My first official day on the Lions beat, I was fresh off a month in China covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Tom Kowalski pulled me aside with one of his favorite lines, saying, “Step into my office, Kid.”
Now, Kowalski called just about everyone he knew “Kid” or “Baby,” as ridiculous as the latter sounded coming from this mountain of a man, all 6-7 and 300-plus pounds of him. (And as ridiculous as his own nickname — “Killer” — sounded to those who knew him well. Killer was all bark and no bite, really. That was part of his charm.)
Anyway, I had no choice but to step into his office that day. I knew what he was about to tell me, mostly because I already knew Tom and he knew me, having crossed paths many times over the years. I’d venture down to Allen Park to write feature stories or the occasional fill-in column. He’d drop in on the Wings or Pistons or Tigers beats during the NFL offseason. And so on. So I knew the speech he was about to give me, and I certainly knew the punchline, because it’s the same one he’d delivered to others before me, most recently Nick Cotsonika over at the Free Press, who’d taken over the Lions beat a few years earlier from Curt Sylvester. I was succeeding Mike O’Hara, who — like Sylvester and Kowalski both — had covered the Lions for a quarter-century or more.
“I’m going to enjoy making you cry every day,” Kowalski told me with a big grin, implying that I was about to get schooled, which I was.
Only I knew better, and so did he, or so I thought. That first day, not long after Killer had happily delivered his initiation speech, we got word that the newest Lion, veteran running back Rudi Johnson, had his bags stolen shortly after he’d arrived at the team’s facility in Allen Park. Turns out Tatum Bell, the running back he replaced on the roster, was the culprit, caught on surveillance video. And so I spent my first day — and night — on the beat chasing down all the parties involved in a ridiculous crime caper that involved a stolen Gucci bag, $200 from a money clip and a grown man’s underwear, among other items. (“If anybody’s got some Perry Ellis boxers for sale, you know where they came from,” Johnson said.) There was Johnson, there was Bell, there were the players’ agents, there was the ex-teammate Bell tried to use as an alibi (it was Victor DeGrate’s mother, actually, who called me to clear his name), and there was also the phone call I got from the exotic dancer who wouldn’t leave her real name, or phone number.
And then there was Kowalski, who strolled by my desk on his way out the door — a couple hours before I’d finally get to pack up — cackling as he said, “Welcome to the beat, Kid. See you tomorrow.”
What followed, of course, was merely the worst season in the history of the NFL, if not all of professional sports. The Lions went 0-16, they fired their general manager, exiled their quarterback, traded away their star receiver and others and ultimately — finally — dismissed their coach aalong with his pick and his shovel. Needless to say, there were plenty more instances where Kowalski got to laugh at me and I wanted to cry, figuratively speaking.
And yet through it all in that miserable year, as well as the year that followed, before I traded in the beat for the columnist job I’m now holding, I learned to love the way Killer could make me laugh about wanting to cry. There was no malice in his ribbing. If anything, it was just Killer looking for a sparring partner. I also learned to admire Tom Kowalski’s professionalism. And his passion for the work we do. And, most of all, his knowledge the game of football, a game that so many people love but none more than him. Jim Schwartz got a little choked up today paying tribute to Kowalski, who quickly earned the new coach’s respect. So did Tom Lewand, the team president who has known Killer for so many years. Ditto Bill Ford Jr., who took the time to call into WDFN as as Killer’s co-host, Sean Baligian, carried on admirably without his pal in tribute. (And to those who knew Tom best, most especially his family and his fiancee, Diane, my thoughts and prayers are with you.)
Kowalski wasn’t a shill for the organization. But he was a shill for the fans, venting their frustrations and tempering their enthusiasm and, every once in awhile, fueling their wild conspiracy theories with some of his own. He cut through the spin-cycle that this $9 billion business has become and cut to the heart of a long-suffering fan base the way few others could. Partly because he’d been around for so long, but mostly because he was — as I liked to kid him — way smarter than he looked, even when he put on his silly little reading glasses. As Schwartz said today, Killer always “tried to get it right,” which he did. Truth is, though, even when he didn’t — like that infamous 20 wins in two seasons prediction in 2007, or every one of the political debates we ever had (sorry, Killer, I couldn’t resist) — he always made it sound like he did, which was also part of his charm. (“Here’s the thing …” he’d start in, and we’d all listen intently, even as we rolled our eyes in unison.)
But here’s thing, really. You learn two things about Tom Kowalski when you work alongside him every day: Don’t be scared, and don’t get fooled. You do that, you’ll earn his respect and you’ll become a better reporter. I know I did. He fooled me once, but never again. Not until today, that is.
Because here’s the thing. I cried today, not long after we got the awful news that Tom Kowalski had died this morning at the age of 51 after collapsing at his home. First time that’s ever happened to me at work, as far as I can remember. I stood there in the Lions’ indoor practice facility, off to myself waiting to interview one of the assistant coaches, right about where I’d usually stand waiting with Killer, arguing or commiserating or laughing about one inane topic or another (someone else is going to have to fill me in on the latest Jersey Shore drama now, I guess), and I finally started to break down. And the only thing that shook me out of it was the thought that somewhere, he was laughing about it. “Why would you ever doubt me,” he’d say. Turns out he was right. I always hated it when he was right, but never — ever — like this.