Barron Wortham and Me

Note: I posted this on Facebook on November 30. I’m re-posting it here with Barron Wortham’s permission (his exact words were, “Post it girl. Maybe it will brighten someone’s day.”). Things have been really lousy in a lot of circles lately, and in the midst of a lot of angry social media-ing on my part I also wanted to put something positive out there. The fact that this was an interaction between a black male athlete and a white female reporter is incidental and, in another way, crucial. Mainly, what matters is that it’s true.

I was about to comment on a post by Barron Wortham, as I occasionally do, when it occurred to me, as it occasionally does, that he probably accepted my friend request without actually knowing who I am. So instead of adding my two cents to something he shared on his page, I’m going to tell him (and all of you) why I sent that friend request in the first place.

In 1997, when the Houston Oilers moved to Memphis as the Tennessee Oilers (they wouldn’t move to Nashville until the following season and they didn’t become the Tennessee Titans until the season after that), I was a 24-year-old rookie sports writer from New Jersey living in the extremely foreign Jackson, TN. I had no sports reporting experience and was learning on the job under the tutelage of some deeply patient coworkers. One of the perks of working at a small paper with generous editors is that when the area got its first-ever major league franchise, everyone on staff got the chance to join the coverage team for a couple of games. I joined the crew for one preseason game and also for the final game of the season.

1997 was a lost season for the Oilers, who played their home games at the woefully inadequate Liberty Bowl stadium at the University of Memphis. My assignment at the season closer was to talk to all the pending free agents and find out whether or not they hoped/expected to re-sign with the team. Since I had been to only one other game, and that months earlier, the players and I didn’t know each other at all. Add to that the fact that there were no name plates on the locker room stalls to identify the roughly 10,000 players who make up an NFL team, and I had absolutely no idea what any of my interview subjects looked like.

I approached the media relations guy like a deer in headlights, trying to sound professional as I asked him to point me in the direction of the players I needed. He glanced around the room, called out “Barron!” and assured me I would get to speak with all the free agents (I believe there were 6 or 7, but a lot of years have gone by and that’s one detail I’m not sure about).

Anyway, as soon as the “Barron!” call went out, a huge, grinning linebacker wearing nothing but a towel came barreling toward us through the crowded locker room. The media guy told me that this was Barron Wortham, one of the free agents I needed and also the man who would help me track down all the others. Now, keep in mind that the team was coming off what has to have been an extremely frustrating transitional season in which they missed the playoffs and played to less-than-passionate crowds in a very temporary home. The mood in the room wasn’t as bad as you might have expected, but it wasn’t exactly jubilant, either.

Still, Barron Wortham could not have been kinder to me. After patiently answering my questions he eagerly embraced the role the media guy had assigned him, spotting the other players I needed and bellowing out their names to lure them over. He made sure I got to interview every one of his fellow free agents, seemingly happy to play host to a slightly timid reporter he had never met before and likely would never see again. He had nothing to gain; he helped purely because he was a helpful person by nature. He didn’t leave my side until he was sure I had everything I needed. Only then did he, still smiling and wrapped in that towel, disappear back into the crowd of players to finally get dressed and head home.

I have (obviously) never forgotten this act of generosity, and whenever someone asks me my all-time favorite NFL player I proudly answer “Barron Wortham.” If you’re reading this, Barron, that’s why I sent you a friend request, and why I’m so glad you accepted it. I’m sure that was just another day at the stadium for you, but it meant the world to me. On behalf of that green 24-year-old and this somewhat jaded 41-year-old, thank you for helping me. And more than that, thank you for smiling while you did it.

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