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After 32 years, saying goodbye to The Baltimore Sun

On my first night in Baltimore in 1981, in keeping with my adventurous and highly sophisticated palate, I took my wife out for pizza.

We were at this place in Towson and I was reaching for a slice of pepperoni with my fat little fingers when there was a rustle at the next table.

I glanced over and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. There was the great Johnny Unitas having dinner with his family, helping one of his kids cut his food.

"It's Johnny Unitas!" I whispered to my wife. "No, don't look!"

Naturally, she looked. Then she looked back at me.

"Who's Johnny Unitas?" she said.

I stared at her. We'd only been married three years at that point. But I didn't say: "OK, I don't know if this is going to work out, you and me."

I didn't tell her that Unitas was my boyhood hero, that I wore No. 19 for a time when I was the quarterback for my high school football team, that I still had a Johnny U autograph football in the trunk of my car.

All I did was smile and say: "Think I'm going to like this town."

I ended up loving it. And I loved working for this newspaper, too. But after 32 years as a sports and features columnist for The Evening Sun and The Baltimore Sun, I've decided to move on and look for new challenges.

Oh, no one's pushing me out of here. And I don't know exactly what's next for me, although I'm definitely not retiring from the workforce. You wouldn't either if you had my 401K. But I've got a couple of projects in mind and some time to figure it out, so we'll see where it all leads.

Farewell columns have become a cliché, sure. But if you suddenly disappear from the newspaper and don't write one, people will think you got sick or arrested or something. Then they'll start to tweet: "Where'd the fat guy go?" Better to get ahead of that.

What strikes me most as I write this is how fortunate I was to land here. I got to cover Super Bowls, World Series, Summer Olympics, NCAA basketball championships, U.S. Open tennis and golf.

The paper sent me to the Orioles' first-ever "Dream Week" in Sarasota, Fla., where I spent seven days happily flailing at former O's pitcher Moe Drabowsky's curveballs. An editor once asked if I'd mind playing the top 10 luxury-resort golf courses within a 60-mile drive and writing about them.

"MIND?" I answered. "Uh, no, I guess I could do that."

Look, this is how good I had it: this newspaper even sent me to Beer Camp. Honest. I spent three days in Kentucky swilling 300 of the world's finest beers and trying to make it back to my hotel room every night without stumbling into the walls.

Yes, this was back when newspapers spent gobs of money. Today, the bean counters won't let you go to Arbutus without squawking (just kidding).

But the best moments always happened here in Baltimore. Such as the time Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver welcomed me to town by spitting on my loafers, a charming dugout ritual he reserved for new reporters.

My all-time favorite moment? This one's high on the list: years ago, I was asked to do a feature story on Jim Palmer, the Orioles' Hall of Famer pitcher and famous Jockey underwear model, who had just turned 50.

Palmer asked me to meet him at a model home in Timonium, where he was shooting a commercial for The Money Store.

During a break in filming, we went outside and were talking near his Mercedes when a young woman happened by pushing a baby carriage.

As soon as she spotted us, her eyes widened.

"Oh, my God!" she cried. "It's Kevin Cowherd!"

It turned out to be a friend from my old neighborhood, but I didn't tell a bemused Palmer that, not right away.

Instead I just nudged him and said: "Now that's star-power, baby."

Before I go, here's a shout-out to all my wonderful colleagues in the sports department who made me look good the past four years, especially Dan Connolly, Ed Encina, Jeff Zrebiec, Aaron Wilson, Ed Lee, Matt Vensel, Peter Schmuck, Mike Preston, Jeff "Chief" Barker, Don Markus, Kevin Richardson and a deputy sports editor who sits atop everyone's Mr. Nice Guy list, Matt Bracken.

Thanks, too, to all of you who read me over the years, even the ones who ripped me. I could take it. With nearly 40 years in this business, you develop a hide like a rhinoceros.

People always ask me to list my all-time favorite assignment, and here's where the story comes full circle.

In the mid-90s, I was asked to do a "Catching Up With ..." feature with John Unitas. I was no longer star-struck in his presence — we'd chatted a number of times by then. But it still felt like I was catching up with Zeus.

We met at a restaurant in Mount Washington. Unitas couldn't have been more charming. He had a couple of cocktails and we spent three hours talking about football and life, mostly life.

As we stood to leave, I told him about spotting him on my first night in Baltimore, him having dinner with his family and tending patiently to his kids.

Unitas furrowed his brow, trying to recall that long-ago meal.

At last he smiled and said: "I was probably just trying to shut 'em up."

Those are the moments I'm going to miss.

So long, everyone.

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