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Article updated: 9/30/2011 7:50 PM
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Willhite reminisces on his life as a sports writer
 

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Willhite reminisces on his life as a sports writer
  • Twenty-two years later, living the life of a sports writer still feels like a dream.

    Purchase Photo | Twenty-two years later, living the life of a sports writer still feels like a dream. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

My life as The Accidental Sports Writer began on April 4, 1989.

I remember the date not because I sensed the launch of a long-term adventure, but because the Cubs played their season opener that afternoon.

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Nursing a 1-run lead, closer Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams loaded the bases and then struck out the side to set the tone for a remarkable summer.

As for me, I was just glad to find a reason to get off the couch in the Des Plaines apartment I couldn't afford. I was 21 years old with a Finance degree and two failures (junk bond-based mutual funds salesman and secondary mortgage salesman) on my resume.

With no income and much outgo, I felt lucky the Daily Herald hired me as a part-timer to answer the phones and cover Glen Ellyn's burgeoning youth soccer and baseball scenes.

The dollars could tide me over until I found a steady banking job with normal hours.

Well, I never found that job. Never looked, really. That's how quickly I became hooked on sports writing and the Daily Herald.

Right from my first assignment (a 0-0 tie between U-10 girls soccer teams in Glen Ellyn), I couldn't believe my good fortune.

Twenty-two years later, it still feels like a dream.

I estimate I've written more than 4 million words on athletes and the events in which they played -- including so many moments that mean so much to so many.

• The 2005 World Series, where part of the gig involved getting splashed with champagne as the White Sox went wild in Houston's visitors clubhouse.

• The 2010 Stanley Cup, where part of the gig involved navigating Philly's ice in dress shoes to chronicle the Blackhawks and their families as they celebrated the capture of the greatest trophy in sports.

• Top-ranked Illinois' 2004-05 run to the NCAA championship game, a joy ride that might be imitated but never duplicated.

(Though, really, few college basketball games were anything short of great).

• I helped chronicle the 1998 Bulls championship…the 2003 Cubs' run, including the drunken fans' reaction to Steve Bartman... several Final Fours... several U.S. Opens... several PGAs... Northwestern's 54-51 football win over Michigan on a magically chilly November night in 2000...

• Heck, I even got in the ring with Muhammad Ali 10 years ago as part of a day-long visit to his estate in southwest Michigan. Somewhere I have a photograph of my gloved fist resting on Ali's nose.

I list these events primarily because they're the ones casual sports fans might recognize (and also because I didn't hate some of the stories I wrote for the occasions).

But I must admit, with two days remaining in my Herald tenure, I get most nostalgic when thinking about the 10 years I spent covering DuPage County preps.

Yes, the White Sox went 86 years between World Series and the Blackhawks 49 years between Stanley Cups, but history's weight made those victory celebrations feel like two parts elation and three parts cathartic release.

But there was always something so immediate, so intense, about the emotions that came with covering Friday night football and basketball.

Because teenagers are neither encumbered by history nor consumed by thoughts of tomorrow, there's only the crosstown rival on the other side that must be vanquished right this minute.

Witnessing the victor's genuine joy at night's end always offered such an incredible rush.

In a similar vein, I loved covering cross country and track meets for the moments when a boy or girl pushed past their barriers and the magnitude of their achievement registered on their face.

Really, can there be a better job than getting to share, as a credentialed bystander, in someone's lasting triumphs?

I've always told friends my job beats working for a living, but I've reached a point in life where I prefer to share more of my children's triumphs (and travails).

Every night I've been reporting on a game has been a night I've missed at home.

So after Northwestern and Illinois determine a winner at Memorial Stadium on Saturday -- a game I've been awaiting eagerly since last year's whiz-bang event at Wrigley Field -- I'm going to tap out a few stories and then let somebody else enjoy the press-box view.

Please understand I know I have thousands of coaches and athletes and parents to thank for answering my calls and sharing some time.

One of these days, I'm going to purchase 25 percent of the internet and fill the space with the names of all the people I've had the pleasure to know.

For all the times an interview transformed into a conversation and a chortle, thank you. For all the laughs in the press box and the thrills on the field/court/track, thank you.

To the folks on Facebook and Twitter who typed kind things when I revealed my decision to give up this gig, thank you for reminding me how fortunate I've been.

Lastly, to all my teammates past and present at the Herald, I'm struggling to come up with a way to convey how I feel.

Let's just say I'll always be indebted to you for the happiest Accident ever.

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