In the 11th grade, Miss Hilda Horn, my speech teacher, asked us to prepare a speech for presentation for the next day’s class. When giving out the assignment, she specifically stared at me in my seat in the back of the classroom.

Why was I in a speech class in the first place? Someone told me it was easy and I liked to talk. Sounded like a perfect match.

The next day I gave a speech on How to prepare a hot dog. Everybody laughed. It was funny. It was meant to be funny. But Miss Horn, in that voice that says, “You have crossed the line,” sternly requested that I stay after class. It would be just the two of us. That was not a comforting thought.

Miss Horn was and remains my favorite teacher. She was stern in a friendly way. Physically, she was a large woman and she could be imposing. But, she liked me. She thought I had talent. After that class she told me so. She suggested that I could make a difference in the world, if I applied myself. Exercised my talents. She made me think. She planted seeds in my head that sprouted and grew. She inspired me. Two weeks later, I was writing for the school     newspaper.

Today, I love speaking before an audience. I connect, inspire, motivate and entertain.

As my life has unfolded, as an actor, writer, corporate exec, 30-year business owner, athlete, Dad, husband, son, uncle, godfather, and friend to many, the stories of my life are lodged into my head. When I stand in front of an audience I partner with them, taking them for a ride. Whether it’s The Film Of MY Life (Inspirational), The Moments of our Lives, (Inspirational), I Never Had an Entourage (Educators), The Billion Dollar Man, (Fundraising), Diversity, Access and Inclusion and Leading through Transition with Dr. joyce gillie gossom, I’ve been lucky. I get to do what I love and I’m good at it. Thank you, Miss Horn.

(As published on, Sept. 28, 2017)

I saw him last spring in Montgomery, Alabama. I was there to speak to a Leadership Montgomery group. As I looked out over the crowd, he sat there, grinning. Grinning at me! Grinning as if he had a secret no one else in the room knew. As it turns out he did. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, we found the time to get together and talk about it.

The story travels back into not only my past, but also, our mutual history. Back into a time I call yesteryear. Memories fade. Details get fuzzy but the essence of the story, he remembers in full.

We were freshmen at Auburn University. We had at least one class together. We obviously struck up a relationship.

Sam Johnson tells it like this. We both started Auburn in fall 1970. As freshmen we were coming at the early integration of the University from different perspectives. Sam is white. He chose to get to know me. Not just in class and not just as an athlete. Sam chose to befriend me and get to know me in a time when not many on the white side of the integration experiment at Auburn chose to cross over to that other side. He could have chosen to avoid the integration debacle. It wasn’t his fight. He was secure socially in a fraternity and had the advantage of not being the first in his family to venture to Auburn. I was at the other end of that spectrum.

When we met this September, Sam remembers, that we talked a lot in those days; or rather I talked… a lot. Sam says I was angry and voiced my anger to him about the experience between classes while sitting outside of The Haley Center building. Some of that is fuzzy for me but I don’t doubt I was angry. I do wonder about my sharing my feelings with him. That was something I did not do with people I did not know well. It was part of my anger. Integration was lonely, boring, demeaning and more like the drudgery of a miserable mission than a fun education experience. Today when I hear my fellow white alums from that era or teammates tell stories of their college days, I wonder if we went to the same University. The few of us black students who ventured into integration during that time were pioneers on a mission to make things better for those who would follow. Was it fun for us? Nope. The black athletes, at that time there were three of us in the Auburn athletic department (1basketball, 2 football), were the forerunners to today’s games, but we were not the beneficiaries of our efforts. I kept who I was and what I was thinking bottled up inside. My insides were tied up in knots, knots of anger. I often kidded some of my white teammates telling them, “If you knew what I was thinking, you’d be scared of me.” Sam must not have been afraid. Because according to Sam, I let him in.

The visible proof of our relationship appeared in the school newspaper, The Plainsman that I would later write for. The paper ran an article on race relations on campus, with an accompanying photo. Sam brought a copy of the photo to our meeting in September. The photo was of Sam and a white female, two other black males: Joe Nathan Allen and Rufus Felton, two black females who I do not remember, and me. We were all smiling. We had been recruited to pose for the picture. Someone walked up to Sam and me and asked if we would pose. Someone else recruited the others. We agreed and met the others on the steps outside Haley Center. In the photo we were all smiling like friends. Sam did not know any of the others, just me.

The cut line under the photo in The Plainsman read, Communication. Cold weather does not deter students both black and white from gathering for conversation on the steps of Haley Center before going to class. Integration problems still exist but progress is being made.

The photo is dated February 12, 1971.

Sam caught hell from some of his fraternity brothers and others for being in the photo with five black students. But he went even further. Because of my venting, Sam took it upon himself to go to the University recruiting office and tell the officials what I had said. Not telling on me but repeating the things that I had said needed to be done to make progress at the University. At first he was given the run around but they eventually listened. Auburn administrators even went so far as to put some things in place to recruit more black students and improve the social atmosphere.

Before we left our September meeting, Sam says that I inspired the little progress that was made in those days. I thank him but know that it was in part, credited to him. I could not have gone and done what he did. I would have been viewed as the angry radical in the administrator’s eyes. I could have lost my spot on the team, lost my scholarship, gotten kicked out of school. On the other hand, Sam would not have known what to say if he had not listened to me. When Sam took it to the administrators it became a university problem not just the angry black guy’s problem. He did what I couldn’t do. It takes us all. Sam taught me that. Thanks Sam!

There aren’t many walking around on this earth who are branded by first names only; you know, Cher… Madonna… Bo. My friend “Sterfon” is one of those. You don’t know him? You should! He’s a character! He’s also fun, a great dad, devoted husband, and his name creates ripples in the film and television business.


Walk into a makeup and hair trailer on many sets in Hollywood and drop his name. Check out the reaction. For those whose misfortune has not brought them into his orbit, there may be a look of puzzlement. For those who have been lucky enough to travel in the same pathway, there are more than likely smiles, laughs, and the question, “Is he here?”

Sterfon Demings is a known entity in “The Business” of film and television. He is a survivor and a hair stylist extraordinaire. I first met him on the television show In The Heat Of The Night, shot in Covington, Georgia, near AtlantaWe didn’t know each other well. He now says he kept his distance from me. “I thought you were an undercover cop,” he laughs.

“Why?” I asked.

“You looked like one. You always had on a suit. You were the City Councilman on the show so you were always with the cops.”

Lots of laughter!

Earlier in my career, I played quite a few lawyers, policemen, and politicians.

A few years after he left Heat, I met him again in Atlanta, on Miss Evers’ Boys. This time we clicked, and have been clicking ever since. We would later work on the short-lived series, City Of Angels.

In between those gigs he has stayed busy; working on Boyz In The HoodInto The Wild, Italian Job, Beauty Shop, Soul Plane, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Milk, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, American Crime Story, Bones, Monster’s Ball and many many more. Those who have sat in his chair include, Alfre Woodard, Sean Penn, Halle Berry, Donald Sutherland, Kristen Stewart, Miles Davis, Ed Norton, Angela Bassett, countless others… and myself.

Sterfon and I had lots of fun in Los Angeles. A boy’s night out on the town generally meant a whole lot of fun and laughter. My trademark introductory greeting to anyone who would listen was a prideful, “I’m from Alabama.” It was always a conversation starter. Intriguing. Sterfon got a kick out of it. Over the years he must have heard it hundreds of times. If I wanted to make him laugh, I only had to say those three words and he could not help himself. 

We still enjoy each other’s company. We think of each other as brothers who are grounded as friends because of our core beliefs. Occasionally we pick up the phone and give it a go in a long-winded conversation. Our conversations bounce from family, to The Business, to our memories of nights out on the town in Los Angeles, and of course, Alabama.

TG: You’re from Montgomery, Alabama? What was it like leaving Montgomery, right out of High School, for the bright lights of NYC?

SD: For me, it all started in high school. In high school, I got my cosmetology training in vocational school. I’m grateful because that started me on my career. I discovered my talent. Vocational education? Too bad the high schools don’t do that anymore. Education is vital to career success, I feel.

TG: From high school to being in The Business. Trace your path for me.

SD: I moved to New York. That was a big step. People doubted me but I was pretty determined. Several people tried to talk me out of going. New York,” coming from Alabama, they made it sound scary but it also became a challenge. I got a job as an apprentice at “The John Atchison Salon,” so I could learn my craft at the professional level. Education was important for me. Quite a few entertainers came in there. Even as an apprentice I wasn’t star struck. So they didn’t intimidate me. The apprenticeship program allowed me to go do some morning talk shows on NY-TV and I met Jackee Harry who was working on the show “227.” We got to be friends. I did her hair. She told me she was moving to California. I told her I was too. She told me she would look me up when I got there.

The salon opened another location in LA. I transferred out here. I soon became part of management and the Educational Director. Jackee kept her word and I worked with her as her stylist from time to time. I left the salon in a dispute. I started off going to people’s houses. Then came the chance to work on “Boyz In The Hood.” After that, I was off and running.

TG: You’ve won industry awards for styling. The annual Hollywood Beauty Awards recognizes the architects of hair, makeup, photography and styling in Hollywood. You have been described as, “An innovative and world-renowned hair designer and stylist, a master hair-cutter.”

SD: Funny, I never used to pay attention to awards. Considered most of them political. But I’m grateful. There’s even an award named for me. “The Sterfon Deming Award.” The person who won it is amazing. I thought it was pretty neat that she went home with an award with my name on it.

TG: Did I fail to mention you were always a snazzy dresser?

SD: Thanks.

TG: You were always a fun guy to have on the set. You would always dress up and do a walk on in one of the scenes. Must have had a good relationship with the Director and Producers?

SD: I was always a fun guy to have around. The crew would always encourage me to jump in somewhere. It was part of my thing. Where is he going to show up in the film? The first time it was in “Boyz N The Hood.” I was in “White Men Can’t Jump.” In “The Piano Lesson” I played a slave. I was also in “The Temptations” and a few others.

TG: Did you want to act?

SD: Not professionally. If I could have done it for fun. But I enjoyed my job.

TG: What’s next for you?

SD: The older you getthe more you realize that it isn’t about the material things or pride or ego. It’s about our hearts and who they beat for.

TG: You’ve become a philosopher?

SD: Beautiful things happen when you distance yourself from negativity.

TG: Any last words?

SD: I’m from Alabama!

TG and SD: Laughing Out Loud!!

Alfre Woodward, the talented actress says to me, “I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

She led me to a corner seat in the rented party room at the Santa Monica, California Airport. The party was for her husband’s birthday. The room was a who’s who of Hollywood stars having a good time outside the bright lights.

As soon as I saw the guy she wanted me to meet I told her, “I know this guy.” Of course I knew him. He was the secret service agent guarding the President every week on the hit TV show The West Wing.

But… there was something else. I actually knew this guy. He knew me as well. We excitedly shook hands. Alfre said, “I believe you are both from Alabama.”

That was true. He’s from Montgomery. I’m from Birmingham.

But, we’re more than that.

We immediately recognized each other because we’d both gone to Auburn University during the same time period. We had not been close friends, not even close acquaintances. We knew of each other the way you know of someone who has achieved some notoriety on a campus of 20,000 students. He had been involved in student government and his fraternity. I’d played football and written for the school paper.

It didn’t take us long to reacquaint. We soon got together for dinner with our wives and we’ve been fast friends ever since.

Michael O’Neill, “Michael O” I call him, is a professional actor. He knows his business. His IMDb page proves that. He has worked in more than 75 episodes of television and 30 films. Michael O has worked in New York, Los Angeles and across Canada. He’s worked with Alfre Woodard of course, Halley Berry, Martin Sheen, Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, and a host of others. Everyone except…

We often say between the two of us we have nearly 50-years of combined experience, more than 115 episodes of television and nearly 40 films. We have worked ERCold Case, Without A Trace, Boston Legal, Close To HomeThe West Wing, NYPD Blue and Chicago Hope. But never had we worked together, until 2016.

Our Alma Mater, Auburn University, and the whole Auburn Nation was deeply involved in a $1 Billion Fundraising campaign. Michael O, I and others were asked to host, MC and dramatize a live 90 minute show in support of the campaign in Dallas, Houston, Tampa, Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville, New York, and Washington D.C. We relished the opportunity to work together and to support our Alma Mater.

I caught up with him by phone for this post and it was like old times.

TG: Where are you?

Michael OWorking on a film in Memphis. Where are you?

TG: In Florida. I’m home for the next five days and then off again.

Michael OFive days sounds like a vacation.

TG: Caught a break. I’m in and out the next three weeks.

TG: I have to ask you; we got to work together on the Auburn Campaign Events. What did it mean to you?

Michael OIt’s nice to give something backIt’s what you hope a college education can do. It reflects further than we could imagine. It’s easy to participate because I believe so strongly in the Performing Arts Center (coming to campus) and not just because you and I are in the arts but also because it’s important to our students and their interest, their outlook and their experience as they go out to shape the world.

TG: Talk about the night Alfre introduced us. 

Michael OThat was funny! I remember my daughter Ella was 5-6 weeks old. It was the first time my wife, Mary and I had been out in a long time. We wanted to get out.

I had just worked on a project with Alfre, “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.” We had so much fun working together.

TG: She’s great. (TG worked with Ms. Woodard on Miss Evers’ Boys).

Michael O: That night in Santa Monica she told me, “I got somebody you got to meet.” She walked up with you and right away I said ‘I know him. We were in school together.’ I knew of you from campus, not just from playing football.

TG: That’s funny I told her the same thing. I know him. That turned out to be a special night.

Michael OYep.

TG: Talk about your current project.

Michael OIt’s set in Iraq. A young man goes off to war, gets thrown in the middle of everything and comes back with PTDS. He loses his faith and family. There is a very spiritual message to it. I play his mentor. Military guy.

TG:Do you get immersed in your characters? How far have your gone with this guy you’re playing?

Michael O: I’ve done so many films playing military guys and know quite a few guys. I consider it an honor. They help me with the research. I try to be very respectful. It has to be believable. I tell them, ‘don’t let me get caught acting.’

TG: Of all the projects you’ve done, what’s your favorite character and why?

Michael O: Mr. Pollard in“SeaBiscuit.”One of the first times I’ve wanted something so badly and got it. I blew it wide open in the audition. There were a lot of guys high above me in the food chain who were in line for that job, but they chose me in the audition. The character was actually written better in the film than in the book. 

TG: I often like to say the profession is like being a migrant worker. Here today, on to the next gig tomorrow.

Michael OI’ve worked in so many places. That’s been part of the cultural education. Off the top of my head let’s see what I can name. New York and Toronto several times, Based in LA, so all up and down California; Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, New Orleans, El Paso, all over Texas; Fort Davis Texas, Alpine Texas, Houston, and Austin. Umm, Lexington, Kentucky, Florida, London…

TG: I want you to tell me the Sully story; but first talk about being recognized on the street.

Michael O: (Laughter!) Will Geer (“The Walton’s” and “Jeremiah Johnson”) mentored me. He taught me that it’s more important to be interested in the other person rather than yourself. You have to want to give back to them. You’re sharing an experience with them. It feeds me as much as it does them. Whenever someone recognizes me on the street, my daughters(3) will always bring me back to earth. They roll their eyes at the fact I’m talking to someone I don’t know.

It’s always cool when we’re both together and someone recognizes the both of us.

TG:Yeah that’s always fun!

TG: Tell the Sully story.

Michael O: I’m riding down this elevatorand this guy is stealing glances at me. When the door opens before he gets out, he says, ‘You did a good job, landing that plane on the Hudson River.’ I responded, Thank you!

TG: Any of your girls following in your footsteps?

Michael O: Nope: They’ll find their own way.

TG: What advice do you give to those who ask you about becoming an actor?

Michael O: I tell them, especially if they are asking for their children. I tell them regardless of how far their child goes in the business or if they even get into the actual business part of it; it teaches you so much. Creativity, to run your own business, listening, collaborate with others, teaches you to be observant, teaches you to be in life’s light when it’s your turn and to not be when it’s not. 

TG: We still going to do a show together?

Michael O: You bet!

Best Gurl commemorates 30 years of business in May 2017 

Founder Thom Gossom Jr. “looks back” in a series of blogs

In The Heat of The Night, the long running television show from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, kick started an unintentional acting career for me.

With my PR business, Thom Gossom Communications, running smoothly in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and a good staff to keep the day-to-day running; I sampled the local theatre scene, something I’d always wanted to do but never got around to. Once I started, I did my first play at 29 years of age and began to flourish. A Soldiers PlayFences; My Children, My Africa; Ali; and later, Master Harold and The BoysA Christmas Carol; and my own play Speak Of Me As I Am all became successful hits on the theatre scene. For several years running, I was voted one of Birmingham’s best actors.

Then, the unthinkable happened!

After an inspirational evening performance, the next morning I received a phone call that would change my life. Out of the blue, I was offered a part in the film being shot locally. The director had happened into one of my performances and decided to write a part for me. It was a great break, but still one from which I had no deeper ambitions. The film struggled with distribution but it was a great experience. I learned a lot. I met several actors who became and still are good friends. I met my agent then, who is still my agent now. The thought began to roll around in my head that this could be a good way to make a living.

From that film, ShadowWaltz, a couple of television roles opened up for me in Georgia, and then it happened. I was offered a possible recurring role as the city councilman, Melvin Lemon, in one of television’s top shows, In the Heat of The Night.

I shot the job but the recurring part of the deal didn’t happen. I worked that one episode that year and that was it. Based on that, and being 37 years old, I decided no matter how the acting thing turned out I would keep my business. It was steady. It was fun, I was established and if other acting opportunities emerged, I’d do them both.

Still, like all actors, I wondered what happened to the city council recurring role. I questioned my agent. I questioned myself. Did I do something wrong? Did they eliminate the character?” With no intention of going any further and with steady clients in my business, it was back to local community theatre I went.

The following television season another phone call came. It was my agent; “You have an appointment with Carroll O’Connor to read again for the City Councilman’s role.” “What?” I questioned. This time the councilman’s name was Ted Marcus. I took off for Covington, Georgia.

In the outer room at the production office, several of us hopefuls waited for our turn to become Ted Marcus. The questions in my head continued. Should I do something different from last year? Why did they change his name?

My turn came.

I stepped into the room where Carroll and the other executive producer Ed Ledding awaited me. We exchanged pleasantries. Carroll asked, “Didn’t you play the City Councilman last year?”

“Yes.” I answered. Silence filled the room, as they looked me over. Silence in an audition is always uncomfortable. I then did something I’ve never done since. I seized the moment and blurted out, “So why are you trying to give my job to someone else?”

Carroll, smiling, fired back, “Then, I won’t give your job to someone else. It’s yours.”

I grin now thinking about it. For the next six years, Ted Marcus was mine. I was Ted Marcus on a top-ten television show, still living in Birmingham and running my business.

Life was good!

For many of us on that show, it was our first time on a series. We were a weekly top-ten television show and we all enjoyed the spoils. Around some of the Atlanta night clubs it was, “Whatever you want Ted.”

During the next six years I lived and learned episodic television. Carroll was a master. He knew what he wanted from this show. He knew what the legacy of a Southern Sheriff in Mississippi could be if he so desired. In full control, he wrote some of the episodes under the name Matt Harris.

It was a wonderful ride. My favorite actor from the show was Howard Rollins, one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. I met many of the older stars, Carroll’s friends, Tippi Hedren, from The Birds, and Larry Hagman, from Dallas. Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed in Rocky) and I exchanged Christmas Cards for many years. Randall Tex Cobb, the heavyweight Boxer who took an awful beating from heavyweight champion Larry Holmes did a couple of episodes.

When The Heat phased out around 1995, I went back to my business full time and waited for the next phone call. It wasn’t long before it came. This time it was Miss Ever’s Boys with Alfre Woodard and Laurence Fishburne for HBO. I rode that one all the way to Hollywood.

Shortly thereafter, I became the title character Israel in the Emmy winning episode of NYPD BLUE: Lost Israel. I continued with Fight Club, Jeepers Creepers 2 and several recurring episodes of Boston Legal, Closer to Home, Jack and Bobby and recently Containment on top of many more episodes of television and hundreds of commercials.

It had all begun with an itch, a phone call, and the nerve to ask Carroll O’Connor, “Why are you trying to give my job away?”

The immediate utterance of “Oh No” spilled from my mouth when first hearing the news of Wayne’s death. It was not long after that I began to smile, and continue to do so when I think of Wayne “Baltimore” Bracy. Baltimore left us on March 21.

The blogs and postings I’ve read by others speak of a Wayne I did not know, the life he lived after leaving Auburn University. Apparently, he was a dynamic high school basketball coach, for 20 years. He took his team, Deshler High School on five trips to the High School Final Four during his final six years with the team. He was described as very intense and passionate about his coaching. Those who know this part of his life say he was a mentor to a lot of young men and young ladies. All of that sounds like him from earlier days.

I met Wayne in 1974 at Auburn University where he signed to play basketball. Wayne joined a team of stars, two of which, Eddie Johnson and Mike Mitchell, went on to be stars in the NBA.

1974 was a watershed year for Auburn University and black athletes. In 1970, when I started at Auburn, there were only three black athletes between the football and basketball programs. By 1974, there were 14 black athletes between football, basketball, and the track team. As Sam Cooke sang, “A change gon’ come,” and it was on the way.

Being a senior during Baltimore’s freshman year, I got to know him and acted as a guide - particularly to the young players who were in their first integration experience. Coming from an all-black environment to a nearly all-white one was an adjustment some could not make. Baltimore was a good student; he made the transition.

During that time, so many basketball stars were signed that it was inevitable someone would have to step aside for others, or adjust their role for others to play. Baltimore would not become a big basketball star scoring-wise, with Eddie Johnson and Mike Mitchell scoring 20 and 18 points respectively and Gary Redding scoring nearly 15. For his career Wayne scored 4 points per game, but he was a contributor, a standout. Some guys become standouts because they can set one role aside and move into another.

Wayne’s role changed. He was a fundamentally sound player who learned from the legendary coach Willie Scoggins at Hayes High School in Birmingham. His strength was guiding the team from the point. Much like Magic Johnson, Wayne could impact the game without scoring. He became a defensive stopper. The other team’s best scorer? Give him to Baltimore. He’d shut him down.

“I have a style all my own,” he told me, referring to his style on the court and how he dressed off-court also. He was stylishly dressed as he walked to class, journeying into his new world. He named himself Baltimore. As long as I knew Wayne that’s what I called him.

As a senior, I tried to have a special relationship with the freshmen. Baltimore and I developed one. I admired the way he carried himself. He had an impact on me.

He was studious, strong, and lived life the way he played defense…man-to-man. Baltimore made an impression on me that has lasted more than 40 years. That’s quite an impression when you consider I haven’t seen him in nearly 20.

Rolling into Atlanta up I-85 north, I approached the interchange outside of downtown that offers the possibilities of north, south, east or west depending on your destination. I chose I-20 west and the flood of memories began.

I spent nearly six years driving this portion of the interstate while working on a television show that lives on in memory, reruns and in many, many hearts. In the Heat Of The Night was my first recurring television experience. Carroll O’Connor hired me as his city councilman, Ted Marcus, on the show.

I rode into downtown Covington, Georgia that had doubled as Sparta, Mississippi on the show and could not stop grinning. I passed the library, which, with signage and several police cars parked out front, doubled as the exterior of the police headquarters. There was the department store that I remembered standing in front of with Howard Rollins as we waited for the director to shout “action,” before walking up the sidewalk and me, (Ted) trying to convince him to run for police chief. It would be my first scene ever on the show and one of the first I’d ever shot. I was a little nervous. I must have passed the test because the producers continued to hire me for the next five years. I passed the park where Carroll, Denise Nicholas and I shot a scene from the episode of “First Girl.” The memories were now a flood.

I had not been back this way since the mid nineties when the show wrapped for good, after 8 years on the air. A reunion of In the Neat of The Night fans and fellow cast mates brought me back to my beginnings.

I parked and walked toward the restaurant where we were all meeting. There were people standing outside. “Ted Marcus is here, ” someone announced as I was walking up the street. Ted was alive once again. It felt good to be Ted again.

Most of the fans had come from several states away. They are all dedicated to the show, know most of the episodes and could quote me Ted’s dialogue from most of the shows I worked. A few of the people gathered called me Thom but most stuck with my TV name Ted. “Ted remember in such and such an episode you said such and such to so and so?” “Ted, remember when you tried to get Virgil to take the Chief’s job?” Ted remember…”

It was like a family reunion on steroids.

I had been contacted last year to attend the first reunion, which I understand was a major affair with over 700 people in attendance and the actors signing and taking photos most of the day. Many of the actors returned for that reunion. I had not been able to attend, as I was fortunate enough to be working another show Containment, at the time. This reunion was smaller, maybe 50 participants. But it was just as special to me.

People came from Indiana, New Jersey, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and so on and so forth. The have a closed group Facebook page. They are a classy group. The page begins:

Welcome to In The Heat Of The Night Fan Page!

Along with this being a fun group of Heat fans to gather and share love of the show, and movie, there are common sense expectations to follow in the group including, but not limited to- NO NEGATIVE, OR BELITTLING, comments about any actors from the show. No advertising which includes for other groups/pages. (Heat related events and etc. are okay) No political talk. Respect other member’s posts and opinions in the group. Thank you!

It is a great group of people.

While in Covington they go on tours of set locations including to the owner’s houses that doubled as homes for the characters on the show. The owners allow them to tour their homes. The owner of the home where Virgil and Althea lived on the show welcomed a couple of the female fans to spend the night. This has not happened on any other show I’ve worked.

I’ve done about 75 episodes of television, a dozen movies, a couple of hundred commercials, industrials and other productions but there is something different and special about The Heat. It still airs every day sometimes twice a day. Across the country I’ve met fans that are almost religious about it. Many younger people will tell me “my Grandmother loves that show.” “My Dad watches it every day.” It touched souls. It made people happy. That is satisfying to those of us who worked it.

I always knew why it was special to me. It was one of my first. I landed a recurring role on a top ten show and got to learn from some pros. I got to befriend Carroll O’Connor, Howard Rollins and the other actors and crew. It gave me the confidence to continue going forward to what became a career.

Leaving Covington, (Sparta), that evening I knew why Heat was so special to others. Covington, (Sparta) will always be in my heart. Beyond just a television show, obviously we created memories not just for ourselves but also for fans across the country. They thanked me over and over for coming. I thanked them over and over for having me.

I met the champ, Muhammad Ali, in 1973. I met him at Auburn University. He was on campus for a lecture entitled “The Intoxications of Life.”

As a part of our Journalism class, the professor arranged for students to cover Ali’s press conference. It was being held in the same building our class was in, Haley Center. Excitedly, we packed up our belongings and headed downstairs to see the champ.

I have been a Muhammad Ali junkie since 1964, when I was twelve years old and he beat Sonny Liston in Miami. A young potential athlete, I invested my time and attention on athletes who had a social conscience, who wanted to make a difference, who had something to say and who often became controversial if they chose to speak about human rights. Ali had something to say and the boxing ring could not contain him.

He changed his name from Cassius Clay, his given name, to Muhammad Ali, which he said meant, “worthy of all praise most high.” He upset the boxing world by beating the “Big Bad Bear” Sonny Liston. He became a Muslim minister. He declared himself the greatest heavyweight champ of all time, which did not set well with the previous generation. He shook up the world with, “Just take me to jail.” As a conscientious-objector, he refused to serve in the US Army after being suspiciously reclassified 1A. He had originally been disqualified for military service. Ali said that he would not fight the Vietcong, and was stripped of his title.

Ali lectured on college campuses across America. Gave people hope that they could have better lives. He became a different symbol of courage. Eventually the US Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court decision and granted Ali his conscientious-objector status. He came back to boxing and lost for the first time to his rival Smoking Joe Frazier, (a fight I saw closed-circuit in Columbus, Georgia). He lost to Ken Norton (saw that one too), who had broken his jaw. Now, he was in Auburn, just a few feet in front of me.

I sat there with my reporter’s pad and pen. I was in heaven.

The champ spoke about the “Intoxications of Life.” Ali talked about humbling himself after his two defeats, which he attributed to his immersion into life’s intoxications; too much money, too many women, long nights, not enough training, and not enough godly living. It seemed a perfect message for those of us from the past year’s football team. We had finished the season 6-6 after two seasons of 9-2 and 10-1. Perhaps we had gotten too full of ourselves as well.

After the press conference, Ali put on a show at my expense in the lobby of the auditorium. The photo captured by university photographer Les King, hangs on a wall in our home. The champ has a playful but serious look on his face as he squares off in perfect boxing form shouting at me, “JOE FRAZIER, JOE FRAZIER.” My hands are up in a defensive pose. My fists are not balled up and I am laughing really hard. I too am wary though. He was incredible fast. I dared not make a false move. Afterward, I was interviewed and asked what it was like to square off with the champ.

Our paths would somewhat cross again 22 years later when I performed the one man play “Ali” in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. I sought out the script and director, then played the champ as a young man who would morph into the older version of himself as he was beginning to struggle with the same Parkinson’s disease that eventually KO’d him. I prepped like an athlete. I researched Parkinson’s, watched film, read magazines, hit the heavy bag, listened to tapes of his voice, studied his walk, and trained… and trained. For the run of that show, to the audience, I was Muhammad Ali.

I still have the robe. Identical to the white one he wore in the ring with his name on the back in big red letters. I still have all the research materials, including the 1971 Life Magazine issue with Ali and Joe Frazier on the cover with photos from the epic fight taken by Frank Sinatra.

In his own words, Muhammad was the greatest boxer of all time. In the play he asks, “Do you know what it’s like to be the best in the world at something? The best in the world?”

He became more than a boxer. To many he was a symbol of hope. Also, in the play he says, “I could knock on anybody’s door in the world and they would invite me in.”

“I shook up the world,” he concluded.

Yes he did.

The Big O is gone.

My friend. My teammate. The man who helped me through the biggest cultural change of my life is gone. James Curtis Owens died today, March 26, 2016. I knew it was coming. We all knew it was coming. But knowing and living beyond it leaves a hurt and pain deep down in my soul.

I first saw the Big O on a Friday night at John Carroll Athletic Field on Montclair Road in Birmingham, Alabama. I was a junior at John Carroll High School, playing my first full year of organized football. We were a small, rag tag, undersized bunch playing about two classifications above our ability and size level. We didn’t win very often.

The opponent was Fairfield High School. They were good. They had a starter named James Owens, who would later sign with Auburn University, becoming the first African American to integrate a major state university in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi… the Deep South. Now, he was warming up across the field from me. A running back, he was tall, lanky and wore a horse collar around his neck. He was about 6’2” and weighed close to 210 pounds. He looked dangerous. Ready to kick some you know what!

Our coach had warned us about him. He’d then gone on to tell the lie that coaches tell outmanned teams when they are about to get slaughtered by a bigger, faster, better team with bigger, faster, better players.

Referring to Owens, our coach said, “Hey! He’s no better than you. He puts his pants on one leg at a time just like you do.”

We all knew that was bullshit. Putting his pants on like we did had nothing to do with playing the way we did. This guy was All-State in football and track. He ran the 100 hundred-yard dash and threw the shot-put. He was a monster. I was glad as hell I wasn’t on defense.

It wasn’t pretty. He left carnage on the field. I don’t remember the score but it wasn’t close. After it was over, I watched him walk off the field where he had dominated us. Having integrated Fairfield High School football he was now heading off to be one of the first blacks in the Southeastern Conference.

Two years later, I would join James and Virgil Pearson, also from Fairfield, and Auburn’s first African American Athlete, Henry Harris, at Auburn University.

As a basketball player, Henry often travelled in different circles. For Virgil and me, James became our Daddy. We nicknamed him “Daddy O.” He was strong like our fathers, but gentle towards us, who had followed him. We not only respected him, everybody, on and off the field and in the athletic complex, held James in high esteem. Integration made things socially awkward but everybody respected James for his quiet, dignified courage. That respect lasted all of his life.

Our special friendship lasted from 1970 until his death. Like close friends we drifted apart throughout the seasons of our lives but we always found each other again because of the love and respect we had for our shared experience.

Henry left Auburn University after his senior basketball season. Virgil left his sophomore year, looking for a different experience. For the next two years on the varsity football team It was just James and me, as athletes of color. For the rest of his life we always relived that experience.

Between us we realized there was no one else in the world who shared that loneliness, that moment in our lives where we carried the pail of integration uphill without much assistance from those who could have helped us along. Those times were about providing for those whom would follow. We knew that. It kept us going.

James kept me grounded. He talked me down many times when, emotionally, I was way over the top. Over time, we embraced our teammates and they embraced us with that special bond that comes from the shared experiences of being teammates and winning games. During the two years when James and I were the two black pioneers on the team, we won 19 games and lost 3. We were a part of something bigger than us.

Throughout the decades that followed we talked a lot about those times. We always circled back to that experience. What had been a painful part of our lives had become, by the 21st century, a memory of achievement, a gift that we gave to all who followed at our university, not just the black athletes. We also grew to love our teammates and they loved us back. Today we are teammates for life. It ‘s more than a slogan. We live it.

James is an Auburn University icon. He doesn’t need for me to tell everyone about his contributions. Look around the university and you will see his accomplishments in the faces of the young men on the football team, the basketball team, the track team, the baseball team and in the faces of the young women on the softball team, the basketball team and all the other sports that did not exist before integration.

He will always be remembered for what he gave to Auburn University, the state of Alabama and college football. I will always remember him as my friend.

One yard. A big giant step. One yard and your life changes. One yard from glory.

Former ballplayers have the best stories. The good talkers can take an incident from a game many years ago and make it the centerpiece of speeches that they give long after they have finished playing. The “formers,” can be funny, heart wrenching, give inside looks at the teams in their respective eras, inside look at great stars. Randy Campbell is good at it.

Randy is one of the good guys. Today he is a financial advisor in his business Campbell Wealth Management. We serve on the Auburn University Foundation Board together. Imagine that two former football players. We made the transition.

I didn’t know Randy well before he came on the board a year ago. We played in different decades at Auburn. I knew of him. He played quarterback in the 1980s, on some great Auburn teams. He is a great speaker. Randy jokes he was famous for handing off to all-everything runner Bo Jackson. There is some truth to that. Bo was the truth so why not?

Still, Randy was no slouch. He is well remembered. He was 20-4 as a starting quarterback. In the 1983 Tangerine Bowl, he became the answer to a TV trivia question. “The 1983 Tangerine Bowl featured two Heisman Trophy winners, Bo Jackson and Doug Flutie. Who was the MVP?” The answer, Randy Campbell!

Back to Randy’s story. He relishes telling it. It’s like the secret only he thought of.

Here goes.

It’s the 1984 version of the Iron Bowl rivalry game Auburn vs Alabama. It’s a game that Bo will make famous with his “Bo Over the Top” leap at the goal line to give Auburn the victory over Alabama 23-22.

Randy tells the story.

“It’s third down, we’re threatening to score. I throw a swing pass out to Bo. Bo takes it down to the one-yard line. He almost scored. He came up a yard short. Of course he then goes over the top on the next play for the winning touchdown.”

I’m waiting for the punch line. Randy wears his “I’ve got a secret” look on his face.

“If he had scored on the swing pass, instead of “Bo Over the Top,” the headline could have read, “Campbell throws the winning TD in victory over Alabama.” Instead Bo was close, so close, tackled at the one-yard line. Man, I was one yard from glory.”

He looks me in the eye. I grin. It’s a great story. Crowd pleaser. Crowds like self-deprecating humor, especially from athletes who have been at the top of the food chain.

Sports is full of close, almost, damn near, shoulda, woulda, coulda, one play here, one play there type moments. If only such and such, stays safely locked in our memories many years later.

One yard from Glory!

I’ve embellished Randy wanting to be the hero. He is a pretty humble guy. All winning team oriented athletes will tell you, what mattered is that their team won far more than they lost. The team is what counts.

Randy says that. But like many of us “formers” he likes to have fun with his stories.

He says, “I told that story to Bo. I said, ‘Man, if you hadn’t gotten tackled on the one-yard line, the headline would have been “Campbell Tosses Winning TD” instead of Bo Over the Top.’ He wasn’t amused.”

Randy repeated, “Campbell to Jackson for the winning TD.”

He smiled.