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Donaldson: Remembering Dirk Facer, Everyone’s Ally

Mar 16, 2023, 2:38 PM | Updated: 2:53 pm

Dirk Facer and Amy Donaldson eat tacos...

Dirk Facer, Everyone's Ally

SALT LAKE CITY – I never aspired to be a sports writer. And I definitely never thought I wanted to cover college football. But being lucky enough to work with Dirk Facer changed that.

It’s not that I don’t love college football. As a fan, it’s one of my favorite sports. But as a journalist, it felt like trying to swim in a straight jacket.

I spent nearly 20 years covering high school and Olympic sports, and one of the things I loved about my job was the creativity involved. I could choose almost any school, go to any practice of any team, and talk to any coach and find a compelling story. Coaches and players were always glad to see me, gave me as much time as I needed, and tried to accommodate any request I had. Maybe most importantly, they opened their hearts with a level of trust that is really hard to find in journalism of any kind.

So when I started helping Dirk with the Utah football beat – and eventually other Utah sports – I felt a lot like a hyperactive child on a packed flight – annoying to everyone, even those who loved me.

In my first few weeks, I found myself in violation of rules or etiquette that I didn’t always know existed, and most of the time felt like created unnecessary challenges to doing my job. In a nutshell, college sports operate very differently from every other type of athletics. The rules are strict, and coaches are absolute gatekeepers when it comes to access to athletes and information. The result is reporters get mostly the same interviews, the same quotes and overall the same information. It’s what they do with it that distinguishes them from each other.

But maybe the hardest for me to deal with was how superficial it all seemed. Compared to my other journalistic experiences, it felt like we were all just going through the motions but never really trusting or opening our hearts to each other. I’m going to be honest, I hated it – a  lot. And I was torn because I wanted to be a team player and help Dirk, who I’d gone to college with a million years ago. But I also wanted to do work that mattered, that educated, that inspired.

Dirk convinced me to stay, to be me, and to trust that, eventually, I’d find a way to tell the stories I saw in a way that felt true to me and the athletes we covered.

And he was right.

It took some time, but I found my footing – and, eventually, my voice.

But if I’m honest, a lot of the reason I found my way was because Dirk Facer did for me what very few people have done professionally.

HE LISTENED

Dirk was an amazing person to have in your life because he listened.

You don’t realize how rare a gift it is to have a listener in your life until you don’t have them anymore. Dirk listened without judgment and without condition. He cared about what I had to say, and he was always ready with a solution – or two. And if he didn’t have a solution, he’d suggest a place to grab a burger so I never felt lonely in my struggle.

Sports is an extremely tough universe for women. We love it every bit as much as our male counterparts, but it doesn’t always love us back.

When I felt slighted or saw another woman being mistreated, he listened and did his best to be the kind of ally everyone wants. He empathized with the isolation I felt, and he never left me alone. He sat with me many nights strategizing solutions, and when we ran out of ways to change the world he made me laugh – a lot. And I’m here to testify – laughter is great medicine for most of what ails us.

We were often the last people in the newsroom, the press box or at the practice field because he always had time to discuss a story or project idea or listen to why I felt isolated and ineffective. His compassion helped me stay in the fight because I felt like I had an ally who wasn’t going to give up either.

He said many times that he learned from me, and thinking back on it now, I definitely learned from him. He taught me how it was much better to be the guy putting up a crucial block than the star carrying the ball. Dirk was ‘Refrigerator’ Perry to my version of Walter Payton. His selflessness paved the way for a lot of great moments for me and the Deseret News.

HE WAS GENEROUS

Dirk did one of the most generous things a journalist can do for a colleague. He used his own credibility to open doors for me – and others. He’d spent his career earning the trust of those he worked with, and he had decades of knowledge that just doesn’t exist in most newsrooms anymore.

I remember him talking to Utah safeties coach Sharrieff Shah about a story I wanted to do. As I listened to him describe who I was to coach Shah, I got choked up. I had to recover quickly, and Dirk’s jokes definitely made that easier. But I had never had a colleague help me land a story that he could have written himself.

I remember asking him why he didn’t ask for the interview for himself, and he said, “Nah, this is the kind of story you were meant to do.”

I hugged him.

He made fun of himself.

I did the story and he called me shortly after it was published.

“I was right, AD,” he said. “This was definitely an Amy Donaldson story. We’re so lucky to have you on our team.”

He didn’t know that I hung up and cried. It is so hard to feel part of a team when you feel so left out most of the time.

After I left sports in 2019, and he was laid off a year later as the Deseret News did what many media companies did while trying to survive, we decided to make Thanksgiving burritos to hand out to our unsheltered friends. He came with his kids and we walked the area around the ballpark and tried to brighten the day for a few people. He called me a day later to tell me thank you for including him because it meant so much to be able to do something for someone else.

This was the essence of Dirk. He was competitive, hard-working, and funny. But he was also so tender-hearted and generous that I wondered how he’d survived for decades in such a competitive, cutthroat business.

HE WAS HILARIOUS

Before every Utah home football game, there is a dinner for the media and staff working the game. It might not feel fancy to most people, but for Dirk and I, it was a fine dining experience. He always went to games several hours early, and I usually rolled up 15 minutes before kickoff. But neither of us ever missed a meal.

One day, I came a couple of hours early with a box of Bertie Botts Every Flavor jelly beans. This box included flavors like ‘vomit’, ‘fart’ and ‘booger.’ I convinced him to find (ok, ‘borrow’) a beautiful glass bowl in the kitchen, and then we poured the jellybeans into it. We set them neatly on the drink table, and then sat nearby to watch our colleagues take one – or a few – of the jellybeans and shove them into their mouths. With every reaction – confusion, surprise, and disgust – we dissolved into laughter.

Journalists are notorious for eating anything that’s free, and our little experiment proved it for me. We were laughing so hard I had tears rolling down my face when one of our colleagues, Sean O’Connell, came over and asked what we were up to. He’d figured out our little joke, and he just shook his head when we confessed the details.

Dirk was the perfect co-conspirator – always game for a practical joke and never willing to throw you under the bus. Sometimes he was reluctant to join one of my schemes, but since we both shared what I called a junior-high sense of humor, he had a hard time resisting.

I loved listening to him – and a few other colleagues – tell stories of funny, bizarre and special moments he’d experienced in his 30 years on the sidelines. No one, and I mean no one, could tell a story better than Dirk Facer.

Honestly, I think in another life he could have been a standup comedian. I can’t count the number of times he entertained all of us in a media scrum or press conference with his stories or jokes. They were usually about himself, and they were often unexpected, sometimes shocking and always hilarious.

His humor was rooted in humility – a rare trait among veteran journalists.

HE WAS A CHEERLEADER

When I won the Sports Writer of the Year award he followed me around Utah’s media availability telling people, “This is Utah’s sports writer of the year.”

At first, I thought he was trying to harass me because, well, that’s what I did to him. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that he was genuinely proud of me. I never needed to worry about bragging because Dirk was the best hype man a person could have.

And it wasn’t just me, he was genuinely happy for other people when they succeeded. He didn’t just brag about his Deseret News colleagues, he reveled in the success of everyone in the press box. He was competitive, but he was also incredibly gracious when he (or we) got beat. He admired great storytellers and dedicated journalists. He was grateful for patient editors and contentious photographers. And he never, ever forgot to thank you for even the most meager contribution.

One night we had a tight deadline (thanks to those 8 p.m. starts), and I told him I’d go get quotes for him. I did my best, but it was chaos and what I gave him was pretty pitiful. But the only thing he did was express gratitude that I tried to help him with a very stressful situation. If you showed him kindness, he repaid it 1,000 times.

I helped him with the short-lived Deseret News Utah podcast, and he insisted on repaying me with a burger (usually Crown Burger) or a great story idea. His connection to people was unrivaled.

Dirk loved the people he covered in a way that is increasingly rare. He cared about what happened to them as human beings and took immense joy in their post-athletic careers. He often reached out to me to see if I would write about a charity project organized by a former athlete. He loved the power of the press to raise people up, to inform and inspire. He loved the games and respected those who gave so much so we could feel like we were part of something bigger than ourselves.

He was as traditional a sports writer as I’ve ever met, and like all the greats I’ve known, the contests we covered were so much more than games to him. They were microcosms of life and there were always lessons to be learned – some hard and painful, some funny or inspiring.

A lot of people will mourn Dirk Facer because of what he contributed to the local sports scene – and while that’s significant and worthy of admiration, what I will miss most is the guy who, as former Tribune reporter Lya Wodraska said, ‘wanted to take care of everyone.’ I will miss the person who never let me leave work alone – even as we joked that I’d have to defend him if we were attacked.

I will miss him bragging about his kids – Sammy and Austin – and talking about what a saint his wife is. I will miss reminiscing about our journalism school experiences, our banter during press conferences and getting in trouble for laughing too loud in the press box. Yes, I will miss his jokes, his unusual insights and the way he brought so much humanity to our profession.

But mostly, I will just miss my friend, my brother from another mother, my fellow cheeseburger connoisseur. Rest in love, Buttercup. Save me a desert and a seat next to you at the press box in the sky.

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Donaldson: Remembering Dirk Facer, Everyone’s Ally