What I learned from Cecil Hurt, a real wizard

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

I first witnessed the magic of Cecil Hurt on a Sunday night in Bessemer.

Cecil invited me on an impromptu road trip to Hoover to see if we could find an Alabama football media guide at the hotel the day before SEC Media Days. Still recovering from a leg injury, he stayed in the car and guided me on the phone while I snuck in and dug around boxes in a dark room. It felt like our own version of “Oceans Eleven” or something.

I never found anything, unfortunately.

Before returning to Tuscaloosa, Cecil asked if I had time to eat at The Bright Star. I was hungry, so I said sure. 

We pulled up and learned the wait was about 40 minutes. "Great. It’s already after 7 p.m., I didn’t eat lunch and we’re not going to get back until late," I thought.

“Wait here one second,” Cecil said as he shuffled away.

A few minutes later, a woman I didn’t know emerged.

“Nick?” she asked. “Follow me.”

She brought me to the table where Cecil was, of course, seated. Over the course of the meal, the owner, the chef and others came to say hello to him. I joked to Cecil that he pulled some strings with some connections he had. He brushed it off, saying they got him a spot to sit down for his injured leg. Maybe so, but I know it’s really because the people there all loved him.

So did I, and so did the thousands upon thousands whose hearts hurt after Cecil died Tuesday at 62.

You spend a day, heck an hour, with Cecil in public in Alabama and you can’t help but be moved. It seemed everywhere we went in Alabama or on the road, someone knew him.

CECIL HURT:Tuscaloosa lost an institution, The Tuscaloosa News lost an icon and I lost a friend | Deas

NICK SABAN:Alabama football's Nick Saban releases statement on death of Cecil Hurt

People flocked to him in a way I’ve never seen. It happened from the day I met him to our last road trip together. And no matter if it was a famous person or one of the 115,000 who followed him on Twitter, he treated them the same.

Whenever someone walked up to him to talk Alabama sports, he handled each conversation with respect, humility and didn’t try to correct any opinion. He listened.

“Everyone knows more than you do,” he once explained to me.

Part of his logic in that advice came from knowing it wasn’t worth arguing with most folks about Alabama football, but much of it came from the fact that he never saw himself above anyone.

It’s the first of many lessons he taught me during our six months working together. I’m 23 and this is my first full-time job, for which I moved from my home state of Minnesota to Alabama, where I knew no one. It became one of the scariest leaps I’ve taken.

Cecil made sure I didn’t fall.

I lost track of how many 30-minute phone calls we shared. Almost daily. Man, what I wouldn’t give for another one. Countless times, he helped steer me in the right direction with my writing and always took my call when I had a question on how to handle a situation. Nothing shows care like availability, and I’ll be forever grateful for that gift he gave me.

Cecil was never stingy with journalism insights or advice when I sought it, but I think I learned more from observing.

For a while, it perplexed me the way people gravitated to him. Cecil didn’t have some big personality or wear some fancy clothes. He didn’t have the bravado I’d think someone with his celebrity would have.

He was Cecil. The wonderful Pelicans-shorts-wearing man who often tucked his glasses and teal iPhone into the chest pocket of his shirt. The man who thanked anyone and everyone who helped him in some way and never wanted to inconvenience you. He’s the guy who always used his trusty iPad to work his word magic. I’ll never understand how he was able to write columns so powerfully and effortlessly on a touch screen, but wow, could he turn a phrase. Maybe it was the humming. He always hummed while on deadline, and it always made me smile.

That was the magic of Cecil. He never tried to be anyone he wasn’t. I think that’s why people trusted him, sought him and loved him.

The secret ingredient to his success was being himself. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of all that Cecil taught me, I don’t know there’s any greater lesson I’ll learn in my journalism career or in my life.

One of the last times I saw him in the hospital, it was the night before a procedure. He had to drink this awful-tasting beverage ahead of time, and it was so repulsive he only drank about half a glass at a time. We’d talk, he’d sip and every so often, he’d ask me to refill the cup.

Cecil joked it’s like the part from "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" when Potter must help Albus Dumbledore drink the potion that ultimately brings the great wizard pain. They needed to get the Horcrux at the bottom of the drink.

When I left that day, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth I was blessed with this opportunity, having the chance to learn from the best of the best, like Potter did.

Dumbledore, however, was fictional. Cecil was a real wizard.

Just ask Dumbledore.

“Words,” Dumbledore once said, “are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”

And no one wielded words like Cecil.

Nick Kelly