Buzz Bissinger: A Savior for the City

More than two decades ago, Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer writing for the Inquirer, then published his masterpiece, Friday Night Lights. Now he’s rich, and famous. So why is he back at the Inky as a columnist — and why is he so mad?

Harry and Eleanor held court on weekends, their home filled with famous names: Judy Garland, Joel Grey, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty. Buzz remembers playing charades with Robert Redford, and his father’s mom getting “shit-faced” with Ethel Merman. “It’s a way of life in New York City that’s died out now,” he says regretfully. He wanted to be a reporter; his uncle worked for Life magazine. He was enthralled by newspapers: “Everybody in the family had a favorite: the Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal.” They’d read and argue and talk.

Buzz’s dad taught him about sports. Each autumn, the two would fly up to the Dartmouth-Harvard football game — Harry was a Dartmouth alum. (Buzz would go to Penn.) They’d see the Jets on Saturdays and the Giants on Sundays. Summers, they’d go to Yankee Stadium to watch Mickey Mantle play, sitting among the men in their suits and hats. Buzz has tried to replicate the rituals with his three sons — he has 26-year-old twins, Gerry and Zachary, by his first wife, and Caleb, 18, with his second. (He’s now married to his third, Lisa Smith, who’s in Abu Dhabi, helping set up a new university there.) “That’s an enormous window into Buzz — his boys,” Cohen says. Part of his bond with Buzz is that each has a son with special needs; Zachary suffered brain damage at birth.

For Buzz, 55, sports and love and the past are all jammed up together. Baseball, especially, is sacred — “perhaps the greatest single constant in my life,” he once wrote. The baseball diamond suits Buzz’s inner clarity: A ball is foul or fair, a runner’s safe or out. And every moment of every game holds the chance for redemption. “Scott Rolen is a flawed human being,” Buzz says of the former Phils third baseman. “But the way he fields a ball is perfection.”

ONE REASON BUZZ gives for leaving the Inquirer back in ’88 is that he doesn’t like doing something twice: “Once I won a Pulitzer, I didn’t want another.” But like a pit bull, he’s never let go of the ragged sleeve of civic injustice. He brought this up in his column in December:

Twenty-two years ago … I earned a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for a six-part series called ‘Disorder in the Court.’ It … depicted a system in chaos — defense attorneys making campaign contributions to judicial candidates in the city and then getting remarkably favorable results in court … witnesses being hideously treated … unconscionable delays. … Sound familiar?