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STOVALL: Thoughts and prayers don't work if tangible love isn't the result
John McNamara was one of five Annapolis Capital Gazette reporters gunned down last Thursday in the paper's newsroom. - photo courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

I wish I could've sat down and had a drink with John McNamara. 

It’s an interesting wish, considering I don’t drink and had never heard of McNamara until early last Friday morning when I discovered him to be a sports and news reporter and editor at the Annapolis Capital Gazette, and one of the five shooting victims who lost life during the single most deadly day in American journalism history.

In this profession we are all kindred spirits, even those whom we consider to be competition. Ultimately, we’re all trying to do the same thing in this racket — love on and serve a community through being its herald and watchtower.

That’s why, as the news of the Capital Gazette tragedy broke last Thursday, I couldn’t help but be glued to the screen for the rest of the afternoon, evening and night. I felt like I was watching a report on family members or long-time friends being carelessly murdered in cold blood.

The emotions ran deeper as I heard descriptions of the Capital Gazette that contained familiar words and phrases.

Small newspaper. Community journalists. Covering everything from city council meetings to high school sports.

Now can you begin to understand why I was up at 3 a.m. last Friday beginning to pen this column? 

In a sense, this was us. This is what the staff at The Covington News does each and every day. The long hours, the sometimes grueling schedule, the modest pay. The sheer passion for what we do and the community we do it in. That’s who they are and it’s who we are.

And for every fellow journalist who reads this, I don’t think it’s an over-reach to say that it’s who you are too.

Initially I didn’t know their names and hadn’t seen their faces, but I felt acquainted to them. Finally, when we were able to hear from and see two newsroom staffers who had been fortunate enough to escape the murderer’s rampage, I found myself empathizing with their pain and vibing with their sentiment that, at some point, we’ve got to graduate from mere “thoughts and prayers” alone as a response to these kinds of tragedies.

I took extra time to think about that, and just the overall splintered condition of our nation right now, before finishing and publishing this column. I chose that route instead of just posting it right away as a knee-jerk response. 

Journalists are sometimes the kings and queens of the “hot take.” But I think we owe it to last week’s victims, to the journalism industry and to ourselves and each other to give these matters more than just an in-the-moment retort. 

We’ve got to come to a place where we realize that America has a real anger management problem right now. We don’t know how to talk to each other to settle differences. We don’t know how to come away from our little corners of the room and meet in the middle, man to man, woman to woman, human to human and hash out our grievances with one another.

Social media, I fear, has made it worse. Ironic because it’s such a huge part of how we do our jobs effectively, but it’s also a major reason why I believe we’ve lost the ability to communicate interpersonally. 

Nobody’s listening. We’re just shouting across the room, listening only to reply and not to understand. And the perceived anonymity of social media emboldens us and coaxes out our unbridled, vitriolic rhetoric even more.

As we saw last Thursday, eventually, cyber tough talk can become a simple gateway drug toward a more in-your-face way of getting out frustrations. And, voila. You get Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas, Las Vegas and the Annapolis Capital Gazette.

As I said earlier, when I learned more personally who the Capital Gazette victims are — columnists, long-time reporters, newly hired ad reps and yes, even a sports writer like myself — it drilled home the hurt of last week’s newsroom bloodshed even deeper. 

That’s where my wish for McNamara comes in. 

From what I can see, McNamara was more than just a solid, veteran sports reporter. He was a lifelong sports fan. An aficionado on the Maryland sports scene. A man who prided himself as being a bit of an expert as to what it took to produce good local sports journalism — one, because he’d just been around for so long, but two, and most importantly, because he seemed to be in love with the people he covered even more than the games they played.

I can relate to that last part, especially.

McNamara was in his early 60s when he died and had been doing his thing as a journalist almost as long as I’ve been alive. So, you bet. If I had an opportunity to sit down and chat and chew with such a guy, I would do it — and do it more than once.

McNamara seemed like the kind of scribe I would’ve loved to learn and glean from regularly. He’s the type of seasoned journalist I’ve found myself trying to reach out to and rub elbows with more frequently.

Who knows if our paths would’ve ever crossed had he not been cut down by a coward’s bullet. Probably not. Who knows if I would’ve ever stumbled across his work without the tragic events that silenced his voice even while simultaneously introducing me to it. I’m glad I got introduced, even though I hate the way it happened.

Today, he has a wife, a newsroom of coworkers and a community of readers who are, no doubt, still grieving the absence of his voice and overall presence. Obviously I never got to meet him. Never got to have that drink or engage in that conversation. But I have learned something from him throughout this ordeal.

I learned that, like him, I tend to see some of this garbage that we’re dealing with nationally as big picture stuff. Yes, I have no problem calling out our wrongs and challenging us to do better as a nation, whether politically, racially or just socially in general. And yes, I’m proud of my heritage as a black man. However, I believe the challenges we’re faced with are bigger than any one of those matters.

On his next-to-last Facebook post, McNamara asked a simple yet piercing question that I’m not sure we have yet grasped an answer for as a nation.

“Are we not all God’s children?” he wrote. 

Maybe it was meant to be rhetorical. Maybe not. But hopefully his death can raise that poignant question of his to the surface of our dialogue and interactions with one another and help us reconsider them. 

Even if you don’t believe in God, can we not see the benefit of believing that there’s something more than our differences that should bring us together? If we’re going to survive as a nation I believe we’d better get a grasp of this and know that our status as humans trumps whether we vote Donkey or Elephant. 

It trumps whether we’re black, white, asian or hispanic. It’s bigger than whether or not we root for the Georgia Bulldogs or the Alabama Crimson Tide, whether we’re Atlanta Falcons fans or New Orleans Saints lovers. 

It’s certainly bigger than any grudge, hatred or animosity we can hold against each other for whatever reason.

Look, I’m not asking the whole world to gather ‘round the campfire and sing Kum By Yah. But even that, as corny as it sounds, would be a better sound than the incessant vitriol that permeates everything from our sports to politics nowadays. 

And it’s a shame, because I’ve always said that sports, in its best form, can provide for us a model for how we make life work together. 

Think about it. Whether in the smallest high school basketball barn or the largest football cathedral, people from all walks of life seem to know how to take a few hours to not care about anything but rooting on their common team against that common foe. 

God, how I wish we could bottle that camaraderie up and empty it out onto the other areas of life that we seem to struggle with. McNamara didn’t know his last day at work would be his last. He had no clue that simple yet powerful Facebook post would be one of his last. 

I’m also quite sure he had no clue that that last question he asked in that post would create a reverberation so resounding that it would touch the heart of a small-town sports editor in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. But it definitely did. And it further stoked my fire to use what little platform I have to continue to remind people — even through sports writing, but moreover as a member of humanity  — that what holds us together is greater than what threatens to pull us apart. 

When we truly grasp the spirit of McNamara’s question, it’ll manifest itself in more than just thoughts and prayers. It’ll morph from mere sentiment into tangible action. 

Thank you, John McNamara for what you taught me in your final days. Thank you for reminding me and the world that there’s something bigger than all of us that should serve as the common thread that binds us. 

May you rest in peace, knowing that your shortest piece of writing on a social media account may have been your best and most powerful. 

Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor for The Covington News in Covington, Georgia. You can reach him at for tips and story ideas. Also, follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.