It was 1989, I was 25 years old, and I'd just been granted my dream job, a reporter's position at Sports Illustrated. This was going to be the ultimate. I was an SI fanatic through my college years. poring through each issue, reading every word, clipping my favorite stories and filing them away.
I idolized SI writers as much as I idolized professional athletes as a kid. Peter Gammons. Steve Wulf. William Nack. Gary Smith. Craig Neff. I knew them all and studied their styles. When I got the job at SI, I could not wait to meet them face to face and pick their brains. And I did.
But one lunch meeting from 20 years ago stands out more than any other. It was a sit-down with E.M. ("Ed") Swift, a former Princeton hockey goaltender who could turn a phrase with the best of them. Ed wrote mostly about hockey and figure skating, but could really write about anything. What fascinated me about him, also, was that he was a former college athlete. In fact, one of my favorite Swift stories of all-time was a first-person story about tending goal for a horrendous (1-22) Princeton hockey team. While I can hardly call myself a "former college athlete" (unless a year of JV baseball at Carolina counts), I did consider myself more athletic than the typical sportswriter. I mean how many scribes can say they even practiced alongside guys like B.J. Surhoff, Walt Weiss and Scott Bankhead? Anyway, I couldn't wait to talk to Swift.
And I'll never forget what Ed told me...as soon as I referenced that Princeton story and the fact that I'd dabbled as a utility player at UNC. "In order to be any good at all as a sportswriter," Ed said, "You've got to forget just how hard it is to play. Wipe it from your memory."
Swift's point was, more than anythinng, that if I achieved my goal of writing at SI, I'd be writing about the best athletes on the planet...that they were expected to perform amazing acts in front of millions of fans...and I could not be sympathetic to their failures just because I knew what it was like to face a 90 mph slider ... or in his case, a 110 mph slapshot.
Twenty years later...I'm a writer for ESPN The Magazine, not SI (never elevated above reporter status there), but I've never really been able to heed Swift's advice. I've never, ever been able to overlook just how hard it is for professional athletes to perform at such high levels. Sorry, Ed, it's nothing against you (still think you're an amazing writer), but having grown up now in a house where one of my brothers (Scott) made it to the big leagues as a player and where another (Bob) has worked his way through the ranks to become the coach of the U.S. national soccer team, and where my nephew (Michael) has battled his way through Europe as a professional soccer player, it's just impossible for me to ignore how difficult it is (in Scott's case was) to play or coach at the highest level.
Maybe I'll just never be any good.
Or maybe I'll just have a different opinion than those who write or speak as if it's easy.