If your life’s work is about digging into a passionate soul and forcing words through the fingers, it’s impossible to not be sentimental about turning 50 years old.
In sports years, that doesn’t really seem so old today.
Yeah, it’s just a number. And sports are all about numbers, aren’t they? The mind starts to race about all the numbers over the years.
There have been 20 Indianapolis 500s, “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing,” an experience that has thrilled me since childhood, and even after the infamous racing league split two decades ago, I remained addicted.
Each May, the Brickyard became a second home. There were times when I wished I had a cot and just slept there for two weeks. I didn’t want to leave. Somebody had to be somewhere in Gasoline Alley with a story to share, even after hours. Maybe “The Alley Cats” are still around looking for autographs. Or a few of my “Yellow Shirt” buddies are working late. There’s always more time for one more “walkabout.”
You let yourself care about some of those drivers and racing legends, although the journalism rules stipulate that’s taboo. But you can’t change what you are. Passion and personality resonate.
Indy gets started when four-time winner A.J. Foyt swears at me, I always liked to tease him. But the “Old Grizzly Bear” is mellowing. Didn’t get one curse word from him last year. When I apprised him of this lack of expression, he smiled and said, “I’m trying to be nice to ya.”
I’m also reminded of shedding tears when two-time winner Dan Wheldon died in 2011 doing what he loved. And it felt so good to cry and laugh at the same time in 2012 when David Letterman eulogized racing mainstay Scott Roembke, who was never shy about needling me to be tougher in my coverage of the Indianapolis Colts.
The Indy 500 gets mentioned first because, truth be told, it got me the Colts gig. After doing my thing in May at the track, I was asked what I wanted to do next. So began 16 years of covering the Colts, 15 of those at The Indianapolis Star.
The Colts have sure taken us all places. Three Super Bowls were unforgettable. Yeah, three, because without the Colts’ success, it’s doubtful Indianapolis would have built Lucas Oil Stadium and landed Super Bowl XLVI. The Colts won one and lost one in Miami, and the New England Patriots lost the one in Indy, as far as most Colts fans are concerned.
It’s been a blast covering this team and its players. It’s not as easy as it looks, I repeatedly tell people, but who am I kidding? I’ve interviewed and enjoyed interacting with so many great players, from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck, from Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger to Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and, yes, even hometown hero Jack Doyle. The list of favorite guys is endless: Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, David Thornton, Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee. It’s never dull when “Boomstick” is around.
The video camera wouldn’t have been the same these last couple of years without Matt Hasselbeck, Ricky Jean Francois and Cory Redding on the other end. That light turns red and those guys always delivered.
The Colts provided me with an opportunity to write a book, 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. That never seemed possible. But there I went to the Man Cave, banging away on the keyboard for 10 weeks non-stop to crank it out. Colts COO Pete Ward, owner Jim Irsay and former media relations boss Craig Kelley were instrumental in making that book worth reading. They shared stories and gave me access I had never had before. My gratitude to them, as well as fans, are in those pages.
The Pacers haven't been a main gig for much of my career, but covering them as far back as the playoffs when Reggie Miller and Rik Smits were trying to take down the New York Knicks sticks in the memory bank. Thanks to Conrad Brunner for requesting me as his sidekick for the Eastern Conference Finals against Shaq and the Orlando Magic so many years ago. It seems like the Pacers are always coming back around into my life. Sure, it's more fun when they win, but I've enjoyed interviewing Paul George, David West, Solomon Hill, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles and Lavoy Allen this year.
The job has forged other memorable moments, too. I was proud that the last thing I did for The Star was a behind-the-scenes video with my old buddy Ted Giannoulas, The Famous Chicken, when he visited Victory Field in August. We go back almost two decades, visiting with him and his Hoosier wife Jane here in Indy or in San Diego. That last video and story was my reminder to the former employer that even on my last assignment, I provided something nobody else could. Ted even allowed a picture with me wearing his head and him smiling, although I’m not allowed to share it until he retires, if the old bird ever does.
There have been five Final Fours, none that will ever be more captivating than seeing Brad Stevens lead the Butler Bulldogs to the NCAA Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium. What a memory. As stadium director Mike Fox once said, it still seems like Gordon Hayward’s last-second shot was going in. Those are the moments when you realize just how lucky you are just to be sitting in a courtside seat. I covered Stevens’ last high school game when he played for Zionsville. To see him go from there to the Boston Celtics, and to exchange emails with him after he took that NBA job is, again, meaningful beyond words.
Covering minor league hockey and baseball always kept the juices flowing. The Indianapolis Ice of the old International Hockey League was too much fun. Jason Burkman is a fellow Red Wings fan, so any chance I could get to see him and mingle with his guys, either the pros or the USHL Indiana Ice youngsters, was worth my time. The same could be said for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. Being a friend to Max Schumacher has been an honor. And I can’t thank the media relations guys enough for their help over the years, Mark Walpole, Tim Harms, Matt Segal, Mike Wolinsky and Brian Bosma.
That’s enough reminiscing for one birthday. I’ll admit this was a selfish story. I’m just a sentimental guy, what can I say?
It’s been an interesting six months with Scout.com, doing the ColtsBlitz.com and PacersPress.com pages. I knew it would be a ton of work, not enough time in the day sometimes, but I’m appreciative of the opportunity to keep doing what I love.
Which brings me to why I felt the need to share this stuff before hurting myself trying to blow out 50 candles. The cell phone started buzzing early this morning. Facebook and Twitter are reminding me of why I do what I do. Thank you for the birthday wishes.
I’m most grateful for my family and friends who have followed along in this venture. Colleagues thought I was crazy to leave The Star, but sometimes you have to follow your heart and do what you think is best. And not live life with regret, or at least try to have as few of them as possible.
The fans who have followed along, I can’t thank you enough, whether you subscribe or not. A former boss reminded me a long time ago that fans, the readers, should be my guide. That’s why I do this, why it was important to share as much as possible with each of you.
Once in a while, a fan will say, “You made me a better fan.”
Honestly, all of you made me better, those with the kind words as well as the critics. So I thank each and every one of you for a great ride. I’ll keep sharing stories and videos as long as someone entrusts me with this responsibility.
Hopefully we’ve got a lot more years together.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.