Gods, Men and Howard Cosell
In the summer of 1962, Howard Cosell found himself lying on his back at the side of the road, the joe-pye weed squaring off in the sun above him as he woke from his stupor. “That’s when I knew I had to make changes,” Cosell says, “those weeds bending over me like God’s many heads. It was my high, purple clarion call.”
Cosell rushed home then—a place he spent precious little time in—kissed his four children on the head as they sat on the floor watching TV, and went straight up to the bathroom. Taped to the underside of the sink was his stash, 6 brown cubes of the sweetest chat Eritrea had to offer.
“I’d met Paul Bowles at The Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago,” says Cosell, “the famous newsmen’s bar. Without even an introduction, Bowles grabbed me by the lapels, dragged me into the bathroom, and put the pipe to my lips. The dirty tiled walls of that bathroom became my Bo Tree; I was enlightened.”
At least Cosell thought. He spent the next 6 years deep into a chat haze, calling fights, interviewing sports celebrities, carrying on his infamous affair with Joanne Woodward, as flowers sprouted from his hands and dogs held board meetings in his front yard.
Of course, the drug was taking its toll on his liver, eating it away from the inside, and he went around the color of dandelions. It wasn’t helping his family life either. The time he forced his 3-year-old son to eat two entire Banquet frozen dinners—with the resultant vomiting—was a low point.
As far as work went, he was stumbling through, like the first time he interviewed Muhammad Ali.
“I was high as a kite on chat and Ali at the time was eating this potent African salamander, some blue lizard-thing a witch doctor had prescribed to him. At one point we were just standing there, looking at his magnificent hands in the light of a streetlamp through the window. We embraced then, and I could feel the muscles of that man through his thin shirt. His handlers were in the corner, giving me the stink eye, like I was about to kiss him right smack on the mouth.”
That day on the side of the road, God in the joe-pye, Cosell remembered Ali’s words from a later interview: “Life’s a great black tree, Howard, just a-roarin’ in the wind. And either you move with that wind or your branches gonna crack. Crackity-smack black.”
“That was it for me and enlightenment,” says Cosell. “I gave Buddha back his Bo Tree, flushed those cubes of chat right down the crapper. Do I miss it? Sure, who wouldn’t? But I decided then and there to trade that god, the one of knowledge, for our God, the one of peace.”
Across from me, his feet propped up on an ottoman, Cosell looks at his own hands. The knuckles are red, like he’s just come in from the cold. He’s nodding—to me or to himself I can’t tell—but he doesn’t seem convinced.