I called him “Shep,” like, at least two or three times before finally realizing that I’d misremembered (yes, that’s a word now) his last name; it was “Sam Shelby,” not “Sam Shepard.” It was our first day working together, and there I am, calling him “Shep” … repeatedly … because I’m a douche. Of course, when I finally realized (with no small amount of embarrassment) the mistake I’d been making, Sam merely laughed it off and took it upon himself to make the moment far less uncomfortable and awkward than I deserved for it to be … because that’s just who he was.
After spending the previous two years working out of a friend’s basement, I had landed a gig as the editor of an online city guide in Phoenix, and I spent those first few days waiting for Terry — whom I somehow had tricked into hiring me — to come walking into the office that Sam and I were sharing to say that he’d made a terrible mistake, and would I please pack my shit and leave. Amazingly, that never happened. Instead, Sam and I jammed to the latest albums from Limp Bizkit (it was 1999; don’t judge me) and Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dude”-ed each other incessantly, and became fast friends in a matter of days … and not because I’m such a likable guy, mind you; as we’ve already established, I’m the kind of self-centered asshole who not only will fuck up your last name, but who will then address you in an inappropriately familiar, shortened, nickname version of that incorrect last name. No, Sam and I became fast friends because Sam was the easiest guy in the world to befriend. You couldn’t meet him and NOT want to be his friend.
During the year that followed, Sam, Terry and I had more fun than I would have dared to hope could be had at one of my first “real” jobs. I looked forward to going to work every day because I knew I was going to get to hang with those guys.
Sam was our team’s Marketing Manager, a position that necessitated schmoozing and cutting deals. Anyone who knew Sam is grinning and nodding knowingly right now, because Sam was born to schmooze and cut deals … and not in a phony, used-car-salesman way, but in a genuine, truly endearing way that verged on being a superpower. Whomever was on the other side of the bartering table from Sam surely gave up more than they had planned to before meeting him, and were all too happy to give it in order to do right by this awesome guy they’d just met. It was like the goddamn Jedi Mind Trick.
The objective of Sam’s deals? Well, yes, the primary purpose was to promote our business … but he also took great joy in sharing the spoils of his conquests … which is how Terry, Sam and I ended up working out every morning (OK, maybe not every morning) at an NBA team’s exclusive gym, regularly eating for free at Alice Cooper’s rock-and-roll/sports bar, and attending more than our fair share of professional sporting events and concerts.
An overwhelming majority of my favorite memories from that time in my life not only involve Sam; they happened specifically and solely because of Sam. The dude was a turbocharged catalyst who loved life, and loved to make life more fun for everyone around him.
Of course, our friendship with Sam grew to include Sam’s friendship with both my wife and Terry’s wife … because anyone who was married to Sam’s friend, or was related to Sam’s friend, or was a friend of Sam’s friend … became Sam’s friend. It’s a well-documented law of nature.
Eventually, Terry and his wife returned to the West Coast, my wife and I returned to the Boston area, and Sam returned to his beloved North Carolina. And if Sam and Terry were just two cool guys who I enjoyed working with, that would be the end of the story. But they weren’t. They were two lifelong friends I’d not expected to make when I took that job in Phoenix, and the friendship we forged was meaningful enough that, when my wife and I took our first-ever family vacation with our baby son, we met up with Terry, his wife, and their two baby boys in Wilmington, NC, so that we could all hang with Sam.
Let me say that again: two sleep-deprived, stressed-out, married couples sporting a combined total of two babies and a toddler between them used their precious vacation time to travel by plane to the South in the middle of July in order to spend multiple nights in a hotel … because: Sam.
In the years that followed, Terry and I got busy raising our kids, and Sam got busy saving the earth and befriending everyone else who lived on it … but we always stayed in touch, and Terry and I always threatened to bring both our families down for another visit.
It wasn’t a matter of “if,” just “when.” I wish like hell that “when” came sooner.
It had been a couple of months since Sam and I had been in touch when he messaged me on my birthday back in January.
Seemed like a reasonable question at the time. After all, he was messaging me on my birthday and telling me about a band, so clearly there wasn’t anything heavy going on in his world, right?
When he didn’t respond right away, I did a deep-dive on his FB page to see what had been shaking with him. That led me to his newly created blog, MOJOWARRIORS.COM … where I learned that Sam — a non-smoker and otherwise super-healthy dude — had just been diagnosed with inoperable, stage-4 lung cancer.
Sam spent all of this year documenting his battle against cancer … and he did so with 10 times more humor and positivity than any human being could reasonably be expected to muster in the face of such complete and utter bullshit. And all those friends of his? They — we — rallied around him … and he, in turn, unified us all and transformed us into something bigger than the sum of our parts, as only he could.
From Sam’s blog:
Since getting the news, I have had an indescribable amount of love, friendship, warmth, affection, support, and super good mojo come my way. It has brought me to tears. These friends and family members are my team, my posse and what I am now calling my MOJO WARRIORS. You have magical powers based on the definition below! If you are reading this, you are most likely part of this sorcery squad, and I ask you to apply it to my situation, and anyone else you know that may need an injection of oomph or love or a high five or a hug. Make them smile, laugh, feel loved, missed..it makes a big impact.
mo-jo: a power that may seem magical and that allows someone to be very effective, successful, etc.
war-rior: a person who fights in battles and is known for having courage and skill”
The MOJO WARRIORS were born.
Sam’s MOJO WARRIORS literally spanned the planet … and if the key to healing Sam was based upon a combination of the number of people who gladly would have given our left arms to make him well, and the intensity with which we all wished and hoped and prayed for him to receive a miracle, he’d have outlived all of us and would never have had so much as a head cold for the rest of his life.
The MOJO WARRIORS movement culminated in last month’s “Joe’s Bucket Bash,” a huge fundraiser to benefit Sam. When the plans first were announced in July, Terry and I knew it was time to make the trip.
A couple of weeks ago, Terry and I flew down to NC for the Bucket Bash. Shortly after we arrived at the event, we got word that Sam was having his worst day yet, and probably wouldn’t be able to attend. Damn. We were bummed … but our disappointment was dwarfed by our concern for our friend and our hope that he get well. No matter what else happened, Sam knew we had come to support him … and Terry and I got to reconnect on a level that reminded us just why we had become such good friends in the first place. We have Sam to thank for that.
We spent the day celebrating Sam and generally marveling at both the size of the crowd that had turned out to support him, and the high concentration of awesomeness that was so clearly evident in every one of his other friends with whom we spoke.
Later that afternoon, Sam texted me and Terry: “If I don’t show up, maybe you guys can come see me later??”
Um, yeah, I’m pretty sure we can work that into our schedule, pal.
Sam sent us the address where he was staying. We slipped out and beat a path to his location.
Despite being exhausted and having tremendous difficulty breathing, Sam sat between Terry and me on a porch overlooking the intracoastal waterway and hung out with us one last time … and I got to hug him and tell him that I loved him. That was a gift for which I could never thank him enough … and as much as I know he wanted to see us, I know he also received us that afternoon because he didn’t want to disappoint us … because that’s just who he was. Right down to his last days, Sam was incapable of thinking only of himself.
My friend Sam died yesterday morning. His brother wrote on Facebook that he “passed away peacefully on the recliner in our living room surrounded by family. His last words are good words to live by — ‘y’all relax.'”
I was not Sam’s closest friend. I didn’t have the pleasure or the honor of knowing him for as long as or as well as did his childhood pals, frat brothers, family members and many other loved ones … and, after leaving Phoenix, I didn’t have the good fortune of living close enough to Sam for us to be a part of each other’s everyday lives … but that never stopped me from loving him like a brother, nor him from holding a place on the extremely short list of guys whom I consider to be my very closest of friends. I had so hoped to have more good times with him.
I speak not in hyperbole when I tell you that Sam Shelby was the sweetest, nicest, friendliest, kindest, funniest, most fun-to-be-around person that I have ever met … and I am only one of the hundreds of people who feel that way. The outpouring of tributes on Facebook in response to his passing is, without a doubt, one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen happen on the Internet. It’s the biggest digital group hug of all time, and it is a fitting testament to not only how many people Sam touched, but how deeply he touched them.
We’ll relax, Sam. Just gotta do some crying first.
I wish I believed in the things so many people believe in at times like these in order to find comfort and make sense of tragedy. Unfortunately, I have a hard time convincing myself that there’s anything else after this ride stops. I hope I’m wrong, though … and I hope that, if there is something else, it has an Alice Cooperstown … and I hope that, when I get there, Sam is waiting for me at the bar with a couple of Waboritas in front of him.
I love you, Sam … and I’ll miss you forever.