When HomeTeam was launched in 2007, my first column was about all the reasons I love high school sports.
The people, the places, the big games, the rivalries, the kids and of course the concession stands.
In seven years, that list is even longer, but now it's filled with the things I will miss.
Before the hand that has patted me on my back taps me on my shoulder, I have decided to end my long career at the Tampa Bay Times.
So, how do you cram 23 years into an 18-inch farewell?
For me, it's simple. You think back to your best moments. Then you get sad. Then you curl up in the fetal position under your desk for 15 minutes, until the sobbing subsides. Then you start again.
• • •
True story: I was almost robbed once, collecting on my Milwaukee Journal newspaper route one night as a kid. After refusing to hand over my money, I got popped right in the face with a pair of brass knuckles.
The circle of life, people.
And yet, I loved almost every minute of it.
I met my future wife at the school paper at USF, and the best man at our wedding while working at the Times, and some of my best friends through my coverage.
My children don't know me as anything other than dad the newspaper sports writer. Next Friday, I might freak them out and take them to a movie.
Chances are, if I do, I'll probably sit there and check football scores on my phone.
If they insist on seeing the My Little Pony movie again, then I will DEFINITELY be checking my phone.
• • •
If the conditions had been right, I could have done this forever, and truthfully, I can't imagine doing anything else.
So many stories.
So many people.
I covered an ArenaBowl in Des Moines, Iowa; a Super Bowl in San Diego; and a Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
One year, I covered four boxing matches in Las Vegas, and one in Manchester, England. I probably lost a few hundred dollars gambling, except that one night I cleaned up at the craps table with Jalen Rose standing right next to me.
I asked Michael Jordan the Chicago White Sox minor-leaguer a question once, got blown off by Frank Thomas and Barry Bonds, and had Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner pull up two rusty aluminum chairs so we could sit near the first-base line and talk while he watched his players, as my dad frantically snapped pictures of the moment on a disposable camera.
But the stories I wrote here, as HomeTeam columnist, in this community, reported from high school fields and gymnasiums across Tampa Bay, are the ones I will remember most.
Brittnay Estes played a volleyball match with a deformed face and a body wrecked by an allergic reaction because she had to win a state championship for her dad. She cried — and I wanted to cry with her. Reading that column today, and I just did, I still get goose bumps.
No two stories were ever the same, but so many others left me feeling the same way Brittnay did.
I met some great people along the way as well. One time, at a Pasco girls basketball practice, I was feeling frisky and challenged coach John Edwards to a game of 21.
The final score is not important.
What is important is that 20 years later, we remain friends. I will do the football radio broadcast with him on WDCF-1350 AM at the Pasco-Weeki Wachee game Friday night, where we will probably make fun of each other in between calling plays.
(Okay fine, if you must know, I missed my first shot and he scored 21 straight points. Who knew he could shoot free throws like that?)
I could bore you to tears — and maybe bring myself to tears — with tales from the last two decades, which I do to my friends every weekend while we watch football. "Not to brag, but I covered that guy in high school" I will say, over and over and over. …If I had a dime for every eye roll in my direction, I'd be a rich man.
I could go on forever about all the wonderful kids and dedicated coaches I have written about and will never forget, about all the thrilling finishes and heartbreaking losses I have chronicled. But from here on out, that will cost you at least a concession stand cheeseburger the next time you see me out at a game.
For now, I'm out of space, and I'm out of time.
It was a blast.
Thanks for reading.