A simple van stop in a lakeside park in Cazenovia, New York, led me down a rabbit hole of investigation, intrigue, and even self-doubt.
We located a beautiful park on Lake Caz with good Wi-Fi, so that Betsy could play her weekly online canasta game with friends. The lake itself turns out to be a top bass fishing location and indeed there was a fishing celebrity, Jamie Hartman, out on the lake that day. Jamie is a professional bass fisherman, sponsored by Bass Pro Shops and other companies, and has achieved impressive winnings in the professional fishing circuit. That day, he was apparently out fishing for recreation.
I took a walk in the park with our dog Nicky and quickly encountered a very outgoing older man working the boat inspection station at the lake. He immediately engaged me in a conversation that would go on for over an hour. I learned many many things about him: where he grew up, his sports career, his education, his friends, his work at the park, his work with young athletes, some of his political leanings, his opinion of Colin Kaepernick, etc.
But mostly, I learned about his career in the NFL, where he claimed to have played for the NY Jets and Cleveland Browns as a defensive back. To add credence to this story, he was wearing a New York Jets hat, a NFL Players Alumni Association tee shirt, and a prominent ring (which I mistakenly assumed was a Jets Superbowl ring.) His car had several football stickers and its vanity license plate was a common football expression. (He even told me a story of being hassled in Canada by the Mounties, despite having these obvious symbols of a pro football career on his car.)
He indicated he had played at the University of Wyoming, and before that a prep School stint at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. (This led to a discussion of quarterbacks and how much he liked Josh Allen, a fellow Wyoming Cowboy alum and current NFL star quarterback.) He indicated he had played with many of the great ones including Joe Namath.
We talked about many other things, including the celebrities and sports figures who would come by Lake Cazenovia to fish, including a well-known NCAA basketball coach from New York state.
As it was time to leave, I asked him his name, shook his hand and thanked him for such a great conversation. He said his name was “Tom [last name unintelligible]” and asked me my name. We waved on the way out and he wished us safe travels.
It was an extremely lively conversation and is my usual instinct I went to look him up on the internet and learn more about his NFL career. Guess what? After many many hours of looking for every possible connection, and then consulting with football and search experts, I can find no evidence that this person ever existed in the NFL (or the University of Wyoming, or any of the other references to his history that I have).
I have searched every Jets and Browns historical roster in detail for anyone who has a name or position history that corresponds to my guy. I have traced every Wyoming alum to play in the NFL, much less the Jets and Browns. I have scoured the history of Connecticut prep school football, including Cheshire Academy. I have researched Cazenovia and the Ithaca area, its park staff, its sports alums, local and national media, family connections to a former Mayor (something he described), area coaches and scouts, as well as many other leads… Nothing, not even close.
Tom is a ghost.
There are no NFL players, or as best I can tell any former University of Wyoming players, with any of the characteristics or life histories he described. He is my D.B. Cooper of professional football. It is an especially challenging puzzle because there are now such good public records of all collegiate and NFL players.
Which leads me to my self-doubt. Did I hear all of this elaborate story completely wrong? Is there some obvious football career that I have just missed because I am looking in the wrong decades, for the wrong position, or missed some other key fact? Or did my Tom conjure up an amazingly detailed narrative just to play with me and others he encounters? The conversation was so detailed and so realistic that I am baffled that I cannot confirm even one aspect of it.
Bravo to him if it was all made up. Noogies to me for being taken in so completely. If I had not confirmed that Jamie Hartman – my pro fisherman citing at Lake Cazenovia – indeed exists I would really be questioning if I am operating in a completely alternate reality.
Not sure this warrants a trip back through Cazenovia, but I am sure tempted……