Henning: Sharp's wit and warmth belied sardonic columns

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Ah, Drew.

Free Press sports columnist Drew Sharp died Friday. He was 56.

What are we going to do now?

Find a replacement for your wit and good nature, even if some readers won’t believe the guy who seemed to write with a scimitar on his keyboard was so genuinely fun and warm?

Expect the Free Press to simply tab a successor as versed in sports and as smart about life as you --  a University of Michigan graduate whose intellect and ability to quickly study, digest, and lock onto a story’s guts made him so valuable?

Imagine another colleague sitting at a restaurant table on yet another road trip bringing to dinner as much gentle mirth, critical thinking, and reluctance to worry about expense accounts as he so refreshingly delivered through the years?

Not easy losing a colleague. Not easy for readers, losing a voice as important as Drew Sharp’s became during his 17 years as a Free Press columnist, a legacy which will extend far beyond his life, which ended this morning when he, at age 56, died at his home.

Free Press sports columnist Drew Sharp dies at 56

He was so different in person from his column persona, which he fashioned, with absolute intent, to be seen as a Dark Knight role. Sharp thought there was little healthier for a team or its fans than for him to swing a sharp-bladed ax no matter what might have been the score or event in a particular team or university’s sports life.

A craftsman

Oh, he wasn’t always sulfur and smoke. And when he paid a compliment it took on particular sheen coming from a critic who believed he should counter the overly zealous, overly adulatory, nature of teams and their triumphs. Likewise, he thought there should be a price paid by the same people and teams who lapped up the worship but who didn’t always care for less flattering critiques, even when they were clearly due.

Beyond reflections on his column style, Sharp was simply a fine sports journalist, emphasis on journalist. He understood reporting was our profession’s lifeblood and perpetual mission. He knew the story came first, the overview was second, and there he never mixed-up roles or responsibilities. It was one more reason why he was so appreciated by his colleagues at the Free Press and respected by his competitors.

This was one terrific sports writer and professional. Those who came to appreciate his craft before he turned columnist, in 1999, understood implicitly how good he was. They were the readers who followed him during his extraordinary days on the Pistons beat.

One of many Twitter testaments Friday came from Deacon Blues (@mork1215) and was retweeted by @RobLong73:

“I will tell folks till I’m called home, Drew and Terry (Foster) covering the Pistons were the best in the business.”

His ability to blend professional and personal nobility was captured, wonderfully, by Jason Hillman, the former FSD sportscaster who is now general counsel to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“We lost a good one today,” Hillman tweeted. “Selfishly, he was so good to me as a young pup back in the mid-90's”

Missiles launched

OK, so he overdid it sometimes. He could wield a bazooka when a BB gun might have been the better weaponry with which to lambaste a team that had the audacity to lose a game or not meet Sharp’s subjective performance standards.

It’s a fair criticism. Not always can teams win. And not always does defeat mean failure or call for prosecution and/or execution.

But he never saw his role in that fashion, passing out candy, even if it might have been earned or in the community’s mind, deserved.

He thought the guy in the black hat was more than a cowboy-movie character. It was a necessity when sports has taken upon an unnatural, disproportionate presence in our society and that glorification of teams and players had become even more indefensible.

It could lead, on certain days, to a lot of contempt from a lot of readers. And it wasn’t always Drew’s column to which they were reacting. It was, shamefully and infuriatingly, often because of his race.

He had an interesting manner in which he handled some of the nastiest vitriol imaginable. He accepted it, not passively, but with an understanding evil in this world exists and that he could not be exempt from feeling it personally.

That is, in the view of one colleague and 30-year friend, his greatest gift and inspiration. His decency, his equanimity, his pure example in how to handle personal attacks that could be no more wounding or unjust than those he too often received.

It never affected his humor (there should be a “Best Of The Great Boodini,” his Carnac-like column character). Nor did it mar his good soul, as anyone who knew him will vouch. He would saunter into a press box or media conference with this impish half-grin on his face. He would take in the scene, the game, the postgame rehashes from players and coaches and managers.

And then he would write, concisely and with a certain erudition, all that had happened, sans bouquet, sans excuse.

But what some of us who were colleagues and competitors, but above all who were friends, will most recall and relish are the dinners together on the road, once the day’s dramatics had ended and the stories and columns had been filed.

We would find an appropriate place to adjourn for a drink and some memorable food. But more than satisfying basic needs and urges, we gathered on these evenings or at a 1 a.m. watering hole, for conversation and for the unleashing of views: about the teams and people we covered, about our workplace gripes, about politics and movies and, well, you name it.

That’s because — forget sports and media. We were friends.

There wasn’t a much better friend in this business than you could have been blessed to have had than Drew Sharp. That’s a bit long as epitaphs go, perhaps, but Drew would be pleased to know we got the story right.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning