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Volume 23 No. 17
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A life well lived: ESPN’s Rob Tobias

Last week was a long one for ESPN’s PR department as they mourned their former colleague, Rob Tobias, who died Nov. 15 after a battle with brain cancer. About a week before his death, Tobias, who was 60 years old, asked ESPN’s senior vice president of corporate communications, Chris LaPlaca, to give the eulogy at his funeral, which was Nov. 18 in Connecticut. With LaPlaca’s permission, I am running an edited version of his talk here:

 

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Death is a natural part of life but is likely the least understood. It’s hard to make sense of death in Rob’s case. He was too young. Too vibrant of spirit and humor.

ESPN communications veteran Rob Tobias maintained his sense of humor until the end.
Photo: ESPN Images
ESPN communications veteran Rob Tobias maintained his sense of humor until the end.
Photo: ESPN Images
ESPN communications veteran Rob Tobias maintained his sense of humor until the end.
Photo: ESPN Images

He gave us all hope by the way he dealt with his challenge. And yet, here we are, all of us, trying to make sense, one more time, of the passing of a son, brother, fiancé, friend, and of course, father — perhaps the role Rob valued the most — way too soon.

It is traditional, and natural, of course, for those left behind to feel sad, to mourn, to feel cheated for themselves and for the ones who’ve passed, especially when they are as young as Rob was.

But Rob always did things his way and they almost always turned out fine — well, not just fine, often fabulous, a much better “f” word than one that more readily comes to mind in a moment like this — and he wanted us to celebrate today. 

I’m gonna start with the thing I think he celebrated the most — his hair. The sheen! The volume! Rob talked about his hair more than any guy I have known in my life. It seemed to be a topic never very far from his consciousness. A bad hair day for Rob wasn’t just a minor inconvenience … it was a borderline catastrophe.

And it wasn’t just the hair on his head. … you look at head shots of Rob over the years and some had a mustache … some had a beard … some had neither … but in every shot, he was like the Werewolf of London in that Warren Zevon song — his hair was perfect. In a chat we had towards the end he offered — I didn’t ask — that he could not believe how well his hair was surviving in the midst of his ordeal.

We all know about Rob’s unique sense of humor. He used that deeply ingrained sense of humor in a variety of ways. One was to make others feel good, to make them laugh, to somehow make their day a bit better. Another was to deflect any well-deserved adulation or attention that might be coming his way — he told me very recently he was not comfortable with people talking about him. He must be horrified right about now.

We talked at length about what this eulogy ought to be. The first thing he told me was that he wanted everyone to know that Tom Brady is the greatest of all time, and that he thinks Amelia Earhart is still living, likely somewhere in South Carolina. He asked me not to touch on a particular subject. I forget now what it was, because he wanted to save it for his book. 

I’m trying to keep my stuff together and this guy’s cracking jokes!

Years ago, he pitched an idea to the ESPN powers that be: What if we did a behind-the-scenes show about how “SportsCenter” gets made, and really show fans the chaos that live TV can be? They bit, and while “SportsCenter” aired on ESPN2, on ESPN fans saw what was happening throughout the Bristol, Conn., campus. It was remarkable television, and the show won an Emmy Award.

On the set of “SportsCenter,” one of the shows he promoted.
Photo: ESPN Images
On the set of “SportsCenter,” one of the shows he promoted.
Photo: ESPN Images
On the set of “SportsCenter,” one of the shows he promoted.
Photo: ESPN Images

There was the time he pushed for Chris Berman, an ESPN and industry icon, to get a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. It was a lengthy process, but it happened … even though a commemorative paperweight he commissioned was delivered with the name Chris Herman … when he came to show me I laughed out loud — hey, it wasn’t MY problem — and then he started laughing and then we both just absolutely lost it and somehow that disaster didn’t seem so big anymore.

He never got the credit, but he was the one who coined the term “Car Wash” for when athletes came to Bristol and went on tons of shows. … We ran them through the car wash. It is now a term known industry-wide.

The guy was an ideas factory.

He is the only guy I have ever known who bought a new suit and lost it before he left the mall. He had it tailored, went back to pick it up, ran some other errands and when he got to his car realized he didn’t have the suit. He ran around the mall, retracing his steps, but he never saw that suit again. He owned it for like 20 minutes.

When Rob called to ask me to do this, I said I wanted his help in writing his last press release. I went to the house.

He said I should tell you that Rob was a pretty smart guy — for him. He said he never spent much time looking back, but this past year he was forced to, and he focused on all the wonderful memories, and it was comforting. Why, he asked, would I think about the unpleasant memories?

He said he was ready. He was proud of all he accomplished, in his life personally and of course, professionally. He had more he wanted to do but felt great about what he DID do.

We agreed that he packed more into his 60 years than most people would do with 30 more than that.

And then I asked him if now … finally … as he faced the end of his time with us … if he truly embraced and understood how much he meant to so many people. To all of you. To all of US.

And he looked at me and said he did. And he was at peace.

To me it was a tremendous act of courage amidst a multitude of them.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his twice-weekly newsletter.