Webb: A story about ‘Tommy’ would have packed a punch

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Tommy Morrison, right, won the world heavyweight title at age 24 in 1993 by winning a decision against George Foreman. Three years later, he was diagnosed with HIV. He died in 2013 at age 44.

Every now and again, I’ll see a game on TV or read a story in a newspaper that reminds me how fortunate I was to work in sports journalism for more than a decade. That was the case Wednesday night as my wife and I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Tommy Morrison, “Tommy.”

In the middle of my career in newspapers, I worked at the Topeka Capital-Journal, the paper I grew up reading and dreamed of writing a column for someday. After three years of working on the sports copy desk, that dream came true when Mark Nusbaum, the publisher, gave several of us a great opportunity.

Nusbaum, now the president of Times-Union Media, took a bit of risk, developing a team to work on a project those of us at the paper referred to as Page 2. It entailed edgy copy every day on the second page of the news and sports sections. We rarely used canned content, often scrambling on the day of breaking news to develop alternative story forms.

I was in charge of the sports page, working with longtime sports writer Rick Dean, who supplied a column five days a week. I was lucky enough to have a column on Saturdays, checking an item off the bucket list.

In hindsight, there are many things I’d do differently. Namely, I wouldn’t hesitate, fully embracing the directive the publisher gave us. A few times, I held off running a story that I’d have no problem writing now. It’s easy to overcome fear after seven years away from newspapers.

Watching the inspiring, yet sad tale of Morrison, who rose to world champion in his early 20s and died at age 44, was another reminder of a story I should have written.

One of the wonderful things about the Page 2 project was that Nusbaum and longtime editor Pete Goering gave the staff the freedom to cover just about anything we wanted to, as long as it had local ties. One week, I’d travel with Kansas State beat reporter Tim Bisel, now the sports editor, to Columbia, Missouri, for a football game, the next I’d climb in a van with a group of high school football officials for a behind-the-scenes story.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I covered during my 14 months on the Page 2 project was local boxing. Though none of the pugilists I covered were considered world class, a couple of them had moments in the spotlight.

Most of the boxers had nicknames you might find on a video game like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, including Donny “The Savage” McCrary, whose 15 minutes was a short run on ESPN’s “The Contender,” hosted by Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard.

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Damon Reed

The most “famous” of the pugilists was Damon Reed, a Topekan who understood and mastered the hype game while making a career out of hammering nobodies into submission before home crowds. Reed has done well enough that he’s squared off against the likes of Hasim Rahman, James Toney and current heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.

Note that I said “has done.” Now 45, Reed fought as recently as June 2016.

Reed became the go-to for boxing news as I dove into covering the sport. Partly because he was always good for a quote, and partly because he had the wild dream of fighting Morrison, despite the fact that Morrison was diagnosed with HIV more than a decade earlier.

“Hell yes, I’d fight him,” Reed said, adding that the payday would be worth the risk. “But if he started bleeding, I’d have to kick him in the balls and get disqualified.”

Reed always had a way with words.

He mentioned several times that he’d spoke with Morrison’s handlers about the fight. Naturally, I saw a great story, both in Reed’s involvement and in Morrison’s potential return to boxing despite having HIV.

Thus began several months of research, calling sources such as Pete Susens with Bob Arum’s Top Rank boxing and a former attorney disowned by Morrison and his fiancée. Talking with Susens was like what I always imagined talking to a Joe Pesci character would be. Talking to the attorney was intriguing because he claimed to have Morrison’s HIV test results. The latter was relevant because Morrison denied he had HIV right up to his death in 2013.

After weeks of attempting to track down Morrison, I finally got an interview in the summer of 2007. It might have been the most enjoyable 60 minutes of my life as an interviewer. Conducted over the phone, Morrison defiantly denied that he ever had HIV, that he was completely healthy and planned on winning the world title game.

His fiancée echoed much of what Morrison said, and added that they were having unprotected sex. By the time I hung up the phone, I thought with a little more work, I might have a feature series. A few days later, I got a package from Morrison’s former attorney. It contained what he claimed were Morrison’s latest HIV test results.

Now I knew I had a good story. Unfortunately, I also had a job offer to move to Virginia a few days later. Instead of taking all that research and information to my next gig, I left it in Topeka. Those notes are long gone. Ten years later, Morrison, sadly, also is gone.

All those memories came back as we watched “Tommy.” Those memories also brought sadness. I remember that phone call with Morrison for its energy and passion. Though clearly in denial, he was funny and bright. Above all, he was hopeful.

There are plenty of personalities in boxing, but there won’t be another Tommy. I wish I’d told his story when I had the chance. It had knockout potential.

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Webb: Saying goodbye to my second mom

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My last exchange with Sharon Moon was classic Sharon: A little bit a wicked humor, and a little bit of kindness.

Responding to a Facebook post about the original version of the movie “It” and how the collection of clown figurines she kept in her home scared the hell out of me as a 13-year-old, Sharon jokingly questioned my toughness, then apologized for the display strategically positioned where friends of her son Steve crashed during a sleep-over.

I had no idea that was going to be the last time I interacted with the mother of my best friend. Though I knew she had stage four lung cancer, we all thought she would live several more months. Sadly, she passed about a week after that exchange at age 61.

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Sharon passed away at the age of 61 on Sunday. Survivors include her son Steve and daughters Stacie and Stephanie.

Sharon was like a second mother from the eighth grade on. Steve and I connected almost immediately after my family moved from Lebanon, Missouri, to Burlingame in 1989, and we essentially have been brothers for nearly 30 years now.

As we were growing up, people often called us by each other’s names. Many of our friends in high school referred to our daily comedy routine as the “Steve and Ernie Show.” We found after years of friendship that our lives often mirrored one another (they still do in many ways).

As seniors in high school, we both had car accidents after falling asleep at the wheel. Several years later, we met our first wives in the same month. A few years later, we got married a month apart.

Sharon, of course, was there for all of that. I remember that I never went to her for advice … but she always offered it. Typically, it was in the form of, “Why don’t you think about what you’re doing before you jump into something and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing?”

I’m always going to remember that emphasized hell in her deep Texas twang. It always came with a distinguished cackle. Sharon had a great laugh.

I didn’t know much about Sharon beyond the Mom. She was born in Fort Worth in 1955, married Jimmy Peterson (the father of children Steve, Stephanie and Stacie) and divorced in the early 1980s.

Sharon went to Odessa Permian, which always fascinated me because I’d read “Friday Night Lights” several times. She married Thomas Moon in 1984, and the family moved to Burlingame a few years later.

As fortune would have it, the Webb family moved in 1989 to Burlingame. At the time, that was a miserable experience for a 13-year-old who was comfortable in southwest Missouri. Today, I thank God for that move largely because I ended up meeting Sharon’s son.

Most folks didn’t know a lot about Sharon. Like most, she worked, came home and took care of her family. Before long, that family included me. I probably spent more time at her home than mine. Partly because they had air conditioning, partly because Steve and I were inseparable and partly because Sharon and Jimmy almost always made sure their son had the latest in video games.

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Steve and I at my wedding in 2013. Of course, he was one of my groomsmen.

About a year after my family moved from the back roads into town, Steve and his family moved literally across the street. Like I said, our lives often mirror one another.

One of my lasting memories of Sharon came in 1990 when I made the mistake of ridiculing her son over a baby photo that hung on the wall. Sharon, who barely topped 5-foot, strolled up to me with a menacing smile and telling laugh: “Ernie, that’s my son.”

Needless to say, I never made fun of that photo again.

Into our mid-20s, Steve and I hung out often. Even when I worked in Independence, Kansas, at my first job in newspapers, I drove up every other weekend. Steve and I would meet at the duplex he shared with his mother and drive to Aldersgate, where his mom worked as a medication aide. I insisted on stopping by to see her because she always made me laugh.

Once we were done visiting, Steve and I hit the town for a night of drinking at Bullfrogs, returned home mostly drunk and woke up around noon. Before I left for home, of course, I’d chat with Sharon for a while.

There are plenty of ways to measure a person’s life, but none more telling than somebody’s children. Steve, as he always has been, is one of the finest people I’ve ever met. Her daughters have done quite well and have a combined eight kids. All told, Sharon had 11 grandchildren. She also is survived by her husband Thomas.

Sharon lived a life that most people didn’t know much about. If they knew about the children she raised, though, they’d envy it.

Note: A funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the Burlingame Federate Church. Visitation is from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Carey Funeral Home, where the family will greet friends and relatives from 6 to 8 p.m.

Webb: Bearcats continue to wipe out decades of misery

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Burlingame’s defense held Southern Coffey County to 32 yards, including none through the air, in Friday’s 57-0 win.

Walking up to Southern Coffey County’s football field Friday night brought back memories of the last time I watched a game in LeRoy. That was 13 years ago, and the Titans were the LeRoy Bluejays. They also were a perennial playoff team.

Burlingame was not. In fact, that chilly November night was the first playoff game the Bearcats had played in 13 years. To get there, Burlingame needed a miracle a week after being destroyed at Goessel. That miracle came in the form of Hartford, which upset Goessel to nudge Burlingame into the playoffs.

Back in those days, Burlingame, which finished the season 5-5 after a 48-34 loss to LeRoy, was just thrilled to be there. Fast-forward another 13 years, and the Bearcats have not only dug out of a two-decade hole, but also emerged as a consistent state championship contender.

Despite playing without all-state quarterback Dalton Sporing, who plans to return later this month from a torn ACL suffered in basketball, Burlingame looked like something they hadn’t for years: a bully.

In this case, there’s nothing wrong with that. For years, the Bearcats were on the receiving end of beating after beating, routinely losing to the likes of Madison, Lebo, Waverly and just about everybody else by 50 points.

This year’s senior class was starting kindergarten at the time of many of those beat-downs. They started playing football and basketball together not long after, and it became apparent that the blowout losses would be a distant memory by the time they arrived in high school.

Friday’s game resembled many of the losses Burlingame endured throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Clearly the bigger, faster and more experienced group, the Bearcats smothered and battered Southern Coffey County in a 57-0 rout that ended at halftime.

Filling in for Sporing, junior Montana Giffin answered any questions about the quarterback position immediately, connecting with Jake Thompson on a beautiful over-the-shoulder throw for a 46-yard touchdown two minutes into the game.

Anchored by all-state defensive lineman Tristan Lee, the defense stuffed the Titans on their first play from scrimmage and buried SCC for a 5-yard loss on second down before forcing a punt, which Colton Noonan returned 44 yards for a 14-0 lead.

Five Bearcats scored in the first quarter as Burlingame rolled to a 38-0 lead. It was 51-0 midway through the second quarter after the school’s first successful PAT kick in at least a decade. Noonan’s 1-yard touchdown in the closing seconds wrapped up a first half marred only by Burlingame’s struggles on two-point conversions (1 of 8).

The Bearcats moved up to No. 1 Sunday in the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Eight-Man I rankings. They looked every bit the part in their opening game, the first of what they hope is many Friday Night Lights as they pursue the school’s first state title since 1972.

BURLINGAME 57, SOUTHERN COFFEY COUNTY 0
Burlingame                              38        19        X         X         —          57
Southern Coffey County        0          0          X         X         —          0

BUR – Thompson 46 pass from Giffin (Greenwood run)
BUR – Noonan 44 punt return (Pass failed)
BUR – Noonan 13 run (Pass failed)
BUR – Hovestadt 18 interception return (Run failed)
BUR – Musick 34 pass from Giffin (Run failed)
BUR – Greenwood 17 run (Run failed)
BUR – Greenwood 9 pass from Giffin (Pass failed)
BUR – Noonan 19 pass from Giffin (Caldas kick)
BUR – Noonan 1 run (Kick failed)

GAME IN FIGURES

SCC    BUR
First downs                 3          11
Rushes-yards               24-32   14-128
Passing yards              0          128
Passes                          0-3-1    7-9-0
Fumbles-lost                4-1       1-0
Punts-Avg.                  3-46.0  0-0
Penalties-yards            4-30     2-10

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING – SCC: Gillis 14-52, Leimkuhler 2-(-3), Harvey 1-(-3), Crooks 2-(-4), Edwards 5-(-10). BUR: Greenwood 6-57, Noonan 5-25, Giffin 2-22, Musick 1-18.
PASSING – SCC: Harvey 0-2-1 0, Gillis 0-1-0 0. BUR: Giffin 7-9-0 128.
RECEIVING – SCC: None. BUR: Musick 3-49, Thompson 1-46, Noonan 2-24, Greenwood 1-9.
PUNTING – SCC: Leimkuhler 3-46.0. BUR: None.