Tracing the beginnings of a 25-year tradition

Once a sportswriter, always a sportswriter. Apparently.

I got my start in this business, in the far-distant year of 1961, as a copy boy in the sports department of my hometown daily newspaper, The Record, in Hackensack, N.J. That led to four years as a sports stringer for the Philadelphia Inquirer during my college years, and that was followed by two years as a staff sportswriter back at The Record. My beat then was primarily scholastic sports — we covered about 70 high schools in Bergen County — but on occasion they sent me into the big city to cover professional sports like tennis, boxing, basketball and baseball. (And just once, thankfully, even the unprofessional “sport” of professional wrestling, complete with the proverbial little old white-haired lady in the front row who beat on one of the “wrestlers” with her cane.)

That’s the “once” referred to in the first sentence above. The “always” is my continuing fascination with ¬­– perhaps even addiction to ¬­– sports in just about any form. As in this past weekend, for example, which began last Thursday night (and ended early Friday morning) with the Lakers’ game No. 7 victory over the Celtics, continued Friday morning with the U.S. vs. Slovenia in World Cup soccer action, Friday afternoon with the U.S. Open, Friday night with Yanks vs. Mets, Saturday afternoon with the Shelter Island 10K foot race, Saturday evening with …

Well, you get the idea, presumably. Once and always a sports nut.

Which is one of the reasons why Times/Review sports editor Bob Liepa invited me to write a column on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of The Suffolk Times’ and The News-Review’s athlete of the year awards. (Yes, I must admit, it has taken me five paragraphs to get to the point of this column.)

The year was 1985 and we were looking for ways to bulk up and improve our high school sports coverage. (Because of my start in the business, I always thought high school sports coverage was one of the best ways to attract readers in general, and young readers in particular.) I doubt that an athlete of the year award was an original idea beyond the East End, but none of the local papers or radio stations did anything like it, so we decided to make the leap, with staff sportswriters Doug Van Slyke (Suffolk Times) and Glenn Jochum (News-Review) leading the way.

Step one was to ask the athletic directors at the seven local high schools we covered at the time (Greenport, Southold, Mattituck, Shelter Island, Riverhead, Mercy and Shoreham-Wading River) to solicit nominations from their varsity coaching staffs.

I’m a little vague 25 years later, but I’m pretty certain in the beginning we let the coaches at each school make the final decisions. But somewhere over the years we adopted the current selection process, whereby the coaches make the nominations and our staff sportswriters, led by editor Bob Liepa, make the final picks.

That change in procedure became necessary after the coaches at one school in our coverage area declined to nominate the clearly outstanding male athlete of the year because he had gotten into a disciplinary jam at school. We maintained that the athlete of the year award should recognize athletic achievement only, not good citizenship or academics or any other factor.

We also were resisting the inclination of some coaches to favor members of the senior class and/or three-sport athletes. We argued — and continue to present the award based on the argument — that the very best athlete at an individual school can be an underclassman and/or concentrate on a single sport. Witness Ryan Creighton, who was Greenport High School’s athlete of the year an unprecedented four consecutive years, or Shoreham-Wading River wrestling phenom Jesse Jantzen, who was a one-sport athlete.

There have been many other memorable athletes of the year over the past two and a half decades, like three-time winner Kim Volinski at Greenport; the Van Bourgondiens (Betsy, Kim and Nicole) at Southold; Lynette Wigington at Mattituck; and Miguel Maysonet at Riverhead. But each of the 129 girls and boys we’ve chosen from Greenport, Southold, Mattituck, Riverhead and Mercy high schools has been an outstanding athlete in her or his own right.

And that includes our first male athlete of the year from Greenport, John Tuthill, who was selected in 1985. And who, I might add, is now the father of four, including 9-year-old Matt Tuthill, who, if my Little League-spectating and sportswriting instincts are still intact, is likely to be an athlete of the year come about the 30th anniversary of this award.