Journalism school professors and copy editors stress avoiding cliches in writing, but I’m compelled to invoke one in regard to Chris Dufrense: Never meet your idols. It’s a saying rooted in the idea the person behind the talent one admires will never meet expectations.
Having met and interacted with Chris, I can say that concept is a bunch of crap.
I began reading Chris Dufresne’s work on the Los Angeles Times website in the early 2000s. As a student journalist covering college football, and Chris writing for the preeminent publication that covered the era’s most dominant program, the foundation to my perception of Dufresne was one of envy. That’s the spot I want one day. Then, as I read more and more of his words, I came to envy not only his spot but his talent.
How the hell does one get that good?
Chris always struck the delicate balance between understanding the significance of college football within the larger framework of society — ergo, it ain’t that important — without trivializing or insulting the sport’s importance to people. He found the pitch-perfect chord to convey the gravity of any given moment, and did so with equal parts humor, intelligence, curiosity and insight.
Chris has long been one of my primary influences in how I try to cover college football, but his talent as a journalist is not why the news of his death guts me. Chatting with Chris in press boxes and over emails, I learned the man was even better than the journalist.
Media is rife with egos, which is inherent in its nature. After all, one goes into the industry because they believe they’ll be interesting enough an audience will want to read or hear what they have to say. Chris had every excuse to carry a massive ego as a leading voice in the landscape for decades. Instead, he was one of the friendliest, most approachable people I’ve ever encountered, in or out of sports media.
He treated a small-timer like me with the same respect he showed to nationally prominent heavyweights — and that’s why you will be inundated with eulogies for Chris like this one in the coming days, from people of much greater stature in the business and who knew him more intimately than I. But talking ball with him, from the current state of the Pac-12, to the 2006 Rose Bowl Game and the demise of the football program at his alma mater, Cal State Fullerton, it always felt like I was talking to a peer, a friend; not a hero.
One moment that stands out as I reminisce on our interactions comes from the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game. Prior to kickoff between Stanford and USC, the conference recognized Ronnie Lott and John Elway as the greatest defensive and offensive player in the league’s 100-year history. The two were made available for interviews, and I had an almost surreal wave of is this real life flood over me when I realized I was standing next to Chris Dufresne while going back-and-forth with John Elway.
That’s a bittersweet memory. That same evening, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott took a timeout ahead of his prepared comments to acknowledge Chris, who was leaving the Times that same week. The head of a conference Chris never shied from criticizing making particular note of his contributions as a journalist speak to the universal respect Dufresne commanded; the round of applause from his contemporaries that ensued reinforced the point.
Chris being bought out from the Times will never not be especially disheartening. He still very much had his fastball, which is apparent in the final column he filed to the paper. Someone — I can’t remember exactly who, as there are thousands who’d echo the sentiment — wondered what the hell is wrong with this industry that it doesn’t have a top-tier spot for Chris Dufresne.
In the same vein that media is inherently full of ego, the tumult plaguing it for the past 15 years or so also fosters insecurity and paranoia among those competing for ever-dwindling opportunities. He had every reason to hang it up, and no shortage of excuses to not lend a hand to others in the business.
But continuing to pen informative and witty commentary on college football via his own site, The Media Guides, Chris avoided understandably falling into those traps. It was during that time I came to chat with him the most, including having an assigned seat next to him at the Rose Bowl for UCLA games this past season. On the day of Oklahoma’s visit to UCLA in September, I commented on the copy of Lindy’s Sports College Football Annual he had on the desk in front of him.
“Great magazine choice,” I said. “I hear the Pac-12 preview’s writer is really good and handsome.”
Chris chuckled and complimented my work, which is ridiculous; like Reggie Bush praising a D-III running back on his field vision. All the same, it means a great deal to me, but I regret never telling Chris just how profoundly I admired his writing — more so after discovering how admirable the man behind the writing was.
In getting to know Chris Dufresne, I learned you should meet your heroes. They just might exceed all expectations.