Back when I was a senior at Mahopac High School, I wrote a letter to Joe Lombardi.
At the time, Joe was sports editor of the Putnam Trader, our local weekly newspaper. I don’t recall my exact words, but they were something along the lines of …
Dear Mr. Lombardi:
I am a big fan of your work, but I feel like you’re missing out on something. Every month your section honors a local athlete, but you’re missing out on the best of the best. Our star cross country runner, Jeff Cascone, has never lost a duel meet. He is undefeated over the past two years. Why, then, has he never won the Putnam Trader Athlete of the Month?
Please consider him.
Mahopac High School
A couple of days later, I received a reply for “Mr. Lombardi,” thanking me for the note. A few weeks after that, Jeff Cascone was the paper’s honored athlete.
It’s funny, the way life can work. Some seemingly big moments wind up quite little. Some seemingly insignificant moments change everything.
That letter changed everything.
That same year, I was sports editor of the Chieftain, our high school newspaper. I wrote a particularly controversial article, giving grades to every member of the Indians basketball team. It was pretty harsh (and stupid) stuff—our star center, Larry Glover, received a C, the young guards were given Fs, etc … etc. We had an athletic director named Gerry Keevins, and he called me into his office and chewed me out. I immediately thought of Joe, and wrote him seeking advice. Again, he quickly replied. “When you’re dealing with professionals, report cards are fair,” he wrote. “But these are high school kids, playing for joy. They’re not compensated financially, and therefore probably don’t deserve the scrutiny.”
I called Joe to thank him. He responded by asking if I’d like to do some writing for the Trader.
“Some writing” turned into, oh, 200 or so clips. I covered lacrosse and basketball; skiing and baseball and track. When Dave Fleming, our local kid, made the Seattle Mariners, Joe let me tackle the story. But it wasn’t just writing. Joe would go over every word … every paragraph … every detail. He taught me about professionalism; about decency; about right from wrong. We had long chats about sports and politics and newspaper and magazine. He was probably but 25 or 26 at the time, but I looked to him as a journalistic father figure. He was my guide and guru. My help and hero.
When I landed my first job, at The Tennessean, I excitedly called Joe. When Sports Illustrated hired me, the first call went to my folks. The second went to Joe Lombardi.
That’s how important he is to me.
A few hours ago, Joe told me that his mother, the novelist Barbara Marolla Roberts, died of cancer. He shared with me his beautiful eulogy, which included the line, “During her illness, she was concerned that a few days would pass before she would be well enough to write thank-you notes for all the get-well cards she received.”
Too often, I think, we fail to tell people how much they mean to us; how important they are; how our lives would have been incomplete without their presence.
Without Joe Lombardi, I’m never at SI, I’m never writing books, I’m never living my dreams.
And Jeff Cascone is never the Trader’s Athlete of the Month.