The first time I ever even knew of Jim Hess was at the 2001 Blue-Gray Football Classic in Montgomery, Ala. He was an area scout for the Cowboys at the time, and as it happens, he was on the phone with another person who would become my mentor, then-Bears scout John Paul Young.
He was chiding John Paul, who had not arrived at practice yet, in his West Texas accent. With a smile on his face, Jim was needling him, accusing him of taking an early lunch break. I don’t remember much of what he said. I just remember the friendly ridicule, the way men bound by athletics do when they’ve been friends for years, and Jim saying “John Paul” a lot.
The next time I remember talking to him was in June 2002 at the Angelo Football Clinic, of which Jim was one of the co-founders along with John Paul, Wade Phillips, Mike Martin and Jerry Vandegrift. I had driven out to San Angelo, Texas, alone in hopes of networking, knowing I would be launching a new website devoted to “inside football” in mere months. I stalked Jim for three days, like a hunter does his prey, hoping I could somehow talk him into giving up a few nuggets I could use for draft prep. In those days, ITL was very different from today’s iteration, and I needed something that would look good in a mock draft (“a scout I know told me . . . .”). At last, I found him alone on the second deck of the Junell Center at Angelo State University, taking in one of the lectures. I nervously approached, introduced myself, and asked if I could ask him about the 2003 draft. At the time, Jim was still in the midst of his decade scouting for the Cowboys. He politely declined, of course. “Neil, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable about it,” he said.
There’s plenty more you could learn about Jim, from his sense of humor (I used to call him the Dean Martin of the plains for his dry wit and gregarious nature; he would always correct me with, “OK, but I don’t drink, though”) to his many accomplishments (too many to list here; here’s his Wikipedia page) to his humble nature (watch this video, in which he lists the various places he’s worked, then adds that he wouldn’t have gotten one of them without the help of a friend on the inside).
However, if you want two stories that describe Jim Hess’ character, those are the two best ones I have. If you were his friend, there was no better friend. Even though Jim had accomplished more in football than 10 men, winning a national championship and spending a decade scouting for America’s Team, he always treated me like I was as just as important as Bill Parcells, Tony Romo and Sean Payton, three people you might have heard of that counted Jim as a good friend and a trusted football man. Whenever I called, I didn’t have to identify myself, no matter if it had been months or even years since we had last spoken. “Hey Neil!,” he would always say as soon as he heard my voice.
Today, I and hundreds of others will say goodbye to Jim, who passed away at 87 Saturday night. As I write this, I sit in the lobby of a San Angelo hotel waiting to go to his celebration of life in a little more than an hour. Come early, I’ve been cautioned; the church is small and the crowd will be considerable.
I hope to come across many more men of his stature, a true gentleman of the game who always made people feel comfortable and accepted even after he’d reached the heights of his profession. I hope to, but I doubt I will.