The year was 2004.
For about a year I had been blogging about Lehigh football, thanks to the relatively new Blogger platform that allowed me to collect my thoughts (as soon as I could get to a computer) and post them instantly on the internet. It allowed me to post my thoughts mere hours after attending an event, well before the newspaper rolled off the presses early the next morning! It was what separated me from being just an ordinary Lehigh fan, and strangely got me started on this path to covering sports.
In 2004, I started to write longform stories for an outfit called The College Sporting News, starting with an epic Lehigh/Colgate battle won by the Mountain Hawks in the last minute of play. On the basis of that piece, I was able, through my editor at the time, to get a press pass to watch the game from the press box.
It would be my first time watching a game in the press box, and the first time I would meet Paul Reinhard.
If you read The Morning Call's sports section any time in the last fifty years, you probably read words by Paul Reinhard. He was a legend.
He was there in 1987, when Taylor Stadium saw its final Lehigh/Lafayette game in one of the coldest games in Rivalry history. He was covering Lehigh as they rose as a I-AA football power in 1999 and 2000, later shifting to Lafayette to chronicle the story from the Leopards' point of view. Chances are, if you read a sports section in a print edition of The Morning Call about Lehigh or Lafayette, you read his words. I know I did - many times. Not only when they were published in the paper, but later, through the Lehigh archives, when I wanted to uncover the history behind these games.
Here I was, a starry-eyed IT specialist in the press box as a part of the working media, navigating my way through the worst case of imposter syndrome ever recorded, in the presence of a guy, a Real Media Person, that would make people stop what they were doing when he spoke. He was a true Lehigh Valley celebrity. I felt it.
I was afraid any minute, I was about to be kicked out of the press box, that I was going to do something wrong. The old press box at Fisher Field was small, crowded, and would fog up if it got too full, which it would inevitably be during a cold November day packed with multiple media organizations. Maybe Paul Reinhard, the big celebrity that everyone in the press box knew, might be the one to kick me out.
Obviously I didn't know him then.
Instead, what I remember about him that day was how kind he was to me. He never looked down on me, even when I had to actually stifle a cheer from the press box for Lehigh. He asked me about my blog, and what I was doing - which was so very much like Paul, too. He never lost his curiosity about the future, where technology was going but also about Patriot League, Lehigh and Lafayette topics, too. He had a genuine interest about these topics that was infectious.
At the time, I didn't know that Paul had officially gone from "salaried sports columnist" to "retired freelance columinst"in 2004, but you'd never know it by his demeanor or his writing output. He consistently cranked out stories and reports for many years. But he and Keith Groller were instrumental in me evolving from an amateur in serious need of editing lessons to a person with a much better reporting skill set for truly telling the story of Lehigh football.
Unlike most people writing about sports professionally, I really didn't have much of a writing background aside from a lot of time reading, obsessing, and consuming sports media. I always did fairly well when it came to writing courses in high school and college - unusual for a guy who was preparing for a job in computers - but the thought of writing for the school paper never crossed my mind, perhaps because I never wanted to be vulnerable.
In a lot of ways sports saved me throughout my life, and even though I knew I loved to consume sports stories and reading about sports narratives, I didn't go to school to write about it and I didn't write about sports for The Brown and White during my time at Lehigh (one of my biggest, deepest regrets about my time as an undergraduate).
Fortunately, watching Paul during a press conference was an absolute master class and helped me catch up. He had this way about cutting through the crap to get to the personal, when it was appropriate. He kept a handwritten notepad filled with the play-by-play of the game, and he would laser in on a specific play or two that was an inflection point in the game, and he wasn't afraid to go right after a questionable decision, even if he had a personal relationship with the coach. If he didn't get and adequate answer, he'd loop back and ask it again, in another way. He seemed to intrinsically know what the story should be.
He also knew the Patriot League inside and out, and could talk at length about the League and what it did well and what didn't. He could talk to the executive director of the Patriot League, or me, to get the whole story. He had insights on things like squad sizes that not only were informative, they drove the debate and got people talking about issues that really weren't being thought of or talked about, which is what great reporters do.
In those early days, I was real quiet and did a lot of observing, and Paul helped me learn a ton about how to press conference. Even today when interviewing Lehigh players or coaches in the back of my head I think to myself "what would Paul do" because he was so damned good at it. Whether covering a crestfallen group of Lehigh athletes or an elated group of Lafayette athletes, he was able to pivot effortlessly and figure out the right stories to tell.
After leaving that press conference that evening in 2004 at Lafayette and heading home to my wife, I was on cloud nine. I still didn't totally know what I was doing writing-wise, but I had talked to the real professionals like Paul and Keith and Matt Dougherty (who was at that time the main FCS writer for what was to become STATS, Inc.). They made me feel like I at least could talk with them, that they didn't treat me as a loud-mouthed fan who could barely write harboring an axe to grind against the bitter Rivals. It was a very important moment for me personally, and Paul stood out to me because he was kind to me when he didn't have to be. As good as he was, he didn't seem to be the type to suffer fools, and he didn't seem to take me for a fool.
On the way to the press conference, a young family looked the direction of a bunch of us writers headed to the postgame conference room. They paused, and recognized Paul, and they were star-struck. I never forgot that reaction he got from them. He was beloved and respected all throughout the Lehigh Valley, and they recognized him by his face. That was Paul Reinhard.
Over the ensuing years I would generally see Paul when I would go to Patriot League Media Day in August and whenever I would cover a Lafayette game. Mostly I would see him during Rivalry weekends, but not always, and then, too, he was always kind to me and never looked down on me and what I did, which was important to me.
I always knew Paul as Lafayette's beat writer for The Morning Call, but somewhere along the way I learned he was a huge racing fan and was a close friend of Mario Andretti. I'm not a big racing fan, but Mario Andretti is a household name that anyone growing up in the 1970s and 1980s knows. "I got to know journalists from all over the world and Paul ranks right at the top," he told Keith Groller this week. "He did his job, I did mine, but there was a personal touch there that went beyond our jobs."
In the early days of my blog I would act sometimes as a content aggregator, linking and clipping important parts of stores from The Morning Call and The Easton Express-Times that go deeper than the headlines of the original stories. I'd always look to Paul's pieces for that when it came to Lafayette (or Lehigh, if I were digging for historical pieces). He had this knack of finding these personal stories and what I loved about them is that it humanized everyone - the players were not simply tackles per loss or rushing yards, but people with stories and narratives. (In fact, I loved them so much that sometimes in my own work I'd go overboard on the narratives and not enough on the X and Os.)
As we crossed paths more often, our relationship grew, united by The Rivalry. We both had topics involving the Patriot League that we both passionately cared about, so when our paths crossed we'd talk about them and sometimes keep the conversation going by email. We'd correspond over Lafayette-related topics (and when I'd want to fact check certain rumors - for example, whether Army-West Point and Navy were going to leave the Patriot League).
What I loved too about his reporting was that even though he loved Lafayette Athletics, he wasn't above calling out people if he felt like it was warranted. He would ask tough questions of Presidents, athletic directors, the executive director of the Patriot League and sometimes question the way things were done.
He was an enthusiastic reader of the Lafayette Fan Message Board and used that source to try to identify things that were going on - while simultaneously not getting ahead of the story, either. I've seen countless times younger reporters jumping too fast on message board information, but Paul was old-school and he knew when to trust and when to verify. He was also quicker than his contemporaries, I think, to see the value in those forums in sports reporting, and how to treat them.
Eventually I would be able to gently joke around with him about certain things, born out of respect for each other and what we do, and they are memories I will always treasure.
My favorite story of his is when he travelled to Macomb, Illinois to watch Lehigh play Western Illinois in the I-AA Playoffs. Not only were the print stories he logged from that tiny town near the intersection of Iowa and Missouri some of his best, he always said it was one of the worst road trips he ever took. When sharing stories about past games, or a cold evening in Easton or Bethlehem, I always tried to joke with him and say, "Well, at least it wasn't Macomb, Illinois!"
When the time came to ask Paul for a quote for my book jacket about "The Rivalry", it was a no-brainer for me to ask someone who is also so closely identified with the Lehigh/Lafayette game (he would insist it was the Lafayette/Lehigh game), but I had no idea if he'd say yes. He happily did so, and professionally it was an honor. Somewhere in the back of my head I still worried that he wouldn't enjoy the book because it was written by a "Lehigh person" but he did. And you had better believe he read it.
"Good idea, I think, about going neutral on the color and not turning off all those who bleed maroon," he wrote me, and his words meant more to me than he ever knew. He really got it and I was really proud that he read my book and enjoyed it. If Paul was entertained, then maybe the book wasn't too bad.
Covering a team or a program for a very long time puts you in an interesting club of writers. Other writers come and go, but it's the people that cover teams for a really long time that can see, cover, and care about long-term trends that an up-and-coming reporter might not know or care to see. I started out as this untrained, modestly-skilled writer entering a press box with stars in my eyes, but eventually I was able to hang out with Paul and talk to him and experience the history of Lafayette football games with him in a way I will cherish my entire life.
My biggest regret, I think, is that I never told Paul how much of a fan I was of him personally - of his work, what he wrote in The Morning Call all those many years, and how he continued to cover Lafayette football even after The Express-Times abandoned their beat position. I still continue to believe Lafayette should have a beat reporter, and I'm grateful he continued to document them at the beginning of the John Garrett era. If he hadn't done so, there would have been no independent voice talking about the goings-on at Lafayette, nobody looking out for the overall trends of the Patriot League, nobody getting those stories from the Lafayette side of The Rivalry, especially the ones that others don't think to uncover.
I also regret that he may not have known that I learned an incredible amount from Paul Reinhard. I feel like I got to hang out with a sportswriting legend, and I tried to learn everything I could. It hardly felt like working.
I'm really glad I knew him. I hope he considered me a friend.
Rest in peace, Paul.