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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about Mitchell Gold, and in it I mention that I ended up getting a chair autographed by both Mitchell AND his dog. Some found that a little unusual.
“That’s not the only thing unusual about my Dad,” would be my daughter’s response.
But I will grant you that I do look at the whole autograph deal a little different than most. I have some sports memorabilia – an autographed picture of Julius Erving in a Virginia Squires jersey, a throwback Redskins helmet (the gold one with the big “R”) signed by Sonny Jurgensen, and a Virginia Tech helmet signed by Frank Beamer and Michael Vick.
The first one I ever pursued was Erving. I grew up in Norfolk watching the brief tenure of pro basketball in the area, and Erving was amazing. At the same time, Jurgensen was the quarterback for the Redskins, and at the age of 13, I thought he was the best quarterback of all time (still do, for that matter).
But it was Erving who soured me on any further sports hero worship. Later in life in the late 1990s, a great friend and business partner knew one of the then-minority owners of the Orlando Magic, and Erving worked for the team at the time. My friend and I were in Orlando, so he arranged for us to get tickets to the Magic game that night and meet my childhood idol.
Sometime in the second quarter, we were told if we went back to the hospitality room, Erving was there. I was introduced to him, told him how much I enjoyed watching him as a kid, and he gave me one of those “Um, yeah…nice to see you…” and walked away. Erving owed me nothing, so I suppose I should not have been annoyed by the 13 seconds of gruffness he provided. But it did tarnish some of those childhood memories, and served as a warning to me if I wanted to keep enjoying those memories, don’t meet those people in person.
Such was the case with Jurgensen, who by all accounts I’ve heard is a great guy. Several of the autographed items I have came from doing charity work for the Washington Redskins Alumni Association, as the director at the time knew I liked him and obtained them. He also offered to introduce me whenever Sonny was at Redskins Park, so I asked if it would end up being like my deal with Erving.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sonny is a wonderful guy. He just doesn’t like to be around people.”
Message received. Radio and television will be the closest I get to Christian Adolph Jurgensen III.
In retrospect, autographs don’t really make sense. Hero worship for athletes you know nothing about other than their exploits on a field or court, who you will never meet and could care less about you, isn’t logical. So I came to the conclusion the only time I would get an autograph would be if I knew the person doing the signing. This would provide a nice memory of that person, although it would virtually rule out any additional sports memorabilia.
It didn’t turn out that way. In 1999, I wrote a website for a friend who owned a chain of dry cleaners, and in return, he gave me two incredible gifts: two tickets on the 40-yard-line at the Superdome that year when Virginia Tech played Florida State for the National Championship, and a full-sized Virginia Tech football helmet he had won in a raffle. He offered to take it and get it signed by Beamer, but I told him no, I’d be happy with just the helmet to add to my collection of VT miniature helmets.
A few months later, I was working for Rowe Furniture, and right down the hall was our Vice President of Sales, a guy named Dick Sorensen. His son, Nick, played for the Hokies, and Dick offered to bring it to Blacksburg and get it autographed. I gave it to him with one request: since I had met Nick, I wanted him to sign it.
Dick gave his son the helmet, but instead of him signing it, he sent it back signed by Beamer and Vick. I had to send it back to get Nick to sign it, and he protested, saying something about it would diminish the value. That would be true if I ever planned on selling it one day, but I don’t get people to sign things for future resale. They become keepsakes in my house forever.
While at Rowe, our chairman, a wonderful guy named Gerry Birnbach, was a huge Maryland fan and also a close friend of coach Gary Williams. When the Terps won the National Title, Mr. Birnbach said if I had a basketball or some memorabilia I’d like signed, he’d get Gary to do it. I told him I only wanted it if Gary AND he signed it. Again, I got the same protest about diminishing its value. But there’s a basketball on my shelf that’s been sitting there since 2002, signed by Gary Williams AND Gerry Birnbach.
My favorite autograph? It has nothing to do with sports. As I mentioned in the story about Mitchell, I was running a company in Los Angeles called The Wexford Collection. I flew back and forth from Dulles to LAX every week, leaving at dawn on a Monday and flying home on Friday for about a year. During that year, as we tried to take a company losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to breaking even, I got to work with some wonderful people that I got pretty close to.
But for all our efforts, we couldn’t quite get it done. We got close to break-even, but I compare it to coming into a game trailing 66-0 in the fourth quarter, you make plays and show improvement, but you still lose 66-31. We ended up selling the facilities (fortunately to a company that rehired most of the staff), but I ended up having to tell 300 people in two different languages one afternoon that they weren’t going to have a job soon. That’s something you never forget.
My last day there before coming back East was right before Christmas. The plant manager came to my office and said they wanted to make something for me so I’d have something to remember them all by. They made a solid alder desk which has been in my office at home ever since, and right before it went into finishing, I inspected it. Then I pulled out the center drawer, took a sharpie, and asked everyone I had worked with to sign the inside of the drawer. Lacquer was sprayed over it so it would never fade or smudge, and the desk was completed.
I look at that drawer every day. The memories of the people make me smile. The memory of standing on that dock telling 300 families they were going to be out of a job, however, makes me work harder, because while we did some very good things, it wasn’t enough. So don't ever be satisfied. Dig deeper.
Every. Single. Day.