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The Walk-On: Sports Fiction by Richard Podkowski ➱ Join us on the Book Tour with Guest Post


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.

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“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


Excerpt 1

He fumbled for his radio. “Squad…645. Confirmed vehicular rollover at Belmont Avenue exit, Lake Shore Drive. Send CFD stat, copy…stat.”

“645, copy. CFD enroute.”

He ran toward the vehicle, an older coupe with big tires and mag wheels. A wet blanket appeared to be wrapped around the base of a nearby tree trunk.

Pointing his LED flashlight in that direction, George discovered a young woman with a gaping laceration above her left eye. Her head and neck were snapped back like a broken Pez candy dispenser. Glass shards were sprinkled over her bloody face. Her eyes were fixed and vacant. A shredded sweater exposed her torso and a wingless angel tattoo above her left hip. Gibson checked for a pulse — her slender wrist was limp and lifeless.

Gibson noted the STORM 52 vanity plate, assuming it was a football fan’s show of affection. The driver, a tall stocky white male wearing sweats and a hoodie, was alive. His forehead oozed blood. The front seat passenger, a smaller black male, also had a bad head wound. Both were unconscious. Neither wore a seatbelt.

Their legs appeared to be trapped under the twisted remains of the mangled dashboard. The car’s front end had collapsed into the engine compartment. Probably lost control and rolled it.

Gibson took another look inside the wreck, stunned by his sudden recognition of the driver’s long, blue-streaked blond hair, wet and matted with blood. He quickly called for license plate verification. After what seemed an eternity, his radio crackled.

“Unit 645, Illinois plate STORM 5-2 comes back on a passenger car. A 1970 Chevrolet coupe registered to Steel Trap, Inc., 2020 North Lincoln Park West, Chicago.” The dispatcher hesitated. “Registered owner is Michael J. Stalowski.” An eerie pause. “Copy?” Gibson shivered and recalled two vehicles blow past him minutes before he was dispatched to the scene.

It wasn’t long before the fire department rolled in with a show of force, working quickly and methodically with the Jaws of Life to peel back the classic Chevy’s roof like a tuna can lid. Both male victims’ legs were trapped. Every precious second mattered in the race to extricate them. Within minutes, their stretchers were loaded into waiting ambulances.

The paramedics’ preliminary assessment of Mike Stalowski’s injuries indicated a broken right tibia and severely lacerated right wrist and forearm, gouged by flying glass. The passenger’s right foot was almost severed at the ankle by shards of jagged steel. The paramedics, fearful the skin and muscle connecting his shattered ankle bones were in danger of tearing off, hoped they could get him in the hands of surgeons before he bled out. 

The lifeless female was carefully loaded onto a backboard. A neck collar was secured and an oxygen unit began to pump into her lungs. Paramedics worked feverishly to establish vital signs. Defibrillator paddles failed to jolt her heart. Despite the monitor’s stubborn flat line, they continued their valiant efforts all the way to the Northeast Metro ER. The wails of the three sirens overlapped in the stillness of the early morning hour.

By the time the ambulance trio arrived at Northeast Metro, a Channel 5 news mini-cam van was already positioned at the ER ramp, after picking up emergency responder radio transmissions about a vehicle crash possibly involving two Storm players. Gibson and three CPD escort squads set up a security perimeter to keep the ambulance entrance ramp free and clear. Quickly challenged by the arrival of additional media jockeying for position and curious early-rising pedestrians, the perimeter was expanded, sending the cameras and reporters down the block.

Despite their efforts, by dawn the hospital was swarming with local and national media. Head Coach Don Castro and Mike Stalowski’s agent, Shel Harris, rushed to the hospital. No one could fathom the catastrophic tragedy unfolding on the heels of last night’s devastating loss.

Reporters and camera crews engulfed Shel Harris as he approached the emergency entrance. Local Channel 7 sports reporter Ryan Donegan stuck his microphone in Shel’s face. “Mr. Harris, what can you tell us about the accident that put the Steelman and Christian Blackwell in the hospital?”

Excerpt 2 

“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.

Guest Post

Recently I’ve been asked a lot about where I get my ideas, what else I’ve written and what I’m writing next. Writers are often advised to “write what you know” and I’d say that my ideas begin—but certainly don’t end—with my personal experiences.

For example, although my DNA runs through Mike Stalowski’s veins in The Walk-On, I didn’t even play high school football, let alone in the NFL. However, my humble beginnings on the South Side of Chicago and Catholic school education are his. By the time I was twenty-five, between delivering furniture in college and chasing criminals who passed counterfeit money and stole Social Security checks from mailboxes, I was familiar with most of Chicago’s 200+ neighborhoods. Yes, in 1983 benefits were paper checks, delivered to mailboxes, and easy pickings for thieves on the first of every month. Later in my career as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, between protection details and running a multi-agency task force focusing on organized crime, I learned about the rest. Like the Steelman, I’ve taken wrong turns on life’s highway and was fortunate there were people who helped me find my way back. 

While querying The Walk-On to literary agents, probably 95% wondered why I didn’t write about crime. Then, trying to generate interest in a screen adaptation of The Walk-On, I repeatedly heard the same question. So I broadly outlined a crime story based on my task force experiences in Chicago and Los Angeles and set it aside. It has new life as a collaboration with my son, who is a police officer and brings a different perspective having worked the streets on patrol. We are developing it as a limited series.

A few years ago, someone told my wife and me about Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. Suffice it to say we quickly became addicted. We love that no matter how hopeless it seems, a happy ending is inevitable. After viewing 40-50 movies (seriously addicted) I had the vision for Operation Santa Bear. (A rookie police officer and a young nurse have an undeniable attraction when they are partnered to lead Operation Santa Bear, an annual Christmas charity event. Can they overcome career roadblocks and their past relationships to trust in love again?) The charity event is based on one I helped with in the Los Angeles Field Office and then started in Chicago after transferring back home. I teamed with a screenwriter, and after we address some minor script revisions, we plan to pitch it soon. Of course, I hope it will be published.

I’m interested in history but don’t have the fortitude to complete the research to write compelling and accurate historical fiction. However, my two sisters and I are considering a joint effort to write about our parents’ journey to America before our memories fade. When she was sixteen, Nazi troops took my mother from her family’s farm. She was imprisoned as a laborer on a German farm until freed by Allied soldiers. My father was a military officer in the Polish Army before the 1939 Nazi invasion. He didn’t share much about his clandestine operations as a member of the Resistance, but we knew about the steel plate in his skull as a result of injury. After the war, they met in the UK and immigrated to the U.S. Like many displaced persons, they did not want to return to even more oppression under Communist rule. 

Write what you know. Although I haven’t created a protagonist who’s a Secret Service agent, my experiences as one have found their way into three very different stories. You may be surprised to learn that being a special agent also ties into the family story. I only saw my maternal grandmother once in my life. In 1987, I was the translator for a protective security advance in Poland and had the opportunity to visit her briefly — at the same farm where my mother was taken by Nazi soldiers. Without revealing too much, I can say there were tears of joy, a visit to my grandfather’s grave, a shot of cognac, and that I have a great story about a chicken!


What advice would you give budding writers?

I learned from experience that just because you have a story swirling in your head, you shouldn’t jump in and start writing. First and foremost, plan out your story and research your genre. In my case, writing a fiction novel was way more complicated than I expected. The process may have been less stressful if I’d had a basic understanding of elements like protagonist, plot, foreshadowing, conflict, and which, if any, fiction sub-genre the story in my head would ultimately be — before I started typing. Writing until I was “done” wasn’t a sound strategy either. Secondly, since word count is critical…refer to number one….plan out your story. An outline would have been helpful, especially to plot out important reveals from my protagonist’s past. I would have avoided problematic repetition by doing so. Especially since I wrote the first draft in fits and starts over eleven years! 

Do you have another profession besides writing?

I am a retired career US Secret Service special agent. My assignments, both criminal investigations and protection, and duty stations took me not only around the country, but around the world. My experiences, the people I met and places I visited have inspired my writing. After retiring, I continued to do strategic security and risk management consulting for clients in the private sector. However, after forty years of protecting people and property,  I’m eager to pursue my creative interests more. In addition to writing, I began taking acting lessons about ten years ago and have been lucky to book minor roles in TV, film, commercials, along with print work. I keep auditioning because I never know when I might get a big break, as evidenced by finally getting published after many years of querying literary agents resulted in dead ends and disappointment.

Where do you write? 

I have a home office with a desk and computer.  I rarely use a legal pad and pen to make notes anymore, instead organizing my thoughts with computer note-taking options. I try to eliminate potential distractions and have made it a point to not keep my cell phone nearby. Although I am inspired by everyday life and social interaction, I need solitude to sort and synthesize my ideas. Sometimes to stay focused, I work in a library where the atmosphere of concentration and quiet enhances my productivity.

Do you snack while writing? 

Not usually. I do keep a beverage nearby. Usually hot tea which I drink pretty much year-round. If I need a snack or break for a meal, I get up and walk away to the kitchen or another room to eat and recharge. Plus, I hate getting crumbs or something sloppy on the keyboard or desk.

If you could go back in time, where would you go? 

I’m a baby boomer, born in the late 50s. I have this vision of a post-WWII idyllic life when America was getting back to living again after the atrocities of war. Large-scale projects such as the building of the US interstate system allowed for easier travel between states and the connection of big cities and the new suburban communities springing up as weary soldiers returned and started families. Cultural changes were afoot in music with the advent of rock n’ roll, automobile and clothing styles, movies, TV,  and architecture. Good things were happening and I think it would be exciting to experience them as a young adult!

What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?     

As a Secret Service agent protecting US Presidents around the world, often under challenging circumstances, I carried a lot of responsibility. It’s a unique law enforcement mission. You never want anything to happen on your watch!

What is your theme song?

I’ve often been told I don’t take instruction well. It’s cliché, but I identify with Frank Sinatra’s popular song, “My Way!” I usually follow my instincts and my heart even though the path may be unconventional. At least until my wife changes my mind.

Guest Post

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.

Author Bio:

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. 




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