As far back as my middle school days, I was a loyal reader of the Asheville Citizen-Times' sports section ... I've just always loved sports, especially football.
During the football season, there were two things I always looked for each week: Where A.C. Reynolds High was in the football state rankings and the weekly NFL column by Keith Jarrett. I am an ACR graduate, and of course, I was never big enough to play. But I enjoyed looking where the Rockets were ranked each week.
My uncle, David, is a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, so naturally, I became a Cowboys fan at an early age. That was back when they had Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson, Randy White and Tony Hill. They were fun to watch.
In each Sunday paper, I'd see the column on the left side and Jarrett's mug, with that signature grin on his face. He hated the Cowboys. He made that clear every Sunday and instead of the Cowboys, he always called them the Cowpokes. I always wanted to see his scathing words toward my beloved team, because whenever they did win when he said they weren't going to, I wanted to write a letter to him, giving him what for.
I never did.
One time, I did have a letter written and ready to put in the mailbox. Then I figured... why bother? He'd probably look at it and throw it away, which is what I did.
Back then I had no idea I'd ever be sitting beside Keith one day, covering local sports. But in the summer of 1997, just months after I was hired at the Times-News in the sports department, I got sent to my first Asheville Tourists game.
I had on my Cowboys hat, of course.
As I climbed the stairs to the press box, I noticed a familiar face in the far right of the press box window. It was Keith. I walked in, and I knew just one person, Mike Gore, the scorekeeper. Mike was the Sports Information Director when I was a student at UNC Asheville.
"Dean... welcome aboard my friend," Mike said as I made my way behind everyone to the only empty seat in the press box. It was at the very end, and Keith had his laptop bag on it.
I shyly said, "Mind if I sit here?"
He said, "Sure, if you take that hat off, Dean."
I was stunned... not by the hat comment... but by the fact someone as famous as him knew my name. I did have a weekly auto racing column that ran in the Times-News, so I'm guessing that's where he saw my face.
Although we were competitive rivals back then, we became instant friends. We'd end up covering a lot of the same games, especially the Tourists games. Even at high school basketball games in Henderson County, he'd usually come up and sit with me and we'd cover those together. All through the more than 25 years I knew him, he never mentioned my Cowboys hat again.
He was one of the best sports writers I ever knew, and he was hilarious. Keith was never one to hold back his opinion. When the Citizen went to earlier deadlines than ours, he didn't like it for his readers, but he didn't mind being done early for the night. He'd be at the Tourists until the first pitch, and when I'd get there, he was wrapping up his feature story.
"Howdy, Dean. Take my seat... I'm done for the night," he'd say, smiling. Then he'd grab a beer and head to the stands, sheepishly looking up at us as we were covering the game that, more times than not, went to extra innings and late into the night.
When he retired from the Citizen in 2015, I was so happy for him. He deserved the rest after writing for decades for the paper. Just about a year-and-a-half later, I got an email from Keith out of the blue. It said, "Hey, Dean. Hope you're well. If you ever need a stringer, I know a guy ... me."
I responded immediately with "When can you start?"
Keith wrote for me for a little over two years, covering high school games and mainly helping me with the weekly local golf page. Golf was his passion. He wrote incredible golf columns that appeared every Sunday in the Times-News. It was hands-down the best content we ever had.
He'd sometimes come into the office after games to write his stories, and we'd talk about the old times and all the sports editors we had worked for. He revealed to me that a few years back when the Citizen's prep sports writer left, he recommended to the sports editor to give me a call.
He said, "Dean is one of the nicest people you'll meet and he's a great writer and a damn hard worker."
I was honored that Keith said those words about me. That editor ended up going with a youngster just out of college. Then, not long after that, that same editor was laid off and sent me an email asking if he could be a stringer for me.
I responded immediately with "I already have my stringer."
When 2019 rolled around and it was about time for the golf page to crank back up, I called Keith and asked if he was good to go again. He said, "You know, Dean, I think I'll take time off now. I think I'm ready to just enjoy time with my family."
I sure wish he'd had more time than he did. Keith passed away on Dec. 8 at the age of 62. Keith was one of the good ones. I hate that he's no longer here, enjoying his time off. He deserved that time more than anyone in the business.
There will be a celebration of his life at 3 p.m. Monday, Dec. 27 at Fellowship Asheville Church, located off Fairview Road in the Oakley Community. Oakley is where I grew up. It's where I read Keith's columns, and it's where I nearly sent a letter that I would have regretted to this day.
I'll be going back to the streets I grew up on and to Fellowship Asheville to pay my respects to Keith. I know he'll be looking down, with that big grin on his face. He'll be gazing over the people he touched in so many ways, and somewhere in that crowd, he'll see me, and this time, I won't be wearing my Cowpokes hat.
This article originally appeared on Hendersonville Times-News: The summer of 1997: My first encounter with Keith and why he asked me to take off my hat