A life well-written, we say goodbye to Tom Hanson

Various sports items are on display Saturday during a memorial service for Tom Hanson at Stephenson-Nelson Funeral Home in Sebring. A former Collier County sports journalist, Hanson died Tuesday at the age of 53.

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

Tom Hanson always had a knack for getting someone’s attention with the spoken word.

He was a master at keeping someone’s attention with the written word.

Collier County sports lost one its great champions this week — only Tom Hanson wasn’t a local athlete or coach. A former caddie on the LPGA and PGA Tours (he was on Lauri Merten’s bag for her win at the 1993 U.S. Women’s Open) and an avid poker player who made it to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, Tom was best known around here as a former columnist/editor at the Naples Daily News. He was also someone I leaned on in the last year as I launched this website.

Tom Hanson died Tuesday at his home in Sebring. He was 53 years old.

Tom and I both began working at the Daily News in the spring/summer of 2003. We worked together for a brief time on the sports copy desk, designing pages, editing stories and writing what we thought were some pretty good headlines. Tom soon left the copy desk to focus all of his energy on sports writing — a natural move for someone who used to write for Sports Illustrated.

His health declining, Tom left the Daily News in 2014. He moved to Sebring in 2015 to care for and live with his mother. I left the newspaper two years later and immediately made plans to create CollierSportsInsider. But there were hiccups along the way, and it took the better part of a year before I was ready to launch the site. In the interim, Tom was there for me to use as a sounding board. And when I launched CollierSportsInsider in August 2017, I spent a lot of time on the phone with Tom seeking advice and/or brainstorming for story ideas.

Initially, Tom was skeptical if I could run a local sports website with no staff and a limited knowledge of digital media — not to mention little to no sales experience in advertising. (A few months ago, I received a compliment from Tom that the site was more than he imagined.)

“That’s where you come in,” I essentially told him. Years earlier, Tom made the successful jump from print media to digital media. He knew a lot about websites, including how to build and maintain them, and how to interpret key analytics. He bragged that he could have saved me a ton of money and created the site for me; still, he was willing to help spiff up its appearance with some new features. Regrettably, I never took him up on the offer.

Knowing he could deliver untold number of readers with his hard-hitting, yet poignant style of storytelling, I did my best to lure Tom back into sports writing, even if on a freelance basis. Features, commentary, analysis, I would have given him carte blanche to write about whatever he wanted.

He thought about it, but not for too long. He was collecting disability and did not want to put that at risk. I joked that he could write under a pen name, but he said his writing style was such that people would eventually figure out that he was behind the stories.

I last saw Tom two weeks ago at FGCU’s Alico Arena for the Atlantic Sun men’s basketball championship. FGCU was near and dear to Tom’s heart, and not just because of Dunk City. He was an adjunct journalism professor for a few years, and I’m sure he played a role in the number of FGCU students who later interned or worked part-time at the Daily News.

The teaching didn’t stop in the classroom, though. During our time in the newsroom, I saw first-hand how Tom would coach up the young scribes — some of whom have taken to social media to post personal notes of grief following Tom’s death. I don’t know if the words “wave” or “crop” apply here, but Tom took great pride in producing a number of local journalists fresh out of college.

Tom created a website (tomhansonjr.wordpress.com/favorite-stories-2/) containing some of what he considered to be his better stories. (Unfortunately, some of them are partial stories with broken links to the full story.) I encourage any aspiring journalist to check out the site, as Tom posted messages about the importance of cultivating relationships with potential story subjects, as well as the rewards reaped by producing award-winning special series through strong collaboration across the newsroom.

With the Final Four now upon us, I thought I would pay tribute to Tom and the local sports coverage he provided with these four story summaries that I believe represent some of his better work. Please note that this is not necessarily his best work — he wrote so many articles, it would take a long time to narrow that down.

 

WRITING ON THE EDGE

You can’t write an article about Tom’s career in journalism and not include the name Edgerrin James. During his time at the Naples Daily News, Tom forged a bond with the former Immokalee High School star and potential Pro Football Hall of Fame running back.

Long known to be reticent around the media, James gave Tom rare access into his personal life. In 2013, Tom traveled to the Orlando area to see what James was doing with his life following an NFL career that saw him star for several years with the Indianapolis Colts and play in a Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals.

Then still a Collier County resident, James had purchased a summer home in central Florida. For eight weeks each summer, he turned his property (aptly named “The Property”) into a free youth camp for more than 100 underprivileged children. He would also bus those kids down to Immokalee and Ave Maria for a week-long football camp — also free of charge.

Tom got James to open up about the death of Andia Wilson, his high school sweetheart and the mother of four of his six children.

James told Tom in the Naples Daily News article, “I felt like I failed her. At first I thought I should be able to fix it; every other issue she had I fixed.”

 

PERFECT TIMING

Aside from past and present coaches, players and fans, Tom Hanson may have known more about Immokalee High football than anyone. In fact, he may have been more plugged in with the Indians than some of their coaches, players and fans. Tom once compiled a list of the greatest football teams in Immokalee history. But it was the undefeated 2006 Indians squad that intrigued Tom the most. The headline for his story in the Daily News was “The imperfect ending.”

Immokalee had been banned from postseason play for using an ineligible player the previous season (Tom wrote a great story on that, too). Then-iconic Indians coach John Weber said before the season started that his team may not win more than three games.

Tom described what would later transpire with this message on his website:

Call it luck. Call it reporter’s intuition. Call it whatever.

Sometimes the best story needs vision.

I went to the first Immokalee High football game in (2006) as a fan since my new position as metro columnist didn’t include touchdowns. But after the Indians first victory and a conversation with head coach John Weber, I knew this was a story that I wanted to chase. I called Sports Editor Greg Hardwig and said I would cover the rest of Immokalee’s football games. He quickly accepted my offer. So for the remaining nine games, I walked the sidelines right along with Weber and his impressive team. I witnessed history. I witnessed greatness. I witnessed determination despite any ultimate award. I witnessed an injustice.

I had amazing access and it allowed me to tell an amazing story.

Years after the 2006 season and right up to our last conversations together, Tom often talked to me about his desire to write a book chronicling the Indians’ journey. Somewhat jokingly, I told him he should instead try to write a movie script about it. (Hey if Kevin Costner can make a movie about a cross country team in rural Texas …?) Then I told him since he was a staunch advocate for the written word, he would probably rather write a book than a movie script.

“(Forget that), I want a movie,” his reply shocked me.

The irony.

 

FOOTBALL (AND COLLABORATION) IS KING

When it comes to sports, everyone in Collier County knows that football is at the top of the pecking order.

Tom Hanson was the driving force behind a series that the Naples Daily News produced in the summer of 2013. He oversaw the creation of a committee — comprised of current and former coaches, athletic directors and high school football insiders — that selected the area’s greatest 25 football players from a list of 118 nominees.

The series was recognized nationally with an Associated Press Sports Editors award, and it drew acclaim from local high school football fans, coaches and players.

 

THE CHARLEY EFFECT

This wasn’t a local story in the true sense of the word as it came from Charlotte County, but in August 2004, anything that had to do with Hurricane Charley was deemed a local story.

For Tom, it was personal. Much of his high school, Charlotte High, was razed by the Category 3 hurricane. In a column for the Naples Daily News, Tom wrote the following:

(In) the midst of a catastrophic disaster, a blue and gold message — PRIDE — stood. Hurricane Charley may have caused death and devastation in this close-knit community on the Peace River, but it couldn’t take away their soul.

In closing, Tom Hanson was more than my friend. He was my confidant and advisor as I try and grow this website.

Perhaps stated a bit better with this poker expression that I hope he would appreciate: Tom was my ace in the hole.

Email Gregg Hardy at editor@colliersportsinsider.com. Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider.