It’s funny, how your life can change with one single phone call.
I remember as if it was yesterday. It was August 7, 1992 to be exact. I was sitting at my desk in the Syracuse University Publications office and my phone rang. It was Joe Szombathy, the Associate Athletic Director of the Orange Pack and Varsity Club, asking me if I would be interested in working for this new independent publication on SU sports called, The Big Orange.
The owners (who lived out of town) were looking for someone to run the publication in Syracuse. Specialty independent publications catering to their university’s athletics programs were the thing back in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Joe recommended me.
“This is a great opportunity for you, Judy,” I remember him saying. We talked for a few more minutes about the position. I hung up the phone, and not 10 minutes later, the owners were sitting in my office at Syracuse University wanting to discuss the position of Editor and Publisher of The Big Orange.
I was employed full-time at Syracuse University. Great benefits, a decent salary, tuition reimbursement. I had security, but I wasn’t happy. The job was no longer fulfilling. Life is full of chances. Sometime, you have to take them, or else you will never know.
Two days after I spoke to the owners, I quit my job at SU and accepted the position. Yes, some thought I was crazy, my parents being first on that list, by taking a chance on a brand-new start-up business, but when an opportunity presents itself, my belief is that you go for it. I did.
For 18 years, I served as Editor, Publisher and owner of The Big Orange/The Juice (the print version ceased publication, in 2010, however longtime The Juice writers Brad Bierman and Wes Cheng continued publishing a digital version, the current format, sujuiceonline.com). I traveled all over the county covering the Orange in football, basketball and lacrosse…bowl games, NCAA tournaments, the Final Four, the National Championship. It was my dream job. And I owe it all to Joe Z.
I was sad to learn of Joe Z’s passing on Wednesday.
Joe, who would have turned 88 on Sept. 3, was a colleague, a mentor, and a friend. He, along with his beloved wife, Shirley, who passed away in 2012, were my “my road parents” (I’ll get to that in a bit).
I remember spending many Tuesday afternoons (the day the paper came out) in his Manley Field House office talking Orange football, basketball, and lacrosse. Whether it was the current version of the Orange, year’s past or the future, he knew it all. He knew stats, he replayed games. He was the history book on Orange athletics and was a part of it, of course.
Joe led Syracuse in receiving from 1950-52. He scored SU’s only touchdown on a 15-yard pass from Pat Stark in a 61-6 loss to Alabama at the 1953 Orange Bowl. He always had that claim to fame and would remind you of that often. Joe later served as an assistant football coach on the 1959 Championship team, coaching SU’s only Heisman Trophy Winner, Ernie Davis.
“Go Orange” was a part of his every day vocabulary. Joe loved talking SU sports on each of our visits. But he also made a point each time to ask how I was doing, how the paper was doing. He was always genuinely concerned. “How’s business,” he would ask each week. “Pick up any new subscribers.” He would then give me a list of people to send complimentary issues to. “These people should subscribe, they are huge Orange fans,” he would say. And they did, of course, with Joe following up with a phone call, or a note to them.
He would invite me to Orange Pack gatherings and alumni functions so that I could talk about the publication. There would be Joe, clad in an Orange blazer, possibly his Orange pants, and a cigar (not a fan of), introducing me to prospective subscribers. Joe was The Big Orange’s biggest fan and supporter, a big reason, why our publication continued to grow throughout the years.
Joe and Shirley were my road parents…always looking out for me. “Where did you go to dinner? With who? What time did you get in (if they didn’t see me in the hotel bar later that evening, where you would usually find them on a Friday night)?
Road trip game days were always fun. I would sit behind Joe and Shirley on the bus on the way to the stadium. They were always in the first row, after all, they were Orange royalty. You didn’t need to watch ESPN College Gameday; you had Joe and his game plan and predictions. We would get to the stadium, and there was always an alumni event that we would go to, The Big Orange in tow, ready to meet prospective subscribers.
Although I haven’t talked to Joe in a few years, I did think of him often, especially this time of year, football season. Today, when I learned of his passing, I thought about how that one phone call changed everything for me 27 years ago, and the impact that Joe Z made on my life.
You will be missed by many Joe Z. Go Orange.