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Denver Stiffs saved my life

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For four years it was quite the ride and it was right when I needed it the most

May 20th, 2015. It’s the worst day of my life.

No doubt, anyone who knows exactly which day was their worst can remember it in vivid detail. I certainly can remember mine. I remember the parking being awful at the doctor’s office and being annoyed because we were in a hurry to get to the hospital. I had to drop my wife and two year old daughter off at the front, they went up to the doctor’s office while I went to park. I remember muttering under my breath how stupid it was. She was at full term, her contractions were regular, she had remarked earlier in the day that the baby felt very still, like he was preparing to come out. It made no sense to come to her OBGYN’s office first before going to the hospital. She was clearly in labor.

One of the happiest moments in my life had been just a few months earlier. My wife’s pregnancy was far enough along to determine the sex. The nurse remarked “yep, definitely a little dude” and the ultrasound certainly revealed as much. I was so excited. My oldest was a girl, so having a boy was perfect. I remember remarking to my wife later that day that I felt like our family was complete. When it came time to pick a name I asked my wife if we could name him James, same as my middle name. Same name as my grandfather on my mother’s side. He had died in a car accident before he ever met his grandchildren but I have always felt a strong connection to him given he’s part of my namesake and also how eerily similar our career paths have been. There wasn’t any argument from Amy (my wife), our son’s name would be James. I remember how happy my mom was when I told her we decided on James, my aunt too.

By the time I found a spot to park and got up to the doctor’s office on the third floor my wife had already been whisked off to one of the back rooms. I remember thinking it was odd because usually you had to wait a bit, but maybe they understood what I felt was obvious: she was in labor and they needed to do whatever check they needed to do and send us onto the hospital. That also would make sense as to why they were leading me to a different exam room than the one we typically would go in to see the doctor.

This one was further back, around the corner and down the hall, about as far from the lobby as you could be. I remember walking into that exam room, a doctor and two nurses flurrying around my wife. They had the heart monitors on, which was typical, but yet I noticed something was wrong with our doctor. She was always so matter of fact and cool headed but she seemed frazzled, she seemed nervous. With every passing second my wife was growing more nervous as well but I still didn’t understand what was going on. Then, in that matter of fact tone she always had, the doctor said it: “Amy, I cannot find a heart signature of your baby.”

I’ve never been more helpless than I was in that moment. Never been more shell shocked. As it turns out the doctors were in a frenzy because my wife had mentioned she hadn’t felt James move since the night before and they knew what that could mean. In the blink of an eye I went from expecting my son to be born to realizing he was gone forever.

About fifteen minutes after that when the doctor was calling the hospital to let them know we were coming I was sick to my stomach, because I knew I was still going to see him. James would still be born but when he was he would already be gone. I’ve never cried as hard as I did that night when I held my son for the first, last and only time. I’ll never forget wanting to stay there in that hospital room with him forever, or staring over at him and begging for a miracle, begging to see his little chest rise up and down. Begging to be able to take him home to his new room with the space mural his aunt had painted on the wall, begging to be able to take him home to his little blue stuffed sea horse, just like the pink one his sister had when she was a baby.

Of course, those pleas could not be answered. We took James’ ashes to the same place as my grandmother’s, a valley of aspens in Pike National Forest, and laid him to rest with nothing left but broken hearts and a void that would threaten to swallow us whole.

In the immediate aftermath I buried myself in the tasks at hand. I was in my final class of grad school and we were preparing to sell our house. After the tassels had been turned and the sale of our house was closed, that void was still there. Bigger and emptier than ever. It was the darkest period of my life and my mind went to the darkest places it could. James’ death had left me broken and without any distraction I couldn’t mend the pieces. It’s the worst place to be, fearing for your life and the thing you’re afraid of is yourself.

Then one day while browsing the internet I saw Nate Timmons’ farewell piece on Stiffs. Nate had been running the site for years and no doubt losing him was going to leave some big shoes to fill. Maybe it was my subconscious urging me in its own grim need for survival or maybe it was just a broken man grasping for anything to hold onto, but for whatever reason I felt an overwhelming need to email Jeff Morton and ask for a job.

For an equally inexplicable reason (likely because he knew they were going to need someone to grind away on previews and recaps) Jeff gave me a chance. He looked past the fact that one of my writing samples was an inspection resolution from my house sale and that I had zero experience whatsoever and invited me to come to their annual planning meeting or, as it would soon be known: Stiffapalooza.

The first ever Stiffapalooza, Zach, Gordon, and Kayla’s first day on the job.

I’ll never forget that meeting, or the year that would follow. There was a certain lack of organization at Stiffs in those times. It’s not that Jeff or Andy Feinstein weren’t capable of doing it, but like so many of us, they had bigger fish to fry. Careers that actually paid money for their services.

That combined chaos of the site’s management transition and my own personal turmoil was actually just the opportunity I needed. As I had done with grad school and selling my house, I dove into Stiffs with everything I had.

Need someone to preview this Atlanta Hawks game?

I got it.

News about Jakarr Sampson being signed?

I got it. J.J.

Hickson is being bought out?

I got it.

I wrote as much as I could, which as it turned out, is exactly what all aspiring writers should do. I know for certain at that Stiffapalooza no one’s plan was for me to become the effective right hand man to our site manager (hell, we barely had a plan in place for Adam Mares to be the site manager) but that’s what happened simply because I was writing all the time trying to heal myself. While having that distraction didn’t change the burden I have to bear and nothing will ever heal the wounds I suffered, it made carrying that burden easier and dulled the pain of those wounds.

From left to right: Jeff, Adam, Andy, and Zach covering the 2016 NBA draft

Four years later and a lot has changed. I still have my burden to bear but I have far less time to carry it with the Stiffs. The free time that was a void back then has been claimed with new ideas and responsibilities. After going what we went through and learning to carry the weight of it, what is most important to me has changed. In four years my obligations to my family are more concrete, the vision of where I want to take them is more clear and the importance of making sure I get them there weighs on me more heavily. When I was thirty and reeling the idea of working my way up in sports journalism and finding happiness in a career I truly was passionate about was very appealing. However, at thirty-four, and after four years of getting to see the sports journalism industry up close, the passion for writing about the Denver Nuggets has been replaced by the desire to create a legacy for my family, and for James.

I’ve known for over a year that I would never go into this writing gig full time, but it had good perks and that once a month check, tiny though it was, was always a nice bonus. This season, though, I struggled with the morals of what I was doing. Ryan Blackburn and Brendan Vogt are outstanding writers and have bright futures in this industry in front of them but they are also in the throes of their early twenties. All of us who have made it to that age know how it goes: grinding day and night for an ounce of respect in a career you’re trying to launch and no check, no matter how tiny, is insignificant.

I became very conflicted knowing I had no plans to make something of the opportunity, of the deputy editor title or of the press credential but was still holding on to all those things while guys like Brendan and Ryan, who are trying to make it in this biz, are left waiting for an opportunity. Above all else, I knew relinquishing my duties wouldn’t be any sort of charity to them. They have talent and drive that I do not possess and they deserve the opportunity now, not me. When the Nuggets reached the postseason, a place they have never been since I started writing for the site, and my desire to cover the team was still waning, I knew it was time. In the same week as I went back to that aspen valley in Pike National Forest to spread columbine seeds like I have done every May 20th for the past 4 years, it feels fitting to write the last piece of content I will provide for the Stiffs.

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I would be remiss though if I didn’t thank my colleagues. First and foremost thank you to Jeff Morton, who gave me the ladder to climb out of my darkness.

Thank you to Andy Feinstein for mentoring me in that first year and helping me to understand the ins and outs of the “media game.”

Thank you to Gordon Gross who’s conversations on the Nuggets were always excellent, but his conversations on life were even better and consistently put up with me being late to my own podcast.

Thank you to Dan Lewis for being an outlet to bounce ideas off of and for sharing my passion in the construction industry.

Thank you to Kayla Osby who never missed a tweet of the week in four years and always found time to hop on a podcast when I asked.

Thank you to Evan Fiala for being my favorite twitter follow of the Stiffs and staying on that preview/recap grind with me for three years.

Thank you to Mike Olson for being Mike Olson, a constant voice of positivity and encouragement.

Thank you to Jeremy Poley for helping carry so much of the day to day burden that comes with a popular blog and for openly admitting his microphone totally sucked on the podcast.

Thank you to Mark Grimaldi and Reid Howard for doing the absolute worst job we have and moderating the site.

Thank you to Ashley Douglas for being the pillar of professionalism at Stiffs.

Thank you to Brendan Vogt for becoming a Stiff seamlessly and taking on the grind that I left unattended.

Thank you to Ryan Blackburn for tempering my hot takes with actual stats and analysis, making me a better analyst and for picking up the slack I left.

Most of all, thank you to Adam Mares. Adam trusted in me to help him run this site without us ever really having a conversation about it. Basically one day I said “hey I think I should be deputy editor” and Adam went along with it. That was his best quality as a leader. Adam never held me back, never shunned an idea as not hot enough or dismissed something I wrote as not good enough. Adam showed me what being a media member was all about, the way you carry yourself as a press member and what stories are important and what aren’t, no matter how juicy they seem in the moment. He made me a better writer while still letting me fill the void in my heart with whatever content I could come up with. I know he didn’t do it out of pity because I’ve never told him about James, but maybe he just knew it was what I needed.

Most of all, thank you to everyone at Stiffs for being my friend in the darkest time of my life, even if they didn’t know that’s what it was. The friendships I’ve made over the past four years are by far the greatest thing I’ve gained from this experience.

That goes for everyone on this site, not just the writers. We didn’t always agree, and some of us never agree but we are a community of friends nonetheless. It was a silly name that got me to first follow this site, but it’s community that has kept me here for over a decade. Just like our staff, all of you were there, helping me get through something that felt insurmountable even though you didn’t know it. I’m forever grateful for that and I’ll never forget it. Though the fiery game 7 previews, the looks back on Nuggets history and the conversations among the Pickaxe Pundits will no longer be there, this site, like James, will always be a part of me and for that I am a better person.