All these years later, it's clear to me where this started. My third-grade teacher in Texas, Mrs. Bishop, liked my stories and read them out loud to the class.
Kids react to such positive reinforcement. At age 9, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a sports writer. I dreamed of someday covering my hero Johnny Unitas.
A dozen years later, I left the Army and landed a job reporting on high school sports in West Palm Beach. The editor gave in to my begging and let me cover a late-season game in Miami between the Dolphins and the Baltimore Colts.
It was a gray, cold day, odd for South Florida. On the Colts sideline, No. 19 stood in his trademark black high tops. Age and injuries had taken their toll and the greatest quarterback ever was now a backup on a bad team.
Suddenly, late in the one-sided game, the Colts' starter went down. Unitas threw off his jacket and ran on the field. High above in the Orange Bowl press box, my heart beat faster. As Johnny pulled his helmet upward, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time all day. Whether this really happened or it was just the imagination of a 9-year-old boy who still hadn't fully grown up, I can't say for sure. But I turned to the writer next to me and asked, "Did you see that?''
"That flash. Did you see that flash?''
The sunlight had caught the horseshoe on the side of Johnny U.'s famous helmet. Even the hometown fans cheered the legend.
But reality can be cruel. Unitas limped off the field after one play. Later in the locker room as a trainer helped him out of his uniform, he looked much like any other mortal man. I can't remember what I asked him — probably something stupid. But as I drove up the turnpike toward home, I recall exactly what I was thinking: "I can't believe they're paying me to do this.''
Forty-two years later, 37 of them at this newspaper, I still feel the same way. But now my heroes are people like Pauline Shaver, who founded a home to comfort the profoundly handicapped, or Dave Parris, the Rotarian racing against time and cancer to construct a Christmas wonderland for children.
It pleases me greatly that my final columns highlighted their good deeds.
This is my last day at the Tampa Bay Times. I'm retiring.
It feels weird but also refreshing, less like the end of something and more like the first day of the rest of my life.
My dad spent 33 years in the Army and when people asked him why, he just smiled and said, "I kept waiting for it to get better.'' I never felt that way. On the contrary, I have always felt privileged to work around so many smart, interesting people.
Some might call my career with the Times accidental, since it began when I got fired from a small newspaper in Brooksville. The folks who ran the town didn't like what I wrote about the teachers' union. The Times threw me a lifeline and a year later sent me to Hernando County to run its bureau.
Ancient history, I know, but my source of loyalty to a newspaper that never backs down in the face of such pressure, a place devoted to accuracy and honesty.
So now what?
Well, first and foremost, I look forward to traveling with my best friend and bride of 42 years. And we both can't wait to double-team in the spoiling of our first granddaughter, 8-month-old Violet whose big smile and baby jabbering melts my heart.
Naturally I have a book in mind.
And you'll likely see my smiling face on some columns the Times has graciously invited me to write after I've had some time to decompress. I'll keep a lookout for inspirational stories that help balance what often seems like a world of bad news.
It also occurs to me that while I might be the elder statesman in this newsroom and the only guy who remembers manual typewriters, I'm still relatively young. Just the other day, I ran into Dominic DeMariano, "Mickey D'' to all his friends.
He turned 100 recently and I wrote about how he routinely wins the money from his golfing buddies, shooting 20 strokes below his age.
He's heading back up north for the summer.
"I'll be back in the fall, young fella,'' he said. "I'll call you to set up a game.''
I'm thinking I'll have plenty of time to practice.