A PRO’S PROSE
By Bill McLean
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KATRINA WITTKAMP
By Bill McLean
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KATRINA WITTKAMP
Don Pierson took a class taught by former Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes.
He met often, at 6 a.m., with Mike Ditka to help the former Chicago Bears head coach write his autobiography in 1982.
And Pierson attempted to interview Walter Payton while the late Bears great banged a set of drums at his home in Mississippi.
Hayes, Ditka, Payton.
A bellicose Buckeye, a brash and beloved Bears field boss, and a brilliant back.
Pierson had a better-than-a-front-row seat during the football icons’ careers.
“Woody Hayes could have been a history teacher,” says Pierson, who, during a 40-year career (1967-2007) at the Chicago Tribune, became the newspaper’s first full-time Chicago Bears beat writer after covering Hayes’ Big Ten teams and taking Hayes’ Introduction to Football course while majoring in journalism at OSU. “When I sat down with Mike Ditka during those early mornings in his office at Halas Hall, he was always focused. I’ve told people I was never intimidated by Mike Ditka because I covered Woody Hayes at OSU.
“Walter Payton,” the 79-year-old and longtime Lake Forest resident adds, “could not sit still during our interview in Mississippi. He couldn’t sit still during football practices. After playing the drums in his home state on that day, he said to me, ‘Let’s go to the driving range.’
“I truly enjoyed writing about personalities during my career.” Pierson covered the 1985 Bears—a squad teeming with delightfully outsized personalities—during the franchise’s Super Bowl season. He’s now a member of the Local Legends, a team of luminaries sporting considerably more star power than Ditka’s crew of gridders displayed 38 years ago.
Each year, the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff presents a new Local Legend, honoring someone who has contributed significantly to the community and the world.
Pierson joins the ranks of Captain James Lovell, Adrian Smith, John Bryan, Richard Marx, Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra, Mark and Franklin McMahon, Ellen Stirling, Ryne Sandberg, Marian Phelps Pawlick, Jack Schuler, Dr. Eugene Hotchkiss III, the Honorable Susan Garrett, and Ed Wehmer.
“Don was an old-school writer, always positive and extremely professional,” says History Center Board Member Fred Jackson, who served as a co-chair of the Local Legends selection committee. “You read him because of his ability to write outstanding human interest stories. Don was a great Local Legend candidate. He’s a family man, a class act, and a down-to-earth guy. And the man certainly knows Bears history. I still love going through the coffee table book he wrote (Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook, 2019, with co-author Dan Pompei).”
Pierson, a Pro Football Hall of Famer writer, will be recognized and celebrated at the Local Legends Benefit on Saturday, October 28, 4 p.m., at the History Center in Lake Forest. He’ll be interviewed by local author and journalist David Sweet. The setting is an intimate conversation that encourages the sharing of little-known stories, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and insights missing from standard biographies.
“I thought it was a prank when Fred Jackson called to inform me,” says a chuckling Pierson, who moved to Lake Forest with his wife, Kathy, in 1974, and helped raise their children, Craig and Kate. “What I’ve always liked about the event is that it promotes the History Center and reminds all what a wonderful resource it is for our community. It’s a thrill and quite an honor to have been selected, considering the well-known names of all of the previous honorees.”
Pierson and Captain Lovell shared something in common before 2023.
“We were in the same book club,” Pierson says.
Pierson grew up as a Cleveland Browns fan in Kent, Ohio, and attended Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he played football only as a freshman—“I was too small for the sport,” the former running back says—and ran for the Rough Riders’ cross country team as a senior.
He devoured sports stories and columns in the Akron Beacon Journal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Toledo Blade. A young Pierson threw Recorder-Courier newspapers onto Kent driveways and took golf scores over the phone for the same publication.
Pierson’s first assignment for the Chicago Tribune, in 1967, was a feature on a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan who was hospitalized at the time. It didn’t take long for an editor to choose Pierson to cover the Chicago Bears for the paper.
“I went to Ohio State, so it was assumed that I must know a lot about football,” Pierson says.
He did. He also reported thoroughly and accurately and wrote well, making him a triple threat in the realm of grid scribes. Pierson also got assigned to cover the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles (1984) and in Barcelona (1992), allowing him to flex his versatility as a writer while crafting track and field, boxing, and men’s swimming stories and features.
Bold-faced Bears names, including George Halas, Red Grange, Sid Luckman, Dick Butkus, and Gale Sayers, answered questions from Pierson, who served as president of the Pro Football Writers of America and later received the Ring Lardner Award for excellence in sports journalism in 2009.
“Dick Butkus was my favorite Bear to cover,” Pierson says. “He’s a genuine guy, a regular guy, authentic. I was at a golf event with him, and what I remember most about it was Butkus sitting with his (Chicago Vocational) high school friends. And he’s still promoting anti-drug initiatives for high school kids.”
Bears running back Brian Piccolo died of lung cancer in 1970. Most of Brian’s Song, the 1971 movie about Piccolo’s friendship with Sayers, was filmed in Rensselaer, Indiana, the former location of the Bears’ training camp. The late James Caan portrayed Piccolo.
Pierson didn’t appear in the flick, but he deserves credit—for finding out that Caan had made a courageous request which resulted in instant pain.
“James Caan was a thin man then,” Pierson recalls. “He wanted to be tackled by real Bears players during filming. Well, after getting tackled for the first time, that was it, no more. Caan didn’t want to feel that again.”
Pierson, a grandfather of four, has stories to tell, too many to count. They’re typically interesting and enlightening and entertaining to sports fans and fans of life. But he’s the story now, a worthy and humble Local Legend.
“Don Pierson is the quintessential local guy,” says History Center Board Member and Local Legends Selection Committee Cochair Kristen Chun, a Bears season-ticket holder since the 1980s and owner of a car adorned with a Bears license plate. “He’s fantastic, like all of our Local Legends are, and we hadn’t honored a literary Local Legend until we named Don. I love that each Local Legend is a part of our community, people who shop at local grocery stores and say hi to you.
“I can’t wait to listen to Don tell stories and talk about my favorite football team in a relaxed setting at the Local Legends Benefit.”
The History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff is located at 509 East Deerpath Road, Lake Forest. Call 847-234-5253 or visit lflbhistory.org for more information. To register for the Local Legends Benefit on October 28, visit lflbhistory.org/give-join/local-legends-benefit. A Patrons Sponsors Event—a “tailgate” gathering before the Bears-Commanders game at Washington—will be held at the History Center on Thursday, October 5, from 5:30-7 p.m.