Tom “Killer” Kowalski will be laid to rest this week by his family and friends, a somber event that’s sure to be followed by tears and laughter and beer and stories, so many stories.
Killer will be ticked he missed it — especially the beer and the stories.
The man was large in every way, from his frame to his personality to his opinions to his ambitions. He charged through life not just to get somewhere, but to enjoy every stomp of the way.
That’s why I’m still numb about his death from heart disease at 51, and why so many fans and readers and listeners are tearfully sharing their remembrances before the public memorial Friday at Cheli’s in Detroit. It’s always harder to understand when the large ones succumb, a nasty reminder of an untrue truism: “Larger than Life” may have described Kowalski, but it couldn’t sustain him.
The guy could fill a room like few ever do, a character to the core and to the end. He wrote for Mlive.com and talked for years on WDFN radio, and for more than a decade, he was part of the Fox 2 Lions pre-game show on Sunday mornings with Dan Miller, Jennifer Hammond and me.
What crazy, exasperating, unrelenting fun it was. There wasn’t much subtlety or ambiguity about Kowalski and that could be mistaken for brashness, even gruffness. He covered the Lions for 30 years and loved the game, every aspect of it. He loved the pursuit of stories, the competition for information, the satisfaction of a point well-argued.
And the big lug could argue, let me tell you. He’d eagerly debate with Lions players and coaches, and if it bothered some, they always respected it. We sparred on TV, radio and in person, and it usually swung from enlightening to irritating to invigorating. It often ended with a beer.
One of Killer’s favorite phrases, delivered with an exaggerated sneer, was “Listen and leeeearrrrn.” Another was “Here’s the deal,” right before he imparted some football wisdom. He wanted to grab your attention with words and sarcasm, and in 22 years, I never heard him raise his voice or lose his temper.
Kowalski wrote stories for a living and told stories for life, and I think that’s why he connected with so many. From all across the sports-writing world, the NFL world and the Detroit fan world, people spent the past couple days mourning his passing. I’m fairly certain he’s somewhere, mocking our tears.
Could he be bombastic? No doubt. Could he be wrong? Uh hello, I tried to point that out a few times.
But there never was any doubt he was a helluva reporter who respected the profession completely. I think the bluster hid a sensitivity that a big football guy isn’t supposed to reveal. I swear, I never saw him happier than when he was hosting his holiday charity event at the Brewhaus in Keego Harbor to benefit underprivileged kids. He’d spend the entire evening thanking everyone for taking a turn as a celebrity bartender, but mostly just for being there.
The Brewhaus is a small burger-and-beer kind of place, Killer’s kind of place. On Lions road trips, he skipped the meals at the table-clothed restaurants to watch sports at a bar. If you wanted to share a plate of nachos and some Bud Lights, you were more than welcome. If you wanted to discuss the tender sweetness of the Chilean Sea Bass, see ya later.
In that way, Killer was old school. In many other ways, he was decidedly new school, one of the first to embrace interactivity with fans via message boards and Twitter. He was well-known, well-liked and well-respected, and as we say goodbye to the big lug with the mustache, let there be no argument about this: His was a life well-lived.