Tom Kowalski passed away last Monday. He was 51 years old.
If you do not follow the Detroit Lions, there is a good chance you have never heard of him, but read on and you may have a reason to take something away from his tragic death.
He was nicknamed “Killer Kowalski” after a wrestler from the 1960’s, but the similarities ended there. This “Killer” was a local sportswriter and personality in Detroit who had been covering the Lions beat for over 20 years.
He was as big as a linebacker, towering over all the other media members (who resembled the classic "look" of sportswriters) at practice and at press conferences.
When doing interviews in the locker room after a game, "Killer" looked more like a player than half the guys with shoulder pads. He had a military crew cut and mustache that would make Chuck Norris jealous.
"Killer" was one of the first local Detroit writers to truly understand the value of the internet age and social media. He posted numerous blogs and articles about the Lions every day on mlive.com.
He tweeted so much I imagine his thumbs being worn down to the bone. As recently as Sunday night I was reading his responses on twitter and thinking some of his assertions on the Lions’ secondary were crazy. I don’t know any sports personality from Detroit who had a bigger following, and there was no one I followed closer.
There are others who can do Kowalski a far better service discussing his impact on the team and the Detroit community than I can. I implore you to read a few of those stories in the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.
As you may or may not know, the Lions have not been a great football team in the last 20 years.
They missed the playoffs the last dozen seasons and have not won a postseason game since the first George Bush was in office. That never stopped Kowalski from doing his job. He never piled on when the team was performing poorly, and never followed the masses on to the bandwagon when things were looking up (this offseason included).
Kowalski was the master at covering the team through a prism of objectivity while getting away with letting his readers and listeners know exactly how he felt. It never felt contrived, it just felt honest.
I had the privilege of working with "Killer" during my time working for the Lions in 2007. He kept a rough exterior, never sharing too much information and very discreetly finding time to talk to players and coaches.
The most amazing part was, they all made time for him. I never saw a player or a coach turn him away, and if you have ever been around professional athletes you know how uncommon that is.
That was the thing about him, though. He did just enough to make you love him without ever crossing the line like so many media members do. Several of his conversations with players and staff were unrecorded and off the record, but whenever he published sentiment from an anonymous source, there was never any doubt to its validity. "Killer" had the trust and admiration of an entire city of sports fans without ever stepping on the field or calling a play.
That is why every day for the past 10 years or so, reading anything Kowalski wrote was a part of my morning routine. It didn’t matter if he was talking about position battles between third string defensive ends or warning us not to get too excited about Joey Harrington and Charles Rogers. I read. I learned. I was entertained. Then I went about my day.
Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate the most important aspect of his impact until I received word of his death this morning. It is remarkable the way certain people can weave their way into the narrative of your life, sometimes without even realizing it is happening.
Tom “Killer” Kowalski did that in my life.
I have come to base so many of the thoughts and feelings I have about my favorite team on the reports and opinions he loaded onto the internet. I trusted in the authenticity of what he had to say, even if I didn’t agree with it. Although he was talking to thousands of Lions fans, I always felt like there was a direct connection to me. That’s the thing about sports. You are so busy worrying about the success or failure of your team, you don’t even realize of all the ancillary bonds you are forging along the way. Players, coaches, announcers and beyond; as time passes you begin to care about the scattered pieces and not just the completed puzzle.
I am sure that all of you who follow your teams closely have similar emotion towards people like Killer, even if you don’t know it. We can debate all day about the relative impact that sports play in our day-to-day lives. However, it’s emotionally-charged days like this one that remind me that sometimes it truly is more than just a game.
RIP Tom “Killer” Kowalski