She never met the legendary Tom McEwen.
But already, after reading his books and scouring some old newspaper columns, University of Florida sophomore Emily Padgett feels like she knows him.
"He sounds like such a down-to-earth person,'' Padgett said. "Through his writing, it felt like he was speaking right to me. He's the kind of person you'd want to sit on the back porch with and talk about sports for hours. I wish I could've done that and been a part of that.''
Padgett, 20, is now part of McEwen's legacy.
She's the first recipient of a scholarship established in the name of McEwen, the nationally prominent former sports editor and columnist at The Tampa Tribune who died in June at age 88. The Tribune is among the sponsors of the scholarship, which will be presented annually to a student in the UF College of Journalism and Communications, principally to someone interested in sports writing.
Since McEwen's death, UF officials and the McEwen family discussed ways to incorporate his work and influence into his alma mater's journalistic endeavors. Monday, the inaugural Tom McEwen Celebrity Golf Classic, a fundraiser for the UF scholarship, will be held at Avila Golf & Country Club.
That's where Padgett, from Atlantic Beach near Jacksonville, will be introduced as the scholarship recipient.
"What an honor,'' she said. "In my own way, I hope to live up to the name on that scholarship because he had quite a life.''
So, too, has Padgett.
Once, she was a competitive diver, an All-American at the AAU Junior Nationals who last season fulfilled her biggest dream. She competed for UF's team in the season when the Gators were defending national champions.
The goal wasn't easily realized. Padgett rearranged her high-school schedule so she could train with a coach in Orlando, more than a two-hour drive each way. There was constant work – and an unforeseen obstacle.
When she was 13, Padgett was diagnosed with a condition known as pectus excavatum, essentially a growing indention in her sternum that was compressing her heart and lungs.
She was the first diver to have the corrective surgery and it began a lengthy rehabilitation at the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Virginia. A bar was placed inside her chest. For six weeks, she couldn't even pull herself out of bed. She had to learn diving all over again.
"But if there's one thing we've all learned about Emily, it's that she's very passionate, hard-working and committed to the things she loves,'' said Padgett's father, Don. "You knew she would make it back. She refused for it to be any other way.''
Padgett's spot at UF was almost a birthright. Her parents met on the football field – he played saxophone and clarinet in the marching band, she was a majorette and baton twirler – and they have held south end-zone season tickets for more than 30 years.
For years, Padgett dreamed of diving for the Gators. For one season, she realized that thrill. Then, she gave it up.
"We were a little surprised because she just called us one day and said she made it, got to dive for Florida, but now she wanted to concentrate on her academics,'' said Padgett's mother, Martha.
Turns out, Padgett had discovered a new passion.
She loves to write. And she loves sports, particularly the ones played at UF. So, that makes her the perfect recipient of the McEwen scholarship.
Her father remembers Padgett constantly writing stories and plays for her sister and cousins to act out. Padgett's mother recently found an elementary-school essay while cleaning out the garage.
My dream one day is to become a writer. I want to become an author.
Despite the financial problems of many modern-day newspapers, Padgett sees a bright future for journalism.
"There's always going to be a need for people to cover news and tell stories,'' she said. "It just might be delivered in different forms.''
Padgett's parents – he's a CPA, she's a retired elementary-school teacher – always said to find her passion. Padgett's mother, amazed by how much her daughter loves her journalism classes, knows this career ambition just feels right.
"I have a lot to learn,'' Padgett said. "But this is what I want. I want to learn all I can and work my way up. I know the University of Florida has produced a lot of great journalists, so I feel like I'm in a great place to learn.''
McEwen, a member of the UF class of 1944, was one of those journalists. He wrote more than 10,000 columns for The Tribune. He served as an advocate for the growth of sports in the Tampa Bay area. He won the Florida Sportswriter of the Year award a record 19 times. He was the only media member to serve on the selection board for the Pro Football and College Football halls of fame.
His words still resonate for the people who knew him best – and for young journalists.
"Tom McEwen, it seems to me, really made a difference,'' she said. "That's what I'd like to do, too.''