I was just a nobody.
In my mid-20s, I was a Fresno State dropout who answered phones on The Fresno Bee sports desk and covered the occasional high school football game, very well aware that covering Coalinga at Woodlake was the journalism fast track to nowhere in particular.
Then, Charlie Waters walked into the newsroom, with that Arizona-chapped skin and oversized ears with a nose to match.
His unblinking eyes gave me a good once-over, piercing through the unrefined dross, the spell-check failures and country-mouse grammar … and decided this underweight kid with a Selma, Alabama, accent from Selma, California, could be a somebody after all.
"Bring me a story," Waters liked to say.
There I sat Saturday in a middle pew, saying goodbye to the greatest influence on my journalism career. It's been 15 years since I met Charlie during one of his loading dock smoke breaks in back of The Fresno Bee. I have no idea what the Methodist minister said during his memorial service because all I could hear was Charlie's voice telling me to bring him a story.
My eyes kept springing leaks because I realized that, if it wasn't for Charlie, I may never have ever become somebody worth reading past the jump every once in a while.
Sure, if Waters was an editor's coaching tree, I was a low-branch writer. I didn't win a Pulitzer Prize like John Branch at the New York Times, or run an amazing sports talk show like John Canzano in Oregon, or become a premier baseball writer like Jeff Passan, or a college basketball writing star like Eric Prisbell for the Washington Post and USA Today.
I'm a mostly retired sportswriter who writes a Sunday Sports column on the side, if only because the kids need shoes. I didn't have the blood ties of so many relatives at the church service, or the lifelong connection of his former band mates, or the polished titles of the newspaper executives in the room.
I looked around the room and felt like a nobody who became somebody because of Charlie.
Charlie is the one who taught me that you can be a great reporter without being a great writer, but you can't be a great writer without being a great reporter because all that produces is fluff. So he taught me how to unearth details and ask the right questions and smell a rat.
When I put writing and reporting together and brought Charlie a story about the hapless Fresno High football team, and the story took fifth-place in a national writing competition, Charlie didn't tell me congrats.
He told me I was robbed. "You should have won," he said in that grouchy newspaperman voice of his. Charlie made me believe I was better than fifth.
He coached me until fifth place turned to first place. He mentored me until I got hired to cover the NFL — or the Oakland Raiders, at least -- for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Charlie believed in me when I had done nothing to merit such faith. He found people who by all appearances were journalism nobodies, and inspired and trained them to become the somebodies they always were, but they just didn't know it yet.
He made good writers better, and better writers great.
Charlie is why you've got printing ink on your thumbs right now. He spent a lifetime making sportswriters who made sports pages worth still reading.
"Please know of my affection for you and how proud you made me at The Bee," Charlie wrote me in our last email exchange, before the cancer got vicious.
Thank you, friend. I never would have done it without you.