by John Walters
1. Merrell Noden
Memories of Merrell Noden, a former writer at Sports Illustrated who passed on May 31 from cancer at the age of 58, I believe…. the first thing to know about Merrell is that he was a kind soul. I’ll get to the fact that in high school at the Lawrenceville (N.J.) School he ran a 4:11 mile, that he graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, that he played guitar in a rock band, that he was a conscientious and erudite writer.
But mostly Merrell was part of a generation of SI writers/employees that included Jack McCallum, Alexander Wolff, Austin Murphy, Richard O’Brien, Damian Slattery, Bill Nack, Steve Wulf, Bambi Wulf, Greg Kelly, Richard Demak, Kelli Anderson and Steve Rushin who were not just incredibly gifted people, but real MEN (and WOMEN). They were characters who had character.
As I said, Merrell was kind. You’d walk into SI and he’d be sitting in Richard O’Brien’s office, or Jack McCallum’s or Greg Kelly’s or Richard Demak’s (Rushin’s was too minuscule, though Merrell occasionally squeezed his six-foot-three frame in there; Steve is almost 6’5″ so it was like peering into a clown car). One or more of the above would also be within and they’d be having some spirited conversation about sports, but just as likely about literature or movies or politics. The melody never wavered: escalating voices, interruptions, and then a quip (from McCallum or Rushin, ordinarily) that led to laughter. Verse, chorus, verse, ad infinitum.
You’d pass by, completely in over your head, but Merrell would ask how you were doing. He’d be genuinely inquisitive.
I was a dedicated runner at the time, training for my first marathon, and Merrell, who was possessed of god-like running talent that was incongruent with his 6-foot-3 (thereabouts) frame, would ask me how my training was going. But he’d take it further than that. He’d give me training tips. Then, he’d take me out on long runs, 10- to 15-milers on the weekends. We weren’t close friends — I was the most in-over-his-head figure at the Time-Life Building since Peggy Olson, and he was a respected name on the masthead. None of that ever mattered to Merrell.
Merrell was kind, but he was animated and opinionated. And uncompromising in his values. I loved that about him. You’d hear him arguing with the fellows above all the time, but there was never any hostility in his or their voices. Rancor? Yes. Fulmination? Of course. But there was always genuine comity, and Merrell’s innate decency had a lot to do with that.
Shortly before I arrived at SI, two writers who were about Merrell’s age got into an actual fist fight during a “friendly” basketball game during a staff outing in Paradise Valley, Arizona. It became legendary within the halls of the 18th floor, dubbed by one pithy colleague as both “The Fracas in the Cactus” and “The Maricopa Ropa Dopa.” Merrell was a regular in SI hoops games, and he might have argued a call — he definitely would’ve — but there was something in his spirit that was too warm to ever get into a fight. At least as far as I ever witnessed.
Merrell wrote primarily about track and field at a time when the sport was beginning its long spiral downward from having garnered front-of-the-book coverage (thank you, Ben Johnson). He’d cover the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden and I’d be the reporter who would tag along, gathering quotes where I could, but mostly just observing Merrell and learning. I was a track geek and thus constantly in awe of how some of the sport’s great figures at the time (Ray Flynn, PattiSue Plummer, etc.) would converse with Merrell with such mutual respect. Marty Liquori, another Garden State native who’d actually been the third U.S. high school boy to break the 4-minute mile and was seven years his senior, spoke to Merrell as if they had a weekly poker game together.
Merrell would often sprinkle his prose with a quote from Shakespeare (“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” appeared in the first story I’d fact-checked) and having been a pre-med in college, I as often as not failed to recognize them. These were pre-Google days, kids. You couldn’t just type the words into the search bar. You could spend hours going through Bartlett’s quotations or you could search out the most empathetic and intelligent co-worker available for help, which was always Richard O’Brien. That Rich, a Yale grad who like Merrell came with absolutely no Ivy League airs, was probably Merrell’s best friend (he delivered the eulogy) is no surprise.
One of my favorite things about having known Merrell was witnessing the way he’d gape at the myriad raw talents of our friend and colleague, Steve Rushin. It wasn’t just that Steve was the most precociously talented writer not just on the staff but probably in the history of the magazine. It was that Steve did everything well. Steve, who is at least 6 foot 4, went running with Merrell once and the former 4:11 miler was astounded that with no running background Steve could be that fast.
Suddenly, Merrell took to becoming Steve’s Salazar. Coaching him on his first New York City Marathon. You could see, and be amused by the fact, that this was so much more important to Merrell than it actually was to Steve. With a minimal amount of training, Steve turned in a 3:01 in his marathon debut. Merrell was gob-smacked.
Theirs was a special friendship. Steve was on his way to being a rock star at SI, and Merrell was not on that track, but there was never an ounce of professional jealousy from the former to the latter. Rather, Merrell was almost like a big brother to Steve and Steve was a gracious enough soul to appreciate what a friend he had in Merrell.
Steve, like Merrell, was always down-to-earth. Like Merrell, he was also always open to a spirited debate, preferably after midnight at The Emerald Inn on Columbus Avenue. It was always fun to share a booth with those two men — every argument only incited more laughter and more pints — except for the fact that those booths were not built to accommodate humans north of six-feet in height.
I’m sure I’m forgetting many wonderful anecdotes about Merrell, who is survived by his wife, Eva, and their children, Miranda and Sam. There are so many people at SI who were closer to him than I was and any number of them could do a superior job to the one I am doing here.
But I just smile every time I think of him. There was wit and there was intelligence and there was a ferocity of spirit to Merrell, but there was nothing snarky or mean-spirited or cheap (and he was smart enough to use more descriptive adjectives than those). I wonder when the wunder kids at Deadspin or Buzzfeed pass if anyone will ever say such a thing about how they approached their jobs and treated their colleagues.
Merrill Noden was a true prince among men at a time when Sports Illustrated had a bountiful supply of them. He is gone too soon, but everyone who knew him is enriched for having had that privilege.