My friend Al died the other day.
I’d known Al Featherston for decades, was routinely seated next to him for years on press row at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Drove with him throughout the region to regular-season games, ACC and NCAA tournaments, press events. I usually drove; my cars, even with occasional drifts of dog hair, were preferable to his aged boat of a van crammed with more detritus than an attic. Once we reached our destination we almost always found a good Chinese restaurant for dinner, and sometimes met at one for lunch in Durham, where he lived.
You likely knew Al too, if not personally than by his work. He loved writing about ACC sports, basketball especially, and was an unassuming but integral part of a dwindling corps of press room veterans who remember when. A Duke graduate, in 1974 he joined the Durham Sun, an afternoon paper, then moved to the Durham Herald-Sun and served as a beat writer covering UNC, Duke and N.C. State. Among his three published books was “Tobacco Road,” a 2006 “History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports.”
Al left the Herald-Sun in 2005.
Al Featherston was in fact a softspoken gentleman, North Carolinian born and bred, his criticisms muted and analytical. As a freelancer, most of Al’s writing remained regional. On websites freed from space limitations, he could go on at considerable length intertwining his contemporary narrative with intricately detailed recollection of the past.
That long view was a product of his experience; as I recall Al told me he went to his first ACC tournament in 1960. Recently, he wrote a voluminous history of the tournament that was never published.
Al could be adamant in expressing his opinions. His brother recalled in an obituary that when Al missed a question in “Trivial Pursuit” he characteristically wrote a letter to the game’s producers correcting their answer, and received a written apology.
He was particularly formidable when debating a pet topic – defending his beloved New York Yankees, why Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was overrated, most anything to do with politics, dismissal of alternative theories on JFK’s assassination or the supposedly hidden authorship of the works of William Shakespeare.
I knew I could get a rise out of Al by arguing against continued use of “tobacco road” to describe this region, as he did in his book title. The term, from a 1932 novel by Erskine Caldwell about sharecroppers in Georgia, once fit this area but now seems pejorative, especially in light of its urbanized, tech-rich, education-centric orientation. Tradition overrode current applicability in Al’s estimation, a position I might have taken in other circumstances.
History was a passion for Al well beyond basketball. He self-published a baseball novel, “The Makings of Heroes,” which plausibly detailed how owner Bill Veeck could have stocked the 1943 Philadelphia Phillies with Negro Leaguers, breaking baseball’s color line five years before Jackie Robinson made the majors.
Nor were Al’s historical interests restricted to sports.
Cite a clash at arms in American history, especially during World War II, and he was conversant with the order of battle and the major military figures on both sides. Among his books was the meticulously researched “Saving the Breakout: The 30th Division’s Heroic Stand at Mortain, August 7-12, 1944.” In that instance one American infantry division, many of its members National Guardsmen from North Carolina, held off four counterattacking German armored divisions at a crucial juncture during the Battle of Normandy.
Al, or Alwyn as he always fashioned himself as a book author, became so well-recognized an expert on that heroic stand by the “Old Hickory Division” his analysis was included on-camera in a 2016 TV documentary. Being flown up north to do the taping was one of the few times I saw him truly excited outside a heated argument.
Media members don’t much discuss relationships between writers and coaches, unless it’s to mutter privately about any sycophants among us, or to savor the verbal clashes that occasionally occur. But coaches notice the good guys, as happened when the N&O’s A.J. Carr retired awhile back and was praised by Mike Krzyzewski.
So it was when Al Featherston, 69, died of of complications from heart by-pass surgery and ALS.
“I’ve had a lot of great memories with Al – working with him, chatting with him and talking with him about anything and everything,” Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said in a prepared statement. “What a creative and talented journalist; what a great mind; what a person you could trust and count on.”
What a friend to have, and lose.