I didn’t want to hire George Whitley five years ago. I sat across the table from him during the interview, looked him straight in the eyes and told him I didn’t think he could do the job.

He told me I was full of it, and dared me to let him prove me wrong.

Obviously, it wasn’t a normal job interview. It was more of a discussion – sometimes heated — between two friends who loved and respected each other enough to get all of the usual bull out of the way and cut to the chase.

That’s the kind of conversation you can have with someone you’ve known since college – more than 35 years. Man. I’d give anything but my own wife and child to have another one of those chats with George today.

Instead, I’m sitting here in a daze, trying to figure out what to write about a friend, co-worker, father and husband who left us way too soon.

George died early Tuesday morning. He was a month past his 54th birthday, and he leaves behind a wife and a daughter.

If you knew George, you knew how much he loved the Texas Longhorns and college and high school football in general.

He loved his girls more than that.

I met George back in the spring of 1986 when I moved from Tennessee and enrolled at Kilgore College. I had decided I wanted to be a sports writer, and joined the staff of the college newspaper – The Flare – where George was already entrenched as the newspaper’s sports editor.

I became the assistant sports editor and editorial columnist, and he was my boss for about two semesters before I moved on to become sports editor at the Kilgore News Herald.

I spent three years in Kilgore, then seven as sports editor at the Lufkin Daily News before moving to Longview back in 1997.

George went on to become sports editor at the Henderson Daily News, worked some at the Longview News-Journal and then left the newspaper business – sort of – for about 18 years.

I say “sort of,” because George still covered his beloved White Oak Roughnecks for the News-Journal during that 18-year span while working for O&D Manufacturing in his hometown.

When he found out I had a full-time opening in the sports department back in 2015, he asked me about the possibility of him joining the staff.

I told him he could come and interview, but I had pretty much made up my mind he wasn’t the right fit for the job. He had, I figured, been away from the daily newspaper grind so long and the job had changed so much, I doubted he would be willing or able to adapt.

What I didn’t take into consideration was his love for sports, sports writing, East Texas and the kids and coaches in this area.

That didn’t disappear during his 18 years away. It only deepened, and I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice as he discussed the possibility of getting another chance to do “what he was called to do.”

By the time he left the office that day, I was ready to go back to work for him.

George was in the office on Monday, picking up a package of statistics so he could write preview capsules for this week’s issue of our high school football section – The Zone. Later that evening, he watched his little girl play volleyball, and then I noticed he was Tweeting about the Dallas Stars.

I woke up to a phone call from his wife Tuesday morning telling me he was gone.

George would hate it if I got all sappy here and told folks to enjoy every moment like you were living your last day on earth. He’d probably tell me I was full of it again, and I’d let him.

Old friends can do that, and it’s not like he could break my heart more than it’s already broken.

Email: jstallard@news-journal.com; Twitter

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