When we started ESPN.com's NFL blog network three years ago, we were hoping to create a new template for sports writing. We wanted our coverage to be a conversation with readers rather than the lecture you so often receive from traditional print media.
I wanted you to know me and have daily direct access, even if we would never meet.
In the years since, I came to realize that one "traditional" sportswriter was already doing that and had long ago established a connection with readers that I could only dream of. Tom "Killer" Kowalski, who covered the Detroit Lions for Booth Newspapers and Mlive.com, was a big dude with a deep voice who loved being the ultimate purveyor of Lions information and insight.
More importantly, he obviously enjoyed the give-and-take that has come to define the landscape of professional sports. Whether it was in an airport bar, on the sidelines at a training camp practice or, more recently, through Twitter, Killer would talk Lions -- who he always referred to as "these guys" -- to audiences of one and up.
Kowalski's death Monday morning left countless Lions fans without a voice they had listened to, read and exchanged barbs with literally for decades. He had been on the beat for three decades and as @Lionsfan1960 noted, Killer was "the only man who could keep Lions fans sane through 0-16."
Take a stroll through Killer's Twitter feed, where you'll see he was breaking down the differences between man and zone defense during his final night on this earth. @Omnimon wrote that Killer "was always there to tell you like it was," a simple expression of all that you can hope for from a modern-day beat writer: Someone who offered an unvarnished viewpoint of a popular team in a league that has worked increasingly to limit the flow of truth, a man who would take your questions but not necessarily give you the answer you wanted.
Your Twitter response to Killer's death was awesome and overwhelming. You're hurt on a personal level, as am I, because he made you feel like you knew him, even if you've never met.
I won't pretend to have known Killer well, but I do know what my two lasting images of him will be. The first is from training camp this summer, when I took notice of the XXXL T-shirt he was wearing. On the back was a drawing of a dog, underneath which were the words: "I let the dogs out!" It perfectly illustrated Killer's unique mix of in-your-face style and self-deprecation.
The second is the final tweet Sunday night. It read: "OK fellas, here we go ... Sleep well, I'll most likely kill you in the morning...."
I laughed, thinking it was another in a long line of that brash mix. But you knew better. As @BobbyG640 and others pointed out, it was a quote from the movie "The Princess Bride."
Killer, as it turns out, had a soft spot.
I know you don't come to this blog to read about sportswriters, but what we lost Monday extends way beyond that title. An institution is gone. Fortunately, he left a path for the rest of us -- in my business and elsewhere -- to follow.