Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (2024)

When I had the opportunity to move to New York and work on Fifth Avenue for Frank Deford at the nation’s first daily sports newspaper, the only thing sitting in my way was … Woody Paige.

Paige, the larger-than-life sports journalist whose many career turns included a brief stint as the head cheese of The Denver Post Sports Department, was lounging in his office with his open-toed sandals propped up on his desk.

I dreaded breaking this news.

Woody and I had been kindred spirits of a sort since I was 10 years old. I was one of eight siblings who often accompanied my more traditional sports-writer dad on work assignments that often crossed paths with this bushy-faced alien outsider from Tennessee who shook up the Colorado sports scene like a can of carbonated Orange Crush soda ready to burst. From the moment he showed up at the Rocky Mountain News in 1974, Paige promised to take no prisoners — and take no one seriously.

He was dressed in shorts and a T-Shirt that day. Meaning, just like me. (But again …I was 10.)

Woody, not yet a father himself, recalls being bemused by the nameless army of crew-cut Moores who loudly followed Ralph Moore around like an off-key version of the Von Trapps.

Fast forward a decade or so and now, Woody was my boss. I had joined The Denver Post right out of college as a sports clerk who typed up box scores and dog-racing entries. But I rose up the ranks and was now a full-time copy editor and contributing writer.

Woody and I had been separately reprimanded by a short-lived editor-in-chief for our respective sartorial splendor — me for wearing shorts to the office; Woody for never wearing socks.

I told said editor that I’d stop wearing shorts when he started turning on the air conditioner at midnight, which is when we vampires putting out the sports section needed fresh air the most. Needless to say ... I never stopped wearing shorts.

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (1)

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (2)

Woody told said editor that he would have a short shelf life at The Post, and that he would (bleep) on his grave on the day that he was fired. And when that day came, Woody left him a voicemail saying that’s precisely what he was doing to celebrate the news.

So when the day came for me to tell Woody that it was time for me to fly, I had reason to be trepidatious. I had agonized over my carefully resignation letter. I gave him six weeks’ notice to ease the inconvenience. But I was not the first Postie to be poached by The National Sports Daily, and Woody was not amused.

Reclining in his chair to give his dogs maximum air to air out on the desk, he gave the letter only a cursory glance and tossed it onto his desk. He had only one thing to say:

“Don’t come crying to me when it folds.”

The softie.

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (3)

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (4)

He changed the game

Woody Paige has a memoir coming out in December that will not be titled, “I Wouldn’t Believe This (Bleep), Either.” But it should be. I would believe most of it, only because I’ve seen my share of that (bleep) first-hand.

Woody was not like anyone who came before him. He was willing to be both irreverent and sardonic in a field often treated as sacrosanct. One thing was certain: The days of kindness and kid gloves for the local team were over. But the laughs were only just beginning.

When Woody was inducted this week into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame — an institution founded in part by my father — much was made of a column Woody wrote in 1996 in advance of an expected first-round Broncos rout of the Jacksonville “Jagwads” (his word). Woody mocked every aspect of Jacksonville, its citizenry and its quality of life. Were people upset? Let’s just say I had to replace the paper in the fax machine (yes — fax machine) four times that day to accommodate the endless angry responses whirring into the Denver Post Sports Department.

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (5)

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (6)

Sure enough, the Jagwads upset the top-seeded Broncos at home. And Coach Tom Coughlin later said he used Woody’s words for added motivation. (My question: If your team is in the NFL playoffs, how much more motivation do you need?)

The column clearly backfired, and everyone — especially Broncos fans — blamed Woody. But this stunt was nothing new. Comically goading any Denver playoff opponent had been Woody’s M.O. from the very beginning. He made clickbait before there was such a thing as clickbait.

I have an astonishing audiotape from 1977 of my dad interviewing General Manager Carl Scheer and Coach Larry Brown the day after the Nuggets were eliminated from the playoffs, ending their first season in the NBA.

The Nuggets and three other ABA teams not only had to buy their way into the NBA, they were not even allowed to participate in that year’s college draft. Nevertheless, the Nuggets came within two missed free throws of forcing a Game 7 against Bill Walton and the eventual champion Portland Trail Blazers.

And yet, on the morning after, the only topic of conversation was Woody Paige and a critical column he had written for the Rocky Mountain News the night before that deciding Game 6. Let me tell you, that tape is awesome. And largely unprintable.

“Woody called me the night before, and he said, ‘Carl, tomorrow there’s going to be a story in the paper, and I’m going to take apart your players — but I did it for a reason,” Scheer says during the interview. “He said, ‘It’s going to psych the players up, and it’s going to get ‘em really mad at me. And then they’ll group together and they’ll become winners.’

“But I said, ‘Woody, let me tell you something: Write your story. But you’re not Knute Rockne. That’s not your responsibility. That’s mine and Larry’s. Don’t ever think you’re so powerful that your words (are) going to change the course of events for professional basketball in Denver. If that’s the case, then you really have a really misconception of your responsibility. You’re not a coach. You’re not a cheerleader. You’re a reporter.”

My dad listened patiently, then said calmly, “I have to tell you — I thought of writing the same thing coming home on the plane after the first two games in Portland.”

You have to understand here that Ralph was a Denver Post man. And Woody was then a Rocky Mountain News man. Competitors who were nothing alike in real life. But Ralph respected the sacred bond they shared as fellow journalists, and he defended Woody.

“Ralph and I were from two different worlds,” Paige told me this week. “Ralph would say to me, ‘Boy, you’re a crazy young man. You’ve got all that hair. You don’t wear socks.’ Hell, even people at the Rocky didn’t like this weird new guy who had come in from Tennessee. But Ralph treated me kindly, and he helped me. It’s kind of funny to think, but my worst enemy was also my closest friend in the media.”

That rambunctious, ink-stained combatant was the Woody most people saw. The scribe ever-armed with a quill and a quip. Mike Judson, a retired Denver Post copy chief, tells the story of when young Woody was working for the Memphis paper back in the day. He was dictating his story on a pay phone when he got mugged. “Woody told the mugger, ‘You can have my money, but I’m on deadline — so just let me file my story first,’ ” Judson said.

Michael Knisley, one of the great sports writers in Denver Post history, remembers an irresistible annual media event promoting The International, a PGA touring stop at Castle Pines Golf Club. Local media were invited to play a round and interview the defending champion, who simply played the same par-3 hole over and over that day so that he would have some time with each press foursome. Funnily enough, no one remembers who the champ was that year, but Knisley does recall he stuck his drive 6 inches from the cup. And Woody didn’t miss a beat.

“He said, ‘Sure, but can you write a column and a sidebar on deadline?’ ” Knisley said.

The strangest intersection of my tangled life with Woody came in 1984, when, as a Denver Post cityside columnist, Woody wrote a now infamous piece about a very strange man who had become fed up with drivers taking occasional (legal) U-turns in front of his residence one block west of Colorado Boulevard. So this man had taken the unusual (and successful) step of petitioning the city to make U-turns illegal on this one little residential block between First and Ellsworth avenues.

But the now illegal U-turns only increased. So this man, a loner who managed a five-unit apartment occupied only by himself and the elderly property owner, took to standing guard in the doorway of his unit, running out to take a flash photo whenever a U-turning scofflaw appeared. He sent his photos — eventually by the thousands — to Denver Police in the naïve hope that the cops would then retroactively issue citations against the owners of each offending car.

When Buck and Cindy Scott, who owned the nearby Colorado Mine Company restaurant, told Woody and fellow Post columnist Chuck Green about this odd guy, they just had to check it out for themselves.

Paige visited, took a few intentional U-turns and, sure enough, drew out the man and his camera. Things escalated greatly when a Paige column came out on Oct. 21, 1984. In it, Green immortalized the man with the nickname ‘Spiderman,’ ” Paige wrote, “because if you enter his web, he comes after you.” And he included the man’s actual address.

Needless to say, this all became a very big deal in Denver. Spider-Man’s home became something of a tourist attraction. And it blew up all over again a few years later when Westword produced a highly sympathetic cover story that cast this poor guy as a victim of cruelty and police indifference. “When it comes to Denver’s top journalists breaking the law, one picture is worth a thousand words,” said its sensational headline.

Unluckily for me, when the Westword story hit, I was actually living with five others in my first post-college pad — a tiny duplex directly across the street from Spider-Man’s lair. Yes, every night was a constant light show through our living-room window. But I can tell you stories that will curdle your blood about “Spider-Man,” and his own many illegal invasions of privacy — and worse. Suffice to say we all look back at that time grateful not to have been the subject of a Dateline NBC podcast.

But, hey, that’s Woody. He is a provocateur. More so, he is an entertainer. And he has rewritten the rules of journalism.

In 1988, he made front-page news at The Post and around the country when he launched his own unorthodox investigation into his publicly sworn enemy — Aramark, which owned the food-and-beverage contracts at most major local sports and concert venues, including Mile High. Aramark was in legal trouble all over the country and Woody, in his signature way, dubbed the company “Errormark.”

Woody was friends with everyone, including legendary concert promoter Barry Fey, who had his own run-ins with Aramark. So they concocted their own loosey-goosey spider web. “I knew Aramark wasn’t checking IDs at games and would sell beer to anyone,” Paige told me. So the renegade Paige gave Fey’s son and three pals ages 14-17 money to try to buy beer at Denver Zephyrs minor-league baseball games. “I told them not to drink the beer and to immediately put it down on the floor,” Paige said. A photographer was there to document it all. The kids were illegally served 19 out of the 20 times they tried.

The news was a bombshell, and part of the fallout was that everyone’s IDs are now checked at stadiums and concerts, regardless of age. For years, if you complained, concessionaires would spit back: “Blame Woody Paige!” Rival media called for Paige to be charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors. (That didn’t happen.)

And, lucky me: I was the Denver Post beat writer covering the Zephyrs at the time, so I saw the fallout first-hand. One day a buddy from high school showed up at a home game, and he wanted to sit together, so I joined him in the stands right behind home plate. He ordered a beer for himself and a friend he brought along from college. I was working, but I decided to buy the beers as a kind gesture that nearly landed me in jail.

Cops, it turns out, were watching. They immediately came over and carded all three of us. And the friend’s friend I had met not five minutes before turned out to be only 20. But because I made the purchase, I, too, was led away. I immediately imagined the hay the rival Rocky Mountain News would make of this delicious twist to the beer story. Instead, the cops only detained me for a couple of innings and let me go. But when they found out I worked for The Post, they made a point to say that I had Woody Paige to thank for it.

Thanks, Woody.

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (7)

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (8)

A look at the real man

I think Woody, like me, has always embraced his image as a rebel and an agitator. He’s found safety in being seen as the clown who will, say, dress up as Taylor Swift for Halloween on national TV. But that’s denied his fan base — which blew up after he joined ESPN — from knowing his real story. One that is, in many ways, only now coming to light.

At Wednesday’s induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, he told the story of Woodrow Paige Sr., a man born in Tupelo, Miss., nearly a hundred years ago. He was an orphan who couldn’t go to school because he picked cotton and had to walk six miles to get his insulin shots. Who got married and raised his namesake son in a Memphis housing project. Who took a second job and saved up for two years to buy that kid a typewriter. A kid who decided he was going to be a sports writer one day and went on to become the first person in his family to go to college.

Judson, the former Post copy chief, recalls the Woody who was one of the few who made it into the office during Day 2 of an historic blizzard in March 2003, “I recall being stunned when I walked in and saw Woody in the office answering the phones,” Judson said. “Imagine: The most notable journalist in Colorado somehow made his way into the office the day after a massive blizzard and was doing the most menial work.”

Readers started to get a peek into the real man in 2010, when Woody wrote in response to a Denver Broncos player’s suicide that he had nearly taken his own life eight years before. That column surely saved lives.

The Woody who still rarely gets talked about is the one who started a movement in 1988 by launching a program called Baskets of Joy to help the elderly who are forgotten at Christmas. “I also wanted to help orphans,” he said, “because my dad was an orphan.”

It was only after several years of partnering with Volunteers of America on the side raising money to make 5,000 baskets each Christmas that Woody’s employer joined the effort. Baskets of Joy turned into The Denver Post’s remarkable Season to Share campaign, which had raised $58 million for charity by the time Woody left The Post in 2011.

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (9)

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (10)

Just this past Christmas, Paige and his daughter, Shannon, decided not to exchange gifts. Instead, they bought $3,000 worth of toys and distributed them to local charities. Shannon, an exec at Ibotta, “is the happiest person I know, and my best friend,” proud papa says.

The 77-year-old Woody Paige who humbly accepted his induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday is not the same rabble-rouser who descended onto Denver in 1974. He’s changed, evolved, atoned, cleaned up and mellowed, as most of us do in later life. But he’s done his full character arc over decades in full view of thousands, even millions.

Long gone from the podium Wednesday was the man-child in shorts, replaced by a tailored suit and a Broncos orange-and-blue tie — a sure sign of, dare we say it — a fan? Rattling off names of actual Colorado sports heroes with the zeal of, dare we say it — a fan?

Earlier, Woody repeatedly downplayed that he was scheduled to be the final inductee of the night — after Scott Stocker, Rudy Carey, Barney Chavous and Tony Boselli. He figured that had to because the crowd would surely have thinned by then.

I told him, “I hate to tell you this, Woody,” but you’re last because you are — as we say in the theater — the 11 o’clock number.” As in, the knockout. And he did not disappoint.

“I don’t belong up here — and everybody else on this stage will agree with you,” he told the crowd. But after 50 years of infusing Colorado’s newspapers and airwaves with playful, pun-filled truth-bombing, he finally admitted the truth to all, and to himself:

“But I do belong in Colorado.”

(And that coming memoir, by the way, will more tastefully be titled “From Elvis to ESPN.”)

John Moore is The Denver Gazette’s senior arts journalist. Email him at john.moore@gazette.com.

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John Moore is The Denver Gazette’s senior arts journalist. Email him at john.moore@gazette.com

Taking Woodystock: The larger-than-life sports writer who changed the game | John Moore (2024)
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