On the death of a man I didn’t know

There isn’t going to be a big point to this post except for me to get something off my chest. This should be fine, since I know nobody comes to this blog expecting profundities anyway.

Back in May, a sweet thing happened during a Houston Astros game. The broadcast team for FOX Sports Houston, where I work, solicited nominations for its “Fan of the Game.” It’s no big deal, really. They come interview you for the broadcast and that’s all there is to it. They ended up choosing a 21-year-old man named Tom O’Brien, who had  Hodkin’s lymphoma. When the interview was over, the host asked Tom if there was anything else she could do for him, and he said he wanted to meet Craig Biggio, a former Astros star.

Well, she went and found Biggio, who came down and sat with O’Brien for a few innings. Anyway, my boss asked me to do a story on this. It had been a touching moment, a feel-good moment.

So I called the kid, and proceeded to have the most gut-wrenching moments of my entire career and one of the most crushing moments of my life.

Tom told me he had been getting cancer treatment for a while, but nothing was working. Recently the doctors had told him there wasn’t anything more they could do to help him. The cancer had spread too far.  No sense waiting for death in a hospital bed.

I could tell Tom was glad someone called. I got the sense he just wanted someone to hear his story. At the end of our conversation,he told me two or three times to call back if I needed anything else.

He told me he wasn’t afraid of dying anymore, and I could tell from his voice that was the truth. But he started crying when he said he worried about his family.

“It’s probably going to be mid-summer,” Tom said.

Sure enough, Tom died June 17. They buried him six days later, which happened to be my birthday. I thought about him last night, and Googled his name. The obituary came up.

I did not know Tom, obviously. I had a half-hour conversation with him, and I had it for my job. It bothered me when the story came out, because a lot of the reaction to it was was in that “What a great story!” vibe. But this was not a great story. This was an awful story. This was a story about a 21-year-old kid who knew he was going to die. And so many of the readers missed that, because all they saw was Craig Biggio doing a kind thing. Some ballplayer talks to a stranger and he’s a hero.

I hope this doesn’t sound grouchy towards Biggio, because he did to a kind thing for a stranger. He did, quite literally, all he could have possibly done for Tom O’Brien on May 7, and I know Tom appreciated that very much. He told me Craig Biggio had always been his hero; he had loved the way Biggio carried himself. Tom admired the classiness of Biggio’s career.

But I had a hard time with the story because I knew that was what would happen. Of course, had Biggio not been a part of it, we would not have run the story. Biggio is what turned this into a news event. That’s just the way it works.

I don’t blame anybody for anything, I just couldn’t help but feel a little icky about the whole thing, like I was exploiting Tom O’Brien. Like we all were. Some people “liked” my writer page on Facebook because of that story. My company got a bunch of Web traffic from it. Biggio got credit for being a good guy. And none of it would have happened if Tom O’Brien hadn’t been dying. (And I fully appreciate the irony of writing about this again, on my personal blog).

I don’t know for sure if Tom saw the story. I assume he did because he asked me when it would be out, but I never heard from him again. I hope it made him feel good to see his name in print. I know that can be a thrill of its own. And I hope it made him feel, if nothing else, that he had been noticed.

Tom’s obituary in the Houston Chronicle.

My story about him.