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Christian Ewell: friend, writer, true renaissance man

No matter what profession you choose in life, if you like your job, at some point your co-workers start to feel less like the people whose desks abut yours, and more like a part of your extended family. You share countless lunches, they get invited to your wedding, they buy you baby clothes when your kids are born and they stand in your kitchen with a smile, a drink in hand, the first time you throw a party to celebrate the fact that you scraped together enough money to buy your first house.

The Sun lost a member of its extended family this weekend, and though he was probably just a byline to many of you who follow the sports section, Christian Ewell will be remembered by many of us as one of the most genuine, kind, loyal and fun individuals most of us ever had the privilege to call a friend. A few years ago, Chris was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He fought courageously, but ultimately passed away this Saturday in Kansas City, surrounded by a family who loved him deeply. 

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I've been struggling for the last few days deciding whether I should write about this because a part of me felt like if I didn't write it, Chris wouldn't really be gone. Just a year ago this week -- a freaking year ago -- Chris and Sun reporter Brent Jones and I pooled some money, bought some chicken wings and pizza, and watched Floyd Mayweather pick apart Oscar de la Hoya from Chris' apartment in Baltimore. We spent countless evenings like that, watching sports and cracking jokes, and in many ways it helped Baltimore seem less like a foreign country and more like a place we grew to call home.

And now Chris is gone. Few things in my life have ever seemed quite so unfair.

He was as fine a man as I've known. There are so many people who feel lucky to have called him a friend, and my wife and I are among them. A stubborn USC fan to the core, Chris would have rolled his eyes at all the nonsense that went on with O.J. Mayo this week. Then he would have laughed it off, and likely made a crack about how SEC boosters were just jealous they didn't get to pay Mayo under the table first. He had such an awesome laugh. I can't tell you how much joy so many of us at The Sun derived from listening to Chris laugh. On the nights when all the under-40 crowd at The Sun would gather at someone's house for drinks, you could catch Chris' eye from across the room (because he was so tall) and he'd raise his glass and bust out a big wide grin and a nod that would instantly make you feel better about the world. He made every party better, especially the ones that featured his awkward dancing, because he was the first person to laugh at himself.

Jones, who used to cover the Ravens and now works on The Sun's metro desk, used to joke that we could never find a decent restaurant in Baltimore without Chris' assistance. He had an internal GPS that seemed to be connected to his refined palate, and he was always leading us to fabulous bistros or restaurants that were as hidden as Smurf Village. We were all part of The Sun's two-year intern program, which plucks recent college graduates from far away places and brings them to Baltimore, hoping to mold them into future sportswriters, and for Brent and I (and many others), Chris was the first person to extend a hand and offer it in friendship. Some people in journalism can be petty and jealous, especially when they're competing for jobs and space in the newspaper, but Chris was the exact opposite of that. He and Jones and I spent a lot of evenings, and dollars, in Baltimore bars dreaming of the journalists we hoped we might someday become.

He also had what I always considered the perfect temperament for the Writing Life. I sometimes thought Brian Billick stole the phrase "It is what it is" from Chris. I remember once -- when we were both just kids and still idealistic and finicky about our copy -- Chris was sent to cover a Georgetown-Syracuse basketball game in D.C. The copy desk didn't care for his lead, which is not an uncommon occurrence for a young writer. The desk decided to rewrite it, over Chris' objections.

"Were you upset?" I asked him later.

"Initially," he said. "But after I packed up my computer, I found a bar, and midway through my second drink it suddenly didn't bother me that much."

Chris was one of the most worldly, well-read people I've ever met. He was always shooting me messages, asking what I thought of this novel, or that biography, and he'd leave David Sedaris or John Edgar Wideman books on my desk that he thought I'd like. I think he'd seen every critically acclaimed art-house film ever released and could talk about them with as much, if not more, expertise than he could talk about sports. The man knew music, too. All kinds. I still have one of his J-Live CDs that he lent me because he wanted to expose me to some real hip hop, and not the commercial nonsense that I found so syrupy.

At the same time, Chris was active in our newspaper guild, and didn't give a hoot as to what that might mean for his career. His principles and loyalty to others came first. He was there for some of the state's biggest sports moments of the last decade, documenting the Terps' journey to the Orange Bowl, Maryland's Final Four run, and the Ravens' Super Bowl victory. When he moved into a features position and I took over for him on the Maryland football beat, he held my hand for a few weeks and introduced me to all the right people. He knew I was nervous, but never said a word, other than "How can I help?" 

About six years ago, I confessed to Chris that I had a crush on another reporter at The Sun, and that it was killing me she was practically engaged to another reporter at the paper. One winter Sunday, Jones, Chris and I were helping our friend Phill move out of his D.C. apartment, and Chris informed me that my crush and her boyfriend had recently split.

"Well KVV," he said, "looks like you'll get your chance after all."

I ended up marrying that girl. At my wedding reception three years ago, I pulled Chris aside and reminded him of that day.

"Hey," he said, huge grin spreading across his face. "Just doing my part."

Every couple months, often at the behest of former Sun reporters Heather Dinich and Lem Satterfield, a bunch of us would make the trek down to Annapolis and spend the evening warbling through round after round of bad karaoke. Dinich would bust out her best Salt 'n Pepper, and we'd all join in for the chorus and shout "It's none of yo business!" and I'd perform some ridiculous hard rock version of Kelly Clarkson's "Since You've Been Gone." Satterfield would sing whatever Nickelback song his kids had taught him recently. But one evening that I'll always remember is the time that Chris, without mentioning it to anyone, slipped behind the mike and broke into this beautiful, sad version of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." I don't even think any of us knew Chris could sing, but damn if we all weren't transfixed, along with the whole bar, while Chris sang in a smooth, sad baritone.

Chris' health deteriorated quicker than any of us could really comprehend. He didn't like to talk about it much. Jones and Chris' close friend Liz Kay, also a reporter at The Sun, went to visit him a couple of times in Kansas City, and they told him how much he'd meant to them, and us all, and I know it meant the world to him. They were generous, loyal, noble and kind to Chris during his final months in ways I only wish I'd had the courage to be. 

During his final visit to Baltimore this fall, we all had drinks at the Tusk Lounge to celebrate his brief return to town, and at the end of the night, I hugged him and lied when I told him that I knew, deep down, it was all going to be OK. That he'd be back in Baltimore soon, and we'd be discussing episodes of The Wire before he knew it. I think he knew I was lying, but he understood, and we both cried a little and then laughed a lot.

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My wife and I were out looking for houses when I got the call that he was gone. Chris had been sick for some time, and we all knew the day was getting close, but it still hit me harder than I thought it would. In the parking lot of a Chipotle, my wife and I cried as we told stories about him. I can picture him now at my wedding, smiling at the camera and flashing a peace sign.

Rest in peace, Chris. Thank you, most of all, for being a such a kind and genuine friend to so many of us. Know that Baltimore, and the pages of The Sun, are lesser without you in them.

Know too that when my wife and I throw that first party in our new house, I know you'll be with us in spirit, standing in the kitchen, raising your glass and grinning ear to ear.

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PHOTOS: Mary Hartney (top), Laura Loh

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