When I went to college in the late 90s, I wrote for the school newspaper. We only published one issue a month, but I poured all my energy into my articles and editorial columns, obsessively re-writing and polishing them late into the night, while guzzling Surge and eating bacon sandwiches from the gas station. I focused on the school newspaper with such single-minded passion that I neglected all my real classes … and therefore I flunked out.
After the college politely told me to go away, I started working at a potato chip bag factory, helping a man named Big Dan operate a giant machine called a laminator. The job wasn’t very complicated. I spent most of my time cutting sheets of plastic with a dull knife and prying lids off glue barrels. But Big Dan’s moods varied wildly from one minute to the next. Sometimes he danced and sang. Sometimes he burst into fits of rage, screaming at me and showering my face with drops of spittle. Every day, I dreaded Big Dan and his volatile mood swings.
Desperate to escape from the potato chip bag factory, I begged the local newspaper to hire me. I also drove to the surrounding towns, begging the newspapers there for a job. I wanted to write for a living. I told editors I would be happy to sit in a spider-filled basement and type obituaries as long as I could get out of the factory and squirm into the newspaper business.
Finally, an editor in a nearby town (a town I had never visited before my begging tour) said he needed a sportswriter. He asked me if I knew anything about sports. Smiling and fidgeting, I said, “Um, well, no, not really. But I would be happy to learn!”
Thus I began working as a sportswriter in January 2001. I wasn’t just a sportswriter … I was the only sportswriter at this particular newspaper.
I was also the sports photographer and the guy in charge of page layout. I covered the sports page with lots of pictures (big pictures) since my articles were so short and meager. At first, my stories only contained the final score, the names of the players who scored the most points, and a quote from the coach. Whenever I asked the coaches for their thoughts about the last game, I wrote down everything they said. Their terminology baffled me, but I nodded enthusiastically and pretended I knew what they were talking about.
I grew better over time. I learned that “PAT” stood for “point after touchdown.” I learned that a baseball team scores runs, not points. I learned to park my car as far away from the field as possible. I also learned a wide vocabulary of terms from Sports Illustrated and big newspapers which I incorporated into my own articles. For example, when a football team scores a touchdown, it’s better to say they posted a touchdown … or they lit the board … or they chipped away at the other team’s lead. These punchy little expressions fascinated me. The language was far more interesting to me than the games themselves. I never became an expert on sports, but I learned how to sound like one.
I loved and respected the athletes and the coaches and the work they did … but I never truly became a sports fan myself. I did become a devoted fan of the sports language, though.
I don’t work at the newspaper anymore, but I do like to listen to sportscasters on the radio sometimes. When I hear them throw around expressions like “lock horns” and “square off” and “buzzer beater” and “wild card,” it almost makes me want to go back to work at some seedy little newspaper office and bang out stories about games.
But not quite.
My new novel, Citizens of Purgatory, is based on some of my ridiculous experiences in the newspaper business. It’s available in paperback on Amazon. You can click here to order a copy.