By Ann Liguori
What does one say when a friend emails you and tells you he only has a few more weeks? Yes, only a few more weeks left to live. That’s exactly what happened when I checked my emails in-between my tennis updates for WFAN at the US Open a few weeks ago. It was an email from Mike Celizic, one of the best writers in sports and one of the nicest guys on the planet. And he wrote:
I’m on the way out, Ann. No more treatment to do. I’ll be gone in a few weeks.
You’ve been a fabulous friend. Sorry I couldn’t see you one last time.
The news made me sick. I was so sad. I had to collect myself before doing another update. My friend was dying. He said the chemo was not working. He had left the hospital to be at home in his final days.
I wasn’t sure what to say to him. The email stunned me. I knew I would call him but when and what to say? My mind raced. What does one say when you think this may be the last conversation?
I waited until the next day before calling him. I gathered enough courage to dial his number and when he answered, I could hear the weakness in his voice which made it even more difficult.
I first thanked him for all the times he made himself available to come on as my guest during the middle of the night on my weekly WFAN show. Mike was an excellent sports columnist who covered all sports and a variety of topics for the Jersey Record, and then for MSNBC.com (where he later kept a journal on his struggle with lymphoma) and was an author of several books. He could talk about any sport, any issue, anything. He was never afraid to share his opinion and we had many compelling conversations on the air in the middle of the night.
Mike always wore a fedora. His nickname was the ‘Hat.’ Whether he was covering a story, interviewing an athlete, being interviewed on radio or television or playing golf, Mike’s trademark was his hat. My audience loved him and his Midwest niceness came out as he was always most courteous to everyone. And he always made himself available to come on the air with me. Not once did he say no.
We spoke about golf, one of his favorite pastimes. I told him how much fun it was to play golf with him. Mike was a passionate golfer. One of the first things he told me when he received the diagnosis was that he was upset he would not be able to play golf for awhile.
He then told me that he had no regrets in life. That he felt like one of the luckiest guys around to be able to travel the world, covering and writing about all the great sporting events and stories. He said he felt like he had had a very fulfilling life.
I asked how his family was handling everything. He praised his wife and children and how they cared for him. My heart dropped even more as I knew how tough this must be for all of them. I lost my Dad to cancer and my 22-year-old brother to leukemia years ago so I can relate to the struggle a family endures when their loved one struggles with this awful disease or any tragedy.
I told him to remain positive, that I really do believe in miracles. He said that he was very positive, but didn’t believe in miracles. Mike was an atheist and was not shy about talking about that. The subject came up in several conversations through the years.
One of the great honors in my career was when Mike included a chapter on me in his book with Tony Wainwright called “Moments Of Truth: Real Stories of Life-changing Inspiration.” (New American Library) He so eloquently captured my story among a variety of other people he wrote about including Celine Dion, Bill Parcells and Senator John McCain. He understood the obstacles in the sports business, for both men and women, and wrote: “For the testosterone-driven audience of New York, (Ann hosting, producing and owning her own Sports Innerview cable series) was an idea as foreign as waiting for the light to change before crossing the street.” In writing about the long-running cable series and how I pounded the pavement to acquire sponsors for the show, Mike wrote: “She played it like a tennis match, one point, one stroke at a time, refusing to accept the inevitability of defeat and going deep inside to discover a strategy that would work.” I will forever be grateful that Mike took the time to hear my story, cared enough about it to share it and wrote it so eloquently.
Mike was a friend to a lot of people in the business and a wonderful conversationalist as my friend Jared Max from WCBS Radio wrote.
Steve Adamek, a colleague of Mike’s from The Record in New Jersey and a golf buddy, remembers Mike as a class act.
My friend Tara Sullivan, another colleague and columnist for The Record, shared a ‘Hat’ story with me. She said when she was a young reporter, she was covering the Yankees when they clinched the pennant in Boston. The number of clubhouse badges given to the media is limited in these situations and she did not have a clubhouse badge to witness the team celebration after the Yankees won the AL East title. She was sitting next to Mike Celizic and he handed her his clubhouse badge and told her: “Here, take mine. Every writer should experience this at least once…” That was Mike Celizic. “He wasn’t just great in print, he was great in person too,’ says Sullivan. “It’s a great loss.”
Mike passed away on Wednesday, 14 days after our last conversation. As difficult as it was to have this last conversation with a friend, I’m happy we did. Here’s to the Hat. An original. A Classic. One of the Best in the Business.