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Monday, October 15, 2012

My first first-place honor ... and the crap I went through to get it

I've always said that awards are nice to gain, but not ever going to define me ... just my career. And as I've found out over the last few years, winning a lot of awards has meant diddly-squat when it comes to advancing further in my career.

I find myself apologizing for being talented and over 40 and sarcastically wishing I'd never do it again, but that's a totally different matter.

Those awards are collecting very nicely in my closet, thank you.

But when you're younger, you're looking for recognition for different reasons -- appreciation for a job well done and acceptance among peers. It shows them that you a) have a mastery of the English language and b) you can tell a story that will go beyond the first three paragraphs.

Problem was that it took over 20 years to find that recognition. It's a good thing I started professionally when I was 17 or else I'd really be a bitter, old man. I worked at two institutions where newspaper awards contests were either frowned upon or just not cared enough. As a matter of fact, as a correspondent at the Ocean County Observer I was actually told I should enter my work by one of our news editors who, I guess, took a liking to what I did. Well someone must have said something to my sports cohorts who were looking to enter their work and were told there were only so many spots to enter in the contest and I just happened to have taken up some of the spots.

I can still remember one cohort trying to be gentle as he could by telling me, "You've gotta get your stuff out of there." It was sad and it was almost hilarious the way he was trying to talk to me like I was some teenager who might have gone out and done something wrong. There was nothing I could do, though ... they were late in asking me to withdraw my contest entries.

Needless to say, I didn't win. And, frankly, I didn't really care about contests after that. That incident in 1988 was enough to tell anyone to go "f*ck off" when it came to contests. When I got let go by the Key West Citizen, though, in 2002, I knew one of the big hindrances in finding another job was what kind of job swagger I had. No awards, and it would make it harder for me to find a job, which for 16 months I couldn't. I don't wish my 16 months of exile from this business on my worst enemy. My business is very, very cruel -- they want younger so they can pay cheaper. I defy any newspaper boss to tell me otherwise, and I still won't promise to laugh in their faces.

In 2003, I joined the staff at the Palatka Daily News and they were very headstrong about entering in contests that were available to us. I had as much pessimism over entering any of my work the same way Randy Quaid had pessimism that the Cleveland Indians were going to the World Series in "Major League II." But I went through with it. In 2004, I put my best work forward ... nothing. Not even a mention.

I didn't want to bother anymore. I started believing that 20 years into this business, I may have picked the wrong profession. Problem is, I didn't have any other options as to where to go. I was a one-trick pony -- journalism or bust. But as I've known my entire life, I just trudged along.

Then the story of a lifetime fell into my lap accidentally ... and everything changed.

It was November 6, 2004 at Tampa's Ed Radice Park. This was the night Interlachen High School's Jeremy Criscione won the FHSAA 2A cross country championship in 15:02, a record time, and beat some of the strongest runners in the state in the process while running in the memory of his late coach Dwayne Cox, who had passed away that August. I let whatever I had to write flow freely on the day off from work since we didn't publish a newspaper until Tuesday, November 9.

It turned out to be a 30-inch story that had everything to make it sound like a story of the year. But all the negativity was still allowing me that avenue to believe no one likes my work. Parents and kids and friends are one thing. Your peers are another. So I made a vow to myself that if I didn't win anything in the 2005 contest cycle with this story, I was never entering another story again and truly believing that 21 years in this business have been nothing more than a waste of my time.

Well, lo and behold, wouldn't you know it -- in July 2005, I found out that the Florida Sports Writers Association judges selected that story as the silver-medal winner in my classification of small-to-medium sized newspapers for best sports event. So it was during that late July weekend of the Florida college football coaches convention in Orlando in which we got to interview all the coaches (including FSU coach Bobby Bowden and new kid on the block Urban Meyer of Florida) that the FSWA handed out its honors and I collected my award.

So now I couldn't believe anymore that none of my peers appreciated my work. That was gone. Turns out this was the appetizer for what was to happen next.

In September 2005, I found out that the same story took first-place honors in the "General Excellence in Sportswriting" category for newspapers 25,000 and less circulation at the prestigious Florida Press Club. Even I had to admit it was the highlight of everything I've done up until then. Covering a Super Bowl, a Major League Baseball All-Star Game and two Little League World Series were amazing, but being appreciated by your peers ... that was waaaaaaay cool.

And so I planned on going to the banquet, scheduled near downtown Orlando right off of I-4 with my girlfriend, to not only pick up my honor but any other honors our newspaper won. I had made plans with my great publisher and with the woman who handles all the money at the newspaper a week in advance. They cut me a check for $70, one for myself and one for the love of my life at the time to attend the festivities.

The banquet was to be held on Saturday, October 15, 2005, at the Ballroom at Church Street in Orlando. As was our routine on the days my significant other worked, whether it was weekends or during the week, I'd get home from work around 1:30 in the morning, maybe 2, stay up and watch television out in the living room, then when it was time for her alarm to go off, I'd go into the bedroom. I was never trying to avoid her -- I just hate alarm clocks.

Our lives together were so far better when she worked an overnight shift at the sheriff's office from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. As of early summer 2005, she was now working the morning-to-afternoon shift for which she famously replied to me, "It's not going to affect our relationship," for which I gently retorted, "Yeah, if you say so."

Was she ever naive.

So as I crawl into our bed as she got ready for what would be a half-day at work for her (she had gotten the OK from her bosses to leave early so she could go with me to the banquet), I turned on my favorite Friday night/Saturday morning HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher," a show hosted by the liberal-minded comedian and common-sense advocate. He's not only funny, but he speaks to me in what I believe.

At one point in this particular show, he was talking to an important official in New Orleans about the atrocities that had been taking place involving the police officers and those left without a home recently because of Hurricane Katrina. I don't care who you are, but officers should never gang up to billy-club and mercifully beat the crap out of a helpless man, whether they utter words of defiance at officers or not. The incident was on video, so there wasn't a whole lot of sticking up that any fellow officer could do for these rogues acting out of line in the aftermath of a crisis.

Well guess who took offense to that? Yeah, my "die-in-the-wool-for-my-fellow-officer" girlfriend, who got further annoyed when I agreed out loud after Mr. Maher had said the logical thing about any cop inflicting harm to any person left out on the street to fend for themselves should have their badges taken away.

She went to work in a not-so-good mood. And apparently she came home at about 1 p.m. in a not-so-good mood either. We got dressed, me wearing my green suit and jackets combination that I only got to show off for big events like this which, of course, I had never partaken in before.

She was strangely quiet as we got into my car and took off down US-17 toward DeLand and onto SR-472 and onto I-4. We were listening to the radio for the better part of the time. I believe the Gators were on the radio that Saturday afternoon and she being a big Gators fan wanted to listen. We had gone through half a dozen towns by the time we hit DeLand and I asked her why she wasn't so talkative.

"You don't want to know why," she answered.

"Well, no, I do want to know why since we haven't said a word to one another," I shot back.

"You really don't want me to tell you," she answered back. "Because if I do, I won't stop."

I knew where she was heading with this. She was still pissed off at me about the morning, about my agreeing that cops should be bashed for beating up innocent people regardless of the situation. My liberal-minded views and her conservative ways were about to clash in a not-so-nice manner. Let's get it all out there, girl! Tell all your troubles!

"I don't care. If you need to vent, then do so."

For the next three minutes, she started going off about anything and everything that involved me, my profession, my way of life, my thinking, etc., etc..etc. She wasn't being very kind about it either. But I let her. I allowed her to say what she needed to say, hateful vitriol or not. Then she stepped over the line of what was allowed and what wasn't ... she started going off on my family 950 miles away.

"Your parents are just a--holes!"

I stopped her there. I said she crossed the line and I had no problem turning this car around and driving back to Palatka and "dropping her ass off and hoping it wasn't there when I got home" from the banquet. I can take a lot of crap from a lot of people, but if you start talking badly about my family, you're on the road to your ruination with me. She apologized, realizing she went too far with her poisonous diatribe.

That was it, though. I was turning onto I-4 from SR-472 with another 31 miles to go to get to the Ballroom and the night was ruined.

This should have been a night for celebration. She turned it into a reason why I should never be around another woman for something important again.

 I will admit the next 3 1/2 hours from the time we got into Orlando, parked the car, went inside, had dinner, watched various speakers talk about my business, then pick up the awards for my paper were like going through the motions. By the time the event ended at 9:30 p.m., there was no hanging out with any other media members there to talk and enjoy the company, which I would look forward to ... she had to be back home to our apartment and asleep to go in to work on that Sunday.

The only memories I have from that night other than picking up my award were her criticizing to me privately the way some of the other people dressed in simple dress collar shirts and khakis and me escaping the room for a few minutes to talk to my Uncle Lewis, whose birthday just happened to be that day and that he and his girlfriend were going to be in St. Augustine for that Sunday and I told him that I wasn't going to make it, but thanks for the invite.

We got home at midnight. She actually thanked me for taking her there and she went to sleep soon after.

I let what happened earlier in the day go. That is, I let it go until we started having similar fights about stupid stuff for the next year until our breakup in October 2006. I wondered how life may have been different if I had been a bigger bastard, turned the car around that afternoon, pulled over to the side of US-17 and demanded she take herself out the door and walk back to Palatka. I wouldn't have gone through the last year of our relationship and the wasted four months of an engagement.

It started me down the path of being jaded and cynical toward the opposite sex. I vowed that I would never take another woman with me to another awards ceremony ... that is, if I was lucky enough to be so honored to win another award.

Three years later, I was honored again with awards by the Press Club. This time around, the banquet was to be held at the Daytona Beach Hilton. And my new girlfriend at the time wanted to go. I was hesitant, but I figured, "Heck, it couldn't be any worse than the last one I took with me."

We actually had a good time and made it an awards celebration/birthday celebration for her since it was the weekend after she had her birthday. And she went with me to the 2009 awards at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando as well. She and I had a good time those two years.

But she and I broke up and now it's just myself going to any awards ceremony that involves me getting something. I'm used to it. I don't ever want to force someone to go with me when they're half-hearted about it. Just not my style. I pretty much decided a long time ago that I was going to ride solo in a lot of things in life. And that's OK.

I've been fortunate enough to win a total of 17 awards either state-wide, nationally or within my company, 15 of which have come since 2008. I don't have to prove anything anymore to my peers -- they have told me I'm pretty darned good at what I do.

The awards and sheets of paper that show I won collect dust in my closet. I don't ever let that define me ... just my career.

And it's all good. I enjoy going to any awards ceremony by my lonesome.

After all, it's a definite improvement from the first time I actually took first place in something.

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