I knew I eventually would write this column, and for at least 10 years I’ve thought about how I’d start it and end it, and what I’d put in the middle. So I had a head start. It didn’t help.
I left the University of Minnesota on a Thursday and walked into my first newsroom for my first full-time newspaper job four days later. I moved straight from the St. Cloud (Minn.) Daily Times to the Minneapolis Tribune and, on Jan. 7, 1981, from the Tribune to the Charlotte Observer.
Guys with walkers and War of 1812 tattoos who claim to have known Bronko Nagurski and watched Red Grange – those were football players – tell me they grew up reading my column. You did not, I yell. We did too, they yell back.
They probably did grow up with me. I’ve written for the Observer almost 35 years and have written for newspapers for 40. I’m not going to make 41, at least not without a long break. My final column for the Charlotte Observer will run Dec. 11.
Great time to cut out, don’t you think? The Carolina Panthers are undefeated and a joy to be around. The Charlotte Hornets are playing basketball that’s as entertaining as it is effective. Bob McKillop is winning at Davidson and Mark Price will win at Charlotte. The Charlotte Knights play in a ballpark that is almost perfect, especially when Brad Penny pitches.
But I had a birthday when the Panthers’ winning streak was still modest, and realized I still had energy and, more importantly, hair. For the first time since I left college, I thought: What would it be like not to write for a newspaper?
I thought about it every day, and some days every hour. I like what I do. The people I work with and for, including those who have left, are friends. I suffered a concussion last year, got my first ambulance ride, spent time in ICU and missed three months of work. The Observer helped me negotiate the insurance labyrinth and called regularly to tell me not to rush back.
The newspaper knew I’d try to sneak back early.
ME: My doctor says I can come back to work.
OBSERVER: Great. If he tells us we’ll be happy to have you back.
ME: He didn’t say I could come back as much as he implied it. He told me I was lucky not to be paralyzed, and I took that as a yes.
Once, and always, a writer
Also, you know how some people are a Jack of all trades? I’m a Jack of one trade. I don’t know how to build stuff, fix stuff or put stuff together. I can’t figure out a computer or work beneath a hood. I don’t cook or dance. I think I’d be an excellent therapist, and the only people who disagree are everybody I know.
I wrote my book – shocker, it was about a boxer – and through a friend of a friend got a tryout with a big-time literary agent. When the agent emailed rather than called, I knew I’d been rejected.
I’ve had my midlife crisis; I’m on my second convertible, and I love it almost as much as the greyhound does.
I look back and remember the title fights, Final Fours, Super Bowls, playoff games and the Olympics to which the Observer sent me. Man, I went to Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium, Lambeau Field, Fenway Park, Daytona International Speedway and Sydney, Australia. I drove back roads to Greenville, Clemson and, last week, Homestead, Fla. I moved down south Florida dirt roads surrounded by swamp. I was in another world. Also, I avoided the tolls.
It’s about the people
There are so many people I will miss talking to and writing about. But if I name them I’ll forget somebody, and that would crush me. You know who you are.
I’ll miss my boxers. Boxers don’t have to star for high school or college teams to get an opportunity to fight. It’s as if they don’t find purpose and clarity until they step into a 20-by-20 ring. The guy who lays tile for a living doesn’t think about laying tile when he’s boxing. He thinks about boxing when he lays tile. Why can’t he fight for the light-heavyweight championship? The boxers appreciate me because I appreciate them and their dreams.
Somebody asked me in a live chat we do for the Observer which of my detractors bothers me the most. I couldn’t come up with a name. I don’t know their names.
Of course I get trolled; almost everybody with a public job does. If I knew the trolls, I wouldn’t hang out with them or invest importance in what they say. So why would I do it online?
My supporters move me. They’re the ones who email to wish me a happy Thanksgiving, ask about my health, my NFL picks and will I speak to their organization or school. They’re smart, which is to say they know when I miss on a column. And I do miss. We debate. And I learn.
There’s a guy in the foothills west of Charlotte, a Davidson graduate, who criticized me a few years ago for writing a whiny Bobcats’ column. I was offended because, even though we’ve never met, I like the guy. I reread the column. Man, was it whiny.
There’s a woman who lives in Charlotte but will always belong to Jackson, Miss. Her first 20 emails were critical because I had demeaned, she thought, one of her favorite athletes. She liked that I wrote back. If a reader offers his or her time, who am I to deny them mine?
We continued to exchange emails, and after a few months I felt as if I knew her. I know her. She showed up when I was hospitalized with the concussion and we’ve eaten dinner together and she is a friend and a fantastic human being.
Readers have taught me so much. I kind of like being criticized, provided you’re reasonably courteous and make a case. When I lose my way, you reel me back in. More than that, you invite me in, take me in, read me. For this, I can never repay you although, if I run into you, I’ll buy.
If, after a long break, the Observer is interested in me, I suspect I’ll be interested in the Observer. I also can’t repay the newspaper for all it has given me. But I can’t pick up the tab. We still employ too many people.
I’m going to spend time in Minneapolis, where almost everybody in my family lives, including my older son and his fiancee and their 10-month-old daughter. I’ve always believed in magic. Being a grandfather is magic. I’ll also spend time in Las Vegas, where my younger son lives.
Aside from that, I have no idea what comes next.
You know what the beauty of it is?
For the first time in 40 years, I’ll work without a net.