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Hooper: Time to start a new chapter, for a new generation

After more than 18 years as a Times columnist, Ernest Hooper starts a new chapter as assistant sports editor.

The biggest critics of sports can point to all kinds of flaws given our obsession with games, but when they do so, they often overlook or intentionally ignore the good that comes from the sporting world.

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik not only routinely shares his wealth, but he strives to inspire his players, employees and the team’s fans to do the same. And I’m not just saying that because he’s part of FBN, a group of local investors who have loaned money to the Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

On Tuesday, the entire Lightning organization went out en mass and committed random acts of kindness throughout the region. On Friday, Vinik donated $5 million to help IDEA launch new schools in Hillsborough, Polk, and Pinellas Counties.

This week, the Lightning and the Tampa Bay Rays host food drives for Feeding Tampa Bay at their respective games on Friday to help fuel food pantries at schools.

Elsewhere, the Outback Bowl, which will host supporters at Splitsville on Thursday (invitation only) to help continue its charitable giving, which has delivered a share of $1.5 million to more than 100 nonprofits.

In summary, sports inspires. They even drive a huge part of our strategic plan at the Tampa Bay Times, bringing the paper much needed digital subscribers. With that in mind, in January I added assistant sports editor duties to my role as a columnist and community ambassador.

Now executive editor Mark Katches has asked me to devote my full attention to helping our sports coverage. It’s a challenge I’m accepting for so many reasons, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note how much I’ll miss writing this weekly column.

I’ve served Times readers for 18-plus years in this role, and most of that time my words and thoughts have appeared in this space every Monday. The work has given me the opportunity to shine the spotlight on nonprofit efforts, occasionally get on my soapbox and, most importantly, create a connection to the community.

I cherish those who have emailed or written to me over the years, like lovely 86-year-old Mary Bashaw of Pinellas Park, and even those who disagree with my takes. I’ve also appreciated being a bridge to Tampa Bay’s African-American community and the people who make it churn.

Assuming this awesome responsibility has made me a better journalist, a better husband and a better father — especially on those Father’s Day weekends when I turned the duties over to one of my three kids.

I’m grateful to those editors who first decided to grant me this opportunity, and those who have supported me over the years: Neil Brown, Tom Scherberger, Paul Tash, Jennifer Orsi, Barry Klein, Amy Hollyfield and especially Neville Green, the man who saw my potential before I did.

Now, it’s my turn to lend a different type of support to our reporters, editors and designers who continue to help the Times, especially the next generation of writers and designers who have chosen to join the newsroom even though the industry faces far greater challenges then when I started at the Times in 1992. We have a teeming group of young talent with eager ambitions and wonderful ideas. In a word, they’re beautiful.

If lending my full energy to our sports coverage will allow them to enjoy all the journalistic aspects that have fueled my passion for serving as a columnist, sign me up. For those who will miss my columns, I will occasionally write for sports. And you’re welcome to visit me on Facebook or Twitter. We can carry on the conversation that’s made this a great ride.

That’s all I’m saying.