Who’s that guy standing by the star?

by Gary Shelton on February 13, 2018 · 4 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Bucs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Rays

Tuesday, 4 a.m.

Allow me to introduce myself. I'm the least popular guy in the room.

I'm the one standing in the shadows. The one you don't notice. The one you elbow past getting to the celebrity. I'm the guy whose star doesn't shine

That's okay. I've spent a lifetime being around people more famous than me. They live in the headlines. I make do with a byline. It works for both of us.

I covered Bear Bryant and Don Shula, Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier, Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps. I was there when Tonya Harding's instructions led to a thug playing drums on Nancy Kerrigan's knee. I

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covered Bo and Herschel, Tebow and Lee Roy. I covered Brooks and Sapp, Lynch and Barber. I watched Yzerman win a Stanley Cup. I say Mary Griffin Joyner run. I saw Marty and Vinny skate. I saw an opposing player boo O.J. Simpson before it was fashionable. I took batting practice with Mickey Mantle at a Fantasy Camp. Joe Montana ran by me leaving the field and asked me for a beer.

But it isn't always all sports. If you spend enough time around a big event, well, the celebrities among us do, too.

And, so, my life often has read like a People Magazine.

* * *

It was 2003, and outside, it was kind of noisy. But not in the double-wide trailer where Paul Newman had set up camp. Noise wouldn't dare invade the resting spot of the cool. Newman was in St. Petersburg for the Grand Prix, and somehow, I had finagled an interview. He offered to make me a sandwich while we talked.

For almost an hour, Newman and I chatted. He talked about the silliness of celebrity, of a woman who had come on to him simply because of his blue eyes. "I'm not even sure you have the bluest eyes in the room," I joked. Thank goodness, he laughed.

We talked about charity, and about acting, and about the original Slap Shot, where his team was threatening to move to, of all places, St. Petersburg, Fla. It was a nice interview, and he was charming, easy company.

As I left, Newman asked if Mario Andretti had driven me around the track. No, I said, another driver had. "And I was so scared I talked to everyone I know in heaven," I said.

Newman's voice turned gravelly. "If Mario drives you," he said, "you'll talk to everyone you know in hell." I still wish I had that on tape. It would be on my answering machine.

And so it goes.

*  *  *

When I covered the Dolphins, a lifetime ago, they played a preseason game in England. So, every day, I stood on the sidelines and watched ... along with author James Michener. He was a grand old guy even then, and we talked books (I had read Centennial and Space). We talked football. We talked England.

This one isn't so much about me, but in those days, the Dolphins had an equipment man named Bobby Monica. Bobby was a wheeler-dealer, and he always had something working. Somehow, he had scored a few appearances on Miami Vice (in its heyday) as a bartender.

In return, he invited Don Johnson to a game. And Johnson was starstruck by Don Shula.

After the game, a p.r. guy introduced the two of them. "Coach, this is Don Johnson of Miami Vice"

Mind you, Shula hadn't watched television since the Phil Silvers Show, probably. So he gave Johnson a limp handshake.

"Coach, you do such a. great job," Johnson said.

"You, too," Shula said, thinking Johnson worked for the vice squad of the Miami police..

"Great," Johnson said. "You'll have to come and watch us come shoot sometime."

After he walks away, Shula turned back to the p.r. guy: "What are they going to shoot?" he asked. "A bunch of crooks."

One day, I was standing on the sideline between Shula and Joe Namath, who had come to training camp. A p.r. guy approached me. "That guy has a request," he said to me. "Could you move?"


*   *.  *

At Super Bowls,I attended press conferences with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and the Rolling Stones. The best one, though, was by Prince, who walked out onto a stage and said "In spite of what you've heard, I will take some questions." As the first one was being asked, Prince launched into a wonderful version of Johnny B. Goode. Best. Presser. Ever.

I was at a Super Bowl event when Bruce Willis took the stage and launched into Young Blood. I saw Tim Robbins in an NHL all-star game (my daughter was in a wedding with Robbins' partner at the time, Susan Sarandon). Jean-Michele Cousteau told me that any time you step in salt water, anywhere in the world, within 60 seconds a shark knows you're there. I played golf with Lee Roy Selmon.

It was also at a Super Bowl -- one in Tampa -- when I heard myself being paged. When I got there, the author Michael Connelly was there. I had met Mike in a Bucs' press box -- together with John Romano -- and we hit it off. Connelly was hawking his new book. Romano and I were in it. I didn't solve the crime, and John didn't get the girl, but it was still cool.

* *  *

On the day that FSU radio analyst Vic Prinzi died, I was working on his obit. And everyone kept telling me stories about Vic and his buddy, Burt Reynolds. So I decided to chase down Burt. This guy had a number for that guy who had talked to this guy who knew Burt, that sort of thing.

And so I kept making calls, and kept it up, and I kept it up. Finally, a guy said he thought he could get Burt for me, but he was in Canada (shooting Mystery, Alaska, an underrated film). Finally, I got a number, and I was told that Burt would want to talk about Vic.

An hour later, he called, and it was the damnedest phone call anyone ever had. Burt laughed. He cried. He told stories. He came across as the guy who had been your neighbor for years.

Vic, Burt said, could have been very popular with the ladies. But as soon as a starlet would get interested, he would start talking about how cruel men were to each other, until he became a dear uncle instead of a potential boyfriend. Burt took great joy in telling the story.

*  *  *

Another year, and I was at the All-Star game in Boston. I was having lunch with a friend at Legal Seafood when we noticed, dining alone at the next table, was the comedian George Carlin. We didn't hound him or bother him, but after the lunch, my buddy turned to him and said, "George, you like baseball?"

And suddenly, Carlin was doing pieces from his act, about how he never invested in a team unless it was good, because he didn't want his heart broken. He went on and on for 15 minutes. He seemed to enjoy himself. I certainly did.

* * *

Another all-star game, this one in Anaheim. Will Ferrell popped into the press box and tried to entertain the hacks. I love Will, but that day, he really wasn't that funny. Maybe he should have stretched.

I was covering the Bucs one year. They had lost a lot of close games, and I asked Tony Dungy about it. "Last year, we were Tom Cruise," he said. "We dominated. This year, we're more like James West of the Wild, Wild West."

I thought it was a nice comparison, so I printed it. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Robert Conrad, the actor who had played James West. He was irked. "James West dominated!" he said. "But how about all those cliff hangers?" I asked. But Conrad didn't slow down. He was undefeated, Conrad told me. The Bucs would be lucky to be like James West.

* * *

Over the years, I have gotten to know Harlen Coben, the author and a great human being. I hosted the late Robert Parker for a Times event, but Parker just wanted to tell you what celebrities loved his books. He acted like a prince visiting the common folks. I was disappointed, to tell you the truth.

I exchanged pleasantries with Spike Lee after the Yankees won a World Series game. But once, when the Rays won a big game over the Yankees late in the year, I tweeted that "38,000 fans who all look like Joe Pesci went away disappointed.

Later that night, it was retweeted ... by Joe Pesci.

*  *  *

I'll say this about pro wrestlers. They're cool.

Oh, I know. As a sport, it's so rehearsed they should qualify for Academy awards. But by and large, the wrestlers I've been around are huge sports fans, and they have a lot of stories to tell.

Over the years, I got to know Brian Knobbs of the Nasty Boys, who lives in Tampa and follows the sports teams. One day, he was hanging around the Rays' dugout. He brought along the old manager Jimmy Hart. You remember. The Mouth of the South.

The thing is, Hart had been a member of the 60s music group the Gentrys (Keep on Dancing). So Jimmy and I hung around batting practice and talked 60s rock 'n roll. We never once mentioned a flying drop kick.




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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cecil DeBald February 13, 2018 at 11:13 am

I’ve known just a few people who were well known (big fish in a small bowl) or in their 10 minutes of fame (mostly), and of my small sample I found that the majority of them were just nice people. I read this morning the obit in the NY Times of Jan Maxwell, a simply great Broadway actor, TV, etc. Last line was a quote from an interview; to paraphrase, she said “I feel so lucky to have been an actress, because outside of acting I have absolutely no other skills.” I think that sentiment rings true for many of the best people, famous or not, who recognize the capriciousness of this world we live in.

Great article, Gary. I’m delighted to read that many folks who’s work I’ve admired came across as fine folks. Enjoyed the read.



Gary Shelton February 13, 2018 at 2:58 pm

Thanks, man. I’ve decided this: the bigger the star, the smaller the ego. I’ve heard all of the horror stories, but it’s the mediocre celebrities who let it go to their heads. People like Newman and Reynolds and Lee Roy and Connelly are just guys. Talented guys, but guys.


Larry Beller February 13, 2018 at 4:57 am

Those are great stories Gary. You have had a lifetime of brushes with stardom.

I had 1 memorable starstruck event the occurred with Yogi Berra and Don Zimmer. In 2003, my boss was sponsoring a dinner to honor me on my 25 year anniversary with the company. We had about 20 people in a large private room at the Rusty Pelican restaurant in Tampa. As we were having dinner, some of my co-workers noticed Yogi and Don were having a quiet dinner on the other side of the room. Yogi was with his son and Don with his wife. One brave soul went over to talk to them, then another, and pretty soon I followed them over too. Don Zimmer was very personable but Yogi barely said a word. Of course we were interrupting their dinner. They were very gracious to allow my boss take a picture of me with the 2 of them, which I have framed in my office at home to this day.

Well at the dinner speeches were made about my career with the company. On his way out of the restaurant, Don Zimmer stopped by my table to shake my hand again and asked if I could hit the curve ball. I came back with a lame response and he said, well I’ve heard so many good things about you in those speeches I was just wondering if you could have been a major league baseball player too. We all had a good laugh over that. I’ve always been struck by what a genuinely nice thing that was for him to do for a total stranger, which I was to him.


Gary Shelton February 13, 2018 at 7:10 am

Great story. I never knew Yogi, but Zim was a terrific guy. Used to like the Olive Garden. Would always stop and say hi. Man, the stories that guy could have told.

Thanks for sharing.

By the way, I could hit a curve ball … with my head. I remember leaning into one in high school. It hit me like Ali hit Frazier. Ha.


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