Under the most arduous of circumstances, one of the greatest sports columnists of all time was telling stories almost until he died.
Bill Lyon, a gentleman and as smooth a writer who ever lived, passed away at 81 in mid-November from the effects of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Lyon was a colleague and a friend decades ago at the Philadelphia Inquirer when he had the fastest fingers in the East.
No one could type so swiftly or think so clearly on deadline and I witnessed such performances up close many times at ringside attending world championship fights in Las Vegas.
Bill spent 33 years anchoring a corner of the newspaper’s sports front before retiring in 2005, but eventually taking on what was the biggest challenge of his life. Even as his physical skills eroded, Lyon made a switch.
Instead of informing his readership of the inner workings of the Philadelphia Phillies, Eagles, 76ers and Flyers, surfing through the joys of championships and victory parades, and the agonies of defeats, Lyon explained to the world what it was like to no longer be quite himself.
Lyon moved into an assisted living facility in 2013. Between 2016 and 2018 he became the country’s foremost chronicler of old age’s rotten illnesses, step-by-step explaining how he was robbed of his ability to do this thing he used to do with ease, or that thing he formerly accomplished without painstaking planning.
A six-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, this work, these essays as they were called, gained him national attention anew and praise from organizations serving the elderly. Lyon, always gifted enough to shed light in dark corners, was doing so again.
In one piece he called “Al,” as in Alzheimer’s, “a gutless coward who won’t come out and fight,” lurking in his brain “in ambush.”
Lyon and I last spoke a bit more than two years ago, reliving some old times in the sports department. It was bittersweet because there was no chance he was going to get well, or even better.
Everyone knows that’s what happens and I knew it well since my father died from complications from Parkinson’s.
As the end approached, I learned, Lyon’s strength had faded sufficiently, even if his mental acuity was still present, that he had to relay his words for his last illness-related columns to others because he could no longer type.
This last effort was important work, acting as a voice for the voiceless, raging on behalf of the elderly, telling a younger, fast-moving world what some of their grandparents could be dealing with.
In 1980, Bill and I and another Inquirer sportswriter, shared hotel quarters for two weeks in Saranac Lake for the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. This was a converted tuberculosis sanitorium where the great pitcher Christy Mathewson died in 1925.
French doors notwithstanding, the room lacked sound-proofing between the beds. The third fellow constantly subjected us to earthquake-level snoring rumbles. The private joke Bill and I shared was our haste to fall asleep before the other guy lay down.
During the golden era of Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard and Larry Holmes, Bill and I often traveled to Las Vegas for the fights.
He was always genial company and a marvel to watch at work. We were covering an event on West Coast time for an East Coast newspaper, which meant we had almost no time to deliver stories, and sometimes only seconds to deliver perspective after it ended.
These were the days before the internet when a process called “writing running” dictated moves. I had to file reports every few rounds as the fight unfolded and instantly send in my lead at the final bell.
I was paid to send in the facts. Bill was paid to analyze them. Somehow he did so with brilliant clarity, keeping his mind clear despite a ticking clock reverberating in his head.
Bill Lyon was witty, talented, observant and possessed a sense of propriety. In his sports columns, he pointed out injustices and lauded courage.
He never would have guessed how when his own deadline loomed he would still be doing the same thing, only in the first person.