Every year, the week the Tigers play Ole Miss, someone will inevitably dig up and post on the Internet a column written by Dennis Freeland (see facing page). Every time I see it, I miss Dennis. I miss reading what came straight from his heart, and I remember a remarkable night when Dennis became a hero and friend to 200 people.
For those of you who don't recognize the name, Dennis Freeland was editor of the Flyer from 1995 to 2000. But I don't think editor was what Dennis thought was his most important job. His true love was the sports column he wrote almost every week, until a terrible invader -- cancer -- entered his body and eventually made him too sick to keep working.
Dennis realized his inevitable fate, but he continued to do what he did best: He told the truth. He sent e-mails to friends reporting in detail what was happening. He held out some hope, but he was frank in communicating that the wife he loved and his precious daughter would most likely grow older without him. I think he really wanted to make it easier for everyone to accept this awful reality.
Dennis loved Memphis, he loved the University of Memphis, and he loved Tiger football. But telling the truth and loving Tiger football, as long- time fans know, can be a tough combination. That's where my fondest memory of Dennis lies.
I asked him to speak to the Highland Hundred, an organization of hard-core Tiger football fans, infamous for its lack of tolerance for journalists. It was an organization loyal to the program, to a coach -- Rip Scherer -- who was a genuinely good person, and to the kids who strapped it on and fought giants every week.
But this was a tougher year than usual, one in which Rip and the Tigers went 2-9. Dennis' columns, as always, reflected what he saw as the truth, and it wasn't pretty. When I introduced him, I heard muffled boos combined with almost-polite applause. This group was ready to get medieval on Dennis, and he wasn't even near an exit. I thought it was pretty gutsy for a guy who looked like he couldn't run the 40 in less than 4.4 minutes.
Dennis wasn't there to blow smoke or to apologize for doing his job. He told the group how sometimes it broke his heart to tell the truth, but it was the right thing to do. He shared his many years of rooting for our hometown underdog, of how he anguished seeing these coaches and kids trying valiantly and failing year after year. It was obvious he passionately wanted to see something good happen for the team, the fans, and the community.
He said he never wanted to intentionally inflict pain, and he was keenly aware of the anguish the printed word can bring. He never wrote to wound. He never wanted any player, coach, or family member to suffer so he could write a funnier or more interesting article.
As I tried to covertly dry my eyes to keep a manly demeanor, I noticed a lot of other tough guys who were moved by Dennis' gentle spirit and compassionate heart. The standing ovation he received seemed not nearly enough.
Dennis died on January 6, 2002. The Tigers haven't beaten Ole Miss in a while, but they'll play the hometown underdog again next Saturday, and hope springs eternal. I just wish Dennis could be here to write about it.
We miss you, Dennis. That's the truth.