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A giant of a little man

Don Rogers

The guy talked for an hour to an audience of a rapt 400 with not so much as one “um.”Last week I watched best-selling author and sports columnist Mitch Albom show up just minutes before his speech at the Vail Marriott, meet eyes with no one, rock in his seat at the head table in the banquet room, and look pretty thoroughly as if he were in pain while organizers of the event spoke their introductory words. Nerves, obviously. Hey, I could relate. You’ll never catch me giving a speech to a crowd of 40, never mind a packed ballroom.Then. Showtime. This little guy who exuded no personal presence whatsoever switched on. No notes. No apparent plan. He just got up and started speaking. Commanded, actually. Oh yeah, I was impressed.He was the master of exaggeration for effect, summoned voices of characters, painted pictures out of words and took us places. Even sang. I know he inspired people because later I heard anecdotes about him that involved tears. Not bad for a sportswriter who stumbled onto a higher road just trying to help an old prof dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.Surely you’ve heard of Mitch Albom. He wrote the best seller – No. 1, baby – “Tuesdays with Morrie.” And six years after that he wrote “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” at least in part in honor of a beloved tough-guy uncle who thought of himself as a “nobody” yet touched lives around him in lasting ways never considered in life itself.I haven’t read “Tuesdays with Morrie,” although I intend to now. Insensitive dolt that I undoubtably am, I wasn’t overly impressed with “Five People.” It seemed a little contrived. Maybe I expected too much from the hype about it. I found it … OK. Now, listening to Albom tell the story behind it, that got me. It’s fiction, but based on a brawny uncle who never quite recovered from World War II and never did nothing with his life, or so he thought. This book, last week still No. 3 on The New York Times bestseller list, has floated up there for a couple of years now. Plainly, it’s touching a lot of people, just as “Tuesdays with Morrie” continues to do.”Tuesdays,” I gather, is all about the wisdom sparked in visits Albom taped with his old sociology professor in his mentor’s final days. I’m suspecting I may find more in this one than I did in basically the sequel dealing with mortality and how to live life and connect to other people. Just something about the intensity of Albom’s ad-lib memories of Morrie and their relationship make me think so. Also, the number of people who have lost loved ones to diseases such as cancer seem to relate deeply to this story.Albom’s message from the dais resonated, no question. It’s all about connecting to people, and through that enriching their lives in profound ways you have no way of knowing at the time. Then the speech ended, the wizard disappeared to a side room for book signing – and shrunk. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone loom so large in a performance and then shrink so small in person. Now, this is the harsh test of an admirer on a poor guy who stood tall for a crowded ballroom and then endured a line of at least 300 people before I even talked with him. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hold our failure to connect against him. Or me. Expectations of celebrities are tricky. Best to separate the performance and the sheer talent from the personality. I learned that much with such luminaries as O.J. Simpson, Steve Garvey and Kobe Bryant. Appreciate what they do, but don’t pretend to know the person. If anything, this just made me more intrigued, given the passionate and the commanding call to remember how we connect to each others’ lives in truly lasting ways. That was inspiring. But as Albom said, in I believe the most genuine part of his speech, “You don’t know me. You don’t. …”In person, I was just one of way too many people in the poor guy’s face. We fans are a burden that can be too great for our introverted heroes. I’m what you might call a quiet extrovert, energized by others even if I’m not an outsized personality myself. Others, such as I suspect, Mitch, are drained by the press of people demanding attention from them beyond the performance.I imagine the guy is fine if he has a good solid subject to chew on, a speech to give, someone leaning on him for encouragement. But if it’s possible to feel sorry for an incredible success, an inspiration to millions of people, a fellow with more talent than any sportswriter since Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times legend, I did. Maybe that was inappropriate. Misguided. He said it in the moment I most identified with him. “You don’t know me. You don’t.”I don’t know. It sounded a touch lonely to me. Maybe he needs to read his own books. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado


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