THE PICTURE of Dale Earnhardt on the cover of The Sun's Television Week worried me last week. I'd glance at it, almost furtively. I'd bury it under other papers and then be shocked when I came upon it while looking for something else.
The artwork was promoting the ESPN movie 3, the story of the late seven-time Winston Cup champion that aired Saturday night.
The reason for my discomfort? Since Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, I have not been able to look at photos of Earnhardt; not been able to do more than read a few paragraphs of the many books written about him.
Though I was at Daytona that day and wrote about his death then and many times since, stories about Earnhardt written by other reporters around the country remain folded, unread, in the back of a file cabinet. To read them would make his death somehow more real, final.
I have covered motor sports for The Sun and the now defunct Evening Sun for nearly 28 years, and I have written about many deaths, too many deaths.
But Earnhardt's loss was different.
I had been covering motor sports for less than two years when a gangly young rookie named Dale Earnhardt came into Winston Cup racing. He was just getting his start, and I was still learning my way.
In those days, when a driver came to a city to make a media stop, NASCAR did not always roll out a limo for his convenience. Often, I was asked to meet a driver at the airport and give him a lift to Baltimore or Dover, Del., for interviews. I loved doing it because it was a casual way to get to know the men I was writing about.
Bill Elliott, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Dick Brooks and Earnhardt were among the drivers I drove for. Brooks, a top 10 driver in the early 1980s, once called me the "politest driver" he'd ever ridden with. Elliott asked for the keys and showed me how my Honda Prelude could reach over 100 mph on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, while lecturing on the subject of why you shouldn't do what he was doing.
The day I first met Earnhardt, he sat shyly in the passenger seat and I did the same in the driver's seat as we drove to Dover. We searched for something to talk about. Eventually, we realized we'd both come from simple backgrounds, he from a mill town in North Carolina, me from a dairy farm in West Virginia. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted more than 20 years.
There were days at the races when he was swamped. Days when he was irritated. Days when his back hurt him so much he barked at everyone. Days when he was playful and generous. But even at his busiest and moodiest, he usually found time for me. His public relations man, J.R. Rhodes, would come find me at the media center and usher me in the side door of the team transporter or out to the motor home for an interview.
Through all the years, Earnhardt made my job easier and my stories better, and being around him - even when he was being difficult - made me smile.
The last time I talked to him was two days before he died. I needed a quote - just one quote. I chased him down as he walked back to the garage after an IROC race.
He was walking fast, surrounded by reporters and television cameras. He kept moving as he answered questions, and I attached myself to the outside of the crowd, hoping it would begin to thin so I could get my question answered.
That's when his arm reached out and his hand pulled me in through the group. "Just walk with me," he said, his hand on my back as he continued to do interviews. I got my question in and made to leave. "Stay," he said. And I stayed.
When we reached the privacy fence surrounding the motor homes, Rhodes threw up his hands and said, "No media in here." And the crowd dispersed.
"Come on," Earnhardt said, and led the way to the golf cart parked beside his motor home. He slouched in the cart and patted the other seat. I sat. And for about 20 minutes on that warm afternoon, I enjoyed my last visit with my friend.
Now, when I think about it, what I remember most is how happy he was.
And I remember a conversation with him over lunch in Philadelphia a few months before that, when he talked about having "no more dreads." No more worries about family or work or money.
"It wasn't until my fifth championship that I really felt secure," he said that day. "But now, if something happened to end my life tomorrow, it would be all right."
Just writing this makes my heart ache and my eyes mist.
So would I watch 3? Could I? And how ridiculous to continue to carry this sadness.
In an interview in Dover this summer, Dale Jr. told me it is no longer painful to talk about the loss of his father. Instead, he said, talking about his father's death has become redundant.
Earnhardt's family has had to deal with his death every day. Talk about it all the time. And maybe that's the key.
I watched 3, and it didn't seem real. Yes, it was well done. Yes, Barry Pepper bore a close resemblance to Earnhardt, but it wasn't Earnhardt. And I was distracted by the actors who played the parts of other men I know but who did not look like the men I know.
But when the movie got to the 2001 Daytona 500, my heartbeat surged. And when the movie showed real footage and photos at the end, I cried.
Dale Earnhardt was my friend, and I continue to miss him.