I think it's impossible to be a Detroit sports fan and not know who Tom Kowalski is.
Certainly, if you're a Lions fan in metro Detroit — or throughout the state of Michigan — you're all too familiar with the man affectionately called "Killer" (like the old pro wrestler) by colleagues, friends and fans.
And you must be equally stunned to have learned about his shockingly sudden death on Monday.
Kowalski would surely wince if I were to say the man was the Detroit Lions for so many of us. It wasn't a story until Killer had something to say about it. A consummate professional like Kowalski would probably cringe at being the story right now. But it's impossible not to address what a gaping loss his passing has created in the lives of so many people in the metro Detroit community.
The man was ubiquitous during football season, appearing on WDFN and FOX2 Detroit, along with the blanket coverage he provided readers as the Lions' beat writer for MLive.com. He was so entertaining while keeping fans informed, quite literally letting people into his home when posting video commentaries. And so generous with his time in talking to people on the radio, TV, Twitter, and in person that you couldn't but feel as if you knew him.
Really, we did know him. Because Kowalski didn't act one way on the air or in print, and then another way in his private life. What you saw was what you got with him. He was that inquisitive. He was that warm. He was that funny.
He was literally a towering presence on the Lions beat. You couldn't miss him. On the handful of occasions I was fortunate enough to cover a Lions game, Kowalski was someone I had to watch. Not just because he was so good at his job. But you could tell he really enjoyed it. I remember not only being kind of overwhelmed, but also envious.
One of the first things someone asked me after I worked a Lions game as media was whether or not I saw Tom Kowalski. I smiled. Of course that was the first question that came to mind.
I can't even imagine how those who worked with him on a regular basis must be feeling right now. The thought of Kowalski not in the press box or locker room at Ford Field, not on the sidelines or media area at the Lions' practice facility in Allen Park is almost unfathomable. From afar, it's stunning. For those closer to him, it has to be absolutely shocking that he's gone.
Just like that. So quickly. And so young, at age 51.
Kowalski is someone to also be tremendously admired for how he did his job. As David Mayo pointed out in his tribute at MLive, the Lions beat is probably the most competitive in Detroit sports. And Kowalski had to compete against two institutions in the Detroit Free Press' Curt Sylvester and Detroit News' Mike O'Hara.
But Killer not only held his own, he paved a new path. And he did it without having to sensationalize rumors or play "gotcha" journalism. Appearing so much on radio made him far more prominent and accessible to fans. And when media began to evolve, relying more on blog posts, podcasts, and eventually Twitter updates, Kowalski adapted wonderfully. Frankly, he adapted so well that he left his colleagues in the dust. Everyone else had to catch up to him.
Above all, let's not forget just what Kowalski had to cover in his nearly 30 years on the Lions beat. He had to watch some awful football on the field and witness absolute incompetence off the field. Covering the Matt Millen era of Detroit Lions football probably warranted combat pay. Yet not too many reporters get to cover a NFL team, and he always worked as if he knew that.
Kowalski never failed to give his readers and listeners every scrap of information they wanted and more, even when many probably wanted to wash their hands of those terrible football teams. Because he knew how insatiable the appetite was and is for the Lions in Detroit. No fanbase has ever been better served.
Whether it's justified or premature, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the Lions going into this season. If this team actually does make a significant turnaround, it just doesn't seem fair that Kowalski won't be around to cover it. It's hard to imagine being a Lions fan without him.
Rest in peace, Killer. You will be deeply missed.