There’s a song in “Les Miserables” where the young rebels lament their fallen brothers. “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” It feels like the press box is living that now. Once populated with so many funny, loud, opinionated souls, it grows quieter and more vacant.
Drew Sharp has died.
A lively, intelligent man who shook when he laughed heartily and never minded taking a harsh stand, Drew went to bed Thursday night and did not wake up. His heart, an issue since childhood, did him in at the manly age of 56. And another chair at the table is empty.
Losing family is immeasurable to an outsider. Losing work colleagues is different. We share them. We sit to their right or left. In Drew’s case, he and I were often paired, the Free Press columnists, side by side at Final Fours, World Series, or regular-season baseball, basketball and hockey games.
Our computers would flip up, our comments would fly back and forth, and at some point we would have to decide who was going to take what column angle.
This was easiest, I confess, at Lions games, when after a loss, I might say, “I’ll write about the quarterback” or “I’ll write about the defense” and Drew would happily declare, “I’ll write ‘same old Lions.’”
But there was so much more to him than that.
A Free Press man for life
He’d been at the Free Press for 33 years. What kid at any newspaper today will last that long? Drew grew up with journalists as heroes, and played at being one long before he became one.
When he took over a sports column from Charlie Vincent in 1999, after covering college sports and the Pistons, he and I were suddenly a team. Because I’d been doing this job for 14 years, Drew searched for — and was encouraged to find — a voice distinct from mine. And he did. He found a better bite, a mightier whip and a stronger tolerance for the unpopular position.
And, in time, his voice was distinct from everyone. He’d pose hard questions to coaches, who glared at him while the rest of us scribbled down the quotes. Drew once saw Barry Sanders at a Buick Open and soon was writing on napkins that legend’s first words to the media in more than a year.
But a man is more than his column. And those who judged Drew the person based on Drew the words missed a great deal. They missed a man charitable with a laugh and with his time, a devoted and dogged worker who rarely said no to any assignment, no matter how short the notice. They missed an infectious playfulness and an undeclared strength that came from childhood heart surgeries and a lifetime of being told “your body can’t do that.”
Ken Brown, my radio colleague on WJR-AM and a schoolmate of Drew’s, recalls Drew being voted “best personality” in the eighth grade. Those who blasted him in the Freep.com comments sections — and often did so viciously — will never get that. But those who actually knew Drew find “best personality” quite believable.
So many we’ve lost
Today, there is a Lions game. I will sit in my regular spot. It seems almost impossible that Drew will not.
But only almost. My mother once told me she didn’t want to live so long that all her friends were gone before her. Man, was she right.
Over the years in this job, there have been too many early farewells. Corky Meinecke, who wrote sports for the Free Press and the News, died when he was 44. Cancer.
Shelby Strother, the News’ sports columnist, also died at 44, also from cancer. Tom (Killer) Kowalski, a football-writing fixture, died at 51. Bryan Burwell, the former News columnist, died two years ago at age 59.
Stuart Scott, my coworker at ESPN2 when that channel was created, died last year at age 49. This summer, I got a morning phone call that John Saunders, my friend and host of ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters,” was suddenly dead at 61. He’d been the successor to Dick Schaap, another dear friend, who, in 2001, went into the hospital for a hip replacement and never came out.
When I think about those men gathered inside a press box — not to mention older but departed fixtures like Joe Falls, George Puscas, George Cantor and others — I can hear the joyful noise, so loud, so vibrant, so funny.
And now so quiet.
Where’s everybody going? Why do I still get to be here? I know I’m not the only sports writer asking these questions today. Drew was too young and too alive and his voice was part of our daily newspaper routine.
And now, instead, I hear those song lyrics:
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.
So long, Drew Sharp, who lived up to his last name on so many levels. They say good-bye is a hard word. But in sudden loss, it’s not “good-bye” that cuts deepest. It’s that you said your last hello.
And you never knew it.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.