Bill Nack had a curious mind and a singular personality.
He could recite the final page of “The Great Gatsby’’ — in English and in Spanish.
He could reel off the list of Kentucky Derby winners from the beginning, likely adding the length of their victories and the jockeys aboard.
He could revel in both the grace of horse racing and the violence of boxing.
Nack left his mark in the world of journalism from Newsday to Sports Illustrated to ESPN and the realm of freelance and the movies, approaching it all with a singular passion that ranged from maniacal to melancholy. And always, it was intensely personal.
William Louis “Bill” Nack died on Friday of cancer at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 77.
“He loved horse racing and he would dance the night away at a Belmont Stakes party,” said Steve Jacobson, a former Newsday sportswriter and columnist who was a colleague of Nack’s. “[He was passionate] about horse racing. When Ruffian died on the track, it was like a close relative had died.”
“He was a beautiful writer,” said Joe Gergen, also a former Newsday sportswriter and columnist. “I never had that much interest in horse racing until I read some of the stuff he wrote. Certainly for a newspaper, it was beautifully descriptive. He had a love for horse racing and it shone through everything he wrote.”
Nack’s reporting for Newsday of Secretariat’s Triple Crown season in 1973 led to his first book, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.” He subsequently wrote two other books, “My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money” and “The Sporting Life, and Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance.” The Secretariat and Ruffian books were turned into movies starring Tobey Maguire and Sam Shepard, respectively.
“He cared so much about the craft of writing, and that came from unbelievable preparation and voluminous reporting,” said Sandy Padwe, a former editor at Newsday and Sports Illustrated. “He did it at Newsday but it really bloomed at Sports Illustrated, where he had the space to do it. The way he went about his reporting was a tutorial that should be taught in journalism school or any school of writing.”
Former Newsday editor Howard Schneider recalled Nack’s determination and passion for the business when he was a news reporter in the Suffolk County office. “Even then, he was obsessed with language,” Schneider said. “He would pace nervously, suck on an unlit pipe, ritually rub his stomach, all the while searching for the perfect word. And no matter how prosaic the story, Bill found a way to add a little poetry.”
“He was a splendid man and a splendid writer,” said Tom Callahan, a nationally known writer for Time and Golf Digest and a close friend of Nack’s. “He was the only thoroughbred writer I ever knew who didn’t care about the [betting] windows.”
Callahan recalled how Nack had an impact on people who were the subjects of Sports Illustrated stories outside of horse racing and boxing. “He did a piece on Isiah Thomas, spent a long time with him,” Callahan said. “I knew Isiah some and one day he asked me, ‘Where’s Bill? I miss him.’ Same thing with the tennis player Steffi Graf. She missed their talks.”
Nack was born in Chicago in 1941 and was raised in suburban Skokie, where he developed his lifelong love of horses by cleaning stables. He became a show-horse rider in his teens and was greatly influenced by Swaps, the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner whom he saw at an Illinois racetrack. He became a groom at Arlington Park.
Nack attended the University of Illinois, and after graduating in 1966, he enlisted in the Army and did a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he was involved in Army publications and communications. He came to work for Newsday in 1968, starting in the old Ronkonkoma office and ending up in the sports department as the thoroughbred writer and then a sports columnist. He moved on to Sports Illustrated in 1978, producing many memorable, lyrical and heavily reported stories.
He saw not just the grace of horse racing but its dark underbelly, once writing an investigative story for Sports Illustrated about the epidemic of broken-down racehorses and the use of painkillers to keep them running. “Bill was as honest as they come,” Callahan said. “Whatever the story was, whatever he reported, he was going to be telling the truth as he knew it.”
Secretariat captivated Nack, and he relentlessly chronicled one of the greats of racing. When the horse was retired at the end of the 1973 season, Nack was on the plane that carried Secretariat to Kentucky, where he would stand stud.
Upon Secretariat’s death in 1989, Nack wrote with elegant and distinctly detailed prose about the life of this magnificent creature. An excerpt:
“On the long ride from Louisville, I would regale my friends with stories about the horse — how on that early morning in March of ’73, he had materialized out of the quickening blue darkness in the upper stretch at Belmont Park, his ears pinned back, running as fast as horses run; how he had lost the Wood Memorial and won the Derby, and how he had been bothered by a pigeon feather at Pimlico on the eve of the Preakness (at the end of this tale I would pluck the delicate, mashed feather out of my wallet, like a picture of my kids, to pass around the car); how on the morning of the Belmont Stakes he had burst from the barn like a stud horse going to the breeding shed and had walked around the outdoor ring on his hind legs, pawing at the sky; how he had once grabbed my notebook and refused to give it back, and how he had seized a rake in his teeth and begun raking the shed; and, finally, I told about that magical, unforgettable instant, frozen now in time, when he turned for home, appearing out of a dark drizzle at Woodbine, near Toronto, in the last race of his career, 12 lengths in front and steam puffing from his nostrils as from a factory whistle, bounding like some mythical beast of Greek lore.”
Nack is survived by his wife, Carolyne Starek, four children and six grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned.
“Bill lived life large,” said his wife on Saturday night, a succinct appraisal of the massive career of a man who left a large imprint on the world of sports journalism.