Chris Jones' lessons learned

THIS IS MY last appearance on the back page of ESPN The Magazine. I haven't really occupied this space long enough to have earned a farewell column, but I want to pass along what I've learned while writing it. This page has become an important piece of real estate for me. For a guy who usually wrote long, it started as a kind of prison. It turned into a kind of school.

One of the joys of this job -- in fact, its greatest privilege -- is that it allows you to meet people who are better than you. They are smarter, tougher, more determined, more of everything you might wish to be. We watch sports because of the examples they give us, the long parade of men and women who not only do things the rest of us can't do but know things the rest of us don't know. The best subjects help bridge the gap between us and them -- between our watching and their doing, and so between our thinking and their knowing. They become revelations. Every good writer dreams of writing a passage that makes one mysterious reader, somewhere out there, feel as though he's watching magic. Perhaps selfishly, I write so that I can pursue the same sensation without having to endure a clumsy middleman like me: I want to meet someone who shorts out the wiring in my brain and my chest.

It would have been worth my becoming a writer if only for the half hour I got to spend in Michael Weiner's office last summer. The head of the Major League Baseball Players Association was dying of brain cancer, and he understood better than most that our time together is short. He set a land-speed record for lessons, including how we might find hope in the face of even true hopelessness. "Every moment has meaning," he said, and I can still hear him saying it. After we said goodbye, I was walking down a hallway with a man named Greg Bouris, who had won me those 30 precious minutes. Greg asked me how I was doing. He didn't ask it the way we normally ask it, not really caring about the answer. He cared about the answer, and suddenly I couldn't give one. I peeled off into an empty boardroom with a portrait of Marvin Miller on the wall and a view of Manhattan on a beautiful day, and I surprised myself by how hard I cried and about how many things.

That afternoon became the essence of this column for me, but I'm so grateful that Michael, who died in November, was far from alone in his wisdom and his generosity with it. The word that has made every other word possible on this page is yes. The NHL let me walk around my hometown with the Stanley Cup and a lump in my throat for a few hours, and oh my god: best day ever. Ricky Williams and Mike Pettine and Doug McDermott showed me the power that comes in charting your own course. Oliver Luck gave me pointers on how to be a better father, and Keith Van Horn gave me pointers on how to be a better son.

I learned as much from less famous men and women who proved more than capable of performing their own miracles. Rohit "three-Heat" Walia explained how an underdog could beat a lifelong winner like Pat Riley at his own game. Kacie Herrick reminded me of the sanctity of a single second, even in a marathon. Tim Byrdak's lifetime MLB pass and Ian Klinger's hawk wings showed me the small but permanent glories we can achieve just by keeping the faith. Joe Paterno sculptor Angelo Di Maria, Dan Wheldon fan Ann Babenco and Odin Lloyd's semipro teammates taught me how to respond when events beyond our control leave emptiness in the places we thought we would see filled forever.

I owe these former strangers and dozens of others like them my sincere thanks. Each of them has given me a gift, the kind that only our silence will allow us to receive. That's the most important lesson this column has taught me. Now I hope one mysterious reader, somewhere out there, might not just hear it but feel it too: Shut up and listen. Everybody talks. None of us listens nearly enough anymore, especially to the people who most deserve our ears. Do you want to wake up tomorrow morning and instantly join the ranks of the better ones? Ask questions, and then be quiet. Wait. Be the only person in your corner of the world who cares about the answers. Be the listener.

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