By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Sep 11, 2014 at 7:15 PM

I was (OK, still am) a sports nut. I love the games. I have an appreciation for the players and respect what they do. But when I was a kid, the athletes (and some coaches) were superheroes. I only saw them on TV, or maybe a couple times a year at a ballpark. One way for a younger me to connect was to write letters and ask for autographs.

I came across those old mementos recently, and it was a flashback to a simpler time. An avid baseball card collector as a kid, I learned from publications like Beckett Baseball Card Monthly that if you sent a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) to a player at the stadium, you might get it sent back signed.

This idea blew my mind. I don't remember who the first player was that I wrote to, but it did work -- and I was hooked. I've got a random assortment of autographs, from former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart to former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver J.J. Stokes to Washington Redskins (and eventual Packer) Desmond Howard.

I've also got some "good" ones this way: Karl Malone, Jerry Rice, Herschel Walker and Phil Jackson.

Not all came by way of mail, though.

Cal Ripken, Jr.'s autograph came through a trade with a childhood friend whose dad used to play with the Baltimore Orioles. To get it, I gave him a Gregg Jefferies Upper Deck rookie card. I broke the New York Mets team set to do it, but I think it was the right decision.

I first met Sammy Sosa when I was 10 years old, at an autograph signing. I had a card, and my dad had a ball. My dad tried to say something to him, but Sosa's representative said not to talk to him. Sosa, who wore a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, sandals and dark sunglasses never looked up, signed both and we moved on.

It's still the prettiest signature I've ever seen, and my dad never liked him from then on.

Obviously I've never forgotten it, and I could never have imagined I'd be interviewing him a decade later in the Wrigley Field clubhouse.

We saw former Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies closer Mitch Williams sitting by himself in a Philly airport (which was amazing, since he was on his way to a 43-save season and World Series appearance that year), and he couldn't have been nicer to me or my little sister.

Met Ken "Snake" Stabler the same way and got his autograph on a bar napkin (go figure).

Going through them all, I could only laugh at some of the odd connections to my current life that I never would have imagined as a little kid.

For instance: I can vividly remember former Brewers pitcher Teddy Higuera stopping by and signing my ticket stub on the guard rail at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. Or Brewers catcher Dave Nilsson throwing his batting gloves to a handful of us kids (I didn't catch one).

Paul Molitor has one of the cleanest signatures I've ever seen.

Bucks rookie Shawn Respert (man, I thought he was going to be something) even personalized his autograph with a "Best Wishes."

It was fun to go through those autographs, to re-connect with the younger me that fell in love with sports. Now, I'm in it, writing and talking about topics such as domestic abuse, lying, performance enhancing drugs, suspensions, injury, hirings and firings. Not that it's not fun -- it's the best job in the world -- but in the day-to-day you can get a little cynical.

I'm not sure why I happened across that old collection in the back of my closet recently, but I'm glad I did.

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.