Let me tell you a Tom Higgins story -- everybody has a Tom Higgins story -- but first, I should explain just how big a man Tom was. He had to be eight feet tall, and he had a voice that could shake leaves out of trees, and in Charlotte, N.C., before the banks glittered uptown and the Carolina Panthers came in, Tom was the most important man in town.
He became the outdoors writer for The Charlotte Observer in the early 1960s. At around the same time, he also became Charlotte's NASCAR writer. That was the combination in those days, outdoors/racin' writer, and it was the life of dreams for most kids who grew up in the South.
He fished all week.
He went racin' on weekends.
It was hard for some of my friends to imagine anything better.
That wasn't my dream, understand. I moved to North Carolina from Cleveland in high school and didn't care one bit for fishing or NASCAR. Didn't matter. I still read Tom Higgins. You had to read Tom Higgins. His stories demanded it. In those wild days of racin', he wrote about the drivers like he'd been out with him the night before, which he had. He told fish tales about Grandpas and newfangled gadgets and the ones that got away.
So, anyway, let me tell you the story: I became an intern at The Charlotte Observer in the summer of 1987, and shortly after that the paper hired me to be an agate clerk. My job was to type in results. But every now and again, when the editors had run out of options, they would send me out to write a story. I know it was 1987, because it was the year of the NFL players strike.
The sports editor sent me to Charlotte Motor Speedway -- certainly not to cover NASCAR stuff, which I was entirely unprepared to do. Word had gone around that Lawrence Taylor was going to make an appearance, to take in some race-week action. The editor figured I could go out there and write something.
I just found the story I wrote -- Oct. 9, 1987. I was 20 years old. My lede was "Lawrence Taylor says he just wants to play some football." Oh, that's good. It's a wonder that anybody let me stay in this business.
In any case, I don't remember anything about that story. But I remember Tom Higgins. I don't know if that was the first time I'd met him -- I think it wasn't -- but it was the first time we ever talked. He kicked out a chair, engulfed my hand in a monstrous handshake and asked me if I'd ever been to a race track. I had not.
"Nothing to it," he told me, through the haze of smoke that always lingered over NASCAR in those days. There were free cartons of cigarettes everywhere. Tom had his own desk there, in the middle of the workroom; it said "TOM HIGGINS, Charlotte Observer," and it seemed like everything swirled around him. As the day went on, I watched person after person come by to ask Tom if he needed anything. At one point, he asked for a driver, and, like magic, the driver appeared at his side. They called Richard Petty the King, and he was in his own world. But Tom Higgins, now, he was the king of NASCAR.
"Hell, Joe, I should have been a baseball player," he said at one point, bemoaning his inability to hit the curveball. It's a typical small-town North Carolina lament. Years later, in one of my favorite-ever interviews, I talked with Junior Johnson, the Last American Hero, in his garage over 22 different kinds of bacon, and he too said that he wished that he had been a ballplayer.
Tom Higgins instead became the first writer to cover every single NASCAR race of the season. After a time, the readers just came to expect that. It wasn't a race unless Tom told you what really happened the next day.
I remember something else about that day: Lawrence Taylor was in a bad mood. Nobody did bad moods like LT in 1987. He had already done that Gumby thing to Joe Theismann's leg. He played football as if possessed; he was, like Maverick from Top Gun, dangerous. Taylor showed up, and there were probably 20 reporters there -- notepads, recorders, cameras, everything -- and I have this vivid memory of how we surrounded him. Nobody came within 10 feet. There was an invisible barrier around Lawrence Taylor, a force field of loathing. He glared. Nobody moved. He glared. Nobody spoke. He glared. Everyone kept their distance.
And then came that big, beautiful voice straight out of Burnsville, N.C.
"LAWRENCE TAYLOR!" the voice boomed as he walked through the force field with his arm outstretched. "TOM HIGGINS! HOW THE HELL ARE YA?"
At that moment, and I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it, every single part of Lawrence Taylor melted. LT was 28 at the time, but 20 years just disappeared -- suddenly, before our eyes, he was 8 years old again. His glare thawed. His eyes brightened. The biggest smile you ever saw appeared.
"Tom Higgins!" he said. "I've been reading you all my life!"
"WELL, HELL LAWRENCE," Tom said, "IF THAT'S SO, CAN YOU TAKE IT EASY ON MY REDSKINS?"
The two talked for five minutes, maybe 10, and even from our respectable distance away, we could see: Here was a man talking to his hero. And the hero was not the toughest and meanest football player around, the player who all but invented the blitz. The hero was the outdoors/racin' writer from the mountains of North Carolina.
"WELL I GOTTA GO WRITE SOME RACIN'," Tom said, as he shook LT's hand and walked back to his perch on top of the sport. He waved his hand toward us. "YOU TREAT THESE GUYS AND GALS GOOD, YOU HEAR?"
Taylor nodded and smiled and said he would. Tom Higgins walked away. And as soon as he was out of sight, I mean the instant he was gone, Lawrence Taylor's scowl returned and everyone in the media line took one step back.
Tom Higgins died on Tuesday. He was 80. I'd talked to him a few times through the years, but not as often as I'd wished. He was an old-time newspaperman, the guy who knew everything that was happening in his world. I saw Tom a couple of years ago in a restaurant; I was interviewing Kyle Busch. Tom walked over to say hello to Kyle, and he didn't recognize me.
"Tom," I said, and I introduced myself again. He looked tired. He walked with a limp. But he was as big as ever.
"Joe," he said suddenly, as if it had all come back, "I'm so proud of you and what you're doing. I've followed you. I couldn't be more proud."
"Well, Tom," I said, "you taught me a lot."
"Nah," he said, with just a bit of the boom in his old voice. "You still don't know [bleep] about racin'."
And with that he winked, and grabbed my shoulder hard with that big hand of his. I still feel the love of the bruise that took days to disappear.