The worst day of my life happened 43 years ago on Dec. 22, 1968, when my father, Carl “Ace” Higgins died at age 45 of a heart attack while in a hospital.
I was barely 12 years old, but I didn’t cry. I just figured he’d want me to man up while everyone around me crumbled.
One of the best days of my life happened three summers ago on a scorching hot day in San Antonio. It was there I accepted a plaque that inducted my Dad, a former sports information director at LSU from 1954-68, into the College Sports Information Directors Hall of Fame.
I was a few months shy of my 53rd birthday, and I couldn’t get through my acceptance speech without crying, because I knew how much he loved his job, college sports and his family.
It’s natural at Christmas to reflect about loved ones no longer with us, whether it’s family or friends. We reach deep into our memories to recall those moments where they touched our souls, made us laugh and cry, or both simultaneously.
When you consider that most of us really don’t start retaining childhood memories until around age five, it means I have just seven years of memories about my Dad.
But they were seven great years, time well spent that led me to become a sports writer, something I knew I wanted to do since I was eight years old.
It also pointed me toward reporting about the Southeastern Conference, which is fortunate. Because for the last 33 years of doing this full-time professionally since I graduated from LSU, I’ve been able to go into athletic venues that my father once graced. I’ve been able to meet his retired sports information colleagues and also veteran sports writers that became my colleagues, telling me they were grateful that my Dad helped them early in their careers.
Before I met all these people, the one thing I knew about my Dad was he worked extremely hard.
He had but one assistant, a wonderful man named Bud Johnson. Together, they had to publicize seven sports.
One of my typical Saturdays in the spring would include going to a LSU baseball game where my Dad was the public address announcer, then stopping in at a spring football scrimmage so he could get quotes for a release to daily newspapers and then ending the day at a track meet where he also did the P.A. and supervised the meet scoring.
On Sunday mornings during football season, my older brother Johnny and I would accompany my Dad to his office located at ground level in the northeast corner of Tiger Stadium.
My Dad’s job was to write a release for LSU’s upcoming game, print it on a mimeograph machine, run the release through a folding machine and then have his sons stuff the release into hundreds of envelopes.
It usually took my Dad a couple of hours to bang out the release. So while he pounded away at his typewriter, us Higgins boys would slip out the back door of his office and make Tiger Stadium our personal playground.
Our ritual was always the same. We’d bring our football, so we’d pass to each other for a while before kicking field goals (my personal best was a conventional-style 45 yards in tennis shoes).
We had to be careful, because at that time, Tiger Stadium had hedges behind its end zones. And on Sunday mornings, the Tigers’ equipment staff would drape freshly washed white game jerseys on top of the bushes to dry.
Eventually, we’d climb into the stands for a scavenger hunt. Judging from the amount of empty liquor bottles, I quickly figured out that no one followed the rule that alcohol is strictly prohibited in Tiger Stadium.
The highlight of each Sunday was finding golf carts that belonged to stadium management for use at concession stands. If you found a cart that had a key, well, let me tell you, whizzing up and down the Tiger Stadium ramps in a golf cart was an awesome cheap thrill ride for a couple of pre-teens.
As the son of a sports information director, we always had prime tickets to any home sporting event, especially football and basketball games.
During football games, we sat directly in front of the press box. During a game, I’d look back and my Dad was always easy to spot. He would constantly pace back and forth, partly out of nerves and partly because he wanted to make sure every writer had everything they needed to do their jobs.
During basketball games in the old John Parker Agricultural Center, he was the public address announcer and made sure everything ran correctly at the official scoring table.
Except for that one game when he accidently tossed one of his not quite-extinguished cigarettes under the scoring table. It rolled up next to some paper, and before you knew it, there were flames and then smoke.
Every one along the scoring table began passing their soft drinks like a fire brigade to my Dad so he could douse the flames.
While he was once a high school basketball player at Bolton High in Alexandria, my Dad wasn’t exactly an extraordinary judge of athletic talent.
One day in 1966, he came home and told my mother about LSU’s new basketball coach, a man named Press Maravich.
“Our new coach said he has a son named Pete who’s supposedly a good player,” my Dad said. “But I saw him and he looks awfully skinny to play in college.”
My Dad quickly reversed his evaluation when he saw rail-thin Pete Maravich score 50 points, grab 14 rebounds and deal 11 assists in his debut on LSU’s freshman team against Southeastern Louisiana.
It was through my Dad that I began to learn the schools, the coaches and the history of the SEC. You immediately knew Bear Bryant and Alabama was the team to beat in football. Adolph Rupp and Kentucky was the team to beat in basketball. The rest of the sports weren’t as important at that time and there were certainly no women’s sports.
I learned the colors of each SEC school, their mascots, fight songs and best players. I learned that LSU fans were supposed to dislike Ole Miss and feel sorry for pitiful ’ol Tulane.
It wasn’t until my Dad died that I began grasping how many friends and acquaintances he really had. They all lifted me up on my career track that made me a part of a bigger family – the SEC.
Through my career, I’ve gotten to know good people at every SEC school, from the late Ole Miss football coach Johnny Vaught and Rebel football icon Archie Manning, to salt-of-the-earth administrators such as former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton, to a string of SEC commissioners starting with the late Dr. H. Boyd McWhorter.
All of this started for me, because of my Dad, who allowed me to hang over his shoulder when he was writing so I could learn how to compose a story.
He gave me my vocation, my love for sports, my sense of humor, my work ethic and my two fingers and a thumb 70 words per minute typing style.
That’s why I’ve used this column to write about him this week, partly because it’s selfish therapy and partly to make the following point for anyone who has lost a loved one.
Whether that person was in your life for seven or 70 years, they are always with you and always will be.
In fact, when No. 1 LSU plays No. 2 Alabama for the BCS national championship on Jan. 9 in New Orleans, I’m going to use my Dad’s old briefcase for the game.
It’s one of those old Blues Brothers handcuff-to-wrist briefcases that has my Dad’s faded initials – CEH – embossed on it.
It doesn’t look very big on the outside. But when you open it up, it has enough room for a lifetime full of memories.