Was thinking earlier today that I’ve never written a post here about how I landed at Sports Illustrated.
Hence, this …
In 1996, I was covering high school wrestling for The Tennessean in Nashville. I’d started my professional career two years earlier, as the paper’s food and fashion writer, a match made in ludicrous hell. Eventually, after bouncing to music and cops, I made it to sports and, specifically, preps.
My guiding dream was to one day write for Sports Illustrated. Why, when I was 13 or 14 I actually promised my mother that, eventually, I’d be an SI staffer.
“It’s nice to have dreams,” she said, “but …”
“But you have to be realistic.”
You don’t understand, I told her. I WILL write for Sports Illustrated. I know it.
I probably first officially applied to the magazine, oh, a year into my Nashville stint. I wanted to do it right; to make an impression. Hence, I designed my cover letter to look exactly like one of those LETTER FROM THE EDITORs that occasionally appears up front. I used a photo of me, matched the font, began the note with, “When Jeff Pearlman first applied for a job at Sports Illustrated way back in 1995 …”
Shortly thereafter, I received a relatively standard thanks-but-no-thanks note from Stefanie Krasnow, the magazine’s chief of reporters. She told me they had no openings, but that my letter was well received and, if I’d like, I could pitch some quirky story ideas for a now-defunct section known as advanced text (namely, pieces that, based on regional advertising, only ran in some of the magazines). Stefanie didn’t have to ask twice. I sent in ideas, then more ideas, then more ideas. They were all rejected—too broad, too isolated, too this, too that. In short, I was thinking inside the box, not out of it.
Then—inspiration. Back when I was a sophomore at the University of Delaware, one of the editors at our student newspaper, The Review, had an idea. His name was Alain Nana-Sinkam, and he’d enjoyed a brief stint on the Blue Hens basketball team. Alain told us he wanted to apply for early entry into the NBA Draft, just to see what would transpire. I loved it! Alain loved it. Dan B. Levine, the sports editor, loved it! And yet … it never happened. Not sure why; just floated away.
So, a year later, I applied. I’d never played college hoops; just a single of unremarkable track and cross country. I sent in the letter, announced I wanted to turn pro—and received calls from Rod Thorn and other NBA officials. It was great, and I wrote a brief piece for the student newspaper.
Now, three years later, I mentioned it to SI.
Bingo! Stefanie said it was on the money. So did other editors. I was paid, I believe, $1,500 to write my first SI byline but, of course, I would have done it for free. It remains a genuine highlight; seeing my name (my name!) inside Sports Illustrated. Actually, not just inside—atop a story! Shit! Wow! Me!. Here’s the link.
Shortly thereafter, Stefanie’s replacement, Jane Wulf, called and said there were openings in the bullpen (where the reporters worked). Would I be interested?
She called again, a few weeks later, and offered me a position.
I sat in my den, in my apartment, and cried.
Then I called my mother.