Tom Kowalski is Gone.

>> 8.31.2011

It was raining a little bit. The old shovel’s point skidded on the wet grass of my backyard; I’d barely made a dent. I stood up again, re-gripping the worn wooden handle. I stared at the little patch of lawn I’d chosen. There was no easy way to do this, no fast-forward button, no graceful glossing over it. My wife and tiny children were waiting to come outside and say farewell to our cat, dead almost before we knew he was sick.

“Nobody told me,” I muttered, as I lodged the spade in the dirt. Nobody prepared me for the inescapable reality. Our cat—my cat, whom I’d adopted as a kitten from a shelter—had to be buried. Someone had to grab a shovel and dig and dig and dig and feel their muscles burn and the skin of their hands rubbed raw and their tears mix with the rain on their face, and that somebody had to be me; no amount of shock or grief or heartache could change it.

As a child, I’d lived alone with my mother. We had an old cat which passed away when I was very young, perhaps four. Mom wanted to protect me from the grief, so . . . she simply didn’t tell me. That cat was a bit of a recluse anyway, so I’d go days or even weeks without seeing it. as my mom went on filling (then surreptitiously emptying) the food bowl, I didn’t suspect a thing. It was literally years before I forced her to admit the cat was gone.

Looking back, I was incredibly blessed to go through my childhood and young adulthood without suffering a close or unexpected loss. As a grownup with a job and a wife and kids, losing my cat was the first time I had to experience grief without being able to grind my life to a halt and deal with it.

Last night, Phil Zaroo posted a beautiful tribute to Tom Kowalski. While I can’t begin to imagine the magnified degree of his emotions, writing it next to Killer’s empty chair, I felt I recognized the feeling in kind:

The media room at Detroit Lions headquarters is empty.

Everyone is covering head coach Jim Schwartz's daily post-practice presser, then heading straight to the locker room to speak with individual players.

Here I am, sitting in Tom Kowalski's cubicle without him next to me. Everything around me goes on while I'm wondering what's real and what isn't.

I say "Tom Kowalski's cubicle" because that's whose it is. It always will be. It certainly isn't mine.

I never met Tom Kowalski in person, or even communicated with him directly. I read his work for years strictly as a fan. When I started this blog, though,  I became a regular commenter on MLive, to fight the good fight and help raise my visibility. Like most regulars, I have a personal favorite “Killer gave me props” moment: I helped substantiate his pet Derek-Anderson-to-the-Lions theory by noting in the comments that DA’s college coordinator was the Lions’ new Tight Ends coach:

fellas ... --- lionsinwintr ... now THAT'S why i love having you guys around ... nice catch about lappano ...

I beamed with pride all afternoon. If I recall correctly, Killer even mentioned on his WDFN gig that “someone” pointed that fact out on MLive. I can’t explain how thrilled I was that Tom Kowalski would take time out to give me props like that. Of course, we all know that’s what Tom Kowalski did; nearly every one of what must be hundreds of tribute and memorial posts talked about how he worked for the fans, got it right for the fans, looked to serve the fans at all times without ever crossing the line of decorum himself.

Back then, most of this blog’s traffic came from people clicking on the link I’d append to every MLive comment. Eventually, Phil started linking my blog in the daily Lions Links posts. This summer, Phil invited me to help write the daily Lions Links posts. I can’t tell you what a thrill and a privilege it’s been to see my little posts queuing up right next to Killer’s stories on the Mlive.com Lions page.

On Monday, though, shortly after publishing the links post, I noticed a typo and went back into the system to edit it. An unfamiliar username, that of Grand Rapids Press editor Meegan Holland, was writing a story in the Lions stream. I watched as the story went live with the title, “Tom Kowalski, longtime Detroit Lions reporter, dies.”

I simply couldn’t believe it. I refreshed the page. I logged out and refreshed the page. I Googled for news; nothing. I switched browsers, still there. I Tweeted, “I hope someone is pulling an awful prank.” Phil Zaroo RT’d me and prepended, “I wish it was, man. I wish it was.” Of course you know the rest: an incredible outpouring of shock and grief and memories and goodwill from around the entire football world, which will culminate this Friday at his Celebration of Life at Cheli’s Chili.

But of course, time doesn’t stop. Life doesn’t stop. As we fondly remember Tom Kowalski, we must begin keenly missing his life’s work. Lions news keeps happening, even as his fiancĂ© and family and co-workers at MLive and every Lions player, coach, staff member, executive and owner grieve for the loss of the man who chronicled it for all of us.

I am certainly the least of these. I never so much as exchanged an email with Tom Kowalski. I never interacted with him beyond my primary role as admirer of, and commenter upon, his work. But today, I have my small task that must be done, despite the loss. Somebody has to write today’s Mlive.com Detroit Lions Links post, and that somebody has to be me.

7 comments:

MrMomWorld August 31, 2011 at 12:56 PM  

Ty, I first met you on MLive and clicked on your link at the end of one of you comments. These days I get there by clicking the link in your tweets. I've never totally left MLive; but I'd get there by clicking on Tom's links. Tom provided me with the background that I otherwise wouldn't have access to. The why's and the wherefor's. Even though we never met, I feel like I have lost a friend.

Zac August 31, 2011 at 1:22 PM  

He wasn't a cookie cutter beat guy and he can't be replaced. The Lions will always be covered, it just won't be done like Killer did it. That is sad.

scott downey,  August 31, 2011 at 4:41 PM  

Excellent, Ty. What you described is how many of us "interacted" with Killer. He was the epitome of a stand up Midwestern style football writer. He connected with the fans unlike any other reporter I've ever seen. Most of us never met him, but we knew him.

Ty August 31, 2011 at 5:04 PM  

MrMomWorld--

Indeed. Indeed.

Peace
Ty

Ty August 31, 2011 at 5:05 PM  

Zac, Scott--

You guys nailed it. 30 years of hard work and connections, combined with his unique approach, means there'll never be another Killer. We're all much poorer for it.

Peace
Ty

Anonymous,  September 1, 2011 at 1:51 AM  

Sudden is hard.
Radio is lessened.
You enriched me.

Tiger September 1, 2011 at 8:36 AM  

Thanks for sharing that with us Ty. You nailed it in so many ways for all of us. I am saddened by the loss of a man I have never spoken directly with either. But I became a huge fan of his work over the last few years through Mlive as well.

He is missed already.

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