Leibo At Large: Marking the birthday of a lifelong friend

Birthday cake with three tiers and colorful sprinkles

We met in eighth grade English. He was the tall kid with the dirty blond mop parted in the middle and feathered back. I was, unsurprisingly, the class wiseass.

A couple of Stoli and OJs into a night out, he’s still likely to bring up my most humiliating academic incident: that time in ninth grade when I submitted an essay copied directly from a book.

A book that was a No. 1 bestseller, and which our teacher happened to be reading at the time.

The detentions that ensued felt like the longest hours of my life.

But that was before adulthood, conference calls and endless meetings about details that in the end will never matter more than one simple fact: All of us are the sum total of the family we are born into and the family we choose.

And while blood and kin get the publicity—books, films, series on HBO—friendship is every bit as defining. Because when a day goes wrong or life swerves into some frightening skid, only a chosen few step up to serve as an ear, a guardrail, a hand to pull you up.

Family relationships can be complicated, fraught. Friendship, I’ve found, is decided less so.

At least with the man I am writing about today, the guy who has spent much of his life being known only by his last name—Sugg.

Among those of us who have known him for 40 years, his surname has multiple applications: as a term of affection when you spend yet another night on his couch or as a profanity when you rushing to make a 7 o’clock movie and he is creeping glacially on what is known as “Sugg time.”

His friends will laughingly tell you about “another Sugg plan,” code for any event that involves military-style advance calibration to the minute, but which in real life bears utterly no resemblance to the plan itself, instead ending up in chaos—chaos that ends up more fun regardless.

Sugg has always been the connective tissue uniting my small posse of buddies.

His apartment is where we played video games at Florida State. He’s the friend who always had beer in the fridge and a working Nintendo, the fast talker who bargained with ticket scalpers if we road-tripped to an away game.

When I moved to Philly and New York for grad school, Sugg relayed the news from home.

Our 20s went by in a minute, our 30s even faster. He was the best man at my wedding, the first person I told about the divorce.

Then the same thing happened to him, except his relationship produced a daughter, a tall girl now 17 whose blonde hair is everything lush that her father’s maybe is not these days.

We don’t mention his hair anymore. It’s a Sugg thing.

He has been everything you could ask for in a parent, though there is no playbook for being a single father with primary custody. Braden, his girl, is smart, poised and funny, sassy and a wizard on horseback.

She has college in her near future, despite 2020’s best efforts to screw up all our lives. If the character of the child is a testament to the parents, then this is one Sugg plan that worked out exactly as scripted.

Mike Sugg turns 55 today, and I’m proud of the man he has become, the friend he has always been.

In a better world, you’d read about in all the newspapers instead of the thugs who grab the ink. Even so, you read about it in this newspaper, and that is a Sugg story I am proud to have written.