The Yang Slinger: Vol. III
The wild, weird, unfulfilling ride of my mysterious 2016 "Sports By Brooks" Bleacher Report piece (that never ran), five questions with political journalist Aaron Rupar, and yet another career fuckup.
In 2016, while churning out these long, in-depth features for Bleacher Report, I was told to write a piece about Sports By Brooks, the once-thriving sports/large-breasted women website (founded by a man named Brooks Melchior) that had vanished from the face of the earth.
The assigning editor was Matt Sullivan, and when he called he said something like, “You know who Brooks Melchoir is, right?”
[Me, Googling “Brooks Melchoir” on the other end]
“Oh, yeah. Of course.”
“Well,” Matt replied, “how about solving the mystery?”
He had me at mystery.
The next three months of my life were devoted exclusively to tracking down Melchoir; to finding out how a major sports influencer can just (poof!) vanish into the ether. I made calls after calls after calls; worked with three private investigators; drove up and down, left and right. Knocked on strange doors. Walked through creepy lots and alleys.
At long last, I proudly submitted my piece.
My phone rang. It was Matt. “You did a great job, Jeff,” he said. “Buuuuut … I don’t think we should run this.”
Matt didn’t like that we weren’t 100-percent certain what became of Brooks Melchior. And would it be fair to expose/out/pinpoint someone who left the public spotlight in such a manner?
I was furious, and told Matt so. All that hard work and elbow grease … and now the piece would never be seen? What the flying fuckity fuck?
In hindsight, Matt Sullivan was right. It was the correct call.
But here’s the thing: A few years ago, Brooks Melchoir reappeared. I’m still not sure how. Or why. But he came back, and Tweets regularly. So, with the changed landscape, I’ve decided to share much of the original piece. There are some lines that I'‘ve deleted, because sitting here in the modern world, I don’t think it’s fair to Brooks: 2021.
I’ve added footnotes, to explain/provide background on certain thoughts and passages.
A lot of people have asked about this story through the years. It’s certainly not the best thing I’ve written. But I hope it offers some satisfaction …
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS SPORTS BY BROOKS?
By JEFF PEARLMAN
I am standing in front of Apartment D.
The door is brownish-beige. The handle is painted gold, though time and weather have warped away any of the long ago intended luster. There is a small peephole and, directly beneath it, a black doorbell button. Everything is encased by a white screen—rickety, a bit tilted, with a black grip that wiggles like a newly loose tooth.
The address is 2114 Gargano Ave. in Burbank, California—home to, according to a dilapidated roadside sign, “LUXURY APTS.” The very word “Luxury” serves to mock its surroundings, and the sign itself is cracked and weathered and held together by five awkwardly angled rips of tape.
To be blunt, this place is a shithole.
I am standing in front of Apartment D because I have been told that behind the door may well be the answer to the greatest mystery in 21st century sports media. Two of the three private investigators helping me with this assignment have insisted the address could offer a breakthrough. One, who assisted anonymously, said, “Something is there. I don’t know for sure. But something.” Phil Klein of Klein Investigations & Consulting, took it a step further. “I would knock on that door,” he said. “I would definitely knock.” Then, a pause. “Just be careful.”1
Moments before arriving here, I lingered 15 feet away in the middle of the complex’s parking lot. Spaces are designated for each tenant, and all were vacant, save for one—the spot allotted to apartment D. There, resting at a peculiar angle, was a green 1997 Saturn 12 stages beyond the wreckage yard. A hubcap was missing from the right rear tire, and paint seemed to have been scraped off the roof. Much like the sign, expanses of tape struggled to hold things together.
For the record, I am not one who pays attention to automobiles. I am, however, one who knows what it means when an automobile is parked in a housing unit.
It means the owner is likely home.
From 2001 through 2012, Brooks Melchior was arguably the most influential sports blogger in America. His site, SportsByBrooks, was Deadspin before Deadspin and TMZ Sports before TMZ Sports; a merging of hard news, gossip and photographs of scantily dressed large-breasted women that didn’t merely entertain thousands of regular readers, but provided source material for some of the biggest stories of the decade. Melchior delved hard into Cam Newton allegedly being paid by Auburn University. Into Tiger Woods’ infidelity. Into the tattoo parlor scandal at Ohio State. He was the first media member to know the University of Arizona was hiring Rich Rodriguez to coach its football team. “Influential,” says Drew Curtis of Fark.com. “That’s a word I would use.” Melchior’s facts were not always correct. Truth be told, they were, on more than one occasion, anything but correct. But when he broke news, he broke it hard. ESPN borrowed so freely from SportsByBrooks that an internal network memo instructed anchors to stop crediting the site. “He was the guy who was covering stories in the media that had some dirt to them,” says Doug Gottlieb, the CBS Sports analyst. “Everyone in the business read him, because he had things no one else did. Knowledge is power, and he had a lot of knowledge.”
Melchior’s goal, according to many who knew him, was to lead a digital sports-media revolution. He was, arguably, the first journalistic superstar of Internet sports, and he knew it. “We’re the future,” Merchior said in an e-mail to a colleague. “Mark my words.”
Those two sentences were typed on Oct. 22, 2010, at precisely 7:35 pm.
Less than two years later, Brooks Melchior would disappear.
By “disappear,” I don’t mean retire, or relocate, or join a dental practice in Toledo. Brooks Melchior almost certainly did not become a priest, or a rabbi, or a member of some wacky cult devoted to space aliens and peanut brittle. He never fired off a final angry blog post; never bid farewell to the dozens of media friends and associates he made through the years; never explained why, after June 19, 2012, he would cease to post on SportsByBrooks. He is not—according to multiple records—dead.
He simply … poof … vanished.
So here I am, in front of Apartment D, equal parts nervous and intrigued. It is a disconcerting thing, standing before a door without knowing the inhabitant, and I am suddenly a great admirer of Jehovah’s Witnesses members and solar panel salesmen. It is 2:33 on a Tuesday afternoon. The sun is shining. The sky is flawless blue. I am holding a notepad and pen in my left hand, along with a copy of The Bad Guys Won, one of my books (proof that I’m not peddling Amway products). With my right hand, I take a deep breath and push the doorbell. It fails to ring, so I knock three times, forcefully. I wait … nothing … knock again. One time—BANG! Two times—BANG!
With that, I hear a rustling sound.
The silver nob begins to turn. The door opens …
Brooks Jefferson Melchior was born on September 7, 1967, which makes him 48, almost 49. He was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, the youngest of Kenneth and Nancy Melchior’s three children. His mother was a school librarian, his father an Air Force reservist who spent 49 years with Merrill Lynch. The couple divorced when their children were young, and Nancy later remarried a man named Phelps Murdock, Jr.
Brooks grew up with his mother and step-father on 112th Street, in a beautiful two-story home with a two-door garage and a large front lawn. The neighborhood was quiet; the streets flat. There were always other children around, riding bicycles, kicking soccer balls, sledding along streaks of icy snow. If it wasn’t Mayberry, it was the next best thing. “A great place to be raised,” says Carol Jerwick, who was three years Brooks’ senior and lived in the house behind his. “But the one big problem was the schools.” Indeed, 112th Street was a stone’s throw from the Kansas-Missouri state line, which meant Brooks was districted to attend nearby Center High, a public school that regularly underperformed to designated standards. Hence, his mother enrolled him in a private K-through-12 college preparatory school founded in 1884 and located on a beatific 40-acre campus on State Line Road. The Barstow School was small (graduating classes numbered in the 40s) and lily white, and it is the place where young Brooks discovered his talent for writing. Along with playing multiple sports, he served as sports editor at the B-Line, the school’s newspaper. Walter Brayman, the publication’s faculty adviser, warmly recalls Melchior as “a very good writer … a smart guy” who once used a school vacation to journey from Major League ballpark to Major League ballpark via automobile with his mother.
A few days after we initially spoke, Brayman called, somewhat excitedly. He had located Melchior’s farewell column from the final issue of the 1985-86 B-Line. Headlined, “Brooks’ Banter,” the piece was mature and clearly stated. Wrote Melchior: “While spreading athletes out may be viewed as breeding mediocrity, this gives the student the opportunity to compete in a few different sports. Playing one or two sports a year can get tedious, and burn-out is the last thing a coach wants.”
In the fall of 1987 Melchior began his freshman year at the University of Georgia, where he roomed inside Reed Hall with Jim Callis, who—by sheer coincidence—would later become the executive editor of Baseball America. Callis has nary a bad word to say about young Melchior as a roommate or person. They shared a passion for sports and, specifically, Strat-o-Matic Hockey. “We had an ice storm once, and it shut down the campus for a week,” Callis said. “Brooks and I played the entire Stanley Cup playoffs. It was fiercely competitive. I was the Oilers, and we were up 3-0 on the Blackhawks and, somehow, Brooks won. I was furious.” Melchior, Callis says, had minimal success with coeds (“If you’re playing Strat-o-Matic Hockey, you’re not exactly a stud.”), but also showed little interest. He came to Georgia for the sports scene. Melchior walked on to the football team as a freshman kicker (Barstow did not offer the sport, but Melchior had excelled at soccer), and—while never appearing in a single game—spent three years as a glorified tackling dummy during practices (Ray Goff, a Georgia assistant who took over as head coach in 1990, does not remember Melchior. “But,” Goff says, “that doesn’t mean much—especially with kickers.”). Like Rudy Ruettiger, Melchior survived a vicious pounding. Unlike Rudy Ruettiger, Melchior appeared in no games, and his name is not listed among the Bulldogs’ all-time letterwinners. He also served as the play-by-play man for the school radio station’s broadcasts of Bulldogs baseball and basketball, and was in the booth when Georgia won the 1990 College World Series.
By the time he graduated, Melchior knew he wanted to devote his life to becoming a Major League broadcaster. He had grown up listening to Jack Buck turn St. Louis Cardinal games into artful symphonies, and fancied a similar existence. He began his career in the Class A South Atlantic League, serving four long years as the radio play-by-play announcer for the Charleston River Dogs and Capital City Mets. Two big breaks came in the mid-1990s, when he was hired to work falls and winters as the play-by-play voice of the Greensboro (N.C.) Monarchs of the East Coast Hockey League, then head north to Columbus, Ohio come spring and summer to man the booth as a backup to veteran Terry Smith for the Triple A Columbus Clippers for WBNS-AM.
Across America, young voices can be heard on weak radio signals explaining the patterns of young ballplayers and young skaters. It is, generally, a labor of love, and very few wind up making a long-term career off the profession. Melchior, however, planned big. A former colleague in Greensboro recalls Brooks as, “someone who always had an angle. He wanted to be famous, that was very clear, and probably saw Greensboro as nothing more than a quick stepping stone.” Aaron Portzline, at the time a writer for the Columbus Dispatch, says Melchior was, “a guy you always felt planned on being here temporarily. He wasn’t here because he loved Columbus, or because he loved minor league baseball. He wasn’t cut from that cloth. He felt like he was on his way to do something bigger.” A 1995 Dispatch profile described Melchior as, “smooth and relaxed on the air.” According to the piece, he was sending tapes to NHL and Major League announcers—“I figure anything I can learn from them is a bonus,” he told the newspaper.
It was during his days in Columbus that Melchior made his first real noticeable imprints on the sports media landscape. At the time WBNS employed a young ex-Ohio State quarterback named Kirk Herbstreit, who suggested to Ed Douglas, the programming director, that he and Melchior do a show together. Before long the two hosted “Sports Line.” Because WBNS was known for its loyalties toward the Buckeyes, listeners were often aghast when Melchior repeatedly took Ohio State to task. “It was great,” says Herbstreit, a veteran ESPN star. “He didn’t always say everything Joe Buckeye, so he’d stir it up quite a bit. I think people enjoyed the perspective, because when you’re in a community like that it’s easy to just absorb the same takes over and over. Brooks was different, and exciting.” Jay Crawford, the current ESPN SportsCenter anchor, was another WBNS colleague. “I remember the first time I heard him do baseball,” Crawford says. “I turned to someone and said, ‘Who’s the new guy? He’s fantastic.’”
Melchior’s ambition was obvious, and rubbed some wrongly. He carried himself with an air unbecoming of youth. Perhaps that’s why the story has long circulated that, while covering an Ohio State football game from the press box, Melchior had to depart Ohio Stadium after soiling his pants. True? Urban legend? “I’m not sure,” says a former colleague. “But he never really escaped that one. He was known for being the guy who shit his pants.”
Melchior’s road to radio stardom took a unique twist in 1999, when Entercom Communications, a broadcasting company based out of Philadelphia, launched Kansas City’s first-ever 24-hour sports talk station, 1250 The Game. The goal was to knock off 1510 AM, and Melchior—the local boy making good—was hired to serve as both the programing director and major on-air talent. There was just one problem, and it was a biggie. “The signal was so weak, I’m not sure many people heard us,” says Nate Bukaty, a producer at the station. “They thought being 24 hours was enough. But if you’re 24 hours and nobody gets your signal, what’s the point?”
According to Bukaty, Melchior was ranting Skip Bayless before ranting Skip Bayless. He hosted a show with Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star, and regularly made controversial statements for the sake of making controversial statements—oftentimes taking positions that were impossible to defend. Once Melchior made the case that domed stadiums were good for sports. Posnanski, sitting alongside Melchior, was dumbfounded, as were those listening. “He listed all these stupid things, like how you don’t have to worry about rain, families can plan a month in advance,” says Bukaty. “He wanted to stir the pot, but it was obvious that’s what he was trying to do.” The station was more Maxim than ESPN. Under Melchior’s guidance, there was a ton of so-called guy talk—meaning debates whether Halle Berry was hotter than Pam Anderson and whether beer was healthier than water. “I went to journalism school to be a broadcaster,” says Bukaty. “I didn’t want to go to strip clubs and do remotes. But that’s where it was heading with Brooks.”
On three or four occasions, Melchior filled in as the play-by-play man for games on the Royals Radio Network, but he largely spent his time being the voice of a voiceless station. One day, roughly a 1 ½ years after he arrived, Melchior showed up at the office, gathered his small staff and said, rather curly, “Hey, I’m moving to California. Good luck to you guys.”
“That’s the last time I ever saw Brooks Melchior,” says Bukaty. “He was gone.”
If one is a human being beneath the age of, oh, 18, a glance back at the debut vision of SportsByBrooks might seem as if it were planned by an infant with an IQ of 12. The site that went live on June 30, 2001 served as a pulseless listing of articles from other sources. There were, for example, links to MICKEY MOUSE MONKEY: “MOCKERY OF THE GAME” and DODGERS WIN, DREIFORT REINJURES ELBOW. The stories were exclusively California-based, and sorted by teams: Dodgers, Angels, Lakers, Clippers. The layout, done entirely by Melchior, was dull and simplistic.
At the time Melchior, 33-years old and new to Los Angeles, was hosting a lightly regarded afternoon radio show on KMPC-AM, as well as doing afternoon sports updates on 1540: The Ticket. The website, he told the Buffalo News in 2002, commenced an afterthought. “The page,” he said, “started off as something that made my job easier as a sports radio talk show host.”
Then, at some point shortly after the SportsByBrooks inception, Melchior turned fully away from radio and hatched a revolutionary plan. Dating deep into his boyhood, he had long subscribed to Sports Illustrated, but never much cared for the Swimsuit issue. He found it to be lazy and exploitative; more about sex than beauty. An amateur photographer who loved taking pictures, Melchior believed he could do better. So he would roam the Southern California beaches, tracking down gorgeous young women and asking if they would pose for his website. He paid a few bucks in return, and had them wear skimpy tank tops with a small SportsByBrooks logo across the chest. “He completely capitalized on the women-sports crossover thing,” says Arash Markazi, the ESPN senior writer who was a University of Southern California journalism student at the time. “He’d have these women, and they weren’t just image grabs from other websites. He found them, he took their pictures and they were really good. I once asked him about it, and he said, ‘Look, they all want to be actresses or models.’”
“He was a friend, so I don’t want to be insulting,” says Derek Ponamsk, an ESPN Radio personality in Baton Rouge. “But Brooks is the forefather of the clickbait generation. We’re talking pages upon pages of girls in bikinis.” Indeed, on the front of the Nov. 12, 2006 site, beneath a photo of “SportsByBrooks Girl Becky in Malibu” was the headline, SEARCH 6,000 PHOTOS OF BROOKS AND SBB GIRLS IN LOCATIONS LIKE L.A., NEW YORK, IRELAND, PARIS, CHICAGO AND HAWAII! “He knew what brought people to the site,” says Tom Fornelli, a colleague and CBS Sports college football writer. “Girls with comic book-sized breasts.”
Melchior didn’t simply use the women as Internet eye candy. He started hosting SportsByBrooks trivia nights at Los Angeles bars, and had the models pose for photographs with attendees. Before long they were known as the “SportsByBrooks Girls,” and became a staple of the increasingly common soft-core sports media porn landscape. “You always hear stories about the guy at the mall who picks somebody up under the auspices of being an agent and chops her up and puts her in a pail in the backyard,” Melchior told LA Weekly in 2008. “But I was legitimate. I had an event: ‘Here’s my card. You come Tuesday night, we’ll give you a [SbB] shirt, you’ll get paid.’”
Interestingly, Melchior—according to numerous friends and peers—never made efforts to date the women. He seemed to bask in their company, but worried about people thinking him to be a sleazebag or wanna-be Hugh Hefner. He was, by all accounts, a peculiar sort. An exercise junkie. A healthy eater. Plagued by a bad stomach (Melchior suffers from Crohn’s Disease), a slight facial tic and a fiery temper. Known by many, close friend to few. He spoke 1,000 words per minute, but rarely cracked jokes. He lacked the self-deprecation gene, and took his website excruciatingly serious. His intensity could be jarring, even for those used to it. When Deadspin was launched in 2005, Melchior made clear to colleagues that his aspiration was to demolish it. “His goal was to take it down,” says Pete Gaines, a blogger who wrote for SportsByBrooks. “He saw Deadspin as a challenge, and didn’t understand why it was getting so much attention.”
As SportsByBrooks gained readers and increased advertising revenue (there are no available financial figures), Melchior gradually shifted gears. Yes, the sexy images would still result in page views. But he wanted the site to be more than just breasts and bare midriffs. That’s why he focused upon cultivating a legion of reliable sources and informants. When writers and radio personalities visited Los Angeles, he invited them for beers and dinners. He fired off complimentary e-mails to college journalists when they broke sports scoops, and insisted they keep him abreast of local happenings. Ponamsk, a Baton Rouge-based LSU expert, became his guy when it came to the Tigers scuttlebutt. Ryan Abraham, the publisher of uscfootball.com, helped him with Trojans material. “We had beers a couple of times,” says Gottlieb, a former basketball player at Oklahoma State and Notre Dame. “He had some really strong inside sources at places.”
Melchoir was particularly passionate about college sports, and the corruption that he believed too often ruined it. SportsByBrooks went hard after Ohio State for boosters allegedly financing quarterback Terrelle Pryor; hard after Auburn for allegedly paying its Tigerettes to “entertain” recruits and for its iffy recruiting tactics related to quarterback Cam Newton; hard on the University of Alabama and football boosters doing myriad bad things. He added more and more national contributors (usually young writers willing to work for $15 per post), and depended on his friend and the site’s managing editor, Jason Kaifesh, to assign pieces and handle much of the incoming material. “His idea was to have a murder’s row of bloggers,” says Gaines. “All these big ideas, big plans. SportsByBrooks, in his mind, was going to be this huge groundbreaker. I’m pretty sure, from Brooks’ perspective, it was just a matter of time …”
In early 2012, things got weird.
Not that they weren’t already weird. Because, truly, they were. The large-breasted women. The bar appearances. The desire for sports dominance. The gossipy posts that oftentimes didn’t check out under scrutiny. The many SportsByBrooks writers who never actually met or spoke with Melchior.
Weird, weird, weird.
But when SportsByBrooks began to tackle the Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno-Penn State scandal, well, a once-promising website started to gravitate toward darkness. It wasn’t that anyone was surprised by Melchior’s interest in a story that had gripped the nation. No, it was that a website noted for its diverse subject matter seemed to now focus on Penn State, and only Penn State. Over the course of a half year’s time, SportsByBrooks went hard after Paterno and the university, but with the grace and dexterity of a dislodged brick. In various posts, Melchior opined that Sandusky wanted his trial to be held in State College, accused Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett for playing a role in a coverup and blamed Paterno for every apparent misdeed under the sun. It was significantly more ranting than reporting. “I used to communicate with Brooks a lot via text, phone, e-mails,” says Jose Gridiron, the football blogger. “But it all really started to manifest itself into angry diatribes about Penn State.”
According to multiple sources, Melchior received a large number of threatening e-mails from Penn State loyalists, as well as several death threats. Although it is impossible to say how this directly impacted him, Melchior’s behavior changed. He turned nervous and jumpy; seemed increasingly unsettled. “I was on the phone with him in 2012, driving to the stadium for an LSU football game,” says Ponamsk. “And while we were talking my phone beeped because of the blue tooth. And he literally said, ‘Are you recording this?’ It was the weirdest shit, but he really started to seem pretty paranoid.”
Then, in July 2012, the site stopped producing new content.
It just … stopped. No warning, no heads up. Regular contributors pitched ideas, as they always had before, but never heard back. Readers began to wonder, via Twitter, what was going on, but received no feedback. For about 1 ½ years Melchior paid someone to update the crawl at the top of the page, then shut that down as well. His @SportsByBrooks Twitter account, which debuted on June 27, 2009, continued to be active, but the content turned puzzling. A man consumed by modern sports started offering his takes on the Catholic priest scandals, on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, on handcrafted fonts and Ayn Rand and abortion clinics. “It was so weird,” says Paul Pabst, a friend and executive producer of the Dan Patrick Show. “I once said to him, ‘What are you doing on Twitter?’ He told me there were just things he needed to talk about. One day, out of the blue, he says to me, ‘Do you know what’s going on in Nicaragua?’ It was like he suddenly realized sport wasn’t important. One day he was Tweeting about Peter Gammons and Michael Vick. Then suddenly it was World War II reparations.”
On Nov. 11, 2013, @SportsByBrooks Tweeted: “Videos of war stories from 1,000 different American veterans organized by name, theater, branch of service .. amazing,” along with a link to a website featuring stories from former combat troops. It would be the last of 20,200 things Melchior expressed via the medium. Although the account remains active, Melchior has not Tweeted since. Two weeks later, the SportsByBrooks Facebook account also went dry. The website no longer works.
Friends and associates were (and are) bewildered. They reached out to Melchior en masse, but received no replies. “He just stopped returning calls,” says Peter Burns, an ESPN SEC Network studio anchor and longtime friend. “We had been talking about a podcast, and maybe three weeks later he just vanished. Gone from the face of the earth.”
“He used to get back to me quickly,” says Jose Gridiron. “Then he stopped getting back to me at all.”
Melchior was an equal opportunity tie cutter. Evan Rosenblum, a executive producer at TMZ who had several conversations with Melchior: “He was great to talk to. And then he just went away.” Pabst: “He fell off the planet.” Markazi: “I sent e-mails, I called his phone number—but nothing worked.” Tim Ring, a friend and the sports director of CBS 5 in Phoenix: “He went off the grid.” Callis, his college roommate: “I tried to call him, but it didn’t connect.” Nick Kahn, his agent: “I don’t know, dude—just gone.” Gottlieb: “Like a ghost, just gone.” Herbstreit: “I haven’t spoken with Brooks in years.” Crawford: “It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever come across. How does someone disappear in 2016, especially with that large of a social media imprint?
“How does that even happen?”
Every so often, a journalist comes along and tries finding Brooks Melchior. The pursuit usually lasts a week or two, and concludes with exasperation, annoyance and some sort of anguished sigh.
Earlier this year, however, a man came tantalizingly close. His name is Jim Weber, and he’s a fine writer and founder of the sports website Lost Lettermen. Somehow, Weber was able to reach Mark Melchior, Brooks’ elusive brother, and Molly Melchior, his equally elusive sister. “Mark told me he and Brooks hadn’t been in touch for years,” Weber says. “But Molly … that was a different story.”
Communicating via text, Melchior’s sister informed Weber that Brooks is “researching American historical figures for a project.” The writer was unusually optimistic, especially when Molly said she passed along Weber’s information. However, that was the last time they spoke. She failed to return any further texts or calls. “She’s gone cold turkey,” he says.
Weber also tried reaching Kaifesh, Melchior’s closest pal and the SportsByBrooks managing editor. He was unable to find a working telephone number, but sent Kaifesh a friend request on Facebook. “I called his mom in Indiana,” Weber says. “She said she’d tell him I called. I never heard anything, and when I called her again she said, ‘Never call here again.’ Then I went back to Facebook and Jason had blocked me.”
Not long after I began working on this project, I stumbled upon a Tweet from Weber than read, “Making headway on finding Brooks Melchior. Feel like Detective Kujan right before mug drop. Just need last piece.” I reached out to Weber, half hoping he would tell me the case had been solved and I could go back to blogging about Donald Trump and my kid’s flag football coach. Instead, it was the exact opposite: Weber was tired and frustrated and throwing in the towel. “It’s yours now,” he told me over phone. “I really hope you can figure this one out.” Weber provided me with contact information for both siblings—neither of who replied to my e-mails, texts or voice messages. He also gave me Brooks’ cell phone number, which rang and rang and rang (According to records, Melchior continues to pay his Verizon bill). I texted repeatedly, but never received a response despite different approaches (“B, you good right now?”; “I’m outside, gonna pop in for a visit”; “You still like eggs?”; “We’re at the beach now waiting for the fireworks to begin”; “Hall and Oates concert?”)
Enter: The private investigators. Years ago my wife appeared on the Today Show alongside Klein, a Nederland, Texas-based people finder with a sterling reputation. When I told him about this project, Klein kindly offered to do a little digging. Five days after we initially speak, he calls and says, “OK, are you ready for this?”
“Sure,” I reply. “What do you have to tell me?”
“So there was an attorney by the name of Patrick Sweeney,” Klein says. “Patrick was Melchior’s longtime attorney. Patrick tells me he disappeared off the face of the earth and just quit. Like, dropped out of society. And he gave me some good information on the guy. So we ran him with U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The guy’s true name is Brooks Jefferson Melchior. He has a good active social security number that was given to him in 1976 in Kansas. He is registered at 4241 Redwood, Los Angeles California. However, I contacted the local [police department] over there and they say they have not received any missing person’s report, but there is a lot of interest in where he is. So I did a back check on him through Homeland Security, and they have no information on his exit from the United States. He is in the United States. I checked his SIN number. He has a good active SIN number, but it has not been used—you’re gonna die when you hear this—it has not been used since 1998. A SIN number is a credit number. He has not applied for credit anywhere—anywhere!—since 1998. This guy is a mystery guy.
“Now he has some relatives that lived in an address, 1814 Grismer Ave in Burbank, Cal. He lived there, too. When he was at the Grismer address he was dating a girl named Carol Ann. And Carol Ann says she doesn’t know where he is; that she thinks he had a breakdown and he is in some type of center. It’s crazy. So I checked him on the Obamacare system, and he has no active health insurance going on. I checked him with the state of California, as far as Medicaid/Medicare goes, there’s no active Medicare/Medicaid. So this is one of two things: Either he is still living in that apartment complex on Redwood, No. 2211, or this guy has skipped out. He’s gone out of the country. There is no activity on his social security number, there is no activity on his [driver’s license]. His license, by the way, is still good. The address on it is 4241 Redwood, No. 2211.”
I take a deep breath. “So,” I say, “what do you think?”
Klein doesn’t pause. “Here’s my guess, and I’m just giving you a guess right now,” he says. “I think the guy walked into Mexico and disappeared. There’s always a reason people are doing what they’re doing. And it’s usually because of some type of illness or some type of … he’s not dead, obviously. Because all the active numbers are still up. All his descriptors are still up. Which means he either walked to Mexico, made a bunch of money and said, ‘Screw it—I’m out of here,’ or, my belief is, he probably has some type of personal issues …”
As soon as Klein hangs up, I curse—twice. Then I gather myself and drive from my home in Southern California to the 4241 Redwood address. It’s the Terra Del Ray luxury apartment complex, a mere stone’s throw from Venice Beach, and before entering I sit in my parked car and do a some basic research. According to a Nexis people search, Melchior lived at 4241 Redwood Ave., in apartment 2211, at some point during 2003. This also happens the address for something called the Baird Whitfield Sober Living Home.2
It is not easy to access Terra Del Ray. In front of the locked main entrance is a silver box with a small screen where one can scroll tenant names. I search for MELCHIOR—nothing. I search for BAIRD WHITFIELD SOBER LIVING HOME—nothing. I linger by the front door, pretending to speak on my cell phone, but really waiting for someone to let me in. After 15 minutes, two women in matching blue shirts from a cleaning service slide through the door, and I follow.
For some reason, I accidentally first knock on the door to apartment 3113, and a bald man with multiple tattoos and three small dogs answers. “I might have the wrong place,” I say, “but is Brooks here?”
He shakes his head as two of the canines lick my toes.
I proceed to 2211, notepad in hand. I knock several times, and when nobody answers I leave a brief note—I’m a writer, I’m seeking out Brooks, blah, blah. Back in the car I dial the number for the Terra Del Ray retail office and ask whether Baird Whitfield still rents space. “Not for years, honey,” a woman says.
I dial a number for the sober living home, and no one answers. Like SportsByBrooks, it is out of business. He can’t be there—because the place literally does not exist.
Two days later I decide I’ll try the Burbank address. Klein suggested it was worth a shot, as did two other investigators I consulted with. However, one of the PIs also offers a warning that—I’m embarrassed to say—in the heat and excitement of the search never entered my head. “You have to ask yourself whether doing this is the right thing,” she tells me. “Sometimes people don’t want to be found for good reasons. Sometimes the right thing to do is walk away.”3
The words were followed by a couple of seconds of silence.
“The more I look into this, the more I’m convinced that what we have someone who [has unraveled],” she says. “If you look at his Twitter activity, from Dec. 2012 to March 2013 there’s this dramatic change, and it increasingly makes less and less sense. It’s a telltale sign—he’s not even indicating what the conspiracy is, just that’s there’s a conspiracy.”
Again, I take inventory. Several people I spoke with said, during the later years of SportsByBrooks, Melchior turned increasingly skittish. He bragged of a pending television deal with Fox Sports. However, when I spoke with Jacob Ullman, the senior vice president of production and talent development at Fox Sports, he said of an offer, “If so, this is the first I’ve ever heard of it.” He also supposedly said there could be a partnership in the works with TMZ. Rosenblum, the TMZ Sports executive producer, said that was incorrect. Melchior’s paranoia over Ponamsk recording his phone call was not an isolated incident. Melchior often believed (rightly or wrongly) that people were after him; after SportsByBrooks.
“What I’m saying,” the investigator says, “is I don’t think you’re not dealing with someone operating at his full capacity. What you choose to do with that is up to you.”
The words hang in the air, like a cartoon bubble. And while it may well seem like the obvious course of action is to step away, I’m not 100-percent certain. The investigator’s thoughts are strong, but by now I’ve heard a dozen different theories. Some believe Melchior was paid by a person (or people) affiliated with Penn State to back off and go away. Some believe he tired of the spotlight, and is somewhere writing ghost copy in the shadows of a palm tree. Klein suggested Mexico. Another person thought Canada. In 2014 Melchior’s father died. “It’s possible he inherited a lot of money,” a friend tells me, “and picked a new life.” Last year Joe Kinsey, a former SportsByBrooks contributor, wrote on the Busted Coverage website: “Maybe the guy just got burnt out on trying to keep churning out the constant barrage of material on the college of the day that he wanted to go to war with. Maybe he had medical issues. Maybe he went out of his mind and is holed up in an apartment. Maybe he went to work as an FBI informant and is laying low. Maybe he got married, had kids and changed his name. Here you thought it was pretty much impossible for someone to just disappear from the Internet. Brooks is pretty much proving that it’s possible. He doesn’t seem to have many family members. There aren’t siblings tagging him on Facebook. The guy has literally disappeared.”
Although Melchoir hasn’t been heard from—audibly—in years, two known pieces of recent contact exist. In 2014, Pabst dialed Melchior’s cell phone number, and was shocked when someone picked up. “Brooks, it’s Paul!” Pabst said. “It’s Paul!” He heard TV in the background, then—click. He redialed the number later in the day, and again it was answered. “Buddy,” Pabst said, “I just wanna make sure you’re OK.” Click. Twice over the past two years, Pabst has received incoming calls from Melchior’s number. “But when I pick up,” he says, “no one is there.” While in New Orleans for Mardi Grad in early 2015, Ponamsk randomly texted Melchoir, asking, “Are u OK? Worried.” To his great shock, a one-word reply appeared: “Good.” All further efforts to communicate were ignored. “It’s just so strange,” says Panamsk. “Like a ghost story.”
Warnings and spookiness be damned, I ultimately wind up at Apartment D, facing the door and my fears. I ring, then knock, then hear noise. It opens—and a young-ish man stares my way. He’s bearded and burly, and wearing a T-shirt and socks, and when I tell him I’m looking for Brooks he says, without a trace of emotion or recognition, “Sorry, no Brooks here.”
And that, really, is that.
A bunch of weeks pass, and in the course of wrapping up research on this maddening sports mystery, I make a few final calls. I leave new messages for the siblings. I check in with Herbstreit and Weber. And, for no particular reason, I Google Kaifesh, the old SportsByBrooks managing editor. The fifth listing is for his Facebook page, and as soon as I click on the url I gasp audibly. The identifying photograph is of a man with brown hair and a beard. He’s instantaneously familiar.
It’s the guy from 1814 Grismer Ave.
I make the 1 hour, 20 minute return trek the next morning. I knock on the door at 11 am, then again at 2:30 pm, then again at 7 pm and again at 10 pm. There is no car in the driveway, and when I peek through a window I see a cardboard box and emptiness.
I return to my car, pull out a pen and write a note:
My name is Jeff Pearlman. I’m the guy who knocked on your door 3 weeks ago, looking for Brooks. Not sure if you know who I am, but we were in sports journalism around the same time span.
Anyhow, I am doing an article about SportsByBrooks, and wanted to speak with you. I failed to recognize you at the time — stupid me.
Please give me a call. This story is driving me insane.
I slide the piece of paper inside a copy of my book, and nestle it against the door handle. I knock one last time, hoping for a miracle but recognizing the truth.
Sometimes, people simply vanish.
Sometimes, there is no answer.
The Five with … Aaron Rupar
Aaron Rupar spent three years at Vox chronicling the outlandish evil of Donald Trump and the modern Republican Party. He recently went out on his own, starting Public Notice, one of the best political Substacks on the planet. You can follow him on Twitter here …
1. Give me the main reason you feel optimistic about America's future: I'm optimistic because I don't believe the future is determined—or if it is our brains are too limited to figure it out. I'd also point to the results of the 2020 elections as demonstrating it's still possible for the rising tide of authoritarianism to be defeated politically.
2. Give me the main reason you feel pessimistic?: [gestures broadly at the state of Republican politics]
3. Rank in order (favorite to least): Kris Bryant, an eggplant parm sub, oatmeal-scented candles, Walter Mondale, your right thumb, John Oates, Evander Holyfield, Chuck Todd, Liz Cheney, $40 printer ink cartridges: Walter Mondale, Evander Holyfield, John Oates, Kris Bryant, Liz Cheney, oatmeal-scented candles, Chuck Todd, eggplant parm sub, $40 printer ink cartridges
4. Why in God's name would one start a Substack?: To be self-employed (if you have a big enough audience to make it work). Substack can be viable for journalists who write a lot and have large and devoted followings, so I'm confident it can work for me. Vox is moving in a more magazine-style direction and I'm looking forward to covering the midterm campaigns in a more iterative manner, so it just felt like the right time to try something new and be my own boss.
5. What is the political media doing wrong right now?: I think political media has improved a lot since 2016, but there's still too often a baked-in presumption that Republican elected officials say and do things in good faith when I think a fair look at the last 20 years of history indicates they shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt.
Yet another story of one of my myriad career fuckups …
In 1995 I was a young, confident reporter with The (Nashville) Tennessean; a hotshot, thinks-he-walks-on-water-because-he-can-turn-a-quick-phrase asswipe whose career was spiraling out of control. I’d been hired by the paper out of college as a food and fashion writer, failed miserably and was moved to the rock/pop music beat. I failed miserably there, too, and my editor (the great Catherine Mayhew) switched me to the cops beat. “All I want you to do is focus on getting the facts right,” she told me. “It’s not about flashy writing. Just the facts.”
On one of my first days with the new gig, a murder took place in a Nashville apartment complex. I remember few of the details, only that it involved a gun, a dispute, a death and lots of blood. Dwight Lewis, my new editor, told me to head out to the scene and see if anyone was around. I was 23-years old, with almost no news reporting experience. Oh, I’d written four or five “news” (quotes intentional) pieces for the college paper—Jimmy Carter To Speak at UD; Drunk Driving Arrests Up—but nothing substantial.
Anyhow, upon pulling into the parking lot I noticed, eh, nothing. No people around, no police officers or police vehicles. I walked up to the apartment, and spotted police caution tape layered across the front door. It was yellow, but didn’t say KEEP OUT or DO NOT CROSS. I turned the handle, just out of curiosity. The door was, shockingly, unlocked. I called Dwight (on a beige mobile phone the size of three poundcakes glued together) to find out whether I should walk in. The office manager answer, told me Dwight was away and he’d have him call back ASAP.
I sat. For a minute. For two minutes. For five minutes. For 10 minutes. The phone didn’t ring. Or vibrate. Nothing. I looked at the door. Nobody was around. Would a small peek really hurt anyone? I grabbed the handle, turned it slowly to the right. The door was white—I remember this. With black numbers painted at eye level. I pushed it open and leaned in. A diploma hung from a wall to my left. There was a big couch, brown. Maybe tan. It was covered with splotches of blood. The wall was cracked by multiple bullet holes. The carpet was moldy and gross. There were, I think, dirty footprints. From mud, it seemed.
I never actually stepped inside. It was all a lean. I jotted all the details down, closed the door, walked out, sat on a nearby curb. My phone rang. It was Dwight.
“OK, Jeff,” he said. “Whatever you do, DO NOT open the door. It’s a crime scene, and you don’t want to interfere, or have your prints anywhere, or …”
“Dwight,” I said.
I took a deep breath. “I, ahem, might have already taken a look.”
The silence was awful. The (justified) blistering that followed was 1,000 times worse.
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Willoughby Thom, the (awesomely named) associate scene editor of The Observer, the student newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross.
Willoughby had me from the first sentence in this review of “No Time to Die,” the new James Bond movie. Too often one opens a college newspaper (or, these days, clicks on a college newspaper) expecting pizzazz and funk and style, only to find Ritz-dull snoozers. Well, not here. Wolloughby writes this thing with a ton of flair.
Here’s the lede:
It kicks ass. And, as you’ll see if you dig into her archives, so does Willoughby Thom.
Thom is on Twitter here. Bravo, kid …
Random journalism musings for the week …
• Musing 1: So it only took me … oh, far too long, but last night I was finally able to read (well, I actually listened to this one) Robert Kolker’s outstanding piece for the New York Times Magazine, “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” If you’re like me, and your feet dragged on this one—stop dragging. It’s exceptional reporting cobbled together with precise writing. A breathtaking article.
And here are my quick takeaways:
A) I have nothing but contempt for Sonya Larson. And it’s not about the plagiarizing, which is awful. Nope—it’s the cruel arrogance. There is one thing in this profession I’ve got zero patience for, and it’s the uppity, I’m-a-craftsman, you-wouldn’t-understand-what-it-is-to-create-art bullshit slinger. Which seems to be Larson is a nutshell. I’m a bit older than the protagonist and—I have to think (after reading)—a bit wiser. And here’s what I’d say to her: We’re all gonna be dead one day. This shit isn’t particularly important. Do your best, treat people well, be happy you’re not cleaning port-a-potties. And get over yourself.
B) As the husband of a kidney donor, I commend Dawn Dorland. She doesn’t sound like someone I’d particularly enjoy, but surrendering an organ (to a stranger, no less) is an act of tremendous kindess. If she needed to subtly/not-so-subtly crow about it—she’s allowed to. She’s earned the right.
C) Celeste Ng is a well-known writer with a tremendous career, but she should be ashamed of herself. It’s easy to stand behind the bully and mock others. Hell, we’ve learned that (times 100,000) via Donald Trump and his minions of lemons. Righteous courage would have come in the form of Ng e-mailing Larson and saying, “No, girl, you’re fucking so wrong here it’s not even funny. You can’t rip someone off like that. Plus, not for nothing, Dawn DONATED HER FUCKING KIDNEY! So stop being a douche.” Alas, she didn’t.
• Musing 2: I’ve been a bit rough on Arash Markazi at times over the past few years, primarily because I thought his behavior as the Los Angeles Times’ lead sports columnist (a highly coveted position that other journalists would lose two hands and a toe for) was pretty sad (you can read here for more). So what I’m about to write might sound harsh, but it’s actually not about Arash, per se.
I watched this clip tonight, featuring Arash as a guest on something called “The Issue Is Show” with Elex Michaelson. And Arash is there as the resident expert, to talk all things sports. Which is fine—many of us (myself included) have had that sort of experience by now. But when Elex asked, “How has [Carl Nassib, the league’s first openly gay player] been treated privately? What have you heard from people you talk to?”—I felt like vomiting. It’s a thankless thing to ask a man who doesn’t cover the Las Vegas Raiders or the NFL. Arash can either devote a good chunk of his brief appearance time to say—dickishly—“How the hell would I know? I’m not the Raiders beat writer, breh,” or he can sorta bullshit his way through—as he did here. I spoke with someone who covers the Raiders, and he said he hasn’t seen Arash at all this season. Not once. And, really, the Q&A is not Arash’s fault. We just all need to stop pretending to be experts in order to fill air space.
• Musing 3: Tremendous story in the New York Times Magazine last week from Mitchell S. Jackson—a man who has to be one of America’s most-underrated scribes. Link here. Trust me. It’s gold.
• Musing 4: I found myself watching some of Fox’s postgame telecast of the ALCS clincher between the Astros and Red Sox. The network had Kevin Burkhardt, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas sitting at a desk—and I was dumbfounded by the awfulness. Different Houston players/coaches would come to the set, and the three ex-ballplayers took turns backslapping and vomiting up preposterously awful non-questions. It hurt my brain, but also served as a reminder that just because you find ex-athletes who aspire to media work doesn’t mean you should necessarily hire them.
Musing 5: If you’re drunk and angry and wanna feel particularly crappy about this profession, here’s a piece from Jacobin on the not-so-secret awfulness that is journalism determined via metrics. A money quote: “Critics have long argued that metrics-driven journalism privileges fluff over high-quality news, while conditioning journalists to treat audiences as apolitical consumers and entertainment seekers rather than engaged participants within a democratic polity. By conflating consumer choice with democratic needs, these market-based values reduce audience engagement to a commercial transaction and devalue other less easily measured concerns, such as how well the press serves democracy.”
• Musing 6: I love when journalists celebrate other journalists. This gig can be waaaaaay too me-me-me-me-me. Props to Mirin Fader (and so many others) who embrace sharing the brilliance of our peers …
Musing 7: A reminder that the 231st episode of my journalism podcast, Two Writers Slinging Yang, drops Tuesday morning. This week’s guest is Ivan Maisel, the wonderful college football writer and author of a gripping/heartbreaking new book, “I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye: A Memoir of Loss, Grief, And Love.”
Quote of the week …
“Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
— Mark Twain
As a journalist, there is nothing more terrifying than the knock on a door. Nothing.
I deleted a good amount of material here. Speculation, and nothing more than speculation. One of the tricks in writing about a person who has vanished is … you turn to so many people who take stabs. Educated stabs, but stabs nonetheless.
This is an insanely important point, and one I ask myself all the time: Am I doing this for a good reason, or just out of the thrill of the chase?