Detroit mourns loss of local legends

BY foxsports • July 27, 2013

There was something missing on my drive to Comerica Park today.

It's a mental checklist as I turn off Woodward onto Montcalm -- man playing the saxophone, and then a man who was a fixture at Detroit sporting events. He had a red Solo cup grasped in his oversized plastic Hulk hand, and he would be chatting to fans, posing for pictures and, always, cheering "Eat 'em up Tigers!"

I always thought of him as "Hulk Guy", but most fans knew him by his trademark chant. His friends, including the other buskers outside Comerica Park, knew him as James Van Horn. He was a successful welder until losing his job and ending up on the street

He wasn't there when I arrived at Saturday's game. Instead, there was a small floral arrangement and a t-shirt reading simply "Eat Em Up".

Friday night, about five hours after the end of the Tigers-Phillies game, Van Horn, 65, was pushing the wheelchair of another Comerica Park regular, a homeless man with no feet known as "Dreadlock Mike." Both men were struck and killed by a vehicle that fled the scene, according to witnesses. Another vehicle hit Mike's wheelchair and drove away.

Mike was a quieter presence at Tigers games, often stationing his wheelchair near the Fox Theatre, but a tough life had never been able to take away his smile and kind words for the fans who gave him a donation. My friend and fellow co-worker Mike Heidner posted on Facebook about smuggling food out of the Fox Sports Detroit suite and offering it to Dreadlock Mike. Another friend posted a picture of her adorable daughter posing with "Eat 'Em Up Guy".

Another local legend, bongo-playing Nahru Lampkin, had his drums and wireless microphone set up near Van Horn's normal spot. Instead of his routine where he flirts with female fans and teases men, Lampkin was encouraging fans to donate money in Van Horn's honor.

"I've known James for years," said Lampkin, a robotics teacher who does his bongo routine everywhere from Michigan Stadium to the Kentucky Derby and Mardi Gras. "He started the year that the Tigers move here, and I came the next year. We had a hassle once over this spot, but he was a great guy and we didn't want to fight. We figured out a way to share it, and we were friends ever since. They tell me died instantly, but Mike didn't die until this morning. I hope they didn't suffer."

Nearby, a group was selling t-shirts to raise money for Van Horn's funeral. They said that he didn't have a family, a fact that Lampkin denied.

"I don't know who they are, but James had a family," he said. "I don't want anyone taking advantage of this."

Twitter and Facebook have been buzzing with memories and tributes to the two men, and a Facebook group has been set up to try to find the drivers involved in the accident. A fan-led chant of "Eat Em Up Tigers, Eat Em Up" was planned for after the national anthem.

It's great to see the attention that Mike and James are getting in death, and I hope the fundraising efforts can provide both men with a dignified funeral and resting place. But it is also a stark reminder of the problems of the city that they fell into the cracks to begin with -- forced to make a living through the handouts of fans coming to see the Tigers and Lions.

They found a unique way of expressing themselves, and they will be remembered, unlike many of the other people living in Detroit with no safety net. Those people silently slip away without Facebook tributes or chants at sold-out baseball stadiums, lost in a city trying to save itself.

So please think about James and Mike and mourn them, but most importantly, remember everyone they represented while they walked into the night Friday, just trying to survive another day.

Mother Nature added a tribute of her own, as a bright rainbow broke out over the Comerica Park scoreboard during the storm that delayed the start of the game.

** Popular local t-shirt company Down With Detroit Apparel announced that they would be selling a special design with proceeds going to funeral expenses and homeless charities. **