Remembering former PFW columnist Bill Wallace

Posted Aug. 17, 2012 @ 12:50 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

I’ll never forget the first time I met Bill Wallace, the longtime former co-lead columnist of Pro Football Weekly who passed away last Saturday (Aug. 11) in Norwalk, Conn., at the age of 88 after recently being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

He was a bona fide big shot in the pro football community back in the late seventies when we first crossed paths, covering not only the Giants on a day-to-day basis for the New York Times, but also much broader, big-picture NFL issues.

Wallace was pretty hot stuff, an honest-to-God trailblazer, and on the day he walked through the front door of the PFW headquarters located on the corner of Bryn Mawr and Western on the North side of Chicago, across from Rosehill Cemetery — which the last time I checked had become the headquarters for a really seedy-looking tattoo parlor with all these weird, multicolored Christmas lights flashing on the front door — he definitely knew it.

I’ll never forget the ascot he was wearing. I had seen ascots in the movies, but never in person. His demeanor was, well, rather aloof. It wasn’t long before he approached my grandmother, Rose Arkush, who was much better known as “Mrs. A” — PFW’s chief cook and bottle washer, as well as the razor-sharp executive assistant for her son and my father, the late Art Arkush, PFW’s founder.

Staring my grandma down with his nose tilted up in the air, Wallace said: “You know, I could really use a cup of hot coffee.”

True to form, my Grandma, always prim and proper to an extreme, succumbed to Wallace’s request. But as she walked past my desk, I’ll never forget the words she uttered to me under her breath:

“Just who the f--- does this guy think he is?”

I am fairly certain, it was the only time I EVER heard Mrs. A. use the “f” word. 

“You’ve got your lead,” chuckled Jerry Magee, PFW’s other lead columnist along with Wallace over five different decades, when I told him I was writing a column about his old Page 2 pal.

“That was Bill.”

Magee, who did yeoman’s work on a par with Wallace for the San Diego Tribune, eloquently covering the Chargers and pro football on a national level before retiring almost four years ago, was more than happy to recount his first meeting with Wallace.

“Back in the old AFL days, the teams on the West Coast would make a yearly expedition to the East Coast, where they would stay for three weeks and play three games,” Magee said. “The Chargers had their base in Bear Mountain (N.Y.), a winter resort. One day, Bill came up from New York.

“As I recall, I was having lunch with our beat guy for the (San Diego Tribune) evening paper. And Bill approached us, and in that arch way of his, he said, ‘So are you the super luminaries from San Diego?’ That was just the kind of thing he would say. I would talk to him many times after that.”

Magee recalled that the Giants, in those times, practiced in Fairfield (Conn.), where Wallace’s family had a home. “I think during the preseason, he would retreat to his family’s home and sit on the porch,” Magee said. “He was an aristocrat, I guess.

“He was always wearing a blue blazer, the mark of a consummate Eastern preppie. He didn’t mind reminding you that he was a Yale guy, and that was fine. He once invited me to go with him to the Yale Club, and I didn’t accept his invitation. Whatever. I had a number of dealings with him.

“I don’t mean to portray him as a snob, although he might have been one,” Magee said, clearly settling into one of those delightfully sardonic rolls he would often get on during our numerous phone conversations over the years. “He wrote a lot of books. He was around during a groundbreaking time in NFL history. He was the first reporter to follow the Giants on a day-to-day basis. He was an interesting guy.

“His stories were always very well-prepared. He was a good writer.”

 A writer who gave his heart and soul to PFW, cranking out sharp, stylish copy, week in and week out.

That his work for PFW was not mentioned in his New York Times Aug. 14 obituary is a most unfortunate omission.

“Only he could tell you how he felt (about writing for PFW), but I felt that PFW had a very positive bearing on my career,” Magee said. “You know, it gave me a voice in the NFL. I can happily say that I would have never won the PFWA (Dick McCann Memorial) award they gave me — which is given out for longtime, meritorious service writing about professional football — if not for my writing in PFW. It put me in the mainstream.

“PFW received praise even when things weren’t going so good. A bunch of writers decided that they didn’t want to write for the publication if they weren’t going to get paid. But I kept writing, for 30 dollars a week — $15 for every column and $15 for every Chargers story. And eventually I got paid up full.”

As did Wallace, it should be noted.

Because they weren’t making much money, Magee admitted that he and Wallace got into the habit of talking back to one another on Page Two of PFW. "I did it to a greater degree with (former PFW columnist) Dave Klein," Magee said. "I called him, ‘Sir Snide.’ I actually had a nice relationship with him, too.

“I would refer to Wallace as the man upstairs, and he referred to me as the guy downstairs. He was four years older than I am.”

Magee still follows the game.

“I am in two fantasy leagues,” he said. “I still read your paper, which you are kind enough to still send me. I also had a very good association with (former PFW draft expert) Joel Buchsbaum, and I was very sad when he died. I used to talk to him every week, and it was like turning on a recording. He would do his little speech on everything and anything in football, and I would just sit back. He was a good guy, one of a kind.”

As for the quality of today’s game, Magee has one major criticism.

“One thought I have is that the NFL is not the league it was before free agency,” he said. “Before free agency, the teams were better. They played better football. I just dislike the idea of players going willy nilly from one team to another. Before free agency, players would stay in the same community for years, and the teams would have a real continuity. We had that feeling in San Diego for many of the Chargers teams I covered. But after free agency, all that largely ceased.

“I have never reconciled myself to the fact that free agency is a good thing for the league. It’s obviously a very good thing for the players, who have become fabulously wealthy because of it, but it has not improved the play. In fact, I believe it has damaged it severely.”

It wasn’t long, though, before Wallace re-entered our conversation.

“I learned of his death with great sadness because it reminded me of that period in your publication — with me on the bottom (of Page 2) and him on top,” Magee said.

“He always treated me with courtesy. He was a good guy.”

I can’t help wondering, though, what St. Peter might have been thinking after Wallace most likely requested a hot cup of coffee from Heaven’s gatekeeper upon entrance to the pearly gates, in that "arch way" of his.

For a man who at one time was genuinely considered nationwide as God’s gift to pro football writing, I’m pretty sure St. Pete would have honored Wallace’s request with the most heavenly brew available.

In an ornate antique mug with an elaborate NFL logo — tailor-made for a consummate Eastern preppie.