I am the son of a drunk, a man who was much too concerned with where his next whiskey was coming from than where I was going.
He didn't discipline me. Didn't advise me. Didn't father me. Hell, most of the time he didn't even know where I was. And my trembling mother was much too terrified of him and his sloppy temper slamming home to worry about what I was doing.
So when I got a regular byline in the town paper before my 21st birthday, I was as wild and unruly as the mop of hair on my head. I had a voice and a license to use it, but not one lesson in how. I hurt people just to make a name for myself. Just because I could.
My first beat was the Colorado women's basketball team and I came out slashing. Until, one day, a retired coach named Sox Walseth came up to me. His hair was white, with matching caterpillar eyebrows, and he wore a cardigan. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Son, you're not going to get very far writing articles like the one you did today. These people shouldn't have to read the cheap shots you're taking at them. You can do better than this."
I looked right back at him, stuck out my bottom lip, and began to cry.
I was so starved for a father that this man I hardly knew was suddenly thrown into the job. I'm sure he was as confused about what was happening as I was, but he took me to his chest and hugged me.
As I sit here and write my last column as a sports writer, I see now how that moment changed my life.
Until then, I'd never thought about what it was to be a good man. Had no clue. Never considered it. But when I looked around, I saw that sports was full of men and women like that -- disciplined, molded and dedicated to their teammates as much as they were to themselves.
I see now how I was raised by sports, how it became my second family, and how I learned at its feet every day.
I'd notice how Michael Jordan never appeared before us until his tie was tied, his $3,000 suit buttoned, his silk pocket square just so. From him, I learned professionalism.
I watched safe after safe fall on John Elway's head -- Super Bowl losses, divorce, the loss of his twin sister and his beloved dad -- and yet he refused to allow himself one ounce of self-pity. From him, I learned grit.
I'd see how Jim Murray would get up out of his chair in the press box to greet each of the dozens of people who just wanted to shake the great sports writer's hand, even though he could hardly see his chair, much less their hands. From him, I learned humility.
I wrote about the teammates of high school cross country runner Ben Comen, who would finish their 3-mile races and then double back out onto the course to run with Ben and his limping cerebral palsy gait. From them, I learned love.
I discovered the athletes of Middlebury College, who would pick up a severely handicapped fan named Butch, load him into the car and take him to every game, where they'd provide a hot dog, a Coke and a buddy. From them, I learned service.