Top 11: Randomly Awesome Athlete Encounters

It’s always fun to meet a celebrity, and when you’re a sports fan, it doesn’t get much better than shaking the hand of a famous athlete.

Over the years, I’ve met my fair share of celebrity athletes, and it’s always interesting, to say the least. Some encounters are more interesting than others, and often they involve some of the less-heralded sports stars out there.

The following is a list of the 11 most randomly memorable encounters I’ve had with popular sports figures. Because they aren’t always pretty, but at least they’re funny.

11. Chris Snelling


Former Mariners outfielder, 1999-2006

Encountered at:

Spring Training, Peoria, Arizona, 2003

The story:

It’s February, 2003, and my family is in Arizona for Mariners’ Spring Training.

My little brother, his best friend, and myself are dedicated to getting as many autographs as we can during our trip. I’m 18 years old, they’re both 15. We’re armed with brand new major league baseballs and Sharpies. Preparedness is key.

Shortly after we arrive inside the Peoria Sports Complex for the first time, we head over to these roped off pathways that are meant to separate the fans from the players. The players shuttle back and forth between workout stations via these pathways. As they walk, the players frequently sign autographs for the fans who line their path.

The first guy to head our way ends up being Chris Snelling. A fairly amicable dude, he walks right over to us and takes the liberty of being the guy to devirginize our balls (that came out wrong, but I’ll leave it as is for your enjoyment).

He grabs my baseball first, signs it, and hands it back to me. As he returns the signed ball, he says in an Australian drawl, “Here ya go, champ.”

Next, he take my brother’s ball. He signs it, returns it, and once again says, “Here ya go, champ.”

Finally he gets to David, my brother’s friend who resembles a young Screech Powers. He takes his ball, signs it, hands it back, and says, “Here ya go.”

We wait for the “…Champ.” It never comes.

Snelling walks off, leaving two champs and one disappointment behind.

10. Shawn Kemp


Former Sonics superstar, 1989-1996

Encountered at:

Champs Sports, Bellevue, Washington, 2003

The story:

Back in the day, I used to work at Champs Sports, which is basically a breeding ground for dudes who enjoy sports. To be perfectly honest, it’s more or less a sausage-fest in that place. The only chicks that show up in that store — EVER — either look like dudes, want to be dudes, or are shopping for their dudes. None of that has anything to do with this story. I just wanted to let you know.

Anyway, I’m working one day, and in walks The Reign Man. I can’t believe it. Of all the heroes from my childhood, Shawn T. Kemp was one of the biggest. I loved that guy.

Kemp stands there in the middle of the store talking on his cell phone, asking someone about shoe sizes. I can’t help but overhear parts of his conversations.

“What size does Shawn, Jr. wear these days?” I hear him ask. He pauses, waiting for a response, gets it, and hangs up

He dials another number.

A brief greeting to the person on the other end of the line, then, “What size does Shaniqua wear these days? (Pause) Ok, bye.”

He hangs up again. Dials yet another number. He repeats this process probably 10 times, taking note of each shoe size along the way.

Finally, he steps up to the counter, asks for roughly 10 different pairs of shoes in all different sizes and mentions that they’re for his kids.

And then, like a good dad, he buys all his kids their shoes, chit-chats for a bit, then takes off with five or six shopping bags.

My lasting image of Shawn Kemp is two-fold: 1) He really does have all those kids by all those different women, and he actually takes care of them, and 2) He’s a really nice guy. One of the most down-to-earth celebrities I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with.

So keep your Kemp jokes to a minimum, people. Shawn Kemp is a saint. A freakin saint.

9. Dave Valle


Former Mariners catcher, 1978-1993

Encountered at:

Skyline High School, Issaquah, Washington, 2001

The story:

I was 16 years old, playing summer league baseball, and Valle was the opposing team’s coach. They called themselves the Issaquah Mariners or something stupid like that, I don’t really remember. The point is, Valle was there, and he was their coach. I played on a fall team with his son once, too. But that’s another story for another day.

From the get-go, my teammates were clowning on Valle and his ballclub. The team was pretty good, but come on. They were receiving instruction from a career .237 hitter who spent more time on the DL than in the lineup.

The best part about Valle was that he only had one piece of advice for every kid on his team: Get your hands through the ball. Use your hands. Swing with your hands. Your hands. Hands through the zone. Feel it with your hands. Trust your hands.

Now telling a hitter to get his hands through the zone is sound advice, but it’s basically meaningless. Like telling a pitcher to throw hard, or a baserunner to not get out. And does it really bear repeating? No, probably not.

I don’t really know if Valle ever coached his club on the finer points of pitching or defense, but damn if those kids didn’t hit with their hands better than any team I’ve ever seen. They beat us, too. Don’t remember the score, but we probably should have used our hands more.

8. Wally Szczerbiak


Former Sonics guard/forward, 2007-2008

Encountered at:

Nordstrom, Bellevue, Washington, 2008

The story:

After I got sick of working at Champs Sports (see Encounter No. 10, Shawn Kemp), I took a job at Nordstrom in Bellevue Square and used that money to put myself through college. Just in case you were wondering what I was doing there. And no, I don’t work there anymore. Nor do I shop there.  It’s highway robbery, people. Most of that stuff costs pennies to make and is put together by 10-year-olds in Calcutta. Do me a favor and think about that the next time you waste your money on overpriced clothing.

So I’m working one night in the athletic shoe department, which happens to be near one of the garage exits, and here comes Wally World and family walking down the aisleway.

My first thought is, “Damn, that guy is bigger than I thought.” And he really is. If you see him up close, you’ll be surprised. You watch him on TV, he looks like your typical white shooting guard. In real life, he’s a legit 6’7″ and bulky.

Back to the story at hand.

The Szczerbiak family is headed towards the exit. Walking in the same direction, maybe 30 yards in front of them are two young ladies, probably in their early-20s, and one of them has her neck craned back, focused on Wally. She’s not watching where she’s going and this has disaster written all over it.

Here’s the thing. If you’ve ever been to Nordstrom, you know that at every entrance/exit, they put up these big metal sign fixtures advertising whatever happens to be going on in the store that day. The sign fixtures are probably five feet tall, weigh about 15-20 pounds, are completely unstable, and have sharp edges. They’re basically a lawsuit waiting to happen. And this girl is about to take this one particular sign fixture out.

The moment proceeds as expected, and there’s a big crash. Down goes the sign fixture. Down goes the girl. Her friend gasps. I’m mildly intrigued.

And then from behind me I hear hysterical laughter. It’s Wally. He’s busting up. Like he’s at Eddie Murphy standup or something.

But just as quickly as he starts laughing, he pauses, comes running to the girl’s aid, and asks if she’s okay. He’s fighting back more hysterics as he extends the hand of generosity.

More embarrassed than injured, the girl gets up, replaces the sign fixture, and tells Wally she’s fine. Her and her friend hurry out the door to their car.

Wally looks at me standing there, starts laughing again, and says, “Man, that was too funny.” I say something witty. At least I imagine I do. I don’t really remember that part. Let’s just say that hopefully I said something witty.

From that day forward, I’m a Wally Szczerbiak fan. Because he’s a real person who enjoys good slapstick humor. And I can appreciate that.

7. Jordan Babineaux


Seahawks defensive back, 2004-present

Encountered at:

Champs Sports, Bellevue, Washington, 2004

The story:

It’s the summer of 2004. I’m working the register one night at Champs and this dude comes up with a ton of clothing. I’ve never seen this guy before, but he’s more or less average looking. Not too big, not too small, in decent shape. Nothing out of the ordinary.

I start ringing his items, then tell him his total.

He stops for a second, looks at me and says, “Don’t you guys do the Seahawks discount?”

Thrown off a bit, I reply, “Seahawks discount? Nah, not really. Why, you play for the Seahawks or something?”

“Yeah,” he says, “I just started, I’m a rookie. They told me I could get the discount here.”

“Who told you that?” I ask.

“My teammates,” he replies.

“I think they’re messing with you,” I tell him. “Usually, those dudes come in here and buy up the store, no discount.”

A look of understanding crosses his face. He’s been punked. “Oh, okay, no big deal,” he states.

I feel bad for him though, and offer to give him 10% off for his troubles. He perks up. He hands me his credit card. I take note of the name: Jordan Babineaux. Never heard it before.

I give him his card back, hand him his receipt. He takes his things and leave.

A co-worker next to me asks, “Why’d you give him that deal?”

“I don’t know,” I admit. “I kinda felt bad for the guy. I’m not even sure he really plays for the Seahawks. But he was a cool dude, at least.”

A couple weeks later, I find out that Jordan Babineaux, an undrafted free agent, has made the Seahawks roster out of training camp. The next time he comes in the store, he doesn’t ask for the Seahawks discount.

6. Bill Krueger


Former Mariners pitcher, 1991, 1995

Encountered at:

Hidden Valley Park, Bellevue, Washington, circa 1998

The story:

It’s Little League Opening Day in Bellevue, and Bill Krueger is on hand as a celebrity guest for the festivities.

I’m about 13 years old and a spectator at this event. I’ve graduated to the ranks of Senior League ball. My brother, however, is still in the junior ranks and my mom is president of the league.

The crafty lefthander gets out there on the mic, says his piece, the people rejoice, the kids probably wonder who the tall dude with the gray hair is, and then he walks off the field. My mom tells me I should go get the dude’s autograph. So I grab a gently-used baseball, get my hands on a ballpoint pen, and walk over to Krueger.

He kindly obliges, and signs his name on the ball. I’m elated. It’s not every day a kid can get an autograph from a former big leaguer.

I cherish this ball for all of like a week.

A few days later, my brother and I are in a desperate situation. We want to play catch, we have our gloves, but we are sans baseball.

And then we spot the Krueger ball, sitting in our parents’ Toyota Previa.

I weigh the ramifications of my decision carefully. We could not play catch, and continue to pay proper tribute to this collector’s item that I have so proudly obtained. Or we could play catch, have a great time, and screw Bill Krueger in the process.

Sorry, Bill. We really wanted to throw.

5. Terrell Owens


Superstar NFL receiver, 1996-present

Encountered at:

Nordstrom, Bellevue, Washington, 2007

The story:

It’s January, 2007 and the Seahawks are in the NFC Wildcard playoffs, set to square off against the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys are staying at the Westin Hotel in Bellevue, and with some down time to kill, decide to head out for a few hours.

I’m working my usual evening shift at the store, and all night long Dallas players come walking through in droves. Most of them are in groups of two or three or four, dressed casually in sweats or jeans and simply enjoying the evening.

Then, suddenly, in walks Terrell Owens. By himself. No teammates at his side. Dressed in a light brown suede jacket, like a pimp.

He walks briskly past open-mouthed onlookers, headed for the men’s clothing department. The few of us who work there that have penises and aren’t gay decide to follow T.O. and see what he’s up to. That amounts to like three of us tailing the guy. We leave a handful of oblivious female coworkers in our wake.

We head down to the men’s section and find Owens talking to sales associates and collecting a few things to buy. Surprisingly, he’s courteous to everyone he meets, going out of his way to talk to people and quick to laugh and smile. I’m slightly shocked. This is not the pariah I was expecting to come across.

Owens buys his stuff, shakes hands with the clerks who helped him, and leaves. No customers approach him on his way in or out, but the few people who do get to talk to him are treated kindly and pleasantly by a guy you wouldn’t expect to be so cordial.

Maybe T.O. is just misunderstood.

4. Omar Vizquel


Former Mariners shortstop, 1984-1993

Encountered at:

QFC, Issaquah, Washington, circa 2002

The story:

I’m at the grocery store on a weekend morning and as I’m getting out of my car, I see this dude walking across the parking lot in a gawdy, oversized Mariners jacket. When I say gawdy, I mean super gawdy. Like a Starter jacket on ‘roids. This thing is big, puffy, and has the M’s logo all over it. Even as a Mariner fan, it’s a bit of an eyesore.

Then I take a closer look at the guy in the jacket. He’s not very tall, fairly slender, balding on top with wisps of dark brown hair still remaining…Holy Crapola! That’s Omar Vizquel!

Now I’d heard that Little O still made his home in the Seattle area, despite playing for the Cleveland Indians at the time, but I had no idea that he lived in Issaquah.

And yet here he is, directly in front of me, wearing sweats and an ugly jacket, looking like he just had the piss beat out of him. Unbelievable.

Only few people know of this random encounter. I always figured if I told anyone, they wouldn’t believe me. I mean, it barely made sense to me at the time, though it was the middle of the offseason. But in an M’s jacket? And looking like walking death? Weird.

3. Ron Fairly


Former big league first baseman; former Mariners broadcaster, 1993-2005; member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

Encountered at:

Jack in the Box, Bellevue, Washington, circa 2004

The story:

It’s late one night and I’m just getting off work. I’m pretty hungry and could go for some Jack in the Box tacos.

A brief digression here about Jack in the Box tacos. There’s really no better deal in fast food history. Two tacos for $0.99. That’s money in the bank right there. Some people hate on those tacos because they look a little funny. Whatever. Taste them. They’re great. Might not be authentic. But they’re damn good.

Back to the story.

I head down Bellevue Way to the only legit Jack in the Box in Bellevue. If you’ve ever been in downtown Bellevue, you know this J-Box. It’s on the corner of Bellevue Way and Main Street, right down the hill from Bellevue High School. It’s an institution, hit up by every kid who ever called him or herself a proud Wolverine.

The best part about this J-Box is that it’s so old, it doesn’t have a drive-thru. So even at midnight, you gotta park your car and walk inside to order your food. That’s dedication, right there.

I walk into the dining room and place my order. The clerk hands me the receipt and I sit down while I wait for my food. I take notice of my surroundings and come to the realization that there is only one other person in the place with me. And it’s Ron Fairly.

Say what you want about Ron Fairly, but I’ve always liked the guy. He’s entertaining as all hell, in a Jessica Simpson MTV Newlyweds kinda way. He says some stupid stuff, but at least he’s real about it. That’s just who he is, and it’s fun to listen to.

So here I am in a lonely Jack in the Box with only Ron Fairly to keep me company. His order pops up at the counter and he walks up and grabs it. He returns to his table and meticulously prepares his meal.

First, he flips the tie he’s wearing over his shoulder. Makes sense. Don’t want to ruin a good tie. I prefer to tuck my tie into my shirt, but I see where he’s coming from, I feel it.

He then undresses his burger from its wrapping with absolute care. Peeling back the paper slowly, almost sensuously, he reveals his sandwich in all its naked glory underneath. I begin to feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe I should leave Ron and his burger alone. He’s bound to go American Pie-style on this thing in a minute here.

He adjust himself in his chair. Sits up, flares his elbows, grabs his burger with two hands, and pounces. Dude kills that thing. Like he can’t get enough. I’m reminded of a joke Chris Rock once told about the R. Kelly sex video and a girl he was messing with. But I won’t go into that because it’s pretty gross, albeit funny. Nevertheless, if you knew the joke, and you saw Ron sitting there murdering that burger, you might think the same thing I was thinking at the time.

My order is ready. I take it to go.

I leave Ron Fairly sitting there all alone. I feel kinda bad. Like maybe I should go eat with him or something. But I don’t want to impose.

And besides, he’s got that burger to keep him company. He’d probably leave his wife for that burger. I can’t compete with that.

2. Robbie Cowgill


Former Washington State University basketball player, 2004-2008

Encountered at:

University of Washington IMA (Intramural Athletics) building, Seattle, Washington, 2006

The story:

It’s March, 2006 and I’m playing ball one afternoon at the IMA. If you’ve never been to the IMA before, it’s the enormous student gym on the University of Washington campus. If you like to run pickup, it’s heaven. There are 10 full courts, with six devoted to basketball at all times.

So I’m running fives with some guys and we’re about halfway through the game when a group of people I immediately recognize walk in. Three of these dudes play ball for Washington State.

There’s Daven Harmeling, the former small forward who graduated in 2009.

There’s Steve Campbell, a walk-on who came out of Kenmore’s Inglemoor High School.

And then there’s the bearded lady himself, Robbie Cowgill.

Guests are allowed into the IMA, provided they pay a small fee and have someone to sponsor them in. So it was clear that these guys had a connection with the Benedict Arnold of UW students.

I’ll admit I was a little nervous seeing Cowgill standing there. Not because of his size or his ability. But because just weeks prior, I had created a semi-popular Facebook group entitled “Robbie Cowgill is the ugliest player in the Pac-10 and, quite possibly, the world.” I figured if he had seen that, taken note of the creator, and remembered my face, he might be here to kick my ass.

Alas, my fears are misguided.

Cowgill and his Cougar teammates join us for a run. They’re good, of course, but play respectfully.

When we’re done playing, they shake hands with each one of us and compliment our respective abilities. I get to talking with Cowgill a bit, and as it turns out, he’s a pretty nice guy. Kind of weird-looking. But friendly.

From that point forward, I quit referring to Cowgill as “Cowgirl.”

The Facebook group, however,  still exists. Barely.

1. Ken Lucas


Seahawks cornerback, 2001-2004, 2009

Encountered at:

Champs Sports, Bellevue, Washington, 2005

The story:

This is one of the best encounters of all-time, and I was only a secondary party to the whole thing. Still, it’s definitely worth retelling, and certainly deserving of the No. 1 spot on this list.

Back in the 2005 offseason, Ken Lucas was a free agent for the first time in his career. At 26 years old, the talented cornerback was set to receive a healthy pay raise from his rookie salary.

So one afternoon, Lucas comes strolling into Champs and does a little shopping. I happen to be there with a coworker by the name of John Harris. Being curious football fans, we ask Lucas about his future plans.

Lucas opens up to us and divulges that he plans to sign with Baltimore in the coming days. They’re willing to pay him well, despite the fact that he might only serve as a nickelback in their defense, and he’s not shy about the fact that he’s in it for the cash.

Upon hearing this news, John, who lived in Maryland, proceeds to describe to Lucas how bad a place Baltimore is to make a home. He spends the next few minutes listing off all the negatives about Baltimore as Lucas quietly listens, intrigued.

When John is finished, Lucas rebuts with arguments of his own. He cites the great Ravens defense, how the team has won a Superbowl, and how he’ll make bank with a good organization.

John won’t back down, though. He tries to sell Lucas on other destinations, including Seattle and Philadelphia. Lucas isn’t having any.

At that moment, I’m drawn away by a needy customer. I go off and help some wannabe thug who needs new Air Force Ones, or a fat kid that needs like a size 8 hat. Something ridiculous like that. Fact is, it doesn’t really matter.

In the meantime, John and Lucas continue talking.

Forty-five minutes later, they’re still talking.

Finally, I see Lucas shake John’s hand and leave. I walk over to John and ask him what went down.

Adamant, John claims he talked Lucas out of Baltimore. He swears he won’t end up there. Not that he has any other destination in mind, at this point, but it’s clear that Baltimore is out of the question. Apparently, John’s crappy experience there was enough to sway the cornerback.

About a week later, news comes across the wire that Lucas has signed with a team. It’s not Baltimore. Instead, it’s Carolina.

I experience both shock and awe. Why Ken Lucas would put stock in some random dude’s opinion is beyond me. But he did, and instead of spending the next four years as a Raven, Lucas becomes a Panther.

So that punch to the face he took from Steve Smith? He has John Harris to thank for that.

13 thoughts on “Top 11: Randomly Awesome Athlete Encounters”

  1. Alex, I loved it. I can’t believe a coworker of yours managed to dissuade Lucas from signing with the Ravens. Unbelievable.

  2. The Ron Fairly situation was perfect…. you should have sat down and shared a bite with him, if you could have kept yourself from bursting out in laughter.

  3. Oh Sargeant John… that crazy SOB. I should tell you about the time I met Charles Barkley. That was hilarious. His fly was down at a golf tournament. What a knucklehead.

  4. I can’t believe you didn’t get ANY autographs?? What? Wasn’t your mom there to ask for them!

  5. Oh, and you should have told Ron that you can’t eat a hamburger without putting it in your mouth.

  6. I live in the same condo building with Jeff Nelson, 2001 Mariners dominate slider pitcher. Great guy always shakes my hand when in the elevator. He’s got like 4-5 daughters.

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