Aug. 1—Tears streamed down the cheeks of the little boy as he rolled over in his hospital bed and stretched as hard as he could to reach the ringing telephone on the table next to him.
Only a few days had passed since the boy underwent hours of surgery to remove a tumor from the lower-left side of his brain. The stitches were still fresh, muscles across the base of his skull — severed to remove the mass — had not yet begun to heal and the cords from his IV drip entangled his arm.
But he stretched ever so hard to reach the phone, no matter how much it hurt, because he wanted to prove he could do it.
The year was 1975, and that 7-year-old boy was yours truly.
As I cruised down U.S. Highway 6 en route to the first day of high school football practice at Chardon High School on Aug. 1, memories came flying back to me as I passed my family's old dairy farm in Rome. The day marked the beginning of my 21st year at The News-Herald, and as I progressed toward Chardon, I recounted the highlights over the past two decades.
I did so with a heart full of gratitude, grateful for what a wonderful ride it's been and energized at the mere thought of the journey that awaits me as I head into Year 21.
It seems like just last week that I was met at the door at 7085 Mentor Ave. — I didn't have a key card yet — by then-sports editor Scott Kendrick and greeted with a cake at my desk that had the words, "Welcome John" written in icing.
Time has flown. That happens, they say, when you're having fun. It's hard NOT to have fun with the experiences provided over the past two decades. That's not to say my first 11 years in the business weren't fun, but... well ....
In my first 11 years in the business, spanning stays at two other newspapers, I covered a total of three playoff football games.
In my first 20 years at The News-Herald, I've covered 16 state championship games alone. Not playoff games. State CHAMPIONSHIP games, 10 of which resulted in gold trophies.
I've seen two Mr. Footballs (Mentor's Bart Tanski and Mitch Trubisky) one Mr. Basketball (Mentor's Justin Fritts), one Ms. Basketball (Chagrin's Halle Thome), one athlete who went on to be an Olympian (Lake Catholic's Matt Ludwig), another who vied for the Olympics (Euclid's Jessica Beard), two Gatorade volleyball players of the year (Lake's Abby Detering and Gilmour's Kathryn Randorf) and a future NFL running back (South's Kareem Hunt), not to mention countless state champions in other sports.
When asked the best and most dominating of any athlete I've seen yet at The News-Herald, none of the above make the cut, surprisingly.
That distinction goes to former Gilmour star tennis player Lauren Davis, who won an undefeated state championship as a freshman in 2008, winning every match in straight sets, withdrew from Gilmour in December and turned pro at the Jim and Chris Evert Tennis Academy in Florida. Pretty sure I won't see that kind of dominance again in my lifetime, at least on the prep level.
So yeah, it's been a fun ride when you consider those types of kids and teams.
But the position of a sports writer at The News-Herald is so much more than covering games. It's relationships. Maybe that's why the past 20 years have gone so quickly, because the memories of the people — whether it be athletes, coaches, statisticians or fans.
—The old "Breakfast Club" as we called it at wrestling tournaments — myself, John Ingram, Darrell Erdman and Mark Kriwinsky. No work started until the kibitzing was complete and the coffee mugs were empty.
—Parents such as Carli (Stefancic) Montagner, who was a senior I covered my first year out of college and I got to cover her daughter Riley the past four years as she became Madison's all-time leading scorer.
—Playing cards at the state tournament with former VASJ coaches Dave and Mike Wojciechowski and their staff, and then seeing another former VASJ coach Babe Kwasniak lead the program to greatness while also finding out that his father — Papa Kwas — went to Steubenville Franciscan University and KNEW my mother.
* Sharing and trading photos of deer via our trail cameras in the woods with the likes of Kenston football coach Jeff Grubich, longtime Lake Catholic volleyball coach Rich Severino and the Landies brothers from Chardon — or getting asked in pregame warmups by former Kirtland All-Ohioan Joey Grazia what I shot that morning on the golf course.
—All those state volleyball tournaments with coaches such as Erik Poje, Jamie Field, Paul Force (back when he coached volleyball at North), the Prots girls (Jamie and Joni), Bill Behrend and Mark Royer.
—"Smokin' Joe" Miller, the superfan/stat guy from Mentor who I still see at Lake County Captains game. — All the fans at games who let me lean on the wall or fence with them as I drink coffee and miss highlights of the game while bending their ear. — All the coaches, statisticians and athletic directors who put up with my incessant text messages and phone calls while resisting the temptation to strangle me for interrupting what little free time they actually have.
I could go on and on, but the point is — relationships matter. THAT is what has made the "job" at The News-Herald feel nothing like a job, but rather a privilege.
As I jumped back in my car and headed to my next stop on Day 1 of fall practices, I thought back to 1975 again and my stay at University Hospital in Cleveland as a first-grader with a brain tumor.
I recalled a name I'll never forget. Wendy Nowak. I wish I could remember her face or her voice. But I have her signature in my "get well" book that she signed for me when my hospital room was just a few doors down from hers as we both fought the same brain tumor battle.
Hers was inoperable, I remember.
I made it. As I left the hospital the summer of '75, I was told she wasn't going to be as fortunate, and I am still as sad today as I was then that Wendy Nowak wasn't going to get the chance to do someday what I was going to get to do.
Which is do something I love, like being a sports writer.
So with 20 years in the books at The News-Herald, I look forward to Year 21 and beyond with a heart of gratitude for the opportunity in front of me, for the athletes I cover and for all the relationships that have come with it.
Those experiences and memories are a treasure chest to me, and I will never take them for granted.