Jeffrey Marx has got a story to tell you. Make that stories, 21 of them, in the Pulitzer Prize winner’s newly published book “Walking with Tigers.”
The 295-page volume chronicles the New York-bred, Chicago-educated author’s four-year journey to get to know what makes LSU sports and its people so special. At the same time, he casts a mirror on well-traveled subjects from an angle that perhaps only someone who didn’t grow up wrapped in purple and gold could provide.
“There’s no chapter on Billy Cannon’s Halloween run,” Marx explained. “There’s no chapter on the Earthquake Game. There’s no chapter on Warren Morris’ home run. Those things are mentioned, but no one needed me to tell those stories again.”
Marx goes mainstream for in-depth profiles on LSU stars like Leonard Fournette, Alex Bregman and Raph Rhymes. He immersed himself with them and their families, illuminating previously glossed-over details of their lives that can only be told with the long-form story. He concludes with a poignant chapter by author and former LSU football player John Ed Bradley on dealing with the end of his playing career.
But Marx’s book shines brightest when it shines a light on the untold, or rather, under-told stories of LSU sports.
The best is the chapter on Stanley Roberts, remembered for his one brief year as Shaquille O’Neal’s low-post mate at LSU in 1989-90. Marx takes the reader from Roberts’ humble beginnings in South Carolina as a hotly pursued recruit considered at the time to have more upside than O’Neal, through his largely wasted days at LSU and in the NBA and through a litany of demons to emerge at 42 as an LSU graduate at last.
Another gem is the story of Frank Brian, LSU’s nearly forgotten basketball star from the 1940s, and his friend Buddy Wicker’s obsessive quest to get him enshrined in the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame.
“For fun, I ask people as I talk about the book to name the four LSU players who have gone on to become NBA all-stars,” said Marx, who moved to Baton Rouge after marrying his wife Leslie, a Thibodaux native. “Most people can name three of them — Shaq, Bob Pettit and Pete Maravich. I’ve probably asked 100 people and no one can name the other one. The first one: Frank Brian. Not only is he the first one, but he played in the first NBA All-Star Game (in 1951).”
Marx gives himself permission to ignore distractions like who will be LSU’s starting quarterback or debates about game-day traffic to focus on the subjects that piqued his interest along his walk: the can of “rally” corn LSU baseball players kept in their dugout in 2013; the LSU band tuba player turned basketball starter, Andrew Del Piero; and the rise of LSU trainer Jack Marucci’s backyard bat company to become a potent player on the major league level.
Marx’s introduction to LSU sports came in 1974, when he was a ball boy for the then-Baltimore Colts. Back then, the Colts’ second-year quarterback was former LSU All-American Bert Jones. Soon the wide-eyed Baltimore boy and the smart-aleck flamethrower from Ruston developed a bond that has lasted more than 40 years.
“In September 2011, he turned 60, and that was kind of jarring for me,” Marx said. “Just the idea of my childhood sports hero turning 60 got to me. The week of his birthday, I decided to write the book.”
When not writing books, Marx is a sought-after speaker and director of the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness. The foundation is named for Marx’s sister, a liver transplant recipient who died in 2003 awaiting another transplant after a recurrence of the hepatitis that attacked her first liver.
This is the sixth book for Marx, who wrote the popular “Season of Life,” one on former LSU Tiger Brian Kinchen (“The Long Snapper”), two with Olympic champion Carl Lewis and one on his sister Wendy’s fight to become an organ donor recipient. In 1986, Marx became the youngest reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize. He was 23 when he was honored for his series of articles for the Lexington Herald-Leader delving into cheating in college basketball.
After a launch party from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday at Walk-On’s on Burbank Drive in Baton Rouge, Marx will have his first book signing Sept. 20 at the Perkins Rowe Barnes and Noble. Through a books-to-schools program sponsored by Walk-On’s and Business First Bank, Marx’s publisher will distribute thousands of copies statewide to school libraries and youth groups.
“There are a lot of stories in the book that carry messages in them, a lot of worthwhile messages for young people,” Marx said. “I’ve found, if you hid them in a sports story, they sometimes get through in a way they might not otherwise.”