by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Maybe the Godfather had it right. In his regime, the rules were clear. If you were family, you were safe. If you were family, there was an obligation. Family meant loyalty. You knew where you stood.

We look for that in business, a family loyalty. We rarely find it. Oh, we think we do. Emanuel Steward thought he’d found it. He took a skinny kid from the streets of Detroit and handed him boxing gloves and gave him a home and taught him how to write his first check, just like a son. The name goes here, Tommy. The amount goes here, Tommy. And when the kid had his high school prom, Steward loaned him his gold Cadillac so he could impress his friends. And when the kid became famous, Steward, his manager and trainer, was always alongside him, in Las Vegas, in Atlantic City, wiping the blood away, hugging him after the wins, booking the biggest boxers and teaching the kid how to whup them.

There were a million midnight phone calls. A million pats on the back, a million forgivings. Just like a son. “That’s all right, Tommy. I understand. That’s all right, Tommy, just don’t do it again, OK?”

It felt like family.

But it wasn’t family.

Eric Williams thought he was in a family, too. He thought that for slamming his huge body against blood-spitting linemen, Sunday after Sunday, for six years, he had won some sort of love for this, something that would protect him from evil. When he had contract problems last year, he finally signed but went to his coach Wayne Fontes and said, “Wayne, I don’t ever want to go through this again.” And Fontes said, “Don’t worry. You won’t.” Williams smiled. He was a Detroit Lion. Since leaving college, he had only been a Detroit Lion.

It felt like family.

It wasn’t family. What have you done for me lately?

Today, Steward and Williams find themselves with that stunned feeling of desertion, as if they’d just awakened on a desert island, and everyone they knew was on a ship disappearing into the sunset. Tommy Hearns, after 15 years with Steward, announced he was leaving, going to manage himself, thank you, with the advice of a convicted embezzler named Harold Smith. Steward got the news from a reporter while eating dinner. Tommy never called. “And he probably won’t,” Steward sighs.

Eric Williams saw his cord severed on the same day. He had held out from the Lions — or, as he puts it, “was never offered anything” — until last week. He says Detroit management (read: Chuck Schmidt) told him forget about a raise, he was overpaid to begin with. Meanwhile, Williams had heard all sorts of trade rumors. So when he finally signed, at a slight increase, he wanted to know whether he was safe. They weren’t just signing him to trade him, right? “They told me all the trade talk is dead. Don’t believe any rumors,” he


On Tuesday, he was traded. To Washington.

See ya.

Blood might be thicker than water, but blood was never a substitute for money or success. These sports relationships, you hear the coach say “He’s like a son to me” and the player say “He’s like a father to me,” but in the end, the father gets fired, the son gets traded. It’s about money. Always has been.

So Tommy Hearns, who is getting too old for his job, suddenly wants his youth back, he wants big purses, big glory, he wants people to tell him he’s great again. And rather than look at his uninspired training habits, or his lousy performances against everyone but Sugar Ray Leonard, he starts listening to the praise of buzzards and he nods and says yeah, the old man must be the problem. The old man is so critical. Why should Emanuel get 35 percent of me anyway? What has he done for me lately?

And Eric Williams? To the Lions, he’s just another piece of football meat. They don’t think he’s so great at his position, they have a few young kids, and besides, he’s a holdout type. Someone else wants him? How much? Do it. Williams gets the phone call Tuesday afternoon. He is on a plane Wednesday morning, out of their lives. They were connected only at the wallet

You feel sorry for Williams and Steward. But you also know that this is their mistake. They somehow confused money with emotion. They don’t mix. Steward got rich from his association with Hearns, and Williams was paid for his bruises with the Lions. And whether the amounts were fair really doesn’t matter. What matters is the idea. It was a business relationship, and business relationships, stripped naked, are never about heart. They’re about dollars.

“I thought I paid some dues playing for the Lions, but they showed me no respect,” Williams says. “They’re petty. You have an accountant running the team, what do you expect? They beat you down. They kick you, then throw salt on your wounds. All that matters is the bottom line.”

“The sad part of about me and Tommy,” says Steward, “is that this goes on so much in boxing, people switching managers and fighters. But we never did. For 15 years, people in our business pointed to us as an example, they said you see how Tommy Hearns and Emanuel Steward stay together? That’s what we want. That’s loyalty.”

It wasn’t loyalty, not really. It was business. And business can be nasty
— even between family. As I now recall, at the end of “Godfather II,” Michael Corleone has his own brother killed because he double-crossed him in a deal. So even blood has its limits. Greed, it would seem, does not.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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