Synopsis (from Amazon):
In the twilight of his NFL career as a middle linebacker for the Chicago Storm, Mike “the Steelman” Stalowski masks his physical pain and mental anguish with alcohol and painkillers. The fan favorite has a rebel image and a notorious reputation, and he plays a violent gridiron game fueled by inner rage.
While estranged from his wife and living in the fishbowl environment of professional sports, he unexpectedly meets the fresh-out-of-college Kim Richardson. She sees through Mike’s star persona to who he really is—a kind guy from the Southeast Side of Chicago who has never forgotten his humble blue-collar roots. The lives of the star-crossed, seemingly mismatched couple collide during a whirlwind romance that culminates in a tragic series of events.
The Walk-On is a timeless tale of love and loss that explores the consequences of personal decisions and the rewards of faith, redemption, and hope.
Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3EOQ9Yh
Goodreads link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/61830639-the-walk-on
The Walk-On — a true Chicago story
In The Walk-On, Mike “the Steelman” Stalowski is a blue-collar kid who grew up in the shadows of the Chicago steel mills, where hard-working immigrants poured molten steel 24/7 while smokestacks belched black smoke until they were shuttered in the mid-70s. The word steel in Polish is “stal” which is the root of the Steelman’s surname. Technically, my interpretation means he’s made of steel.
Chicago, one of the most diverse cities in the world, has many nicknames including Chi-town, City of Big Shoulders, Windy City, Second City, and oddly for most, the Third Coast. Although if you’ve ever been on the lakefront, you understand.
Many people have heard of the South, North and West Sides. No East Side as you’d be in Lake Michigan. The city has over 200 distinct neighborhoods. You’ll find the Steelman in Hegewisch, Lincoln Park, Little Italy, Wrigleyville and the Gold Coast. The long-standing North Side / South Side rivalry is real. One of my characters from the South Side mocks a friend from the North Side for not venturing farther south than Roosevelt Road. Technically, the dividing line is Madison Street. Ironically, both live in the western suburbs, which is another rivalry.
The South Side is known for being more blue-collar, and it definitely has some of the city’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Conversely, the white-collar North Side includes the bustling downtown area, with its well-known skyscrapers, lakefront recreation and residential high-rises, mansions, upscale eateries and shopping options, and numerous cultural destinations.
I am proud to have grown up on the South Side. We were certainly blue-collar, poor actually, and I lived in a tiny cottage bungalow. Like Stalowski, my parents were Polish immigrants who came to Chicago seeking a better life. My dad toiled in the South Side stockyards until he became a printer. My mother worked on a Westinghouse Corporation factory assembly line, alongside other Polish and Hispanic women. She didn’t speak good English, and she didn’t speak bad Spanish. They got along just fine.
I didn’t visit downtown until I was in 1st or 2nd grade and never dreamed I would one day attend Loyola University on the North Side lakefront. In all fairness, I confess that after becoming empty-nesters, my wife and I lived in East Lakeview and loved it. We walked everywhere: grocery store, gym, church, Wrigley Field, live theater, restaurants, Lincoln Park and even to the glitzy Magnificent Mile on North Michigan Avenue. Can’t do that in the towns of area codes 708, 630, or 847.
The baseball rivalry is real too. The Cubs are the North Side heroes. The White Sox are their South Side rivals. Fortunately, the whole city roots for the Bulls, Blackhawks and Chicago Bears. In The Walk-On, the city cheers for the fictional NFL Chicago Storm. As the book begins, Mike “the Steelman” Stalowski, notorious hometown hero hailing from the South Side, has been a fan favorite for years.
I hope you’ll enjoy Mike’s escapades around Chicago — my beloved hometown.
“That’s really sweet, Michael! They must love that.”
“After my dad died, Chester kept me in line. He’s the only guy I listened to.”
While Mike stepped back to make a phone call, Kim tried to sort through the past few hours. The Steelman seemed to be an innocent kid, stuck in an oversized body, who looked like he rode with the Hell’s Angels. The sensitive guy she suspected was beneath the wild and crazy exterior definitely piqued her interest.
There must be more to him than all that news nonsense.
They drove past a crowd out front and parked around the corner from Mancuso’s. Like the neighborhood, it was stuck in time, starting with the vintage red neon sign in the front window. Everyone loved Mancuso’s — cops, firefighters, teachers, and streets and sanitation workers who had to live in the city — lawyers, doctors and professionals no longer bound by residency requirements but who returned in droves on weekends. A recent “neighborhood best restaurant” news segment caused a surge of far-flung city and suburban diners to downtown Hegewisch. They weren’t necessarily welcomed by the locals.
Mike hit a speed dial number on his cell. Seconds later, the side door opened. A guy with salt and pepper hair, wearing a white apron, waved them in. Mike fist-bumped Rosario, the head pizza maker and unofficial manager. Like many artifacts inside, Rosy, a cousin from Italy, was a Mancuso’s fixture for years.
“Thanks Rosy! Good to see you man. Got a quiet booth?”
“Always for you, Mike. Follow me. Very busy today!”
They were led to a booth in an intimate room, off the main restaurant. Rosy took their drink order and rushed off. Kim was surprised by the coin-operated jukebox mounted above the table. The lighting was dim and the song list dingy, but she made out Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and the Four Seasons. Also old rock and Motown songs. The early 90s was as contemporary as it got.
“What the heck is this contraption? Something from the Happy Days set? Songs are kind of dated.”
“Be careful! I grew up on some of those.”
“Real golden oldies, don’t you think?”
“They’re never old around here. Got any quarters?”
Kim reached into her right front pocket and came up empty. “Sorry baby!”
Mike’s heart skipped a beat. “Hey Kim…”
“Michael,” bellowed the one and only Gina Mancuso, in a purple dress and white apron, “my Michael…how are you Mikey?” She grabbed Mike’s neck in a bear-hug and scowled at Kim. He winced in pain.
Gina’s father Antonino used his family recipes from Sicily to satisfy WWII veterans’ cravings for the food they had loved while fighting overseas. Sixty years later, Mike made the drive whenever his Mancuso pizza cravings were insatiable. And every time, Gina treated him like a neighborhood kid, despite his football fame and fortune. The portly 5’2” Italian matron, with a no-nonsense disposition, was larger than life. Her husband had died young, leaving her with four kids to raise. None of them joined the family business. Now in her 80s, Gina still spent time with her customers and spoke her mind.
She gave him another hug and kiss on the cheek. “Mikey, it’s good to see you.” Gina pulled at his ponytail and shook her meaty finger when she noticed the blue highlights. “You need a new barber. I think the one you got is color-blind.” Gina laughed heartily. “Come back to the neighborhood and get a real haircut, eh? You look like some crazy rock star.” Mike bit his lip thinking about his recent LA performance fiasco.
“OK Gina, you win. Just for you, I’ll get a buzz before the season starts.”
While a waiter set their drinks on the table, Gina turned her full attention to Kim, giving her the head to toe once over. Gina loved Lisa and her extended family who were good friends and customers. Ever since Mike and Lisa were in high school, she thought they made a cute couple. Her instincts told her this blonde chick, who looked much younger than her dear Mike, was definitely not from anywhere near Hegewisch.
She crossed her chunky arms next to Kim’s shoulder. “Hello, honey.” Politely she asked, “Are you a relative or friend of Mike’s?”
“Yes, I am.” She extended her hand. “My name is Kim.”
“Uh, which is it honey? You Mike’s friend or cousin?”
“Kim and I are friends from promotional stuff downtown. We were out on my motorcycle. She’s from Florida so I wanted to show her where to get the best pizza in Chicago.” Mike stepped in quickly, expecting Gina to ask a lot of questions Kim definitely did not know how to answer.
“Oh, I see…” said Gina, nodding her head slowly. “You know Kim, people from the South don’t know good pizza. Tastes like cardboard with ketchup and Velveeta cheese there. You know, like those chains on TV. I guess southerners don’t know good food unless it’s greasy and fried.” Gina let out a loud belly laugh and poked Kim’s shoulder.
“Thanks, I’ll remember that.” Kim forced a curt smile and took a long sip of her house red wine.
“Mike, when you going to play football? Everybody in the neighborhood comes when you play.”
“Camp begins Monday for me, Gina. After I see my doctor. The season starts in September. If we go to the Super Bowl, we’ll bring the team for dinner and make a commercial. You’ll be famous.”
Kim sat quietly, pondering his doctor remark.
Gina put her arm around Mike’s shoulder and tussled his hair. “I’m famous already, Mikey! Whatta you talkin’ about, huh?” She pinched Mike’s cheek and kissed the spot. “Mikey, you guys have fun. Say hello to your mother and Tom. They make a great couple. God bless them. You don’t get hurt, eh? Nice to meet you, Linda.” Gina smiled and made the sign of the cross before moving on to the next table.
“I don’t think she liked me too much. Sure loves you though! And why do you have to see a doctor before camp?”
Mike sidestepped her last question. “No, that’s just Gina. I started working here when I was thirteen. Rosy taught me how to wash dishes and bus tables. She still thinks I’m sixteen, hangin’ around with my teammates.” He knew Kim would eventually learn about Lisa, the missing puzzle piece to Gina’s cool reception
Richard Podkowski, a native of Chicago’s South Side, began writing fiction while studying criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago.
As a United States Secret Service special agent, Richard protected U.S. presidents and foreign dignitaries and investigated major domestic and international financial crimes until he retired in 2003.
Richard’s projects include a Christmas romantic comedy screenplay and a crime story, both currently in the works. In his free time, Richard enjoys riding his road bike, working out, and making Christmas ornaments. He currently resides with his wife in Los Angeles.
“The Walk-On is a fascinating story of self-sabotage and redemption. A page-turner!!!!
– Mary Pat Kelly, Bestselling author of Galway Bay, Of Irish Blood, and Irish Above All
“An interesting read where star linebacker Mike Stalowski confronts the inevitable challenges every NFL player faces as they transition to their post-football life. His experiences may seem exaggerated, but they are still very real.”
– Gary Fencik, Chicago Bears, Super Bowl XX Champion
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