HE WAS sitting in the darkness, silhouetted by blue light from a first-generation portable computer. Nearby we all drank deeply from glasses and bottles and cans and talked a little too loudly about the events of the day. It was August 1981, at a house party in Saratoga Springs. The Travers had been run that afternoon, and the celebration of the race had carried into the summer night. We were finished with our work, but in a cramped study off the kitchen, Bill Nack was still doing his. I stood outside the door and watched as Bill typed, wondering what genius might be unfolding in his words. He was 40 years old, three years into a remarkable 23-year career at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. I was 25, a writer at The Schenectady Gazette, dabbling in horse racing coverage. Bill called me in and asked for a clarification on a quote from that afternoon. I haltingly provided it, and Bill thanked me. I stole a peek at his screen.
Before the night was over, Bill would finish his work and join us on the deck. He made the night better, as he made every night better, filling the humid air with stories about Bill Shoemaker and Woody Stephens and Secretariat. Always about Secretariat. In the small hours, Bill put one arm on the railing, raised his chin and recited—no, performed—the last page of The Great Gatsby, not for the first time or for the last. It was stunning and fun, and it was magical.
William Louis Nack was 77 when he died of cancer on April 13 at his home in Washington, D.C. He is survived by his wife, Carolyne, four children and six grandchildren. Bill was a towering figure in the history of journalism, a literary wordsmith and tireless reporter whose soaring prose is revered by his peers and generations of younger writers. He stands among the best sportswriters in history, and among the best writers of any kind. He was also a giant personality, full of endless charm, disarmingly well-read and, at all times, entertaining.
The palette upon which Bill painted his most vivid portraits was horse racing. His story titled Pure Heart, published in the June 4, 1990, issue of SI, was an emotional remembrance of Secretariat and the centerpiece of Bill's career (page 102). At the end of the piece Bill recounts the moment he heard the official news of Secretariat's passing, and it is revealed: The story was really about a love affair between a racehorse and a man growing old.
As a child in Skokie, Ill., Bill cleaned horses' stalls at a farm, and in his teens he started going to racetracks around Chicago with his father. His first favorite horse was 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps. There was a story Bill loved to tell. (There were a lot of stories Bill loved to tell, and as great as he was at writing stories, he was every bit as good at telling them aloud.) This was a story about going to Washington Park a few weeks after the Derby, when he was 14, just to see Swaps, and how Swaps walked over to the rail, lowered his head and licked the back of Bill's hand.
Bill went to the University of Illinois, where he met Roger Ebert. The two became lifelong friends. "He was a great American prose stylist," wrote Ebert in 2008. Bill enlisted in the Army in 1966 and served a two-year hitch, including a tour in Vietnam. After his discharge he got a job covering local politics at Newsday, on Long Island. At the paper's Christmas party in '71, editor David Laventhol, a horseplayer, got to talking with Bill about racing. Before the evening was over, as Bill said, "I was a sportswriter."
In the spring and summer of 1972, Bill discovered a barrel-chested 2-year-old named Secretariat and followed him to racing's Triple Crown a year later. Bill won seven Eclipse Awards for excellence in writing about thoroughbred racing, the first in 1978, the last in 2003. But truth be told, they could have given the award to Bill every year.
Bill saw more than just the beauty in racing—he saw its darkness, too. In a story in SI in March 1989, Bill profiled jockey Robbie Davis, whose involvement in a spill that killed another rider triggered memories of being abused as a child. In 1993, Bill wrote an investigative story about an epidemic of thoroughbred breakdowns at U.S. racetracks, and its connection to the misuse of painkillers. That story got Bill shunned at tracks across the country. He didn't mind. Bill only cared about telling the truth.
It's selling Bill Nack short to describe him as just a turf writer—albeit the greatest turf writer in history. After coming to SI in 1978, he wrote remarkable profiles of athletes living and dead. He would find precious details and weave them seamlessly into his pieces, building indestructible structures. In 1991 he looked back on the tragic life of former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. He profiled Rick Pitino and Keith Hernandez, and chased after Bobby Fischer. He looked back on the short life of Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, whose death from leukemia had affected Bill as a college student.
Bill left SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 2001, but he continued writing. His last Eclipse Award was for an '03 profile of thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert in GQ. In 2017 he was presented with a PEN/ESPN Life Achievement Award for literary sportswriting. Bill was, above all, literary. He loved writing, and he memorized much of it. In his wallet Bill carried a copy of Deep Throat's monologue from All the President's Men.
The last time I saw Bill was in December 2016, when we were asked to appear on a panel at a conference in Tucson. We would both tell our racing and writing stories. I had followed Bill onto the racing beat at SI, an honor and, of course, a curse—nobody follows Bill. Mostly that day in Arizona, Bill talked and I listened. He told the story of sitting outside Robbie Davis's mobile home in Idaho at dawn, and knowing he could approach when he saw smoke coming from an exhaust pipe. People inside were awake.
We flew together the next day to Detroit, where we had different connections. As we parted, we embraced and Bill said, "It was an honor to appear with you." I cut him off, which was very hard to do with Bill. "No," I said, "it was my honor more." Then I put my fingers to my lips, shushing Bill. He laughed and nodded.
It has been an honor to read Bill Nack's words. It is a privilege that they remain behind, beseeching us now to remember.
"HE WAS A GIANT PERSONALITY, FULL OF ENDLESS CHARM, DISARMINGLY WELL-READ AND, AT ALL TIMES, ENTERTAINING."