Behind Two Long Stories

Willie Williams now.
Willie Williams now.

As a journalist, today was pretty cool.

For the first time in my life, I had two 7,000-plus word articles appear in two different places. My profile of Willie Williams—the former high school football phenomenon-turned-Miami Hurricane-turned-prison inmate—ran on Bleacher Report, which now has me write one lengthy piece every month or so. And my profile of the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team—which followed the 1980 Miracle on Ice by placing (egad) seventh, ran on SB Nation. I put my heart and sweat and oomph into both articles, and figured I’d offer some behind-the-scenes insights and thoughts.

First, Willie Williams …

As part of my deal with Bleacher Report, the editors and I bat ideas back and forth before settling on one. Throughout my career, I’ve pitched, oh, 95 percent of the stories I’ve wound up writing. I prefer it that way. However, this has been incredibly refreshing and relaxing. My first Bleacher Report story—a look at the Jovan Belcher tragedy, one year later—wasn’t mine. And neither, truth be told, was Willians. But I’ve come to dig the process of taking something that didn’t emerge from my head and making it my own. So, as soon as I agreed to write up Williams, I dug and dug and dug through old clips, circling any name that might be worth contacting. For me, that doesn’t just mean family members and friends. It means old teammates, lawyers, people he accompanied on recruiting trips, coaches, associates, journalists who covered his high school and college careers. I developed a philosophy back in my days at Sports Illustrated that still works for me today: Namely, someone may well write a sexier/smoother/snappier story. But—with dogged reporting and interviewing—no one will write a more complete story. So I call everyone. Literally, everyone. Some call back, some don’t. But I always reach out.

Williams was particularly tough. As we speak, he’s a prison inmate in Kentucky, and I didn’t have enough time with this piece (roughly 2 1/2 weeks) to reach out to him, have him agree to a visit—then visit). Also, his family never returned my calls. Also tough. So I decided to focus on the diaries, and how they sort of led to the unraveling. The Florida trip changed his life—it truly did. His two major coaches at Miami (Larry Coaker, the head coach, and Randy Shannon, the defensive coordinator) refused to speak (hiding behind the predictably cowardly, “busy during recruiting season.”), but enough others did. The one regret I have: I didn’t get to delve into what it is to grow up in the inner-city, unstable environment and home life, and be thrown into the university setting. It’s dizzying and weird and extraordinarily hard. I missed on that one. Overall, though, I was happy with the piece.

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.55.23 PMSecond, the Olympics …

Glenn Stout, the awesome long-form editor at SB Nation, mentioned a few months back that he was looking for Olympic stories. I immediately thought of the 1984 team—my first real memory of Winter Gamer disappointment. I had been 7 in 1980, not really old enough to get what had transpired. However, by 1984 I understood the narrative, and the glee of four years earlier. I also grasped the heartache when the hockey squad placed seventh.

Glenn liked the idea, and I went to work. The biggest problem: I know little about hockey. I don’t get the blue line, or when to use a new line. I’ve attended, oh, four or five games in my life. It’s not my sport. That said, the story isn’t really about hockey. It’s about a team, and disappointment, and expectations. The first guy I interviewed with Lou Vairo, a wonderful man who chattered away. Even though he presented himself as carefree, you could tell the Olympics still chipped at him. As I started tracking down players, it struck me as funny how surprised they were by my call. The ’84 team? Who cared? So I went with that—”the team no one cared to remember” became my working theme.

I never got to speak with Pat LaFonatine or Chris Chellios—disappointing. But, overall, I thought it worked out well.

And now I need to sleep …