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."
As for my performance, he told me, "You're treating sports like it's Beirut. It's not. No one died. It's not life or death. That's what the first 20 minutes of the newscast is about. Sports is our respite from our hectic day or week. Treat it as such. Smile. Laugh when an athlete or coach says or does something stupid 'cause that's what we're doing at home."
His opinions on dress and performance weren't reserved for me alone but others on our news team.
My female news anchor had a black jacket with gold buttons in front and epaulettes on the shoulders that she occasionally wore. When she did, Maz would call my direct line and without even a hello, would say, "Tell Renee the men and I are ready to storm the castle at 0500. We await her command," and hung up. When I walked into the studio for my segment five minutes later, I had to bite my lip as I looked at her military-like jacket.
Maz was fascinated that I am a third generation Latter-day Saint as a Tongan. I invited him to special occasions like baptisms, my sons' farewells and homecomings. He never failed to entertain and regale my family and friends with hilarious stories of his upbringing and attending Catholic school. He relished that as a Mormon, I was sending my kids to Catholic school. He loved to tease me about that with the quip, "Vai's kids go to LDS seminary classes before school and then to the Jesuits to straighten them out," was the version when we'd be in a predominantly Catholic audience, and among an LDS group he'd say, "Vai's kids go to early morning seminary, then go off to Catholic school to straighten out the Jesuits," and we'd laugh uproariously.
When a BYUtv crew came to film a segment with my family last summer for its pilot program "BYU Legends," they asked to interview some of my friends.
Not everyone they interviewed made the segment, but Maz did because he's a walking, talking sound bite.
I invited Maz when we had special guests in our home because he always understood the propriety of situations. LaVell and Patti Edwards stayed with us one weekend while they served a New York City mission and Maz came for dinner. He asked LaVell, "Coach, do you still need a ticket to attend games or do you just point at the name in front of the stadium?" LaVell laughed so hard he doubled over.
Through our friendship, he grew to appreciate missionaries as they were often in our home whenever he visited and he knew our commitment as LDS to
serve. He instructed all his limo drivers they were to offer rides to any "white shirts" they encountered, especially in Philly's most dangerous neighborhoods. More than once, he'd call me from one of his cars, "Hey, I got Elders Jones and Jackson here and I'm dropping them off at their apartment. Their mothers would be a wreck if they saw the neighborhood where they were walking."
Once, I was in Mesa, Ariz., speaking at a fireside when he called as I was arriving at the chapel to tell me he was in Scottsdale on business. I invited him to the fireside and he arrived 30 minutes later with a driver in tow. As he walked in the chapel, I was already at the pulpit, so I invited him to come forward and stand next to me. I introduced him to the audience. Suddenly, he leaned into the mic and took over for about 10 minutes of the funniest stories of his experiences picking up "white shirts" in his limos all over Philadelphia. He closed by saying, "Many of you here have sons and daughters in various parts of the world, perhaps I may have picked up your child in Philly. I have the utmost respect for you and your children." He sat down and someone instinctively clapped, then a few more and then the entire chapel followed suit. In this setting, it somehow seemed appropriate.
Though he loved our "white shirts," he was never interested in being taught the discussions so I respected his wish, though I still occasionally asked.
About six or seven years ago, Maz sold his limo company and became a consultant. Overnight, he became a guru in the limo profession, hired by big and small family-owned businesses all over the world to consult and for advice. He filmed a series of DVDs that were incredibly lucrative. He traveled extensively first-class, stayed in five-star hotels and, of course, was driven in limousines.
Once, he called me from Paris. "I'm in the car with Elders McDonald and Smith from Castle Dale and Hurricane, Utah, near the Louvre. Two hayseeds. One's fluent but the other doesn't speak a lick of French. Told 'em I'm not interested in Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon, but I'd buy 'em lunch."
Before I left for London, I was visiting Maz regularly. Naturally, he was scared. I asked if I could bring two "white shirts" and give him a "Mormon blessing" before I left for Europe. He was deteriorating so quickly I wasn't certain he'd be alive when I returned.
Elders Gough of St. George and Uibel of Alpine from the Philadelphia Mission accompanied me.
ALS had robbed his voice, and because it was painful to swallow, he hadn't eaten solid food in more than a week. Worse, his body was rejecting intravenous feeding so all his nutrition came from milk shakes and smoothies because it cooled his throat. It was now just a matter of time.
Maz could only communicate by writing on a yellow legal pad.
"What will happen to me when I die?" he wrote.
I could have answered but I nodded to the elders to teach my dying friend. As they started to, Maz held his hand up and motioned for his family to gather. His brother Mark and sister Marian came into the room, his only siblings (their parents passed on a few years ago within months of one another).
When they finished teaching the plan of salvation, I supplemented their lesson with my testimony of the truths the elders taught. I asked if we could administer to him. Maz smiled and pointed to Elder Uibel and me, so we performed the ordinance.
What a sweet experience.
We took pictures. Maz wrote on his pad asking that I regale the elders with some of his favorite stories. I could recite them and had even been a part
of many of them, but not with the same flair and panache that he could weave when telling a yarn. He kept you spellbound. Still, I did my best and we laughed till it ached.
I hugged Maz and kissed his cheeks and forehead, for what would be the last time. My tears spilled onto his cheeks, which were already moist with his own.
As we left, I think we both sensed we wouldn't see each other again in mortality.
I will attend Maz's funeral next week and will speak on his behalf as was his wish. I'll tell a few fun stories and teach the plan of happiness to comfort his family.
I believe Tom Mazza's kindness to "white shirts" from Camden, N.J., to North Philly and Paris will be rewarded, perhaps with the ability to recognize them when he arrives at the other side of the veil. Surely, they will finish the lesson Elders Uible and Gough started in his Center City Philadelphia penthouse suite.
Farewell, my friend.
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