Lisa Denton, a friend, co-worker and editor of the Life section, appeared at my cubicle last week with a postal package in her hands.
"I'm supposed to present you this," she said, grinning and handing me the package with both hands as if it were a bowl of sugar cubes on a Downton Abbey tea service.
"What is it?" I asked. "Is it something bad?" (Always the optimist, I am.)
"No, it's nothing bad," she said. "I know what it is, but I can't tell you. I think you'll like it, actually. Just open it."
"Hmm," I thought, taking the tape off the package. "This is strange."
I noticed the envelope was labeled "Do Not Bend." The return address was from a Soddy-Daisy man named Mark Boyer.
Slowly, I opened the flap and slid out two pieces of cardboard. Inside was a plastic sleeve containing an 8X10 photograph of a football player.
I may or may not have gasped when I realized who it was.
I instantly recognized Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker and my favorite all-time player on my favorite all-time team. If you had asked me Monday morning the one person, living or dead, I'd most like to break bread with, it would be my boyhood idol Jack Lambert. Then Monday afternoon, this happened. This crazy package arrived.
As a shy, nonathletic kid growing up in Middle Tennessee, Lambert represented glorious aggression to me. Symbolically, he was my sword against the universe.
He was weaponized testosterone. He played with a ferocity that set the tone for the vaunted Steel Curtain defense, which led a previously hapless Steelers team to four Super Bowl championships in six years.
I still pull out old DVDs of those '70s team. There's one clip where Lambert obliterates a running back, pops up and barks at him, "That'll cool your a— off!
Don't judge me, but I get chills every time I watch this.
Anyway, as I began to look at this gift photo, I realized that it was signed to me by The Great And Powerful Lambert himself. It read: "For Mark — A great '70s Steeler fan." It was signed: "Jack Lambert, HOF '90."
OMGosh. My mouth flew open and locked in the baby-bird position.
I should note that I have met three living United States presidents and interviewed the late John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth. But nothing, nothing, had awed me like this personalized 8x10 photo of Steeler great Jack Lambert.
Lisa explained that she had spoken with Mark Boyer some time before and he told her that he was Lambert's college roommate at Kent State University.
A few months ago, I wrote a column about how modern NFL football — ruled by please-don't-touch-me quarterback Tom Brady and selfish free agents — had lost its charm for me. For me, the real NFL was Lambert in a linebacker crouch, his front teeth missing, ready to launch himself like a heat-seeking missile at any ball carrier unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Somehow, Boyer had showed his old pal, Lambert, my column, and he was gracious enough to sign the photo. I called Boyer to thank him for the photo, and he recalled how Lambert had invited him to all four Steeler Super Bowls of the era.
"I played defensive halfback in college, and he (Lambert) played defensive end," Boyer recalled. "He was skinny from a professional athlete perspective. He got drafted to Pittsburgh in the second round. Lynn Swann was the first pick."
I told him the signed photo meant even more to me because I know Lambert is not known for rehashing his NFL career. He rarely gives media interviews and spent much of his after-football life as a volunteer wildlife officer and youth athletics coach.
"That's pretty much him," Boyer confirmed. "He likes to be left alone."
Unlike his more gregarious former teammates — broadcasters Terry Bradshaw and Swann come to mind — Lambert has led a quiet life since leaving the NFL stage almost 35 years ago.
I think that's why I like him so much. Lambert shows by example that a person can be fierce at their craft and still relish their solitude. After all, fame can be a steel curtain, and you don't want to get stuck on the side of overexposure.
If you get older and your college roommate still enjoys your company and admirers still respect your work, that's about enough.
And anyone who disagrees? Well, they can cool their a-- off.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.