Published September 26, 2008
I was riding back from my son's hockey game in Pittsburgh on that day.
Our team lost, but it was just a pre-season game, and regardless, I was on the phone pretty much nonstop since we left Poland four hours earlier.
I love good human interest stories. I love good sports stories. I like reading them in other newspapers; I love when they happen where I live and work. We had one.
Kelly Pavlik won .... he won the middleweight title.
A Sunday’s worth of phone calls cobbled together a plan that was only loosely structured before the fight. We knew only he was coming home Sunday. That plan: “If Kelly wins, we will ... just figure it all out.”
Returning from hockey into the valley off I-76, I pulled onto I-680 and saw a couple police cars with lights active sitting just north of the tolls. Then I saw a fire truck or two off to the side. “News story,” I thought.
As I rounded the curve, the couple police cars were actually about 10 police cars, and the two fire trucks were like four. They were Youngstown vehicles and had surrounded a pickup truck. As it was not a white Bronco and one cop was leaning on the pickup smiling, I eased up expectations.
It hit me, and I asked the toll lady: “Tell me that’s Kelly Pavlik in the pickup.”
Like a pre-schooler excited to go potty, she said: “It’s Kelly! He ... just ... pulled ... through ... I took ... his money ...”
The cops had 680 blocked, but my mild annoyance disappeared when I thought of the great moment for my son to be part of.
I’m a sports participant; not a sports viewer; I don’t care to stand in line for celeb photos and I own no autographed jersey or ball — except for the T-shirt my Mite hockey players signed for me last year. Call me to watch football, and I might have to cut the lawn; call me to play football and the lawn can wait.
But when you have kids, it changes. There was a likely mob of 5,000 people awaiting Kelly, but we’d have a front-row seat, I thought.
So I gave Mitch the choice:
“Mitch, we can take the first exit and go home or follow this escort wherever it goes and be part of history.”
Mitch chose history. And I’m glad he did.
For the record, I was the blue mini-van going 80 behind the last police car. I feared a bit when some cop cars, which had pulled off of Kelly’s motorcade to block on-ramps along 680 — eventually pulled up behind us. So I also taught Mitch deception, too.
“Yell ‘Team Pavlik!' if they pull up to us.”
The cops never worried about us.
I returned to civil driving when we pulled off at Midlothian Boulevard and the cops started blowing through stop lights. I became a normal driver again, but watched the horizon to see the police all disappearing north of Schwebel’s Bakery.
It’s hard to believe that was just one year ago. It seems like Kelly’s been “The Guy” for a long time.
In Sunday's Vindicator, Joe Scalzo looks back at Kelly’s year through the eyes of those closest to Kelly, and Kelly himself.
It’s a neat piece. Here are some of the quotes you’ll see Sunday:
“I think Pavlik’s biggest fights are still to come.”
“One day, Hillary Clinton called and Kelly’s like, ‘Yeah, right. Who is this?’ And she’s like, ‘No, this really is Hillary Clinton.’”
“He’s just like a rock star.”
“My personal time has kind of come to an end, put it that way.”
“I was in (Southside Gym) cleaning up on a Sunday and this guy was taking pictures outside. I thought they’d sold the place. I thought I lost it somehow. I said, ‘Can I help you?’ He said, ‘Nah, I drove in from New York today to take some pictures of your gym. Don’t worry. I’m not going to bother you.’ I said, ‘You drove in from New York just to take a picture of the gym?’ ”
“I remember when (Kelly) and my brother would play a boxing game on Playstation or XBox and he’d say to Kelly, ‘Just wait until you’re the champ and you’re on these games.’ ”
Aside from that Sunday, I’ve mostly been a Pavlik spectator.
But this summer, we had a spontaneous idea to do a Team Media vs. Team Pavlik softball event for United Way.
Kelly was in on the planning from the first meeting. It’s cliché at this point, but I was immediately struck by his humble nature, interest in doing well and desire for details. That was in the meeting room.
At softball practices, I was impressed by his drive and dedication. Every sport has that one kid who just lives at the gym or wherever. In hockey, they tag those kids with “rink rat” titles and tease that they’d skate on an ice cube if they could fit a net on it. This was charity softball, and Kelly would have hit fly balls till midnight, as well as shag balls in the outfield until then, too.
At the actual game in Struthers, where 1,000 people gave Cene Park its largest crowd ever, Kelly would have played a triple header if they had let us. His competitive focus is such, if only one person was left in the stands after all three games, Kelly still would have been dissecting his next at-bat unfazed that 999 people had already packed it in for the night.
And he was an angler, too. Knowing I was likely pitching in the real game, when I showed up to practice, he’d make sure I was around long enough to pitch him batting practice.
From that event, I had a nice seat for other parts of Kelly.
Mingling after the game at home plate, he was eager to get a meal and get home. But 50 or so kids waited at the gate .. on the path to his truck. His eyes sunk a bit — kind of like in a movie when a battlefield general looks down the horizon and sees adversity coming down his path. Kelly’s eyes wandered for another exit, there was talk of a quick duck out a back gate for a chance at a hot meal and a normal departure with his wife and daughter.
But he knew he told some kids he’d sign after the game if they hung out. His handlers reminded him of the promises as well. So he resigned himself to saying goodbye to his wife and daughter — and into the pile of hands and Sharpies he dove. Thirty minutes later — he surfaced at Donavito’s all smiles and hungry.
It was also fun having beers at East Side Civics.
There, he truly is just a 20-something regular there -- getting yelled at by the bartender, buying a beer for one person and accepting a beer from another, and settling down for serious analysis of the inner sciences of slow pitch softball.
One year into this crazy new life, he’s still Kelly Pavlik from Youngstown.
Check out some pictures:
This was my celphone photo of my son Mitch, and Kelly on that Sunday -- Title Sunday, if you will.
Here's that same scene when a real photographer like The Vindy's Bob Yosay shoots it.
Here's Mitch on Kelly's neighbor's lawn. Sorry ... And he's holding onto what's likely the most popular Vindicator poster in years. I still see that thing in windows around the valley.
This is a Bob Yosay/Vindy photo in front of Kelly's house. We have a full size version in Mitch's bedroom as we're in the middle of the photo. I'm the big pink dot in back. (Yes, I like pink)
Some media folks took on Kelly and Team Pavlik in softball this summer to benefit the United Way. We won. He threw water at me. In this image of him throwing water at me, youth playground fights and the word "sissy" came to mind, but only just briefly because A) It was charity, B) He's middleweight champ of the world and C) He really is fun to be around.
I hit a double in the softball competition. I stared Kelly down on that one, offering up my svelt offensive lineman physique.