“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.”
Holden Caulfield’s dream pierces our heart because it is as unattainable as it is beautiful. Nobody is a real-life catcher in the rye.
Sure, we all try to help people when we can. You know: when we have time. The very best of us, the firefighters and hospice workers and schoolteachers and the like, they help people quite a bit more than most. But let’s be honest. Sometimes even the people who are helpful for a living are just making a living.
Did you ever meet the real deal, though? Someone who didn’t just do the thing, but is the thing?
Someone who just seems to spend all day every day saving poor lost souls, hauling them back from the edge, dusting them off, and sending them back towards the healing balm of community with a sincere look in the eye and a kind word – a no-bullshit assurance that this once-lost soul is no longer alone...?
Just as a thought experiment, I want you to imagine the person LEAST likely to be such a real-life saint. Close your eyes. I’m serious. Imagine a human being who looks and sounds like the exact opposite of a real-life catcher in the rye.
Might I recommend that you begin your thought experiment in the nosebleed seats of a New York Rangers hockey game.
Zoom in. There he is: the loudest, most bellicose Rangers fan in sight, braying at the ice at the top of his lungs. His voice is a quintessential first time long time nasal-raspy Long Island honk. He is, it must be said, not svelte. He’s got a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other. He is essentially an upright Jewish walrus.
Have I sufficiently painted a picture of the person on earth least likely to be an actual walking, talking saint?
My friend, the great Barry Sacks, died suddenly on Sunday morning, cut down by a heart attack. He was 63. Like one of those ten-mile-wide ice shelves that only makes the news when it is forever cleaved away, our world has suddenly lost something of immense, irreplaceable value.
Barry was a producer at ESPN in Bristol for 33 years – the overwhelming majority of his adult life. That’s where I met him. I was a production assistant under Barry from 1993 to 1995. It was my very first full-time job. It was a phone call from Barry on December 12, 1993 that summoned me back to the newsroom at 3am, because Bobby Hurley had just flipped his car. When Barry’s call came in, I was sitting in a Denny’s with a pack of my fellow ultra-green PAs. The five us trundled back to the satellite dishes and made the sports television Barry told us to make until the sun was once again high in the sky.
The sports television we made is of course beside the point. What mattered, in a way that none of us understood at the time, was that God or the universe or fate had placed in front of us one of those miracle people who cared about us more than we cared about ourselves.
Few companies are lucky enough to land such a miracle person. ESPN was one of those lucky companies. ESPN was a magical place in those pre-Disney, analog days. There wasn’t even a cafeteria: we ate out of vending machines, and ran across the street to McDonald’s, and learned how to cut and dissolve and wipe to chyron at the feet of Barry Sacks.
During his 33 years in the building, I’d estimate the number of PAs mentored by Barry to be somewhere around 5,000. That group is mostly gray-haired now, all over the map in every sense of the phrase, scattered uncertainly across midlife. A few of us remained in Bristol; most of us stumbled on.
But somewhere close to all 5,000 of us buckled as one as the news of Barry’s heart attack whipped across our phones last Saturday. Perhaps you were at a Super Bowl party the next day, gathered tangentially with one or more of us as the news of Barry’s final passing descended. Perhaps you noticed this friend of yours lingering over their phone a bit too long, their face unusually drawn for a Super Bowl party, as they numbly absorbed eulogy after memory. Barry’s death continues to send shock waves of grief up and down the ESPN family tree, not just the thousands of PAs he mentored, but the colleagues Barry built the network with, shoulder to shoulder, the Chris Bermans and Bob Leys and Dick Vitales whom we all think of as being the heart and soul of ESPN, the front-facing talent whose faces and voices rocket-fueled the Worldwide Leader’s once-in-a-lifetime comet-streak rise across the sky.
Those men in front of the camera deserve great credit. But for those first two decades in particular, ESPN was more of a scrappy startup than you may think. And as with all startups that achieve escape velocity, there was an unseen, beating heart working the bellows: first guy in, last guy out, clapping his boys on the back; shepherding everyone’s March Madness brackets into the pool, managing the company softball team as if he were commanding Seal Team Six, and then, as the sun set each day (which is to say, rose), ordering 4 a.m. D’Angelo’s for the weary men on the assembly line. There were several other outstanding producers inside that building, and a few other superb mentors. But Barry was the company's undisputed spiritual center. We know this now, with the clarity only time can deliver. It was Barry's love for his colleagues and daily challenge that radiated a company-wide sense of pride. This, of course, is the single most priceless and ineffable thing: the lucky break that so, so few companies can catch. It does not happen often, and it does not happen by accident. Real, no bullshit love is the most contagious, infectious thing. And nobody - nobody - loved building ESPN more than Barry did. Our love simply rose to meet his every day. That's what makes communities great.
On October 21, 2015, ESPN fired Barry Sacks, along with some 300 other staffers. If the forensics among you are looking for a precise time of death for the old WWL, that day will do just fine. Several of my colleagues have shared their devastating memories of watching Barry Sacks walking out to his car that day for the last time, carrying his box of personals. He was 55 years old.
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve been fired. It sucks. By which I literally mean it sucks the life out of you. It rendered me a puddle of trembling shame for I don’t even want to think about how long. All I could think about, after the shock passed, and I COULD start to think, was: One step at a time. How can I heal myself? Is there some way I can return to the person I thought I was becoming?
Note: I had only been employed for a mere three years before my firing, at my relatively insignificant job. Barry had been at ESPN for Thirty. Three. Years.
How did Barry Sacks choose to spend his time after being fired?
This is the god’s honest truth.
All Barry did, day after day after day after day after day, was post open job opportunities on LinkedIn and Facebook for his fellow laid-off ESPNers.
He reached out all day every day in the hope of catching any one of the thousands of his ESPN family members, stumbling towards the cliff. I watched his feeds all the time. Never a single post announcing what he himself was looking for; nothing about what he was up to, never a single update asking for help.
All he did was spend all his waking hours helping his ESPN family members, for the rest of his time on earth.
Barry Sacks was a truly great human being, one of the few that I or you or anyone else has ever met. He was a great sports television producer, too. But none of us who knew him are staggering around in shock thinking about what fantastic TV he made (he made great stuff); how good he was in the production truck (he was very good); or even how much he loved his beloved Rangers, Yankees, Knicks and Giants (a lot).
These facts are on the surface of our minds, but simply because they remind us of Barry, like the deep smell of an old shirt. We are wrecked today, and I mean really, fist-in-the-gut-and-twist-it wrecked. We loved him when he was alive, but obviously not enough; we did not understand how much he loved every one of us all until he was gone. The measure of Barry Sacks can only now be understood by the magnitude of the tearing away.
Joshua Shelov is the Founder & CEO of Written Out Loud, where he teaches storytelling. He wrote the 2005 feature film Green Street Hooligans, and has directed and produced three ESPN 30 for 30s. He is an adjunct professor at Yale.