Ethan Cole is stalking Carl Lewis. He's sitting behind the wheel a black SUV, parked in front of a 7-11 in New Jersey. And he's spying on an Olympic track legend.
Ben Johnson -- yes, that Ben Johnson, the scourge of the Canadian sporting scene since 1988 when a failed drug test during the Summer Olympics stripped him of a gold medal -- is riding shotgun.
The mission is to set up a face-to-face meeting between Johnson and Lewis, who was Johnson's former track rival and is now a state senate candidate. Cole and Laurence Payne, a fellow 28-year-old sports fanatic hellbent on tracking down former athletes, want to get the two to air their differences after all these years. Johnson has agreed, but now Lewis must be found. And intense research shows this 7-11 store, located in Marlton, N.J., is where Lewis comes for his morning coffee.
The black SUV has been parked in the same spot for the better part of five hours. Johnson is not amused.
"Are we friends yet?" Cole asks in the trailer of one of four 22-minute videos that will debut Tuesday night on Canadian sports network, The Score.
"No," Johnson replies sternly.
"Are we crazy?" Cole fires back a minute later.
"You guys are crazy," Johnson, seemingly growing angrier by the moment, responds.
"You guys are retarded."
For Cole and Payne, this is a gold-medal moment. The 500-mile trip to this convenience store is now officially worth it.
Payne and Cole are part fanatic, part adventure seeker, part extreme nuisance. What began with a simple hypothetical conversation has turned into a yearlong journey.
Along the way, the friends ended up in Atlanta, Columbus and Santa Fe, somehow managing to connect with their sports heroes in a self-promoting yet endearing way.
They started, naturally, with Otis Nixon.
Nixon is the former Atlanta Braves outfielder who made the final out of the 1992 World Series when he laid down a bunt with two outs and the tying run on third base.
For the better part of 18 years, Payne and Cole, both 10 and living in Canada at the time, wondered what drove Nixon to bunt. So, they did what any normal Blue Jays fans would do 18 years after watching their team with a championship: They traveled to Atlanta to not only ask Nixon what he was thinking at the time, but to ask him to reenact the moment.
Payne assumed the role of former Blue Jays pitcher Mike Timlin. Cole played first baseman Joe Carter. There was only one glitch: The trio couldn't find a baseball. So they used a ball signed by Ferguson Jenkins. Nixon pounded the ball into his yard, deep into a bed of snow. They couldn't find it anywhere.
That was only the beginning.
Since then, the pair has paid $200 for a piece of artwork painted by former World Wrestling Federation superstar, The Ultimate Warrior. The purchase in an online auction got them connected with their wrestling hero.
When they pitched the idea of meeting up to discuss the meaning of life -- seriously -- the Warrior asked for an essay. They obliged, opening the door for a face-to-face meeting in Santa Fe.
It didn't stop there.
Cole, who has never been in a fight in his life, wondered what it would be like to spar with James "Buster" Douglas, the former heavyweight champion of the world who famously upset Mike Tyson in 1990. Payne and Cole actually chronicled Douglas in a documentary about life after his celebrated win in Tokyo.
In four trips so far, there have been no crash and burn moments.
"All of these guys were willing participants," Payne says. "They were all kind of interested in doing something a little different."
Each mission is unique, allowing Payne and Cole to thrive not only as fans, but also as storytellers. Each trip is made with a small traveling party that includes a cameraman and other support staff.
"For us, we're always going to take different routes to get to these people," Cole says. "Sometimes, it's as easy as writing an email and sometimes, you really have to go down a rabbit hole and be creative."
Payne is the head of sales at a Toronto production company making commercials. Cole works as an ad agency copywriter. The jobs give them what they call modest salaries with just enough disposable income to keep life interesting.
Payne declined to specify how much the two have spent on trips and the making of the Douglas documentary.
The results, Payne and Cole say, have been worth every penny.
"Some people go to Mexico on their days off," Payne says. "We track down retired athletes. It's become a bit of an addiction for us."
Payne and Cole use a variety of methods to reach out and persuade athletes to take part in the 22-minute shows.
With Nixon, it meant tracking the retired Major Leaguer down through his Atlanta-based charity working with drug and alcohol addicts. With Johnson, it involved finding the former sprinter while he was promoting a new book.
When it came to tracking down Douglas, a series of emails between Cole and a Columbus Dispatch reporter turned into a phone call to a friend and eventually, contact with the boxing champion.
"In the beginning, I didn't know what the hell was going on," Douglas says in a phone interview from Columbus, Ohio, where he trains a young professional boxer who has won his first six bouts. "At first, I was kind of defensive, but it turned out to be really nice.
"They're cool guys and we had a good time."
Over two days, Douglas sparred with Cole, who had never been in a fight in his life before traveling with his new friends to a local shooting range to shoot pistols. While Douglas is often asked to look back on the fight with Tyson that changed his life, the opportunity to share moments with fans is also meaningful.
"It's a beautiful thing, man," Douglas says. "It's exciting to have brought out passion in people like that. It's a great feeling."
With four episodes completed, Payne and Cole will begin chipping away at the next idea on their sports bucket list.
Among the candidates, insane as they may be: Setting up a dinner with shamed Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman and former Cubs outfielder Moises Alou; spending a day as Charles Barkley's personal assistant; deep-sea fishing with former tennis star Michael Chang; and administering a lie detector test to Jose Canseco.
As crazy as all that seems, Payne and Cole are serious about making each meeting substantial and meaningful.
The two maintain semi-regular contact with their subjects. Some of the athletes take Payne and Cole back to their childhood, reliving moments that made them fans in the first place. Others have taken on special meaning later in life.
But the result of each meeting brings the two fans closer to their heroes than they ever imagined.
"We leave these places with a certain degree of friendship," Payne says. "It's more than a professional relationship. We end up having a great time with these guys."
As for Johnson and Lewis? Well, we'll all find out when we watch the show.
-- Jeff Arnold can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24.
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