Jeff Pearlman

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Brian Hickey

#221
A gruesome hit-and-run accident nearly took his life, but this bad-ass Philly kid had his skull stitched back together and his journalism career reinvigorated. From smokin' up near Biggie to running a political campaign, a survivor explains his return from the dead. POSTED August 25, 2015

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Brian Hickey is one of my all-time favorite people.

We’ve been friends since the early 1990s, when we worked together at The Review, the University of Delaware’s student newspaper. In many ways, a young Hickey was everything I wasn’t. He was hardened and tough; he smoked cigarette after cigarette; drank profusely, partied fiercely. I, on the other hand, was relatively straight laced. Rarely imbibed. Smoked pot twice. Just different, and not nearly as fun.

One thing we shared is a true love of reporting; of writing; of digging into a subject and—sometimes serendipitously—uncovering gold. From Delaware to his first gig in South Carolina to multiple jobs in Philly, Hickey has long been a reporter’s reporter. He doesn’t take shit. He demands the truth.

I digress.

On Nov. 28, 2008, Hickey (I’ve never called him “Brian”) was crossing a street late at night when a car slammed into him, then mercilessly drove off, leaving my friend to die (he wrote an amazing piece about the experience for Philly Magazine). His brain swelled to dangerous levels. Two pieces of his skull had to be extracted. His odds of survival: Not very good.

And here we are.

Hickey has survived. And thrived. He’s a husband. A father. His Twitter bio reads, “Writer. Tougher than a speeding car”—and it’s true. These days, Hickey works as the Northwest Philadelphia editor at Newsworks, and blogs regularly at brianphickey.com. You can also follow him on Twitter here.

Brian Hickey, to hell with speeding cars. You’re the 221st Quaz, punk …

JEFF PEARLMAN: It’s November 28, 2008. You’re in Collingwood, crossing Atlantic Avenue. You were walking to the PATCO Speedline. Then, what the heck happened

BRIAN HICKEY: Well, I really don’t know. Here’s what I remember: Listening to The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” and then leaving the bar where I’d met up at with some high school friends for a Thanksgiving weekend reunion of sorts.

I crossed the street, heading back to the PATCO Speedline, which is a commuter train between South Jersey and Philly. So, I was heading back to Philly around 10:15 p.m. on Black Friday. Next thing I know, it’s Christmas.

Turns out I’d gotten struck by a car less than five minutes after leaving the Collmont. The car took off, leaving me bloodied and confused in the street. A barking dog from a nearby house alerted someone who lived nearby that something was going on. He came outside and there I was, face down on the street, moaning, bleeding from the ear and back of the head, he said.

The medics came, scooped me up and ferried me off to Cooper Hospital in neighboring Camden, N.J. I’m told I was awake—and ornery at that—by the paramedics who I later met up with (when I was writing a story about it) but I don’t remember any of that.

I passed out a couple hours later in the trauma unit. Lost consciousness; in really bad shape. The police couldn’t track my wife Angie down until the next morning. So, she’s freaking out not knowing what the hell happened to me or where the hell I am. Nobody did, until a high school friend who worked at the hospital pieced it together.

So there I am, unconscious, brain swelling to dangerous levels. They had to cut two pieces of my skull out to prevent my brain bursting, for lack of a better term.

My cousin, a doctor herself, gave me about a 10 percent chance to live. I think nine of those were just to make my family feel better as they were waiting in the hospital, where my mom died three years earlier, almost to the date.

I was in a medically induced coma for about two weeks; though I didn’t really “wake up” for a couple weeks after that. But once I was stabilized enough to clear an ICU bed, I was transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philly. That was a couple days before Christmas.

I gradually came back to the land of the living and recovered at an inexplicably quick pace to the point where I finally got home on Jan. 17.

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J.P.: What’s it like, knowing there’s someone out there—eating, sleeping, working, enjoying life, etc—who smashed his car into you and simply drove off? Are you still angry? Livid? At peace?

B.H.: I try not to think about it all that much, but that’s somewhat of an impossibility since I’m still tracking unsolved hit-and-runs across the country on my site. When I do think about it, though, sometimes it’s in anger, on account of someone so clearly devaluing my life in the name of getting away with their crime. I presume that’s something that survivors of all sorts of crime grapple with.

I guess if I’m at peace with it it’s because I’ve been able to talk with other victims, and their families, in the context of what they can expect from their recovery. I mean, every victim’s path is different, but if my recovery can give them some sort of hope, it’s all worth it. That probably sounds a bit cliched, but it holds true.

J.P.: You’ve devoted much of your life to writing about hit-and-run cases. It’s a huge part of your site. Why? I mean, I understand your background. But I could also see wanting to have nothing to do with the subject; with distancing yourself as much as possible.

B.H.: The way I see it is this: Before I got hit, I barely noticed these stories. That goes back to when I was covering police and fire full-time for the Press of Atlantic City. Hit-and-runs didn’t register as much as they should have. And when I recovered, I didn’t see these stories getting much more attention than one-day hits in the papers and on the local TV news. So, I committed myself to bring as much attention to them as possible.

I’ve never been the type of person who distanced myself from painful memories. I mean, when my mom died of brain cancer in 2005, the first thing I did after crying myself to sleep was wake up and write a column about her. Nothing good ever comes out of hiding from pain.  And from my efforts in the hit-and-run awareness realm, I’ve heard from countless people that I’m the reason they pay attention to the cases.

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J.P.: How did that experience change you, long term? Are you freaked out crossing streets? How about as a father? Are there lingering trauma flashes? Flashbacks? Etc?

B.H.: Truth be told, having a child had more of a lasting impact on my life than getting hit by the car and almost dying.

Louden was born about a year and a half later. I was pretty much all the way back at that point, from a brain-recovery standpoint. I’ll sometimes get nervous when I hear a car speeding up the street, but it’s more about making sure my son’s safe than myself. I haven’t pulled the “Louden, look at these pics of daddy’s head without skull flaps” scare tactic or anything like that, but we make it patently clear that he is to be careful when about to cross the street. I’m sure most parents are the same way, though. And I’m sure I’d be too, even without having been through what I went through.

J.P.: You and I came up together at the University of Delaware. Student newspaper editors, a love of reporting and writing. So, I wonder, gazing back 20 years—was it worth it? Is a life in media what you thought/hoped it’d be? Would you advise a college kid now to go for it?

B.H.: Oh, it was absolutely worth it. I’d probably answer that a little different if I hadn’t had the foresight to give up my love of print journalism and see that you could do the same thing—and even do it better—online.

While I used to bitch and moan if an editor wanted me to take a picture with a story—saw it as beneath a reporter to have to do both—now I’m beyond happy to take a multimedia approach to all stories I report. Instead of just 12-14 inches of copy, I can report a story, livetweet it with snippets and photos when I’m out there, and put together a full package of coverage.

We never learned how to do that; hell, nobody would have known you’d have to do that when I graduated in 1995, just a year after getting my first email account. But the whole process of relearning a trade has been exhilarating and gotten my stories out to a much wider audience than working at a lone newspaper could.

Now, would I tell someone to get into media now? If that’s what they see their life path as, and for good reasons, sure.  But I’m actively planting seeds to make sure Louden follows in his mom’s more lucrative health-and-science path (or to become America’s version of Lionel Messi without needing growth hormones). Either/or would be A-OK with me.

As a cub reporter in South Carolina

As a cub reporter in South Carolina

J.P.: What’s your life path? I mean, I know you’re an East Coast guy who went to Delaware. But when did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Why? And how’d you get from there to here?

B.H.: I first got steered toward writing by a high school teacher by the name of Paul Steltz. I never had Steltz as a teacher, but he was the Haddon Township High School student newspaper advisor.

I reckon he got word from my teachers that I was a decent writer. And I also reckon he got word that I was a bit of a nuisance in class. So, they figured the way to focus my talents—instead of blurting out one liners in class because I’d already read and understood the assignments, so boredom developed—was to get me into the paper.

It worked.

By the time I was picking colleges, having a quality journalism department was a non-starter. If the school didn’t have one, I didn’t consider it a viable option. There was really never a moment when I entertained being anything but a writer from my early teens on. This, even though I was markedly better at math.

J.P.: In 2008 you briefly left journalism to work as the campaign manager for John Dougherty, who ran—and lost—in the Democratic primary race for the Pennsylvania First District State Senate campaign. A. Why? B. What was the experience like? C. When did you realize you weren’t going to win? And what does it feel like to fall short in an election?

B.H.: Well, I’d gotten a bit bored at my job at the time. Being the managing editor of an alt-weekly is very cool, but I was five years in and was eager for a change.

I’d known Dougherty from covering politics in Philly for several years, and liked him (though not to the point where it impacted my coverage of him). He mentioned that he was thinking about running for the seat and, at the time, he would have run against a fellow named Vince Fumo, a cocky-as-fuck guy who always trumpeted his Mensa membership to the point where I went and took the genius test explicitly to pass and then use as fodder for my weekly column any time he brought it up.

Well, Fumo has a heart attack amid a corruption scandal. Drops out of the race. Which sucked, because a Fumo/Dougherty race from the inside would have been book- and/or documentary-worthy afterwards. That was the shiny object that convinced me it was OK to take a chance at having to leave journalism forever (or at least for a while).

A lot, lot, lot of hours go into working on a campaign staff. I didn’t fully understand how much went into campaigns, even while covering them as a journalist. The experience has helped me while covering campaigns now that I’m back on the journalism side of things, too.

I didn’t realize John wasn’t going to win until about an hour after polls closed. He’d been polling well and we saw good turnout that day. I blame Hillary Clinton for winning a primary that meant the Pennsylvania primary was contested to the point where quote-unquote progressives would be flocking to the polls in the sections of the city less inclined to vote for a boisterous union boss.

With Angela on their wedding day

With Angela on their wedding day

J.P.: You started your career in 1995 at the Florence Morning News in Florence, S.C.—a town I’ve visited, and don’t need to visit again. What was the gig like? How’d you land it? And what’s your most memorable experience from those 13 months?

B.H.: Oh, it’s like any other gig when you start at a 35K-circulation paper. You’re working a lot of hours for very little money, always seeking the story that you can use to write your way out to a bigger paper.

I started as the business reporter, oddly enough.

I landed that job after having sent out about 200 resumes and clips packets across the country while at Delaware. Drove down for an interview and found out a couple weeks later that I got the job. So, I went to a weekend of Grateful Dead shows at RFK with college friends, went home, packed up the car and moved to a part of the country where I’d only been once before: That being for the job interview.

I loved the idea of living somewhere new, though. And it helped burst the bubble that all northeasterners have: There are people in other parts of the country, and their stories are no less important because of where they live.

The most memorable experience from those 16 months had to be interviewing Luther Campbell in advance of a show he was putting on at the Florence Civic County Convention Center (or something like that; all I remember is that it was near the Waffle House). It was a phone interview, but he made sure to set aside a couple backstage passes. Me and my co-worker Bailey went. And we were hanging out in the loading dock doing recreational inhaling when Biggie Smalls and crew pulls up. He was the opening act. I had no idea who he was at the time, other than being the type of gentleman who will invite strangers into his recreational-inhaling circle.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

B.H.: I’m not one who puts a lot of stock in journalism awards, but winning Best Weekly Columnist in Pa., and second place for distinguished writing once or twice, was pretty cool.

Also pretty cool was breaking stories in 1996 that tied KKK wannabes to a series of African-American church arsons. Yeah, that was way cooler than winning any awards, as was writing a column about the need to take the Confederate flag down at the South Carolina statehouse. The column drew death threats, but I will misguidedly claim that it helped start the process that saw the flag come down two decades later.

The lowest point was covering a gruesome sexual assault trial where information that I’d unknowingly included in my copy led friends of the victims to figure out who they were. I still live with that. And it really, really sucks.

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J.P.: You have an odd and inexplicable love for reality television—and writing about reality television. Why?

B.H.: I think I’d have a better answer for that if I went to a shrink.

Part of the reality-TV blogging comes from re-learning how to write after getting hit-and-ran. It was a way to get back into the flow while still essentially confined to home. But, I do love it still; I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the people I write about on these shows often get in touch after the fact to either laugh alone or threaten me with legal action that will never see the light of day.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BRIAN HICKEY:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mr. Miyagi, Divorce Court, Rolaids, Eric Snow, adorable baby pandas, M. Tye Comer, Mike Lupica, “Fight Club,” Heather Locklear: Comer, Fight Club, Miyagi, adorable baby pandas, Divorce Court, Locklear, Rolaids, Snow, Lupica

Three memories from this video: 1. How happy I was not to be a virgin at that point in my life; 2. How happy I was knowing that this segment would be something the world could collectively lord over you beyond the foreseeable future; 3. How cool it was to make a cameo on a local-news show that people at home (in South Jersey) would see.

One question you would ask Imelda Marcos were she here right now?: Which pair of shoes did you always want but never got?

• How did you propose to your wife?: At Love Park in Philadelphia, en route to her work’s Christmas party. (She knew it was coming some point in the near future since we’d looked at rings together, but not that it was happening that night.)

• Five biggest Philly icons of our lifetime: Allen Iverson, Kevin Bacon, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, Bill Cosby, Patti LaBelle (Hon. mention: Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Grace Kelly—who died in 1982)

• In exactly 17 words, give me your review of Rocky III: Rocky Balboa got too cocky and needed a friend’s help to refocus and vanquish a mohawked foe.

• Best joke you know: It’s not a joke so much as it is a skit on a comedy show: Dave Chappelle as Clayton Bigsby

• Favorite gift you’ve ever received (not the gift of life; like, a physical gift): A model of the Millennium Falcon (that I found hidden behind a basement bar when I was about 10 years old)

• How have you recovered from the decline of Radio Shack?: I’m not sure that I have, or ever will. The Battery of the Month Club meant so much to me.

• What would Butch Romano be doing in 2015?: Either a ballboy for the Patriots or an elder statesman in the dwarf-wrestling community.

  • Stephen Harrick

    Another great Quaz. One of my favorite things about your weekly interviews is being introduced to somebody I did not know and then seeking out work by that person. Thanks for talking to such a fascinating fellow.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life