Photograph by Clint Blowers
It’s come to this, for Mike Rossi.
He’s a karaoke DJ at a bar on Old York Road in Abington. At first glance, the Kitchen Bar is all plate-glass windows and jaunty lines, something plucked out of The Jetsons. Inside, though — inside, it feels much more like a too-tired-to-go-home, off-the-highway stop to refuel, to get a drink. Or to sate a last-gasp bit of hope, in the form of singing karaoke on Thursday nights, with Mike Rossi DJ-ing.
Once upon a time, Rossi was a fast-rising local star. At 18, he hosted Dancin’ On Air, a local American Bandstand knockoff that lured some big-time guests back in the ’80s, including Madonna and Will Smith. That segued into radio gigs as Nancy Glass’s sidekick on Star 104.5 and stints on WIP and country station ’XTU; then, for many years, Rossi had a $200,000-a-year job as one of the area’s most sought-after wedding DJs. Not big fame, exactly, but a sweet local niche.
That’s all gone. Pushing 50 now, Rossi did hit the jackpot of fame two years ago, though in a couple of strange ways. He qualified to run in the 2015 Boston Marathon — the most prestigious long-distance race in the country — and decided to pull his nine-year-old twins out of school for three days to come to Boston with him. It would be fun; it would be educational. After the marathon, the principal at their school, Rydal Elementary in Montgomery County, sent Rossi a letter telling him the twins’ absences were unexcused. Rossi posted that letter, and his bristling response, on his Facebook page, and the dustup quickly went viral: He became an immediate sensation, his story appearing on the Today Show and local TV. The online reaction was largely along the lines of How dare they tell you what you can’t do with your kids and You go, Mike!
But things quickly turned in a different direction for Rossi when a local marathon runner smelled something fishy about how he’d gotten into the Boston Marathon. On a popular running website, the runner questioned the legitimacy of Rossi’s qualifying race in Lehigh Valley — essentially challenging whether he left the course and then sneaked back on — sparking an argument that quickly exploded across the running world. Suddenly, only a few days after he was the sterling dad taking on a bullying principal, Rossi became an online hit all over again, in the opposite direction — now he was a big-time liar and cheat. Mike Rossi has been adamant that it’s not true, but the running world seems sure: Rossi cheated his way into the granddaddy of all marathons.
Now, at the Kitchen Bar on Thursday nights — the sort of hopeful nights that were invented long before the Internet — Rossi is surprisingly game. It’s easy to make fun of karaoke singers, of course, and very hard to do what Rossi somehow manages: “We know we’re always going to get a good performance out of Sue,” he says enthusiastically to the crowd. Sue has just murdered Stevie Nicks. She’ll come back to lay the wood to Patsy Cline, too. Rossi, in tight jeans and a t-shirt — showing off a runner’s body — bops and claps and smiles and sings along. This is his job now. He embraces it, and perhaps it’s his escape. For a couple hours, Sue’s and Leo’s and Mark’s little fantasies of stardom are Rossi’s, too.
Because he’s got a problem that won’t go away. The cyberworld judgment of Rossi reaches everywhere, including the Kitchen Bar.
Not long ago, a group of guys rolled in late on a Friday night, the night Rossi is a straight DJ there, playing music. One of them had a question for him, about the Boston Marathon.
Boom! Things quickly got ugly.
Before the cops got there, Rossi had rolled around on the floor with a couple different guys. He ended up with a torn shirt and a bit of a shiner beneath one eye.
No charges were filed, because, the cops say, it was impossible to sort out exactly what had happened — whether Rossi was to blame or the guys had baited him and started the whole thing. Rossi did tell police that he knew some of the guys, in a manner. That he’d had Facebook and Twitter exchanges with them about the marathon.
A couple years ago, a writer named Jon Ronson published a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about social media’s power to pass judgment on a whole host of behaviors that once would likely have remained private. “Every day,” Ronson wrote, “a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or sickening villain.” Over a few days, Mike Rossi managed to become both, though it’s the second that has stuck.
Which means Rossi might remain a karaoke DJ at the Kitchen Bar for a long time.
Mike Rossi had been running for a few years — it was a natural way to chew up some of his Type A edge, to “tame him a little,” as one former co-worker puts it. He started getting obsessed; in 2014, the year before he ran Boston, Rossi entered 13 races, both marathons and shorter events. For any long-distance American runner, the Boston Marathon is the holy grail. It’s the world’s oldest continuously running marathon — dating back to 1897, the year after the modern event’s debut in the Olympics — and it’s tough to get into; in Rossi’s age group, the qualifying time of 3:25 isn’t elite, but it eliminates all but a tiny percentage of recreational runners. That means they’ll run with top marathoners from all over the world, on a day the city of Boston has made into something of a holiday. The Boston Marathon is the biggest single-day annual sporting event in America except for the Super Bowl.
Mike Rossi qualified for Boston by recording a time of 3:11 at Lehigh Valley’s Via Marathon in 2014. That was an hour and 15 minutes faster than his previous marathon. Which, experienced runners say, is an astounding — and unbelievable — improvement. But there were no questions then about his time’s validity.
When he went to Boston, Mike Rossi took a cameraman to film his run, and his wife and twins came along to take it all in. He ran the course in 4:01. When they got home, the Rydal Elementary principal, Rochelle Marbury, sent Rossi the letter:
I understand that your family recently took a family vacation. I want you to be aware that the Abington School District does not recognize family trips as an excused absence, regardless of the activities involved in the trip. The school district is not in the position of overseeing family vacations or evaluating the educational nature of a family trip. The dates that your children were absent were recorded as unexcused. An accumulation of unexcused absences can result in referral to our attendance officer and a subsequent notice of a violation of the compulsory school attendance law.
Rossi posted that letter, and his response, on his Facebook page:
Dear Madam Principal,
While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.
Our children had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or read in a book.
In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education.
They watched their father overcome injury, bad weather, the death of a loved one and many other obstacles to achieve an important personal goal.
Rossi went on in this self-congratulatory, put-upon tone for seven more paragraphs, then wound up with:
But I wouldn’t hesitate to pull them out of school again for an experience like the one they had this past week.
Thank you for your time.
The morning after he posted his letter, Rossi and his wife, Cindy, had a meeting with Marbury, the district superintendent and Raymond McGarry, the school-board head. McGarry couldn’t understand what the big deal was; he’d pulled his own kids out of school for family trips, received the same letter — a form letter — and tossed it in the trash. The state allows each district to set its own policy on excusing absences. The letter was essentially meaningless.
Not to Rossi. He was angry. And he was determined, McGarry says, “to see that this became a story.”
It already had, going viral on Facebook the night before. Marbury was getting nasty emails — she would quickly get hundreds, as well as calls at home — including threats that she would share with police. Rossi would do TV interviews and instantly become an Internet darling for a sort of libertarian stance against a bullying principal; at his day job at East Coast Event Group, Rossi strutted and preened. The natural showman was having his moment.
But something about Rossi didn’t sit right with a local runner named Ross Felice. Actually, Felice had had that feeling a year earlier, in 2014, after he saw the results of the Lehigh Valley Via Marathon. Runners are a finicky, proud, protective lot, especially long-distance runners. For almost all of them, running a marathon is the most demanding physical challenge they’ll ever endure. And for anyone to stoop so low as to disrespect that challenge by cheating …
Rossi lives near Felice, in Abington, but Felice had no idea who he was. High-end amateur runners also tend to be extremely competitive — it goes with pushing themselves to their absolute limits. So who was this guy? Felice wondered. He researched Rossi after the Via Marathon, checking his racing history at athlinks.com, and saw that the pace of his earlier races was slower than his 3:11 at Via. Way slower. Something wasn’t right.
But that was the end of it. For the moment.
Now, though, when the brouhaha with Rossi and the principal hit, in April 2015, Felice emailed a local runner friend: That’s the guy, the guy that cheated in Lehigh.
The two running buddies spent the next day and a half — such was the level of their obsession — going through the tens of thousands of photos taken over the entire Via race. Every runner who finished had been captured during the race — except Mike Rossi, who, Felice and his friend surmised, must have left the course and then sneaked back on close to the finish line.
Ross Felice was the first to post, on runnersworld.com, that Mike Rossi had cheated.
Two years ago, there was a horrific train derailment in Philadelphia; eight people were killed. One woman who survived intact made a serious mistake. She tweeted: “Thanks a lot for derailing my train. Can I please get my violin back from the 2nd car of train?”
The response on Twitter went like this: “Some spoiled asshole is whining about her violin being on that Amtrak that derailed. People died on that train.” And: “Fuck that little bitch and her goddamned violin. I would slap the fuckin’ taste out of her mouth if she was in reach.” Also: “Self-absorbed cunt.” And … much more.
Of course, this tone — direct and nasty — isn’t unusual in reaction to all kinds of things online. But it’s hard to understand how we got here — why the free and open exchange of thoughts and feelings is often so ugly. Which is why Jon Ronson traipsed the country researching So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. He went to Washington to talk to Texas Congressman Ted Poe, because Poe was a former judge infamous for giving sentences that publicly shamed the guilty. In theory, this method of punishment disappeared with the abolition of stocks and whippings in the early 19th century. Poe, however, once ordered a man to carry a sign once a month for 10 years that read I KILLED TWO PEOPLE WHILE DRIVING DRUNK; he would walk with that sign in front of bars and high schools.
When Ronson met with Poe, he thought he’d find some dark character out of Dickens. But something else entirely dawned on him, which Ronson shared with the former judge: “Social media shamings are worse than your shamings.”
Poe was surprised, because the point was so obvious. “They are worse,” he said. “They’re anonymous.” Poe pointed out that the justice system at least affords the accused certain rights: “You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”
Of course, that doesn’t explain the nastiness of so many online judgments, and when Ross Felice first raised a flag on Mike Rossi, the reaction was harsh. Letsrun.com, a website created almost two decades ago to promote running as a legitimate sport, fielded thousands of comments on a blog about Rossi — its biggest response ever. For example:
This man is an attention whore and anyone who writes that their child learned more at the Boston Marathon than they did in “an entire year of school” is delusional and arrogant.
Let’s get this cheating scum and take away his kids to boot!
Nothing better than watching a hobby jogger get REAMED for his own stupidity.
Not all the comments about Rossi on letsrun.com and elsewhere were ugly. Many runners went on something of a mission to analyze his qualifying race, digging into the numbers of his previous runs to determine whether the huge improvement in his qualifier at Lehigh was possible. Few thought it was. But runners kept looking, kept trying to figure him out, as if they were examining — as in this reaction to a shot of him at the finish line at Lehigh — crime photos:
I see a bit of a smirk and not a drip of sweat. Plus he looks like he just sat around at a coffee shop for an hour, not like somebody would look after running a 30 min. marathon [personal record].
There was plenty of advice as well:
I feel badly because I got a first impression he was so happy celebrating that Boston medal. It means nothing now, even less than zero. A sincere apology and the acceptance of it is the only way, the right way. When his kids grow up they need to see this is what happened. Send the medal back. …
And, occasionally, a rousing bit of support:
Mike Rossi may not be YOUR definition of a hero. And frankly I don’t agree with all his actions and past. That 80’s haircut on his site is not cool (LOL). But to many of us, he is our definition of the everyman who conquers something bigger than all of us!
The first response to that one was:
Such poetic garbage. I just threw up a little in the back of my mouth! Mike, you at Starbucks where you could use a different IP address?
There is no evidence that Rossi was coming to his own defense, but if he was, it was a shift in tone for him. Because his go-to attitude online is generally not so sunny.
It turns out Rossi, too, can’t keep his fingers off the keys of fury. He keeps popping up on Twitter and Facebook. It’s like Bad Mikey appears. When he’s called out, he doubles down. Which only fuels the viral war.
Local TV meteorologist Cecily Tynan, a devoted long-distance runner, found it odd after the Boston controversy that Rossi wouldn’t jump at the chance to collect $100,000 he was offered by the letsrun.com founder to replicate his Lehigh time of 3:11. She and Rossi spoke directly — and calmly, at first — through Twitter about the Lehigh race:
Tynan: @mikerossi22 trying my best to give you the benefit of the doubt, you didn’t talk to anyone along the course? About pace? At a water stop?
Rossi: @CecilyTynan I’m sure I did. But not more than a “thanks” to the volunteers. I don’t typically get into conversations when I’m trying to BQ [Boston qualify].
Then Tynan edged closer to an accusation:
@mikerossi22 I’ve been running for years and your story is certainly an original, to say the least. But, if that’s your story, go for it.
That’s when things got weird. Rossi tweeted:
I wish I had a job where I only had to be right 50% of the time. And in case I wasn’t clear before, I didn’t cheat. Now go stare @ the sky.
His tone then got nastier, not so much to Tynan as about her:
It’s amazing how someone with ZERO integrity can be so loud … #homewrecker
That was apparently a not-so-veiled reference to Tynan being on marriage number two. There were more tweets from Rossi’s account:
You don’t know a damn thing about me. But we know about you. #ho
Tynan, like Rossi, has a vacation home in the Poconos, which one Rossi tweet seemed to reference (along with her house number in the place where his profile photo would be):
Can’t wait 2 spend some time at our Pocono home this winter. Do some skiing (hopefully). You never know who u may run into on the slopes!
And then, a posting on letsrun.com, within the long run of comments concerning Rossi:
Cecily will not know what hit her. Literally.
There’s no evidence that comment came from Mike Rossi, but it was the one that got Cecily Tynan alerting 6 ABC management that Rossi may have threatened her.
Mike Rossi was apparently not going to take his online lambasting lying down. But unleashing his fury — especially at Tynan, who is TV royalty in Philly — makes social media a double whammy of trouble for Rossi: It’s a place for his critics to attack him, and then for his own worst impulses to come boiling through.
When I hit the Kitchen Bar on a third Thursday in early January and settle in at my high-top just off the bar for a chicken Caesar, he waves and smiles, as if we’re buddies. Mike Rossi and I had lunch a few days earlier, at an Iron Hill in Huntingdon Valley. I told him I wanted to know what it’s like to be him — that is, so vilified online, his character indicted publicly. But Rossi, polite and distant at lunch, brushed off that notion — what has he done to feel ashamed about?
Tonight, while a singer named Dexter is pounding New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain,” Mike comes over. I ask how he’s feeling; at Iron Hill, he came in wearing a baseball cap and wrap-around shades, his face blotchy with a winter cold.
“Better,” he says. “I was sick for 10 days. I gave the cold to my mother, though.”
“That’s too bad. How old is your mother?”
“Mine’s 91. Still doing pretty well.”
“God bless her. I had an uncle who lived to 104” — suddenly he breaks back toward Dexter, who’s hitting the final “I know I’ll be right there, baby yeah … ”
“That was beautiful, Dexter,” Rossi tells some 25 drinkers and singers.
A hail-fellow-well-met is Mike Rossi, giving the wannabes and drunks and tone-deaf their moment. He’s good at it, which is something colleagues who’ve worked with him on the DJ circuit over the past three decades verify. But a pretty dismal picture of what Rossi is like behind the scenes emerges from half a dozen former co-workers, especially those who had to deal with him regularly at his day job at East Coast Event Group. (Rossi declined to comment about specific allegations.)
“You never knew which guy you would get when he walked through the door,” Andrew Johnson says. Johnson, who worked directly under Rossi for six years, says as a boss he was demanding and driven; you never questioned his authority. Sometimes he was generous: Rossi gave Johnson boxes of books for his kids that Rossi’s twins were done with. Sometimes not so much: Once he sold Johnson an ink cartridge from a printer he was throwing away and then kept bugging Johnson to give him the full $75 for it. Johnson said Rossi would demean him, scream at him, call him a moron; the next morning, he’d be calm.
One day Rossi came into the East Coast office in Philly and started screaming at DJ Josiah Gassanja, kicking his chair. “Get out of the office or I’ll call the cops!” Rossi railed. Gassanja knew it was a respect thing — that Rossi sensed he didn’t buy Rossi’s own opinion of himself — and he rolled his eyes and stayed calm even as Rossi lost it: “Go on, hit me! Hit me! I’m going to call the cops.” Gassanja says he didn’t bite. Rossi called the cops anyway. They seemed unimpressed. The next morning, when Gassanja came to work, Rossi was calm.
He comes across as almost scarily mercurial, though he does have his fans. In the late ’90s, Rossi was Nancy Glass’s news guy on her morning show on Star 104.5. “He was a fun character,” she remembers. “I liked him. He’d make us all breakfast at 5 a.m. Later I had him DJ at my wedding.”
We may be on the trail of something here in understanding Rossi. He’s a natural performer, certainly, one who seems quite capable of being a jerk in the nitty-gritty of the workplace, or of attacking someone like Cecily Tynan online. Yet the viral roar against Rossi was based on something simpler, a single accusation: that he cheated to get into the Boston Marathon. For the online masses, no more was required for the pummeling to begin.
That night at the Kitchen Bar, as Rossi and I exchange bon mots about the oldsters in our families, he tells me that his stepfather died at 62; Rossi’s parents, I know, split up when he was quite young. “It was four months after the twins were born when he died,” Rossi says. Those twins — a boy and a girl, the ones he took to Boston with him when he ran the marathon — are 11 now.
Right about the age, one would think, of fooling around online, of Googling this and that, maybe their dad’s name. If they type “Mike Rossi,” they’ll immediately be greeted by “Questions Arise Over How a Pennsylvania Dad Qualified for Boston … ”
It wasn’t just with Cecily Tynan. Mike Rossi appears to have picked a lot of fights online.
Tony Rigdon is a triathlete in Missouri who was laid up with a herniated disk in 2015. He first heard about Rossi’s stand against his kids’ school principal on talk radio; he thought Rossi’s letter was awesome. Then, trolling through letsrun.com, he discovered Rossi again and was immediately hooked.
“What do runners do when they don’t run?” Rigdon posits. “They think about running.” Like Ross Felice, Rigdon gets fired up over the purity of competition, as if somebody cheating is a personal affront to him, and he quickly used the Internet to right the injustice, converting all the Lehigh race photos — with Rossi not in any of them — into a YouTube video. Which is when Rossi apparently went off on him.
Rossi’s account on Twitter showed a picture of Rigdon from his hospital bed after he’d been hit by a van in ’06 — “Rossi had to really dig through my Facebook page to find it,” Rigdon says — with a cut-up face and broken teeth. And then there was this: a clip from the film Taken of Liam Neeson on the phone with the man who has abducted his daughter, along with Neeson’s threat: “I will find you and I will kill you.”
Mike Rossi seems to make the assumption and mistake a lot of people do: He lets it rip online as if he’s having an argument in a bar. Where nobody gives a shit. Where he can just wing it and see what happens.
Craig Sumsky, who owns Cutting Edge Entertainment, another events company, used to work with Rossi at East Coast back in the ’90s. “I’ve watched him overreact on social media for a long time,” Sumsky says. “If somebody doesn’t like the Phillies, it’s ‘You’re a fucking moron.’ Whoa! Put down the sledgehammer!”
But Rossi can’t, Sumsky says. He can’t resist the urge to react, to go on night patrol to vanquish dimwits or enemies. As if something comes over him that he can’t stop.
The ugliness being so public does bother Tony Rigdon: “At a certain point, you hate to see his family have to put up with his shenanigans.” He says he’d happily have a beer with Rossi — if, that is, he’d admit to his marathon cheating. Runners and non-runners alike keep going back to that bottom line — that Rossi is reaping what he’s sown. “If not for his cheating, anger and vindictiveness,” Rigdon says, “he’s probably a pretty decent guy.”
Last summer, Rossi was arrested for defiant trespass in a parking lot outside the Linc before a Kenny Chesney concert. According to police, he’d been asked to move several times by stadium staff and refused to. After Rossi’s court hearing in July — in which he opted for a summary diversion program that would expunge the arrest — a Philly Mag reporter asked him if he was Mike Rossi. “No,” Rossi said.
That’s absurd enough to make you feel sorry for him. (A court officer confirmed that he was, indeed, Mike Rossi.) It’s as if he doesn’t understand that now, every time he messes up, there will be questions.
In September, Rossi was fired by East Coast Event Group, which has led him, naturally, to attack the company on his Facebook page: “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be free from slimy people and a toxic environment.” And some of his old colleagues have been hammering him in response.
All this ugly back-and-forth on social media really begins to make you wonder: What is it that we’re after? What, in other words, is the endgame here? It’s clear that Rossi is a difficult guy. And that makes it all the more likely that his fate is sealed as cyber roadkill — if he’s a jerk who refuses to come clean, doesn’t he deserve whatever happens to him in the judgment of social media?
But let’s back up to the original crime: He’s a guy who may have cheated his way into a marathon. What’s the appropriate punishment for that?
A couple months ago, Rossi emailed Robert Johnson, the co-founder of letsrun.com, with an offer: He’d grant Johnson — who had been so sure Rossi cheated his way into the Boston Marathon that he’d offered that $100,000 to replicate his low qualifying time — an interview if Johnson would take down the endless thread against Rossi on the website.
Johnson can’t decide what to do. Would Rossi confess in an interview, or just keep denying? What, he wonders, would be the point of an interview if Rossi still refuses to come clean?
So here we are. The running crusaders are as stuck as Rossi, because they can’t let go. And they’re much more powerful. The vigilantes have gotten their pound of flesh in the form of moral righteousness, and Rossi is left hanging in the public forum they chose.
Which is sad. Given how the Internet has grown into a sort of ubiquitous judgment machine, we might give some thought to how ultimately limited it can be. Villains and heroes. Black and white. It’s awfully simple, in the stark lines of those judgments we render. How, I wonder, does someone like Mike Rossi ever manage to get past that?
I go to the Kitchen Bar one more time, in mid-January, to see whether Rossi got fired for the late-night fight the previous Friday. But there he is, still DJ-ing, and still going at it with brio: “LIN-da! Linda’s gonna do a little Bonnie Raitt.” (Rossi recently got hired by VIP DJ Entertainment in Coatesville.)
This night, as I down a tasteless shrimp cocktail at a high-top, when Rossi comes near me to schmooze the crowd — near enough to touch me — he won’t even look my way. As if I don’t exist.
I know why. We’ve had a couple email exchanges after our lunch, and he thinks I’m with all of them. The online lynch mob. That I want to ruin his life.
Or perhaps it’s that this tactic, of silence, of simply carrying on, is all he’s got left.
At least for this moment, he doesn’t seem to need anything. Big Bear, who is six feet, eight inches tall and well north of 300 pounds, is singing Kenny Rogers’s “Lady” — singing it well, in fact — and Mike Rossi’s eyes are closed as he smiles and sways, oblivious.
Published as “Marathon Man” in the March 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.