How do you eulogize a rival? Joe Falls, a man who did the same job as me for the newspaper that competes with mine, died last week. He lost a long battle with diabetes. He was 76. He couldn’t type anymore. He couldn’t walk steps. Last year, with a simple, elegant column, he told his many fans good-bye after six decades in the business.

“It’s been a joy,” he wrote, “thank you for being there with me.”

How do you eulogize a rival? From the moment I arrived in Detroit nearly 20 years ago, I was pitted against Joe. First I was offered a job with his paper, the Detroit News, and had I taken it, we would have fought for the same space. He didn’t like that idea.

Then I took a job with the Free Press. He wasn’t crazy about that either. Instead of competing for space, we competed for audience. We attended the same events. We pushed our “send” buttons within minutes of one another. And morning after morning, our columns thumped down on newsstands and front porches in Michigan, and, like wares being displayed in some Persian market, our work was hung side by side, for all to compare.

Joe was older. I was younger. Joe had been here. I was an implant. Joe was old school. I was new school.

The only thing that seemed certain about our competition was, given our ages, if we both stayed put, I would outlast him.

And so I have. And so what?

A job to cherish

How do you eulogize a rival? Joe was a considerable presence, a loud, hulking man with a shock of white hair who showed the unabashed bravado you might expect from the son of a New York City cop. Joe spoke like a New Yorker and asked questions like a New Yorker, and in the Midwest, that gets you noticed.

But like a lot of New Yorkers, the hard-boiled part was only the shell. Joe was a sucker for kids. A sucker for animals. He was tireless in his work for the Special Olympics, often calling me for help with his events. And while he could be blunt with sports figures — “You still haven’t answered the question,” he would scold them — his tone was kinder with parking lot attendants or elevator operators. He was simpatico with the working man. It showed in his writing.

It also showed in his attitude. He told me once how, when he was lamenting his job to a New York City boxing writer, the man asked him to name an auto plant in Detroit.

“The Rouge,” Joe said.

“OK,” the guy said. “Do you know what the men at the Rouge plant did this morning? They got a cup of coffee, maybe a doughnut, and they sat down to see what Joe Falls had to say in the sports section. Do you know what a privilege that is?’ “

From that point on, Joe said, “I never complained about my job.”

Appreciated by sports fans

Falls, who is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, worked for three newspapers in Detroit over nearly 50 years. He once held the job I hold now at the Free Press. People tried to thrust us against each another. But the truth is we never bit. We never exchanged a harsh word. There was a always a certain grudging respect.

A few years ago, I spoke at an event and Joe was in the audience. He already was slowing down. For some reason, I don’t know why, I stopped what I was saying to acknowledge him and how much a part of our city he was. He got a big round of applause and I felt no envy, only joy.

The next day he called me, almost in tears. “Thank you,” he said. “That was one of the most unexpected things . . .”

How do you eulogize a rival? You don’t call him a rival. You call him a man, a colleague, you say working the beat with him the last 20 years was, to use his words, a privilege.

And then it’s easy.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

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