While in London earlier this week, I received word that my dear and close friend Tom Mazza had passed away back home in Philadelphia.
Tommy's death wasn't unexpected. He had been diagnosed with ALS — more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease — in February. What was surprising was how quickly it took his life. I was informed he died peacefully at the young age of 54.
My children, who adored Tom, called him "Uncle Tommy," but I preferred to call him "Maz."
Maz was the quintessential "Philly Guy" — Philadelphia-born-and-raised, Italian, loud, street-smart, hilarious, opinionated, had answers for all that ailed our sports teams and was the best storyteller I knew. His stories were best told and heard over a three- or four-hour, seven-course meal with lots of good bread, al dente pasta, antipasti, calamari, fish, prosciutto with melon, steamed clams, mussels — and that was just the appetizers. He might have a glass of red wine and I'd have Pellegrino sparkling water. He's always lectured me, "You Mormons are too busy — you don't have vices so you drive too fast and eat too fast, 'cause you gotta go visit the sick." Maz was straightforward, blunt and honest to a fault.
That's how we became friends.
In April 1994, I had just retired from the NFL after spending my final two years with the Eagles to accept a job with a local TV station in Philly. I had only been at my new job for two weeks when I went one afternoon to a dealership to pick up a car I had purchased. The salesman invited me to a waiting room while my car was being cleaned. By now, I had become accustomed to being recognized, sometimes being stared at and having strangers approach me with an autograph request or just to chat about the Eagles.
Maz owned a limousine company and had purchased a stretch SUV through the same dealership and was waiting for it to be detailed. He stared at me for awhile before he approached.
"You're Vai Sikahema!" he said. "Loved you as an Eagle."
"Thanks," I replied. "That's very nice of you."
I had no idea I was about to be blindsided.
"Been watching you on Channel 10," he continued. "Frankly, you're not that good. You're stiff as cardboard. Sometimes you almost seem lifelike."
I didn't know whether to punch him in the face or laugh. Perhaps if I had still been playing I may have punched him and taken my chances in court. But my new employers would probably frown on physical confrontations with viewers. So instead, I offered a nervous laugh as I wondered where my car was.
"Name is Tom Mazza," he said as he stretched forth his hand. I halfheartedly shook it.
"See, here's the thing," he continued. "Viewers will give you a chance because you were likable as a player, but Philadelphians are fickle. If you don't improve, the novelty will wear off and they'll turn you off."
Suddenly, this boob was making sense.
"How do you know this?" I asked. "You in the business?"
"No," he replied. "I have a journalism degree but never pursued it. I own limos. But I make it my business to know my market and what makes Philadelphians tick."
We exchanged numbers and started to talk once a week, then twice a week, and before long we spoke nearly every night as I drove home after my late broadcast. Maz became my own personal one-man focus group.
Among his astute observations, he counseled me not to wear a pocket square or cuff links on TV. "True Philly sports fans don't live on the Main Line (affluent suburb); they're in rowhouses in South and North Philly, South Jersey and in the 'hood," he said. "Most of them don't own a suit and they won't identify with you if you look like a banker. Wear blue or black suits, regular collars and button sleeves. Look sharp but not beyond their grasp."
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