July 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Markowski

Saying goodbye after 35 years of writing about great athletes and coaches

After 35 years of covering primarily high school sports, Tom Markowski is leaving The Detroit News. He will spend more time playing golf, enjoying Northern Michigan and working as a freelance writer.

Itís better I start at the end and work my way back.

When you work at one place for more than 35 years, memories tend to mesh and itís often difficult to remember what happened when, so letís start with what I remember best.

I have never worked for any other newspaper than The Detroit News. I know that Iím lucky. I am truly blessed.

I leave The News with few regrets. The News presented me the opportunity to meet so many interesting and fascinating people, in the office and what would become my unofficial office ó the high schools across the state.

I owe much of what I learned to be a journalist, especially early in my career, to award-winning columnists Joe Falls and Jerry Green who, when I approached them with questions or worked beside them, welcomed me into their world and did their best to offer advice without being aloof.

As a beat writer, I admired the total commitment of a Mike OíHara or a Tom Gage, who punched out stories at a rapid pace.

And there were many others who helped me grow as a journalist and in many ways cleared a path in pursuit of a career, such as Jack Berry, Vartan Kupelian, Lynn Henning and Jim Spadafore, to name a few.

Iím grateful to The News for allowing me the chance to cover events like the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Finals, the NBA Finals, the World Series, the Ryder Cup, the NCAA Final Four and the Ice Bowl.

No, not the 1967 NFL championship game in Green Bay between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys.

Iím referring to the 1989 Class B semifinal in Flint, known to those who followed high school football then as the Ice Bowl. After all, I was the main high school sports writer for the News since 1985, so you wonít read about the Lions or any other professional team in this space.

This farewell centers on high schools and the athletes, the coaches and contests that have help to fill my life over the past five decades.

So many outstanding games

If you were at Atwood Stadium that frigid November evening for a state semifinal youíll never forget it. Farmington Hills Harrison defeated East Grand Rapids 3-2 in conditions not suited to play a football game. The field was covered in ice. First downs were rare as offenses appeared to operate in slow motion. Even Harrisonís great quarterback Mill Coleman was neutralized.

Harrisonís Steve Hill kicked the winning field goal and suffered a leg injury on the play. He came back the following week to kick the winning extra point in another classic: Harrison defeated DeWitt 28-27 in the final.

There are so many memorable games, too many to recall in detail here. There was the 2007 Division 3 final between East Grand Rapids and Orchard Lake St. Maryís. East Grand Rapids won 46-39 in five overtimes. Later that school year, St. Maryís again was involved with a championship game that went to overtime ó eight, that is ó in the Division 1 hockey final against Marquette. The game was called, thankfully, after the eighth overtime tied at 1-1 as both teams shared the title.

In basketball, the 2005 Class D final between Detroit Rogers and Bellaire is one of the more dramatic endings Iíve witnessed. Rogers freshman Eric Evans was the unexpected hero as he looked to pass in the final seconds of overtime only to look at the clock and then, almost as an afterthought, made a 3-pointer as he was fouled (he made the free throw) to give Rogers a 71-68 victory.

I didnít cover many girls basketball finals but I did cover the one that was perhaps the greatest upset in the sport's 42-year history. Flint Northern had won four consecutive Class A titles entering the 1982 title game against Farmington Hills Mercy and seemingly was on its way to a fifth when Mercy coach Larry Baker orchestrated a 61-58 stunner at Calihan Hall. Yes, Calihan Hall was the site of the girls finals then, 25 years before the Michigan High School Athletic Association lost its Title IX case.

Thatís a story in itself.

More important than the games are the students who competed and the adults who coached.

As I like to often ask when discussing the importance of high school athletics, do you really remember which team won the Division 5 football title in 2006? Without checking the records, I donít. And thatís the point. Other than to the community and the people directly related to the winning team, it doesnít matter which team won. What matters is the experience of participating in athletics, the mistakes one makes and the lessons learned. The relationships built through high school athletics many times prove priceless. A student-athlete might not come to that realization while competing, but they soon will.

Legendary coaches

The same is true for a reporter. When I met and interviewed River Rouge basketball coach Lofton Green I knew I was talking with a legend. The same is true for football coaches Al Fracassa at Birmingham Brother Rice and John Herrington at Harrison.

But most often that wasnít the case. I didnít realize what football and track coach Woody Thomas meant to those at Detroit Central until after he died in 2002. Thomas provided inspiration through discipline and by his sheer presence. It was only after he died did I realize how important he was to that school.

To me Thomas was a friend, not just a coach who provided information. And this had nothing to do with the fried chicken he shared in the stands at track meets. Our conversations most often would be about life, his relationships with the students at Central, their triumphs and adversities they faced.

The list of tremendous athletes I had the pleasure to interview is long. A few of my favorites were Shane Battier of Detroit Country Day, Tyrone Wheatley of Dearborn Heights Robichaud and Travis Conlan of St. Clair Shores Lake Shore.

Conlanís story was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Lake Shore coach Greg Eslerís eldest son, Doug, died tragically in 1990 while vacationing in northern Michigan. Doug Esler and Conlan were best friends, and it was Conlan who carried Lake Shore on his back through the 1994 Class B boys basketball tournament. And it was Conlan who hit the winning shot at the buzzer to give Lake Shore a 38-37 victory over East Grand Rapids in the state final.

News photographer Mike Green captured the moment seconds after the shot with Conlanís and Eslerís tearful embrace.

Another tragedy that touched many was the death of Detroit DePorres and Colorado football player Tyrone Bussey. Though Bussey lost his long battle with leukemia in 1997, his determination through it all was uplifting.

The story of Cesar de Jesus Villaís hit home and continues on. Born in the Dominican Republic without the tibia bone in his legs, Jesus Villa had both legs amputated above the knee at age 2. He came to the United States and was raised by foster parents, Marge and Jim Bedowski. Jesus Villa soon began competing in wheelchair basketball, sled hockey and, finally, wrestling at Warren DeLaSalle. He just completed his freshman year at the University of Illinois and is a member of the wheelchair basketball team.

My eldest brother, Chris, was also born with physical challenges, but he never allowed what most perceive as a handicap to hinder him in living life. He, too, competed in wheelchair basketball and thereís a plaque with his name on it at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Thanks, Chris, and thanks to all of you who followed high school sports over the past 35 years who played a part in my journey.

tom.markowski@detroitnews.com

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