Edwin Pope realized his life’s calling before he reached puberty.
By 11, he was writing about sports for his hometown Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald. By 15, he was the newspaper’s sports editor, the youngest person in America to hold that position.
By 28, he was crafting columns for the Miami Herald, destined to become universally recognized among the premier sportswriters of his generation.
Pope, who chronicled South Florida sports, Super Bowls, the Masters, heavyweight title fights, horse racing’s Triple Crown and much more with eloquence, a stylistic flair and an enduring sense of fairness and compassion during an award-winning career that spanned seven decades, died Thursday evening of cancer, with his family by his side, in Okeechobee. He was 88.
Pope was the respected voice of record, and the voice of reason, for everything significant that happened in South Florida sports for more than half a century.
He covered nearly every Dolphins home game and most on the road, all the big University of Miami football games, the birth of the Marlins and Heat and the biggest events nationally.
He was among a select group of sports columnists nationally whose views carried weight even in the pre-Internet era.
“Nobody ever enjoyed what they did as much as I did,” Pope said in a phone conversation 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.”
His impact and legacy extended beyond his columns. When Dolphins owner Joe Robbie asked Pope who should be hired to replace George Wilson as Dolphins coach in 1970, Pope suggested Don Shula, who was coaching the Baltimore Colts.
“Robbie immediately went after that like a shark going after bait,” Pope said.
Robbie asked Bill Braucher, another Herald columnist, to contact Shula because they were both John Carroll alumni and knew each other.
“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 was inducted into the writer’s wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002 and was one of only four writers to cover the first 47 Super Bowls before health issues prevented him from attending the 2014 game or any subsequent Super Bowls.
“Everybody knew him; everybody respected him,” said longtime Herald sportswriter Armando Salguero, who asked Pope to be the best man at his wedding.
“He was royalty everywhere he went, whether it was the Masters or Wimbledon or Kentucky Derby or Super Bowl. He was an icon.”
Four times, Pope was recognized by the National Headliner’s Club as the nation’s best sportswriter.
He won the Red Smith Award in 1989, the highest honor for a sportswriter bestowed by the Associated Press Sports Editors, and earned induction into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame and the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. Hard Rock Stadium’s press box is named in his honor.
“He was one of a few that made a typewriter sing,” longtime South Florida broadcaster Hank Goldberg said. “He had one of the best lines on spring training I’ve ever seen: ‘Behind every palm tree, there’s a pennant.’ ”
Pope wrote five books, including one on Ted Williams, whom he calls the most intelligent athlete he ever covered. He delivered radio commentaries four times a day on a South Florida country music station for a decade, in the 1960s and ’70s.
Though Pope admitted he was not a “big sports fan,” his career was built on a foundation of telling stories with a human touch and a linguistic panache, capturing moments — during and after games — with richness and detail, and offering critical commentary with a measure of gentility, devoid of personal attacks.
“He was very fair on all counts, very accurate, told it like it was,” Dolphins Hall of Fame safety Dick Anderson said. “His appearance was so very serious all the time. But when you get to know him, there was always a chuckle to be had.”
Pope, who spoke with a distinct Southern drawl, explained his even-handed approach:
“I had an advantage — I had the ax, I held the gun. I didn’t want to fire it randomly. I always wanted to be fair, even to people who didn’t deserve it. It just wasn’t my nature [to be nasty]. I just wasn’t that kind of person. That’s the way I grew up, the way people were in Athens.”
His integrity earned trust among athletes and coaches.
“He was honest and forthright,” Dolphins Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti said. “If you said something was in confidence, he would take it to the grave.”
His writing talents helped his personal life, too. He met his second wife, Eileen, at a dinner party at the Miami home of former Herald columnist Al Burt in 1971.
“I was down from Canada with my 2 1/2-year-old son, David,” Eileen recalled. “Edwin walked in and immediately took to David and was carrying him all around. The next day, I was going back to Canada.
“Edwin started writing me very well-written letters and sending me tapes of a five-minute radio show he had on sports. I thought it was funny. David and I always called him the wordmaster.”
Their long-distance courtship continued for seven months, before Eileen got her visa and came back to the United States, where they dated for an additional seven months before marrying in 1973.
Pope was born April 11, 1928, in Athens, taught himself to type at 6, then was overjoyed when his father presented him with a used Underwood typewriter when he was 11.
Pope recalled how he turned on the radio to hear the Georgia Tech-Missouri Orange Bowl in 1940 and “copied down every word that sportscaster Ted Husing said, including the commercials.
“It was about 12 pages single spaced. In my ignorance I got on my bicycle the next morning, rode it down to the Athens Banner-Herald and looked around for a guy who looked authoritative, and kept asking everybody, ‘Who’s the editor?’ ”
He eyeballed the editor, then asked him if he needed “a running story on the Orange Bowl. He looked at it and he said, ‘No, we don’t need a running story, but who typed this?’ I said, ‘I did.’
“He said, ‘We would like to do a story about you,’ which they did, and he asked me if I wanted a job. He said, ‘We can’t pay you anything, but we’ll give you a lot of good experience.’ ”
His first assignments: covering sports at the Athens YMCA, Athens High and his beloved Georgia Bulldogs.
The newspaper made him sports editor at 15 because “every able-bodied man was in the service,” Pope said.
Pope’s father, who ran a cotton warehouse, would drop him at the Athens newspaper at 6 in the morning, where he would spend two hours before shuffling off to high school. After school, he would write stories for The Banner-Herald.
“Besides the newspaper and school, I was working at a soda fountain,” Pope said. “My daddy forced me to go to bed at 8:30 at night. But I just loved it.”
After graduating the University of Georgia, Pope worked for United Press International and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, while also making time to write a book, Football’s Greatest Coaches.
He struck up the nerve to call popular TV and radio host Ed Sullivan and suggested Sullivan invite all 25 of the coaches mentioned in Pope’s book to appear on stage together on Sullivan’s TV show.
“Ed Sullivan said, ‘Send me a copy of your book and maybe I can mention it next Sunday night,’ ” Pope said.
“I was sitting watching the Ed Sullivan show and with about five seconds to go, he said, ‘I want to show you a great new book by a friend of mine.’ Of course, he didn’t know me. He held up the book. The next day, it really took off.”
Pope was open to a move to Miami because he wasn’t happy that the managing editor of the Journal-Constitution rejected his request to be reimbursed for a $1.75 manual pencil sharpener.
So Pope called Bob Elliott, the Herald’s executive sports editor, and asked for a job. Elliott immediately hired him.
“I always thought the Miami Herald was the best newspaper in the South,” Pope said. “Coming to the Herald was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.”
The Herald named Pope sports editor in 1967, when Jimmy Burns retired. But Pope said he had few other responsibilities beyond writing at least four columns a week.
Besides football, Pope loved horse racing (he won three Eclipse awards for his columns about thoroughbred racing), baseball, golf and tennis, while boxing held particular appeal to him.
LOVE OF BOXING
He covered the first Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston heavyweight title fight in 1964 at the Convention Hall on Miami Beach and made “hundreds” of trips to Miami Beach’s famous 5th Street Gym, often leaving with a compelling column.
“I loved boxing because I boxed in college and grew up on boxing listening to Joe Louis on the radio,” Pope said. “I was fascinated and enchanted and completely transfixed by football. That was everything to me.”
Pope relished chronicling the glory years of the Dolphins in the early 1970s and the bittersweet years of Dan Marino.
“My relationship with Shula was erratic but very, very satisfying,” Pope said. “He never lied to me. That’s amazing in a profession packed with liars. He was easily offended, didn’t like any criticism. We had a lot of fights. We always came out of it all right.”
Pope said “the most difficult thing and the thing I probably handled the worst” in his career “was being critical of Shula. There were probably times I should have been, but I wasn’t.
“I just couldn’t make myself do it because I had so much respect for him. I probably failed journalistically in that respect. He would certainly not agree with that. He always thought I was way too harsh.”
Asked if he remembers becoming angry about anything Pope wrote, Shula cracked: “I can’t remember one [when] I didn’t get angry. [But] he was a great friend. I always admired him.”
Pope said his relationship with Robbie also was stormy.
“One day we would be the warmest of friends,” Pope said. “Next day we would hate each other’s guts. He was the most fascinating guy I’ve ever known because he was so changeable — one minute Scrooge and next minute Santa Claus.”
Goldberg recalled one night before a Dolphins game when he, Pope and Robbie were sitting at a bar in Appleton, Wisconsin.
“Edwin and Robbie weren’t speaking; there was Robbie on one side and Edwin on the other,” Goldberg said. “They used me as a middle man in their discussion. Tell this guy this, tell that guy that. They disliked each other, but there was respect between the two.”
Among Pope’s favorite Dolphins, besides Shula: Larry Csonka (“a quote machine, could speak for an hour and leave you spellbound”) and Zach Thomas (“my personal favorite. He would always talk to you”).
And Marino? “He was very honest with me,” Pope said.
For 30 years, Pope stood before the other Pro Football Hall of Fame voters and made the presentation for Dolphins players who were candidates for the Hall, a responsibility he called “one of the most enjoyable things I ever did.”
Pope said his streak of covering the first 47 Super Bowls “was meaningful. I took great pride in it. The thing I enjoyed the most was not the football, but being around the other sportswriters.”
Pope also loved covering the University of Miami football program’s rise to greatness and its five national championships.
“They were enjoyable years,” Pope said. “They never had a dull coach.”
He said former UM coach Dennis Erickson was “my kind of guy; he was a drinker, I was a drinker” and said of Jimmy Johnson: “We were best friends in the world some days, terrible enemies the next.”
Johnson said Pope “was old school. At times, we clashed because I was a little different from old school.”
Johnson said Pope “didn’t like what we did at” the 1987 Fiesta Bowl when the Hurricanes players arrived in Arizona wearing military fatigues and prematurely left a steak dinner when a Penn State player made a racially insensitive remark. Johnson apologized for the Hurricanes’ behavior leading up to that game against Penn State.
“There was no explaining it to him,” Johnson said. But “I have great respect for all Edwin did.”
Pope said the greatest event he ever covered was the U.S. men’s hockey team’s victory against Russia in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, New York.
“I remember I got so excited, I threw a very expensive pair of prescription glasses into the air,” he said. “It was just the most ecstatic event. Nothing else could even come close.”
It was extremely rare for an editor to object to something Pope wrote.
“One time I wrote something rather cutting about Hialeah Racetrack when it was starting to go down way back in the 1960s, late ’60s,” Pope said in a 2002 interview with former University of Florida professor Julian Pleasants.
“I referred to it as a rich folks country club and I got a note from [publisher] John S. Knight that said I was being arrogant. He took issue with what I said because he was one of the rich folks whose country club it was.
“I wrote him back that if he just wanted a sports editor who would be a mirror for his own opinion, that he was going to have to find somebody else. I wasn’t going to do it. I never heard a word back from him. … He was a great man.”
Pope retired as sports editor in 2003 but wrote dozens of columns for the Herald until 2013.
“At times, he seemed to be fading, but he sat down in front of the computer and it was a sharp mind and great wit and great Southern charm,” Salguero said.
During his later years, Pope spent time with his family, worked on crosswords puzzles and read voraciously: the Bible, books, Sports Illustrated and the daily newspaper, according to Eileen.
Eileen said what she most admired about her husband was “his humility, his devotion to family, his unselfishness. And he has a great sense of humor.”
In 2012, Pope and Eileen moved from Miami to Okeechobee, where they built a home on ranchland about 80 yards from David and David’s wife, Candace.
In addition to Eileen, Pope is survived by adult daughters Susan and Shirley, his first wife Caroline and three grandsons.
“I guess I would want to be remembered as a guy who loved what he did,” Pope said. “I always considered myself the luckiest guy on Earth to have stumbled into it at such an early age.”