This is the first year The Press Club of Cleveland is presenting The Chuck Heaton Award. The recipient is selected by the club’s advisory board of top media executives. Probably nothing describes what the award means better than this column written about the Hall of Fame sports writer and columnist right after his death in February 2008.


“I’m Chuck Heaton,” he said, sticking out his hand.

I had just been hired by The Plain Dealer for the first time. It was 1979. I was 24 and had been reading Chuck Heaton just about from the day I first learned the alphabet.

Now he, the famous football writer and columnist, was making a point to introduce himself to me.

Current Plain Dealer football writer Tony Grossi has the same story, Heaton walking across the room to meet him. So does Sue Klein, who was hired as a part-time clerk when Heaton approached her.

So does everyone who came into contact with Heaton — the legendary Plain Dealer writer wanted to make you feel at home.

“In every pro football press box in America, everyone from the elevator operator to the team owner knew Chuck Heaton,” said former Plain Dealer columnist and WJW Channel 8 reporter Dan Coughlin. “Even more amazing, Chuck knew all of their names.”

Heaton died Thursday at the age of 90. His first Plain Dealer story, in 1942
was about the last milkman who covered his route with a horse and
wagon. He wrote about every Browns quarterback from Otto Graham to
Bernie Kosar, every coach from Paul Brown to Bill Belichick.

He was a gentleman sportswriter, the kind who covered games in a jacket,
tie and elegant hat. He saw himself as much a part of the Browns as The Plain
Dealer. Or as Cleveland talk-show host Les Levine said: “The Browns were like
his second family. He and [former Plain Dealer sports editor] Hal Lebovitz sat
in on team meetings. They watched film with the coaches.”

Heaton was from the era before the screams of some talk radio, before the
cutthroat competition of the Internet. For a while, it was even before
television discovered pro football. He shared a few beers and played some
cards with the players, whose salaries were not much different than his own.

Coughlin called Heaton “the fairest man I’ve ever met.”

Former Plain Dealer sportswriter Bill Nichols said Heaton “was just a
nice man, I mean nice to everyone. He believed in giving people the benefit of
the doubt.”

I recall Heaton as a man who seemed almost in pain when he had
to write or say something negative. He hoped for the best from everyone.
He didn’t prize headlines; he built relationships.

As he wrote in “Browns Scrapbook,” a collection of his columns published
recently, Heaton once lent Art Modell $50 when the Browns owner offered to
buy beer for the team at the airport — then reached into his wallet and found
out that it was nearly empty.

His writing style was straight-forward and packed with information,
especially his Saturday notes. One of his biggest scoops was the Browns’
hiring an obscure NFL assistant named Sam Rutigliano as head coach.

He was a fan of the team; he wanted the Browns to win. Much was made
of the fact that Heaton was the only writer from a major paper to pick the
underdog Browns to win the 1964 title game against Baltimore. Then again,
he picked the Browns to win every game that season.

Plain Dealer Browns writer Mary Kay Cabot said a lesson she learned
from Heaton was to make time for your family.

That he did, raising five children. Coughlin said among those at
Heaton’s bedside Monday night were a television star (Patricia Heaton),
a nun “in full habit” (Sharon Heaton) and a writer (Michael Heaton).

He attended Mass nearly every day, often at St. Raphael’s near his Bay
Village home. Recently, he switched to an afternoon Mass at St. Luke’s in
Lakewood. He was a product of the Depression, and Heaton took joy in
telling Coughlin “on a plane, at 30,000 feet, after a Browns game in Kansas
City” that the mortgage on his home was paid off.

He attended Lakewood High, John Carroll University and often wore his
John Carroll ring and a ring from the Browns’ 1964 championship season.
Heaton is in several Halls of Fame, including pro football’s. He wrote for
50 years and probably had more bylines than any PD writer ever.

But more importantly, he is remembered as a good man who loved to
make others feel important, and that started with a smile, a warm handshake
and a friendly hello. !

Terry Pluto is a sports columnist for The Plain Dealer and a member of the
Hall of Fame. This story was reprinted with permission of The Plain Dealer.