It's a helluva thing to lose a role model. Regardless of what my colleagues think, or what my business card says, I consider myself a sportswriter.
I don't write sports as regularly as Dennis Freeland did -- I may never do it as well -- but I like to consider myself at least a junior member of that fraternity that pays far more attention than it should to depth charts and draft picks, wild cards and winner's brackets.
And believe me, the advantage of having this city's sportswriting standard-bearer in the same office for nine years was worth more than a semester or two of journalism school. My fondest memory of Dennis, though, has nothing to do with athletes or ballgames.
Just a few weeks after I became a father in the spring of 1999, Dennis asked if he could pay a visit to my house to meet little Sofia. I can't count the number of people who passed along well wishes, cards, gifts, and smiles during this magical time of my life. But I can count on one hand those who gave up part of their weekend to come share the magic in my living room. Not only did Dennis come by, but he brought his lovely wife and young daughter with him.
Talk about a role model! The guy could turn the world of sports inside out, and he was raising a charming little girl. (I paid close attention.) I'm embarrassed that I can't recall the gifts the Freelands brought with them that day, but Ill remember Dennis sitting on my couch, smiling at my precious little slice of heaven as long as there are days to remember.
Over the last six months, I seemed to always find a way to put Dennis' ailment on the sideline, so speak. The first time I saw him after the cancer diagnosis -- before any of us knew the severity -- was the day cyclist Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor himself, won his third consecutive Tour de France. One need look no further for inspiration, right?
On the day Dennis had surgery to extract a portion of the tumor, Memphis magazine sponsored a Redbirds game at AutoZone Park and I got the privilege of throwing out the first pitch. While I did so with a heavy heart, I also toed the rubber with a smile, knowing had Dennis been there, he would have been my loudest cheerleader as I scuffed the ball into the batter's box.
Then on our trip to one of his daily radiation treatments last fall, Dennis told me the one and only Osama bin Laden joke that has made me laugh. Still does.
With September 11th being the most recent -- certainly most horrendous -- example, we are too often denied the opportunity to say goodbye to those we love.
What I'll cherish most about the last six months will be the hugs. Dennis was a good hugger, and every time we visited during his battle I was sure to get at least one hug before I left. When you hug someone right, you can feel their spirit wrap around your heart. As weak as his body may have felt, Dennis' spirit invigorated my heart in a manner I can still feel. A manner I hope I can now spread, if only a fraction of the way Dennis did. Silver linings are hard to find when you lose someone you love. But I'm trying. While my friend may be gone, I've still got a role model.