It wasn’t just any kind of dinner, you see. Kramer and I were dining partners at the 2007 Gleaners Community Food Bank Iron Chef competition. My boss turned down the chance to judge the event because he said he didn’t know anything about food, so who better to represent the local newspaper than the managing editor who loves to cook?
The only hitch was that my childcare fell through, so I brought my then-8-year-old son, Will, along.
As we wandered through the silent auction area prior to the competition, two women smiled at me, surely recognizing me from the newspaper. I watched as one approached my kid who had made his way down the aisle.
“You must be Will Stuart,” I heard her say as she extended a hand to him. “It’s nice to meet you in person.”
Will shook her hand and smiled as the woman went on her way with her friend.
I ran into other people I knew, and when they saw the boy with me, they made the correct assumption that he was my son.
“Hello, Will,” one said.
“It’s nice to see you in person,” said another.
Will took it all in, not connecting the dots that I often wrote about him in the paper with people recognizing him at the event. He had a whole other incorrect, yet charming, spin on it.
“I think I’m famous,” he whispered to me as he pulled me aside.
“Famous,” I asked.
“You know, like how Harry Potter was famous. Like how people knew who Harry Potter was?” Will said. “People know me and I don’t know why. I think I must be like Harry Potter.”
I made a mental note to remember what he said so I could use it one day.
It was a wicked hot August evening, and the charity event was packed. I saw a tall man I didn’t recognize being swarmed by people, and I knew instantly that it must be Ron Kramer.
Sure enough, I was right, and I was paired with Kramer as my dining partner.
For a minute, I was worried. My knowledge of football runs from non-existent to knowing it’s OK to poke fun at the Lions. I had never heard of Kramer before the guys in the newsroom filled me in on his days at U-M to his professional career with the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. I worried we’d have nothing to talk about, but the minute I met Kramer, I knew I was in for a fun time.
As well as being a big-time football player, Kramer had a big-time personality. He also fancied himself a gourmet cook who shared that he made a mean marinated steak. We talked food and dogs and his book, “That’s Just Kramer! From Michigan Legend to Lombardi’s 12th Man,” which had either just come out or was set for release (my memory fails me on this point).
We plowed through filet mignon, drank wine and enjoyed a dessert made with apples and mushrooms. Kramer asked about my job and told me about his beloved Tyrone Township home, how he loved living on his land in the country.
As the dinner went on, my son, who had been watching from the audience, made his way to where we were sitting. I introduced him to Kramer.
They talked a little football, a little baseball, a little school, a little food. Kramer explained to Will that he could sit and stand for only short periods of time, that he couldn’t do either for very long because of the beating his body took from years of football, how his injuries made it difficult to walk sometimes.
Will took it all in.
Everything created that night included mushrooms. Kramer offered Will tastes of the food we were rating, but my kid, who’s not yet met many vegetables he likes, turned it all down.
“He’s a great boy,” Kramer said. “He reminds me of my son.”
He then took a football card from his pocket, signed it and handed it to Will, who was thrilled.
My son took that football card out of his treasure box this morning after I told him Kramer had died.
“He was sure nice,” Will said. “I am so glad I have this card so I can always remember him.”
But that’s not all Will has to remember the football great. Before we left, I snapped a lovely photo of Will and Kramer.