was.”
Pope cared for people. He liked to learn their stories. And as a journalist, he had the right to ask for them and share what he had learned. Pope made a point to learn the names of his colleagues in the press box, and he would call everyone by their first name. He liked to learn the beats his colleagues covered and their style, both writing and questioning.
At times, George said, he would compliment an article. His praise stuck out longer than anyone else’s.
“He would just warm your heart,” George said. “You’d be thinking about it for a week, how good that made you feel.”
There was a time and place for everything, and at certain times, Pope could be a character, throwing zingers in the press box. But as deadline neared, he would yell out, “Hey, we’re working here, we’re working,” and the clamor quieted at his command.
Pope made time to help the up-and-coming journalists around him. When Solomon was a campus stringer at Florida, balancing multiple assignments for multiple papers, Pope sent him a note.
“Look, we don’t expect Hemingway coming out of Gainesville,” it read, “but you’ve got to do a little better.”
That prodded Solomon to up his game. When Skip Bayless worked for the Herald, he often picked Pope’s brain, Storin said.
“Sports writing is a young man’s game,” George said. “Every last one of them, no matter how cocky or certain they were of their own ability, they showed a lot of deference to Edwin.”
On a clear, cold day in Albertville, France, Pope turned to Storin and told the latter he’d walk into town.
At the 1992 Winter Olympics, the press center was more than five miles from downtown Albertville. That was no matter to Pope, who enjoyed the scenery and the time to himself. He liked to walk. It was good for his health, otherwise being scrunched up at a typewriter — and later, a computer — all day.
“He just enjoyed the atmosphere,” Storin said. “It was just a thing to get away from himself.”
For a while, Pope lived on Key Biscayne. He would spend hours walking the beaches.
Pope loved to read and write, but walking offered him an outlet. He always went alone, Storin said, perhaps enjoying the momentary solitude available to a man whose job it was to be sociable, interviewing sources and seeing your byline in print each day.
When you’re a veritable legend, being able to step away from it all may have been a valuable quality. From his start at the Athens Banner-Herald at 11 to his death in January 2017, his writing prompted conversations, shifted opinions and captured moments, turning them into ever-lasting stories.
For that, Pope was a legend.
“Nobody ever enjoyed what they did as much as I did,” Pope told the Miami Herald in 2015. “I enjoyed every single minute of it. Never one minute did I ever want to be anything else from the time I was 11 years old, except the brief time in college at Georgia when I wanted to be a fighter.
“Writing was very natural to me, never any work. It was as natural to me as eating and walking and breathing.”