Phone calls late at night are often bad news. Monday night, I was alone in my home, watching television in my bed with lights out when the phone rang.
I figured it was my wife, providing an update on some delicate surgery peformed on her father earlier in the day in Little Rock. Perhaps it was just a check by one of my daughters since they knew dad was "batching it" for the week.
Sadly, this phone call had nothing to do with any of that. It concerned an Internet report that needed to be proven false. The report stated plainly that Paul Eells had died in a car wreck inside the last hour. I accepted that challenge and set about the task of finding Paul via telephone.
First, I phoned Harry King, my co-worker at Stephens Media. One of Paul's closest friends, I was certain he would have Paul's cell number. I'd call Paul and kill this story fast -- except Paul did not answer his phone. The call went straight to voice mail at a time I knew he'd still be on the road to Little Rock after spending the day with the rest of the Razorback media at Houston Nutt's golf outing.
My stomach knotted, just as it did back in the 70s. Suddely, it was deja vu. My stomach was just like it was on the morning when I learned that Bud Campbell had perished in a car wreck.
Bud -- Uncle Bud to me -- was the only other man I knew as "The Voice of the Razorbacks." Yes, others have done UA football. None -- except Bud and Paul -- have qualified in my book for that title.
Was this the same thing all over? About 90 minutes later, after phone call after phone call between Harry, Chuck Barrett and Dudley Dawson, it was clear the report was true all along.
I remember Bud's death vividly. He had been out with my father, mourning the loss of my father's wife (and my mother), after completing his duties that night at KATV. He and my father were best friends. Bud was following my father home on Rodney Parham Road, just seconds behind my father. His car didn't make a tight bend and hit a telephone pole at high speed. He died instantly.
After hearing of Paul's accident, I'm sure his death was the same. And, after talking with Harry, I've got some thoughts that he might have been gone even before the crash. Harry and Paul were in their usual Saturday golf outing last week in the heat when Paul complained about shortness of breath. There were the same complaints and concerns from Paul on Monday afternoon to playing partner Danny Nutt. The Hog assistant coach said Paul sighed deeply when he couldn't get any air on that hot afternoon on the golf course, finally heading to the clubhouse after just 12 holes to begin preparations for his evening TV duties.
Before leaving Danny, Paul expressed that he was woefully out of shape and needed to begin an exercise regimen. Could Danny set him up with gym time at the UA weight room when he returned Thursday for a week stay to cover football two-a-days? Danny had that done by 8 p.m., perhaps just minutes ahead of Paul's accident.
Enough on the timeline and details. That's not really what I wanted to share. It's the way I thought of Paul Eells. To put it simply, there is no finer human being on this earth.
It's easy to express that at a man's passing. Eulogies are full of that kind of praise. The difference is that people have said that about Paul Eells for all of his 70 years.
No one was gentler, kinder, more sincere, as gracious, patient or as willing to serve his fellow man as this southern gentleman. Yes, I knew him a little more closely than most fans in the Razorback community. But there isn't a man, woman or child in Arkansas who wouldn't say the same thing about Paul.
He always had time for total strangers. He agreed to any request. If he was already booked, he'd leave you thinking it made him sick that he couldn't accomodate. And, when he made the appearance, he thanked you for the opportunity and then thanked you for thanking him.
On a personal level, this hits me hard. Paul always had a way of making me -- and everyone else -- feel that he was so glad to see you and that he had missed you. He embraced you in a special way that made you feel like he was more glad to see you than the other way around, and, of course, that couldn't have ever been the case.
He was a joy to spend time on the golf course. He knew the game well and honored it with his gentlemanly way. He was a regular playing partner with my father, much as my father and Bud Campbell shared time on the course.
I loved to hear Paul share the story about his first round of golf with my father years ago at North Hills Country Club. A golf purist, my father didn't believe in mulligans on the first tee or moving his ball even when it landed on a rock. Paul told me he learned that in the first two rounds with my father.
"I teed off on number one and hooked it far into the trees," Paul said. "Our game in Nashville did allow a second tee shot on the first tee. I instinctively reached for another ball in my pocket. Orville chirped from the back of the tee box, ‘Paul, are you gonna practice or play?' Then, on our next round, on the first hole, when I got to my ball in the rough, it was atop a nice, big rock. I looked over at Orville and then back at the rock. He was grinning, and he said, ‘Paul, we play it as it lies. We play real golf here.' And, we did."
No doubt, Paul thanked my father for reminding him of the rules, as the rest of the group probably chuckled. I chuckled as Paul retold that story in my presence many times. He enjoyed telling it as much as I enjoyed hearing it.
Paul and my father were close, but to the people of Arkansas, they felt the same bond, just as if they had played countless rounds of golf and laughed and cried over every good and bad shot.
And, why not? Paul came into our living room in picture and voice hours and hours at a time. What you loved about him was that none of that gave him an ego. I've heard him say more than once, "I'm not the story. The Razorbacks are the story, the reason people want to listen to me."
Yes, to many, he was the voice of Arkansas football, but he was more than that to almost everyone he met. He was, in fact, the nicest man they knew. He was easily the nicest man I knew.
We all should vow to be more like Paul Eells in coming days and less like the person we see in the mirror. That's my pledge this day, to be more like Paul.
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