We can never know with certainty how or why our connection with a stranger turned into something neither of us foresaw. Think about all the encounters you’ve had over the years, the people you’ve met on the way to wherever you were going.

Some of them are utterly forgettable;  some touched you in ways you can’t begin to imagine. The latter’s particularly so when the encounter has been with somebody so much younger than you. 

That’s how it was with me and the young man who now calls me his “best friend.” I call him the same thing.

We met at a journalism convention in Philadelphia in 2009. Nick, 19, was a rising junior at the University at Albany; I was a laid-off sportswriter who was looking for my next gig. We met through sports columnist/radio host Rob Parker, a friend from years back. Rob made the introductions.

In the helter-skelter of conventions, Nick and I chatted briefly. He had to run – so did I – but he handed me his business card. I promised I’d contact him once I got home. I never thought the exchange of information would turn strangers from a corridor into friends.

Two years later, deep into our mentor-mentee relationship and three or four months before he graduated, Nick wrote this:

I truly credit all the great things I’ve done so far to you, J. Yes, I have to put in the legwork, but that legwork wouldn’t have been possible without you. At all. 

I don’t care what you say regarding me finding out about these things somehow, but you opened some doors such … that I didn’t even know existed.

You’re an amazing person. So that’s why I chose to write about you as my inspiration to pursue sports journalism. 

Words like his remind us, as our twilight years grew dimmer, the influence we have when we decide to use it. Young adults reach out to us, but we can often wonder if we tried hard enough to reach back.

That’s not easy to know, and maybe we can only find the answer by seeing what reaching out has brought us.

For me, it’s brought a brotherhood that’s rolling into its second decade. I’ve ridden the highs and the lows of Nick’s journeys, and I’m thankful that his highs have been far more frequent — and longer lasting — than his lows.

Nick’s deeper into his adulthood now, and his life continues to spring surprises. Nowadays, he’s not the fledgling journalist of his college days; he’s an actor, a man a little less than a year away from 30, a black man who’s accomplished a lot and seen the world.

He’s allowed me to tag along on his journeys.

I never expected that from the five minutes Nick and I shared in Philadelphia. I never listened for him to say the words “best friend” but then, at some point, realized he’d attached them to me. But who ends any chance meeting with expectations that might or might not be fulfilled?

I doubt I’ll be here for Nick’s golden years. If I am, I’ll be an absent-minded codger; I’ll be too fragile of mind and body to appreciate how he’s doing as he moves deeper into his life. I won’t, however, be too old to care.