Columns & Blogs

Things that’ll stay with me after 34 years at Observer

Tom Sorensen takes note in front of his favorite poster at recently closed Dilworth Billiards. Tom is retiring Friday, but not before he looks back on his nearly 35 years at The Observer.
Tom Sorensen takes note in front of his favorite poster at recently closed Dilworth Billiards. Tom is retiring Friday, but not before he looks back on his nearly 35 years at The Observer.

I drive past a store and on the front window I see a huge banner: “Going out of business. Everything must go.”

I make the same drive six months later and the store is still open and the banner is still up. I want to run inside and yell: “Everything must go, including whoever runs this place, and take that lying banner with you!”

I wrote a column almost two weeks ago in which I said that I was leaving the Observer. And I’m still here and I’m still writing another column. I feel as fraudulent as the store with the banner. But I promise this is the final column I’ll write for the newspaper, at least for a long time.

So many of you have sent me warm and wonderful emails and Tweets. I will hang onto my Observer email address until I answer each of you. It’s not as if I have anything else to do.

Before I look forward, I’d like to look back.

▪  Athens, Ga., is the best college town in which I’ve spent time and Georgia is the best campus. The town is eclectic and alive and the campus feels right. I invest importance in that quality, how a thing feels. Before leaving the campus I looked up in the air and yelled, “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

▪  I’ve covered 10 Super Bowls and the memories that linger all occurred away from the field. I was getting off an elliptical machine at a hotel and an old, tanned guy asked if I was finished with the machine. I told him I was but needed to wipe off my sweat. When I returned with towel and cleaning fluid, the tanned man was on it. “I’m sorry, I thought you were finished,” he said. I just want to clean it up, I told him. Then I realized who he was. “It’s an honor for Joe Namath to use the same machine I did,” I said. My older son was with me. “That was Joe Namath,” I told him. He said: “Jenna Jameson was here. She signed the sign-in sheet at 11 a.m. We have to come back tomorrow at 11.” “Let me know if you see Namath,” I told my son as we entered the gym at 11 a.m. the next day.

▪  Along with writing columns, I occasionally got to play reporter. I was the first to write that the Carolina Panthers would draft Cam Newton and the first to write that the contract of Panthers coach John Fox would not be renewed. I was criticized by readers for writing both columns.

▪  I wrote about a junior who played football at Independence High for Tommy Knotts. He was small and thin and he compensated by being the first to arrive for practice and in line for drills. We sat down inside the locker room to talk, and I realized that my digital recorder was full. I told him I had to eliminate an interview. He asked me who I had on the recorder. I gave him several names, among them Panthers receiver Steve Smith, Fox and former figure skater Tonya Harding. The kid got excited, I assumed about Smith. “Tonya Harding!” he yelled.

▪  When I met Kelvin Seabrooks he was an amateur boxer, fast and brave, an artist who grew up in Charlotte. He washed dishes for a living. After he turned professional he continued to wash dishes. The job paid more than boxing did. Then he went to the other side of the world and cold-cocked the No. 2 bantamweight in the world. When he got on the airplane to fly to Australia his record was 13-13. When he returned, said his manager, the late and compelling Bill Reynolds, Seabrooks’ record was 27-13. I said, “Bill, I can’t write that. He didn’t win 14 fights over there.” He won one, said Reynolds. But it was big.

▪  Why do I love boxing? When I moved to Charlotte, I asked a man how to get to his gym. Go here, go there, go that way and, when you get to the long black Cadillac, you’re there. He had me at black Cadillac. What, you were expecting him to say Yugo?

▪  Before the Charlotte Knights opened the 2015 season, I sat with Jeff Schaefer in the home team’s dugout at BB&T BallPark. Schaefer played minor league ball in Charlotte, major league ball with the Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s, and he founded the Carolinas Baseball Center. As we talked, I looked out at the perfect infield grass, perfect infield dirt and the perfect ballpark. Schaefer loves baseball and has a gift for imparting that love. When he finished talking, l felt like the great Ernie Banks when he said, “Let’s play two.”

▪  I didn’t grow up with racing, and fell for the argument that drivers are not athletes. I was in the press box at Daytona International Speedway and watched Jeff Gordon get caught up in what was about to be an enormous wreck. I knew he had spotters. But he was coming too hard around the turn and would have time to do nothing but react. And he did. His instincts were perfect and his gift, driving a car, was manifest for all to see. Quickness is a quality most athletes possess. Gordon’s wreck-escaping move was as good as any crossover dribble, and just as quick. At that moment I realized two things. Drivers are athletes and I’m stupid.

▪  The columns that elicit the greatest response are personal. That’s true for any writer. If I do it right, readers won’t think I’m writing about my dad or my sons or my dog. They’ll think about theirs. A column that elicited as warm a response as any I’ve written was about Caymus the greyhound. He had cancer, and I drove him to the vet one final time. On the way I stopped at Wendy’s and bought a burger and a chicken sandwich. We walked to a patch of grass and I set the the food in front of him. Caymus was a beautiful and haughty dog. One night I’d left a glass of wine on a table, the good stuff, and he drank half of it before I could get to him. So I bought a bottle of cheap wine and the next day poured Caymus a half glass. He took one sip and walked away. I emptied the glass of the cheap stuff and poured in some of the good stuff. He drained it. I should have taken him to a wine tasting. But I took him to Wendy’s instead. After he died I went to a coffee shop and wrote about him. I loved that dog and the sadness had to go somewhere. It went onto my laptop and into the newspaper.

▪  I’ve been sworn at by a guy who was small for a power forward but big enough next to me.

▪  The owner of a local team ripped me for something I wrote, and for maximum effect he did it in front of other sportswriters. “I’m glad that wasn’t me,” one of them said. “I’m glad it was me,” I told him.

▪  I accompanied the Charlotte Checkers on an overnight bus trip to Richmond, Va., twice spent a game in their penalty box.

▪  I love the gamblers and the bettors and wrote about a pool hustler missing two fingers.

▪  I wrote about professional wrestlers. Only one wrestler refused to talk and the fault was not his. He came from a planet where the spoken word did not apply, and I’ve never been good at telepathy. Jimmy Valiant, the Boogie Woogie man, talked, but I couldn’t use what he told me. I asked Jimmy how old he was and he said 33. You can’t be 33, I told him. Jimmy was closer to 66 than 33. “I can’t be 33?” he asked sadly. “You can’t,” I said. He leaned back in his wooden chair and contemplated his age for at least five minutes. He paused for so long I thought he might be using telepathy. Finally the Boogie Woogie man spoke. “I’m 34,” he said.

▪  One Thanksgiving, Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis couldn’t play football because he’d ripped up a knee. But he and his family had invited women and kids from a nearby shelter to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. Davis was not going to miss it. Despite his limp, he delivered food to the tables at which the women and kids sat. For Davis, it needed to be personal. You should have seen him smile.

▪  I’ve attended local boxing cards and seen the same 200 people who always are there. I’ve interviewed former boxers who talk with their hands and ducked jabs and hooks as they told their stories.

I’ve been fortunate to share those stories for more than 34 years. There’s only one way to end what will be my final column, although, like the store with the Everything Must Go banner, I reserve the right to someday return.

To all the athletes, owners and general managers, to the Observer, the media relations people and the men with your long black Cadillacs, and to the Boogie Woogie man, who by now must be pushing 35, I offer one word, and please know that it comes from the heart.


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