Goodbye, Killer

On Sunday, I started typing an article that was going to accompany the 2nd DSR Detroit Sports Media Tournament of 64 which was going to begin later this week.

My plan for tonight was to finish the column that explained the seeding process and then commence the match-ups on Tuesday.

The last thing I could have imagined when I went to bed last night was having to cancel the stupid tournament and instead pen an obituary for one of the #1 seeds, but life freaking sucks.

As most of you already know, the man who covered the Detroit Lions like a snuggy for the past 30 years for The Oakland Press and then Booth Newspapers, Tom “Killer” Kowalski, died Monday morning at the age of 51.

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It is absolutely bizarre that the article I had started writing on Sunday night was in part a defense of why I made Killer a #1 seed in the first place. On the last day of Tom’s life I was ALREADY defending why I IMPARTIALLY felt he was one of the four most important members of the Detroit sports media.

Currently more influential than iconic names like Mitch Albom and George Blaha. A guy who made a bigger impact in Detroit than columnists who wrote for a far more prestigious newspaper (Drew Sharp and Michael Rosenberg.)

The man almost single handedly took a fledgling website (MLIVE.com) and built it into an enterprise that rivaled the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News for local sports coverage.

I mean, who the hell had ever heard of Booth Newspapers before Tom Kowalski started building his empire at MLIVE through his articles, columns and forum presence?

NOBODY.

But through his tireless coverage of the Lions, his willingness to speak directly to the fans in MLIVE chats and his all-in approach to social media (Facebook and Twitter), Kowalski became the most recognizable beat writer in Detroit.

Becoming the go-to guy for the most popular sports franchise in Detroit without working for one of the two big dailies would be the sports equivalent of the Pittsburgh Pirates beating the New York Yankees in the World Series. But Killer pulled it off because he had the vision to embrace the new tools available to journalists in the early 21st century.

I used to joke with Killer that he was so deified by his readers at MLIVE that he was basically the C3PO of Detroit journalists and his forum members were the Ewoks. I could picture in my mind Tom floating over the MLIVE Forum in a bamboo chair while predicting an 8 and 8 Lions season.

I also used to tease Tom about the frequency of his posts on MLIVE. If Cliff Avril had bad gas at an OTA, Tom would be all over his website with a video blog describing the odor.

The guy never left one stone unturned in his pursuit of blanket Lions coverage for his minions. After games he would break down tape and isolate key plays in a way that no other local writer could or would.

And it wasn’t like the guy had the luxury of covering the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last four decades. He was this passionate about his job and he was the beat writer of the NFL’s equivalent of the Bad News Bears.

So that was going to be my defense of why I felt Killer earned his #1 seed. The other reasoning I had was that when we first did this tournament back in August of 2005, Tom beat the odds and reached the Finals against Bob Wojnowski as a #5 seed.

And even though Killer was defeated by his good friend (Wojo) in a close battle for the title, it proved how beloved the man was by his readers.

And I was one of those many readers who loved the guy. And I know I always make everything about me, but I hope you indulge me for a few minutes while I write about my personal interactions with Tom through the years.

There probably was no bigger fan of the DetroitSportsRag in the media than Tom. Not only was he a reader of the site, but he always tried to mentor me as well. And trust me, that was not an easy job.

Killer thought this site could be bigger than just fodder for the handful of “Kool-Aid” drinkers. That was the moniker Tom gave to the diehard fans of the DSR.

He always encouraged me to write MORE articles because he felt fans wanted a reason to go to the site every single day. We would politely argue about the length of my columns as he always insisted that people had short attention spans. (Hell, I am sure if Killer was here right now he would be yelling at me to wrap this damn thing up.)

But Tom’s main problem with my writing was that he felt I was too vicious and that I would cross the line on occasion. Killer constantly advised me that if I wanted the DSR to really hit it big that I needed to stop the personal attacks and I had to cease and desist from wishing death on people.

A couple of months ago Tom and I spoke on the phone about this issue and others related to the DSR and I tried to explain to him that I really didn’t want to see anyone die and I was just joking when I would go off on William Clay Ford, Sr. or Jim Leyland.

He passionately explained to me that my writing didn’t come off that way and it was beneath me to post things like, “Is the Old Man Dead Yet?” in regards to Ford, Sr.

It meant a lot to me when Killer told me that he felt I was one of the best writers in Detroit and that the death wishes didn’t correlate with my talent. After that lecture I dropped the “Is the Old Man Dead Yet?” bit for good.

But it wasn’t the last time Tom would get upset about something I wrote. After one of my articles attacking one of his fellow media members, Killer took the time to EDIT THE COLUMN and he sent me a less vitriolic version.

Tom’s point was that I wouldn’t lose anything by removing a few nasty personal attacks and it would give my article more credibility. I explained to Killer that he was 100 percent right, but that he was trying to reason with a crazy person. That never stopped Tom from trying to convince me to do the right thing despite myself.

Killer wanted to see the DSR succeed even though the site’s creator was its chief saboteur. All of the assistance and advice he provided to me was unsolicited, but Tom JUST WANTED TO HELP.

That is the kind of friend he was even though I put him in the completely awkward position of attacking his friends and co-workers on various occasions.

As a matter of fact, the last correspondence I had with Killer was last night when I advised him that I was getting some heat from my followers that I had made him one of the “prestigious” #1 seeds in the tourney.

His response? “You’re a master at kicking the hornet’s nest.”

Whenever I would get Tom’s emails or messages about my transgressions he would usually jokingly tell me that I was a dick or an asshole.

He would probably be surprised to know that when I got the call about his ridiculously premature death that I was on my way to meet a client for my real job. And that this “dick” had to pull over into a McDonald’s parking lot to compose himself while the tears streamed down his cheek.

If I had that reaction, I can only imagine what his fiancée and really good friends like Dan Miller are going through right now.

51 freaking years old? Are you kidding me?

After the lockout ended and the condensed NFL free-agency period started, I busted Killer’s chops that the Freep’s excellent Lions beat writer, Dave Birkett, was giving him a real good run for his money on all of the breaking news.

Killer jokingly responded that he was getting old and that he just wanted to hang on to the crown as long as he could. But 51 isn’t old. Not even if you consider the human to dog age conversion that must occur when covering the LIONS for 30 years.

And don’t worry Tom, nobody ever took away your crown. There isn’t going to be a DSR tournament after all because there is no doubt that you would have won it posthumously. And I am pretty you would have won it if this tragedy didn’t occur.

I have never told anyone this story before (not even my wife), but on December 13, 2007 I attended one of Tom’s Christmas parties at one of his favorite haunts, The Brewhaus in Keego Harbor.

The reason I remember the date so vividly is that the next day my grandfather passed away. I had spent the night of Tom’s party at my grandfather’s bedside and I knew he didn’t have a lot of time left.

When my grandpa finally fell asleep that night I had to decide if I was going to head out to Tom’s party or not. I really wasn’t in much of a celebratory mood, but Tom annually held this party so underprivileged children could get presents on Christmas Day and I wanted to support the cause.

After debating whether or not to go, I finally decided to make the 15 minute drive to Keego and my main motivation was to see Killer. Even though we would correspond via email, I would only see the big guy a couple of times a year in person.

So when my grandfather died the next day, I always kind of felt guilty that I left him and went to Tom’s charity event.

I don’t feel guilty anymore. I just wish Tom was still here to implore me to wrap up this 1,700 word piece.

Tom Kowalski’s last Tweet to the world occurred at 9:51pm last night.

It read, “K fellas, here we go … Sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

You didn’t kill us Tom, but you sure as hell broke a ton of hearts.

Sincerely,

The Asshole