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‘Handoff’ is tale of undying friendship

The initial plan: Write a book about his career, about all the opportunities he has been presented at the most unexpected times, about luck, about talent, about capitalizing on the one smack-talk moment few receive but that has the power to change life’s journey.

Then a publisher in New York read the pitch.

“I was told, ‘You have a great story, but nobody will be interested in reading about just another radio guy,’ ” John Tournour said. “She said, ‘You had a mentor, a boss, a best friend, a role model, and you became his chemotherapy partner when he had terminal cancer. Write that story. That story needs to be told.’ She said to write about Andrew and the impact he had on my life.

“She was exactly right.”

The result is a poignant, emotional, moving tale chronicled in “The Handoff,” a memoir about how sports and friendship often intertwine to produce a lifetime’s worth of memories, about how having the courage to stand beside another as death slowly beckons, a man’s fate is forever changed.

You know him as “JT The Brick,” television reporter for the Raiders, nationally syndicated host for Fox Sports Radio across 260 stations and co-host locally with Paul Howard on the “Power Hour” at 2 p.m. weekdays on KBAD, 920 AM.

But before there was a Brick, there was a successful stockbroker driving a Porsche through the tree-lined streets of La Jolla, Calif.

It just wasn’t his dream, is all. His destiny.

Talking sports was. His break came in 1995, when Tournour won radio host Jim Rome’s first Great American Smack-Off, an “American Idol” sort of competition where invited callers were challenged to have the best and most creative opinion during a specific show.

Tournour killed it. Won easily. His smack, coated in a New York attitude, was Alabama football to everyone else’s UNLV.

His next break came with a middle-of-the-night telephone call.

Andrew Ashwood was a program director of a Miami radio station when he reached out to Tournour in 1996. Ashwood was listening to an overnight show, liked what he heard and wanted to mail the host a playbook, his view on sports radio, the do’s and don’ts of the industry as he saw them.

Tournour gave him the address, and a friendship that would span 12 years was born, an excursion that would ultimately see Ashwood become Tournour’s boss at Fox Sports Radio and the two face a terrible diagnosis that is terminal cancer together.

“I want people to understand the book is about friendship, about loyalty, and what happens when you have the opportunity to stand up and do the right thing,” Tournour said. “People ask me if this is a cancer book. It is a book about how an unbelievable friendship evolved through our own vulnerability. Whenever your best friend becomes your boss, things change. The relationship becomes frayed.

“But the second Andrew told me about his cancer and asked for my help, we never once thought about those things that might have bothered us again. Never came up. From that moment on, it was all about the Vince Lombardi idea about ‘Winning is the only option.’ It was all about beating the cancer.”

In the end, cancer won.

Ashwood died in November 2008 of a massive heart attack at the age of 51, the end following a 13-month battle with esophageal cancer and through the hell that are chemotherapy and radiation treatments, all the while with Tournour at his side.

He would drive Ashwood to his appointments at City of Hope in Duarte, Calif., and sit with him for hours as the dosages dripped into his bloodstream. It was, as Tournour describes in the book, “The crash course about life — about how to live.”

A sort of handoff of ideals and advice from a departing friend.

“I saw firsthand the bravery of those fighting cancer and that of the caregivers, the husbands and wives and sons and daughters and those doing everything they can to keep the sick comfortable,” said Tournour, 47. “I saw the heroics of those treating cancer. I saw those from 90 years old all the way down to 9 fighting this disease and the toll it takes on them.

“Andrew is the reason all this happened, the doors he opened for me. He was the reason I met my wife (Julie), the reason I came to work for the Raiders, the reason I’m at Fox Sports Radio. I believe in fate, and that one phone call in the middle of the night from a Miami program director changed my life.

“Andrew was my guardian angel. I wasn’t at his bedside when he went to tell him how much I loved him, but he knew. He knew what he meant to me. I want more than anything for people to pick up this book and say, ‘Wow, I wish I could have met this guy Andrew Ashwood.’ I want his name to live on forever.”

Tournour will sign copies of “The Handoff” at 3 p.m. today at Barnes and Noble, 2191 N. Rainbow Blvd.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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