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Wojo: Drew Sharp the critic obscured the fun-loving guy

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp held those teams he covered accountable.

He was a critic’s critic, that’s probably how you knew him. If that’s the only way you knew him, you missed out.

Drew Sharp could alternately enrage and engage, a separation not many got to see. I got to experience it for 35 years, since our days together at the University of Michigan, working for the Michigan Daily. He was a year older than me and offered guidance every chance he got. We talked about Detroit sports and journalism over pizza and beer, and occasionally he even picked up the tab.

Ah, I can hear Drew’s joyous cackle now, his shoulders shaking up and down as he laughed, or as he sang one of his sarcastic sports-themed jingles. Drew was a great friend long before he became a great critic. He may not have shown his compassionate, humorous side to teams and coaches very often, but trust me, it was there and it was wonderful.

Now Drew is gone at 56, a departure shocking in its abruptness, staggering in the void he leaves in the Detroit sports world. I last saw him three days ago at the Tigers’ season-ending media gathering. Drew had just asked a pointed question and Al Avila had answered respectfully. After another question, Avila looked over, smiled and said, “There’s the negative table!”

There was a certain honor and downside to working alongside Drew as a columnist these many years. No matter what you wrote, it wouldn’t be the most-biting critique. No matter where you sat, he was always there.

Chip on his shoulder?

I’ve often been asked about Drew, usually in this context: “I hear he’s a nice guy, but what’s his problem with (fill in a team, a coach, a player, a football conference)?!” A fan outside Michigan Stadium once told me that if Drew was standing right there, he’d punch him in the face. I shook my head at his ignorance, knowing Drew would gladly argue with the guy and both would enjoy it.

So many road trips over so many years, hundreds of boisterous meals and stories and debates. Even when Drew was wrong — believe it or not, it happened — he would dig in, not to be obstinate, but sometimes to further the entertainment. You could detect it in his columns, which generally struck the same attack tone, as if it was expected of him, almost demanded of him, even if it angered people.

Henning: Sharp's wit and warmth belied sardonic columns

I can tell you this, and I’m proud I said it to others while Drew was still alive: If you knew him, you’d like him, and you’d appreciate his wit and kindness more than you ever imagined.

I knew Drew before the calluses formed and some of the cynicism set in. I’ve known his parents, his wife Karen and members of his tight-knit family, and it helped me understand what Drew was about. He underwent two heart surgeries as a child that prevented him from playing sports, so he honed his impact with the written word. He was a Detroiter who went to Detroit Catholic Central, then to Michigan, then straight to the Free Press, attached to his hometown as few ever are.

Drew joked about how the Lions always broke his dad’s heart, but I think it actually pained him, and changed him. He grew up during a down time in Detroit sports and watched good fans blindly follow inept teams. He was a contrarian, sure, but it was rooted in what he experienced, long before he became a columnist.

Praised lightly

No, he didn’t hate the teams, not at all. He loved the games and he loved the job, and he felt responsible — to his parents, to the industry — to flush out accountability. To Drew, it was more important to critique a team than praise it, even when praise was warranted. It’s not that he was reluctant to be perceived as soft, it’s that for his voice to be heard, he felt he had to argue the loudest.

Because he was reserved and pleasant in person, some wondered if his writing style was an act — hey, there’s goes the Bombastic Boodini again! I didn’t see it that way. He thought it was an obligation to stay on point with his criticism, rightly knowing there were plenty of others who would hand out plaudits.

When Drew and I covered events together, we had a goofy little routine we often repeated after games. I was the positive guy and he was the negative guy and never the perceptions could blur, even when they did. After a Detroit team or a Michigan team or a Michigan State team would win a game, I’d stand next to Drew in the press conference and purposely exaggerate the positive impact by saying something like, “And you thought (said team) wasn’t going to make the playoffs. What were you thinking?”

He’d impishly fire back with a dire prediction, a punchline that always made me laugh. It was one of the many contradictions about Drew Sharp, one of the nicest people you could know, even if he didn’t want you to know it. I’m so sad he’s gone, and so sorry more people didn’t get to appreciate his full story, which was rich and fun and purposeful, and over much too soon.

Sharp died of heart disease

Following an autopsy, it was learned Drew Sharp died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

He had two open-heart surgeries as a youth.

Funeral details were pending Friday night.