Excerpted from "The Best American Sports Writing 2015," edited by Wright Thompson and Glenn Stout with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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Check out Wright Thompson's and Glenn Stout's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.
Introduction by Wright Thompson
The first entry in this book is a profile of an aging football legend, Y. A. Tittle, written by my best and oldest friend, Seth Wickersham. It’s a story about time, and about what a young man wants and what an older man gets, and about the relationship between the two. It’s my favorite piece from last year, and reading it, along with the other stories I chose, takes me back 15 years, when Seth and I were both students at the University of Missouri, when we could only dream of writing something as sophisticated and nearly perfect as his story on Y.A. We had a tight group of friends, and I often think about how much fun it would be to go back and be with them again. We all covered sports for the Columbia Missourian, led by our mentor and guru Greg Mellen, and our lives revolved around the stories we read.
I remember finding Gary Smith’s “Shadow of a Nation” and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. We recited openings: OK. Golf Joke...We begin way over there, out on the margin...Go with him. Go out into the feed yards with Jack Hooker...Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those. We searched out these stories, to read and study, but also to hold, more of a talisman than textbook. We dug through the archives of old Sports Illustrateds and Esquires, and Willie Morris’s Harper’s and Clay Felker’s New York. We read stories online and in the school library, speaking the names of the canon with a reverence that only college journalism students really understand: Gary Smith, Tom Junod, Gay Talese, Richard Ben Cramer, Charles P. Pierce, Rick Telander, Michael Paterniti. We read all of their work, and we also waited for the Best American Sports Writing to be released each year. We wanted to be in the book, yes, but more than that, we wanted to be part of the community of people trying to write the kind of stories that might end up in the book.
We formed an impossibly nerdy secular church with the classics of narrative nonfiction as our holy text. We’d sit around and argue: I remember a particularly intense fight at a bar called Harpo’s with my friend Steve Walentik over Junod’s profile of Michael Stipe. Steve and Seth, Justin Heckert, Daimon Eklund and Tony Rehagen, and so many others—we were a brotherhood who wanted something, and while that something seemed impossibly far away most of the time, the stories in Best American Sports Writing made it seem reachable.
We did bad Gary Smith impersonations and filed stories written in second person from the point of view of alcohol (uh, Seth) and game stories that began with imagining outfitting a food or drinks vendor with a tape recorder (ahem, Heckert). We wrote schmaltz and sap and saccharine, laced with over-the-top allusions to ancient literature—one defensive end was “a Grendel among the Danes” (sadly, me)—and we copied our heroes and tried to improve. We wrote awful stuff and one or two halfway decent things; the best story any of us did in college was Heckert’s profile of Missouri football player Jamonte Robinson, which I remember reading with fear, because I wasn’t capable of doing work like that, but now I had my target. That story inspired us to try to be as good as Justin. Seth got a job before any of us, at ESPN: The Magazine. He soon began talking of “narrative arc,” and he wrote a profile of Antwaan Randle El, the first one of us to actually have a national magazine byline, and suddenly there was a new target. We pushed each other that way, and when I look on my shelves and see my collection of the Best American Sports Writing books, I remember those friends and that time.
Glenn Stout asked me to write an introduction to this book, which I know many sports fans buy because they cherish the stories. I think of the book as something to be treasured by the many young writers, in college and in their first jobs, who want to create stories that people read and remember.
The work collected here offers many specific lessons. See how Seth constructs the Tittle story, or how Chris Jones evokes the emptiness of a house built for loud boys, a story about the Gronks but also about being left behind. Watch Dan Wetzel pull off deadline magic, or see Jeremy Collins channel Larry Brown or Raymond Chandler in his story about his best friend watching Greg Maddux. Wells Tower’s piece is a kind of literature, as is Flinder Boyd’s. Don Van Natta Jr. takes us inside the world of a famous and rarely understood man, which to me remains the most important skill in magazine writing: the profile. Rick Bass reminds us that a magazine story’s highest aspiration is to be a short story that is true. I see so much in these pages to emulate in my own work, little hints for making it better. For instance, the best profiles are of people who are going through something you are going through in your own life. Also, find the central complication in someone’s life and show through scenes how, on a daily basis, they solve it. (I stole that advice.)
When I first started reading The Best American Sports Writing, I imagined the book as sacrosanct, but now I see that it’s just one person’s opinions. For this edition, I picked what I liked. Here’s exactly how it happened. Glenn sent me a pack of maybe 70 stories, which he’d culled from the hundreds of entries he gets and collects himself. They were all printed without byline or headline, cut-and-pasted into a Word document. I began reading. If I finished a story without ever wanting to stop, it went into the yes pile. If I didn’t like all of a story, it went into the no pile. Everything else became a maybe. I was surprised by how many I’d never read before; my World Cup travel this past year evidently made me miss a lot of stories. I picked “Haverford Hoops,” written by Chris Ballard, without any idea who wrote it or where it ran.
I wanted a specific kind of story. Years ago, at some conference, I heard someone say they wanted “the stench of journalism” off their work, which I took to mean all those canned phrases and boilerplates that break the spell a writer is casting. I wanted stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and stories that not only told of a character encountering an obstacle and being changed by it, but also evoked some larger human condition. I picked some stories outside that definition because they made me feel, or see, something.
Being asked to edit this book was an honor, but it also made me realize how fast time goes and how far away I am from the sports desk at the Missourian. When I speak at college journalism schools, students inevitably ask me how someone gets my job. The truth is, I’m not sure how I got it. Since I had to write this essay as part of the agreement—a piece certain to read as narcissistic and self-involved—I’ve been thinking about the past 15 years and wondering about that question. The best answer I can come up with is that I’ve always been surrounded by smart people who believed in me: Greg Mellen at the Missourian, Colleen McMillar at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mike Fannin at the Kansas City Star, and so many people at ESPN: Jay Lovinger, who changed my life; Jena Janovy, Michael Knisley and Kevin Jackson, Rob King and Patrick Stiegman, the Johns (Skipper and Walsh), Paul Kix, Chad Millman, J.B. Morris, Eric Neel.
Mostly, though, I’ve been surrounded by a group of friends. Without them, none of this would have happened. We fell in together, pushing, pulling, helping each other, and hurting each other too—being there to read stories, sure, but also for funerals and weddings. At the risk of reverting to the schmaltz of the Missourian, I find myself thinking about them right now. The other day it was announced that Shakespeare’s Pizza, a block from the Mizzou J-School, was being torn down and rebuilt as part of some luxury apartment building, and while everything will be put back, nothing will be the same. Some spirit of the old place will be gone forever, another reminder of how fast things can disappear. God, I’m getting nostalgic and unbearable now, so I’ll wrap it up. One last story, if that’s okay.
I remember one night a long time ago, sitting with Seth at a bar in Columbia called Widman’s. It was the low point of my quest to write the kind of stories included in this book; I couldn’t get an internship or find a single person outside of my teachers and circle of friends who believed in me. I was desperate, and all these years later I realize that the stories I loved kept me going in the face of rejection.
I hope a story or two in this book does the same for you. I hope that in 15 years, when one of the people reading this book is suddenly its guest editor, you’ll be able to pick your best friend’s story, a masterpiece about the inevitable march of time. Maybe you’ll take a moment while writing a short essay to think about how fast it all goes, and how it feels like just yesterday you read Gary Smith or Gay Talese for the first time and wondered if you too would ever find a Jonathan Takes Enemy or get close to someone like Frank Sinatra. I hope you enjoy these stories, and I hope they help you write the stories you dream of being able to write.