In a very real sense, it was Gary Papa's job to be taken for granted.
He was supposed to be there, always, when you flicked on the Channel 6 news to catch up on the day's events and weather and sports news. He was supposed to be there along with Jim Gardner and Dave Roberts, and was supposed to look and sound the same, night after night, year after year, decade after decade.
So it wasn't merely brave when Papa continued to go on the air showing the effects of the cancer that claimed him Friday after nearly six years of hard fighting - it was truly radical. He made a living in an industry that is all about appearances, about pleasantness, about perfect hair and carefully applied makeup. TV news people can get fired if polling shows a drop of a fraction of a percentage point in their appeal to viewers.
But there was Papa, his hair lost to the brutality they call chemotherapy and radiation treatment, delivering the scores and setting up the sound bites with the same mischievous twinkle in his tired eyes and the same grin sneaking onto his face.
In a business that is all surface and artifice, he brought profound beauty and grace and dignity in a singular way: by defying the cruel disease and soldiering on as if nothing had changed.
He couldn't have pulled it off if he wasn't a consummate on-air talent. The great ones make it look easy, slipping into a warm and likable persona no matter how they feel or what kind of day they've had. That easygoing, clubby vibe created by the Action News crew was something viewers counted on and enjoyed and felt themselves to be part of.
And Papa couldn't have pulled it off if he hadn't banked years and years of goodwill with those viewers. You felt as if you knew him. When he got sick, you were immediately on his side. If it was hard to see him without that perfect coif, or down a few pounds, your reaction was not to change the channel. It was to respect and admire his tenacity and his utter lack of vanity.
Two Father's Days ago, I wrote a column about a Philadelphia firefighter who beat cancer, then had to fight City Hall to return to active duty before his retirement date arrived. That firefighter is my dad, who I'm lucky enough to report is still with us.
Watching Gary Papa during the Eagles' late-season run to the playoffs reminded me of my dad's single-minded determination to work in spite of the pain and the exhaustion and the temptation just to forget it. After a game at Washington, Papa was in the press box, doing voice-overs of game highlights.
He was wearing this silly and delightful Christmas-tree hat the whole time. He'd sit and watch a monitor and describe the action in that familiar, excitable voice. Then he'd get up and walk slowly, painfully away for a few moments. It was then that you could see how difficult it was for him, but it was also then that you truly appreciated the statement Papa was making by refusing to give in to the cancer.
On the air, of course, you had no clue. However he looked, he was the Gary Papa you knew and trusted to be there. If anything, he seemed to be enjoying himself even more as his time on the air became more precious. That's a testament to the man.
It has been a tough year for Philadelphia's sports community. We're all still getting used to the idea that we won't get to hear Harry Kalas call another Phillies game. Kalas' sudden passing in April and Papa's long, slow fade leave us all diminished, the joy of following the Phillies and Eagles and the rest tinged by real sorrow.
Their jobs were very different, but Papa and Kalas had a few things in common. Both were excellent at their specific roles and both flourished in this hard-bitten sports market without losing their original love and enthusiasm for the games. They did their work smoothly, without any sharp edges. They were self-possessed and self-assured enough to remain nice in an often mean profession, genuine in a world that often seems to reward phonies.
Their long tenures and enduring popularity suggest that maybe, just maybe, Philadelphia sports fans have a softer, warmer side than our reputation would indicate.
We don't have Gary Papa to take for granted anymore. We'll have to settle for the knowledge that we were fortunate we did for so long, that he hung in there and taught us something about the human spirit before he signed off for good.