By T.J. Simers
I noticed on my cell phone Clark Judge was calling. I’ve always thought this is how I will learn I have died.
Judge only calls when someone has passed.
We used to be competitors on the Chargers’ beat, as fine a football writing opponent as there was in the business. Now he is the host of “Talk of Fame Network,” knowing everything there is to know about those worthy for the NFL Hall of Fame.
He was in San Diego recently and didn’t call. I was relieved, knowing his pals at the San Diego Union-Tribune must still be with us. And a lot of them are pretty old.
I remember him calling to tell me Craig Stanke had died in his sleep in Florida. It was shocking, Stanke a sportswriter and as good a guy as I have known. And you probably have never heard of him.
I hate that. I spent many of my working years fawning over athletes because they were born blessed, and many of them would have been no match for Stanke as a great guy.
This time Judge was alerting me that Ernie Zampese had died, and again I was reminded how many great people have faded in my rearview window only to die before I showed more interest, more thoughtfulness and more initiative to check on them again.
I should have learned after former Rams’ coach Chuck Knox passed. Gosh, I loved that old warhorse. He was one of my favorite people and I treated him like a shirt once loved now lost in the back of my closet. I tried looking him up once or twice in the Plam Springs area, but my efforts were only half-hearted and then he was gone.
I learned. I heard my favorite coach of all time, Denver-NewYork-Atlanta’s Dan Reeves was in poor health and I sent him an email. Not exactly a warm and fuzzy story, but I got a message in return, and it meant so much even if his wife probably wrote it. And then Dan died.
I could call Vin Scully any time I wanted, but I didn’t even do that after his wife passed. You know, life so busy with an episode of Gunsmoke to watch. Nope, no excuse for letting life get away, but that’s what seems to happen.
Keeping in touch should be a way of life, but then life gets in the way. I have met so many giants who I came to know as just regular-old human beings, but then lost touch. Jeff Kent was really a human being, and fortunately he’s still with us, probably on a motorcyle somewhere.
I could blame it on Los Angeles Superior Court and sitting in there the past decade, but what a cop out. I called Peter O’Malley and asked him to testify on my behalf and before I finished the question he agreed. But what a schmuck I am, never calling Peter just to ask how he is doing and the last time we talked as columnist-baseball guy I was making fun of him for trying to buy the Dodgers again.
It’s easy for me to say he is right up there with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in super humans that I have met, so why aren’t I picking up the telephone to tell him?
Can’t do that anymore with Ernie Zampese. I never met anyone who didn’t like the “Stamper.” He was the Stamper because he would pound a pack of new cigarettes on the back of his hand before opening it.
I wonder what that’s like to be so loved by everyone. Never tried smoking, was that the problem?
Ernie was an assistant football coach, primarily in the NFL, most of his life. He was judged a genius by some of the best players to ever play the game. Dan Fouts adored the guy, and I adored Dan Fouts the competitor.
Ernie had many chances to become a head coach, but he chose the background. I don’t get that, but he had such an impactful career, meaning so much to so many, I just hope he knew that. I can say I didn’t know him well enough as some who really knew him to get off the hook of letting him know what an admirer I was, but what a wasted rationalization.
Ernie seemed to be attached at the hip to Don Coryell, the Chargers’ former head coach, and I spent so many wonderful workdays laughing and carrying on with Coryell. He was so intense, once asked where the Chargers might practice only to learn the Padres were in the World Series and Qualcomm Stadium not available.
“Good for them, good for them,” gushed Coryell and he had no idea.
I loved trying to break through that intensity, and I think he got a kick out of the game we played. We had a dinner a number of years after he left the Chargers, Coryell yelling, “Hell yes, I was fired,” when I asked him if Chargers’ owner Alex Spanos had dismissed him.
Spanos let everyone think Coryell had lost the ability to fire up his players and had just wandered off during the middle of the season. He certainly fired up everyone in the restaurant.
I remember Coryell with such fondness, and I had to look up on Google when he passed. Or maybe Judge called me. Too much of that has happened.
In my own way that’s why I make mention of Ernie Zampese today, maybe the best I can do is draw some attention to the wonderful mark some folks made who others might never have known. It’s only a blog, probably more people sitting in the theater down the blog than readers, but something.
Yeah, I wish you all could have known Chuck Knox like I knew Chuck Knox, the jokester and wonderfully philosophical man who could say things like, “Football players play football” with a straight face.
A man deemed so stoic and cold and boring by much of the media and those sitting in the stands, who pulled me to the side and said, “Don’t you miss any of your daughter’s basketball games as I did; go and I will call you if anything happens.”
And he did, and it has nothing to do with his standing as a football coach, but more as a father.
Nope, I don’t want to be blindsided by Clark Judge again. But I worry, for example, if I call former Times Sports Editor Bill Dwyre to tell him what an amazing life he has had as a father, husband and journalist—he’ll think I’m preparing his eulogy.
Well, he will be 78.