“A Life After Wide Right” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 24)

I’ve always felt in awe of field goal kickers at any level, when the game comes down to a final kick, the hopes of both teams hanging on the outcome of the swing of their leg. It’s hard to imagine the pressure they face, knowing that a thousands of fans are watching in the stadium, and, in college or the pros, millions more on television. One foot to the left or right… one yard longer… and everything is different. Hero or goat, decided in the smallest details: the wind, the angle of the ball, a tiny difference in the point of contact with the ball.

Scott Norwood misses a potential game-winning field goal at the end of Superbowl XXV

Photo by Phil Sandlin / Associated Press

Perhaps no one knows this better than former Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood, who missed the potential game-winning field goal in Superbowl XXV. His miss from 47 yards out is legendary. An article on NFL.com called it “the greatest choke in NFL history.” A Life After Wide Right by Karl Taro Greenfeld in the July 12, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated, examines Norwood’s life before and after that infamous miss.

The first thing that jumped out at me with this story is that it is mostly written in the present tense, which give everything a sense of immediacy. Each step in Norwood’s career feels invested with a urgency.

Structurally, the story starts at the end, showing the reader where Norwood is now, what he does for a living, and the notoriety he still carries with him. But then the narrative jumps back to the start, and we get to understand what it took for Norwood to make it to the Superbowl at all. Just to make an NFL team once seemed like the long-shot dream:

Every off-season, Scott comes home to Annandale. After every year at James Madison University, where he earns a football scholarship. And then, after he graduates with a degree in business in 1982, and Del and Scott blanket the NFL with videotape, and after he signs with the Atlanta Falcons—and is cut. After an upstart league called the USFL is formed and he wins a job with the Birmingham Stallions and kicks 25 field goals in ’83. After he tears some cartilage in his knee in his second season with the Stallions and is released. After successes and after failures, he comes back to work out with his father at the same old high school field. They never speak of what it feels like to be cut by an NFL team. Or how it feels to drive from Atlanta back to Fairfax County in the light-blue Riviera and move back in with your folks. Or what it is like to be a guy a few years out of college still practicing field goals with your dad. They never talk about how life isn’t fair, or how, no matter what happens, you keep showing up. Del will occasionally express displeasure with, the Falcons for cutting his son, or with the NFL or USFL for not appreciating what a good kicker they passed up. And then Del and Scott will jog down the field to retrieve the half-dozen balls and stuff them into the sack and drag them back upfield and set ’em up again, five yards deeper. And when Scott’s knee heels, they don’t talk about how excited they are when the Bills invite him to camp. He is one of 10 kickers they’re bringing in. That doesn’t matter, Del tells him. You just keep showing up.

The weather in Buffalo drives other kickers mad, but it suits Norwood. The wind, the cold, the rain, the spartan practice facilities. But Norwood has been through worse. He’s been cut, injured and overlooked, and compared with that, kicking in rain or a harsh wind blowing from the north is almost a pleasant diversion. He’s comfortable with the elements, and from his career as a soccer player he knows how to control the ball in inclement weather, to keep it down in the wind, to improvise. The other kickers are cut, one by one, and finally Scott shows up and looks around the locker room one morning and he’s the last kicker left.

All of this backstory isn’t just there to flesh out the narrative; it shows the reader what shaped Norwood, the adversity he overcame, and why that all of that would help him cope with the experience of being viewed by millions as a Superbowl choker.

The story shows us how his wife felt the moment the kick sailed right, what his coach said to him, and how his teammates tries to console him, and what it was like when members of the media mobbed him in the locker room:

Then the reporters are let into the locker room. They’ve rarely bothered to speak with Norwood. But today, of course, he is trapped in the incandescent TV lights and on the business end of three dozen microphones. His special teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, stands by him as he answers every single question from every single reporter. He will stay in the locker room a full hour after most of his teammates have gone. How does it feel, Scott? Were you nervous? Did you feel like you hit it good? What are you going to do now? What do your teammates think? How does it feel to miss that kick and lose the Super Bowl?

DeHaven asks him every few minutes, “Have you had enough? Do you want me to get rid of these guys?” And Scott shakes his head and replies, “I think I owe it to the fans to answer some questions.”

Sports psychologists will tell you that openness is the first step to healing from this sort of loss. They use words like process and grieving and cleansing, but Scott just sees it as his duty. His father would simply call it showing up.

Greenfield then shows us Norwood’s life after football and how that miss haunted him for a long time. The reporting here is excellent, because it’s not Norwood saying much about how it affected him, but the the observations of his brother Steve and his wife, Kelly:

Scott seeks to put his business degree to work selling insurance, mortgages, annuities and trusts. It’s hard work, especially the cold-calling, having to dial his way through a list of phone numbers every day and say, “Hi, I’m Scott Norwood, and I have a great opportunity today for you to take care of your family.” It takes weeks and months of cajoling to get a prospective policy buyer or annuity purchaser to write that check. For the first time in his life, he finds that just showing up isn’t enough.

Everywhere they go, to movie theaters, to doctor’s offices, to restaurants, Scott knows what everyone is thinking: He’s the guy who missed. “I would try to talk to him about other things,” Steve says, “but you just knew it was on his mind.”

“I saw him working through it,” says Sandra. “He would come and tell me, ‘This is real tough for me, but I’ll get through it.’ And we would all tell him, ‘Scott, it’s football. There are other things out there in life.’ “

In sports movies, the hero often has a second chance, an opportunity at redemption on the big stage. Real life isn’t often as tidy. Norwood’s life after that famous missed kick is less cinematic, but Greenfield provides a satisfying epilogue.

For many sports fans, Scott Norwood exists mostly as a trivia answer. But Greenfield’s profile reveals the a rich personal story behind the man and helps us understand what he learned after missing the biggest kick of his life.

Read A Life After Wide Right →

“Walking His Life Away” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Eleven)

A year ago, a good friend send me a copy of Gary Smith’s book, Going Deep, a collection of his longform articles from Sports Illustrated. Smith is a masterful writer who mostly covers sports.

But that’s misleading: he writes about people.

Some are pro athletes; some never make it to college. He writes about the biggest champions of the game; but also about people whose dreams of glory and fame never arrived. He gets to the core of the people he writes about, brings them to life for the reader. Sports is the underlying string that winds through most of his stories, but ultimately he writes about men and women and the challenges they face in life.

Albert Heppner

Until today, I hadn’t read Smith’s “Walking His Life Away,” published in the July 26, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated. I wasn’t familiar with Albert Heppner, the athlete profiled in the piece, and wasn’t sure I’d be interested in a man’s dream of Olympic walking glory. But once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

One thing Smith does right away is to directly address the fact the Olympic Walking is a sport that most of us laugh at. Smith puts it all down there on the page, then shows us why we should care:

The walkers assembled for the 7:30 a.m. start. They’d all long since made it to the other side of mirth and disdain. They’d all had seven-year-olds follow them and ape their pumping arms and swaying hips. They’d all heard 20-year-olds barrel by in rusting cars and scream Fag! at them on country roads. They’d all shed their need for the world’s approval, attuned their ears and hearts to an inner voice. Except for one.

Al stood out. He was the 5’8″ pied piper of race walking, the 29-year-old with the munchkin’s cackle who was loved by everyone in his fringe fraternity. The one so loud that other walkers would remind him to use his indoor voice. So vulnerable that he’d sob on a stranger’s shoulder after being disqualified from a race. So exuberant that he’d end up on the dance floor at a postrace party, his shirt soaked, juking like no Jew ever juked, encircled by people chanting, “Go, Al! Go, Al! Go, Jiggy!” Rabbi Jiggy. That was just one of his nicknames.

A big reason this story is so powerful is that Smith brings Heppner to life. The story is loaded with stories about the man and his personality. Consider this short paragraph from early on in the piece as Smith talks about Heppner’s competitiveness and fire, and how he could often be a little too zealous:

Al’s competitive lust had cost him before. Once, when he was six and his father’s bike moved ahead of his, he’d pedaled so furiously that he’d pitched over the handlebars and broken his arm. At camp six years later he broke his arm again, astonishing counselors who had never seen a boy dive with such fury in a friendly game of Capture the Flag. Too many times he’d been disqualified from races because he couldn’t restrain his urge to go faster, faster, couldn’t keep both feet on the ground.

And as Smith describes Heppner in the biggest race of his life, he winds back a bit and dots the narrative with small stories about Heppner’s warmth, kindness, and vitality:

“Go, Al!” a fan screamed as the gun sounded and the walkers took off. Who wouldn’t root for him? He was the greeter at the gate, the man who popped up from his moonlighting post behind the customer-service desk at the training center dining hall and showed all the newcomers where to get their mail, their rubdowns, their grub, then helped them haul in all their belongings, thrilled to welcome one and all — Americans and foreigners, swimmers, skiers, shot-putters, shortstops — to the fantasy factory in the Southern California desert. He’d carry his lunch tray to the far table where a new arrival ate alone. He’d take the Honduran cyclist to the airport at 5 a.m., beg the outraged decathlete to make peace with the offending kayaker, concoct nicknames for them all. Hey, V-Dub! Big John Stud, my man! What’s happenin’, Apples? He turned his cramped dorm room into the campus lounge, the gathering place for field trips organized by camp counselor Al to the amusement park, beach, ball games, bars and dance clubs. He turned all these masters of abstruse and exotic athletic skills into the most unexpected thing: a family.

There are at least eight micro-moments in that paragraph, telling details that shape how we see him. It doesn’t take long for the reader to shift from casual interest to active empathy for Heppner.

Smith does a beautiful job intertwining two narratives: the story of the Olympic qualifier race, as Teppner’s fights to hang on to the lead, and the narrative of Teppner’s life and everything he and his family experienced to get to this moment. By the end of the piece, those two narratives merge, and the reader becomes one of those people on the sidelines, rooting for him, urging him on, trying to help him realize his life’s dream.

Read “Walking His Life Away,” →

Great paragraphs: “Mom let her be who she was”

One skill I’ve learned to appreciate is the crafting of really good paragraphs. Sounds simple, but great writers can craft a paragraph with something that lesser writers would use pages to accomplish. So I’m going to start noting and writing about examples of insanely well-written grafs…

First up, I noted this amazing graf in Gary Smith’s fantastic Sports Illustrated article on Bonnie Richardson, a high school athlete who twice won the Texas state track and field championship… by herself. In this paragraph, Smith is talking about how Richardson’s mother worked hard to help her daughter, but also gave her room to be herself. In about 200 words, we get a rich, narrative glimpse of Bonnie’s growth from toddler to high school phenom:

Yep, lucky Bonnie, because OmniMom let her be who she was: the four-year-old girl shooting a Remington at prickly pear cactus with Dad. The five-year-old climbing on a bucket to mount Snip and trot off with Dad to run the ranch. The seven-year-old scaling bluffs and building forts and diving into Onion Creek till the horn from Dad’s pickup called her to dinner. The eight-year-old rising at 4 a.m. to spend all day separating the cattle for weighing and shipping, and swallowing so much dust that she’d spit brown till tomorrow. The 10-year-old sobbing when the family moved from the 12,000-acre ranch where Dad worked to an 85-acre homestead that the Richardsons could call their own. The 12-year-old praying out loud with Lee when monster hailstones drummed their sports banquet and tornado sirens screamed—”Please, Lord, don’t let them find my dead body in a dress!” The 17-year-old in bulky camouflage shorts, pockets bulging with snacks and energy bars, who’d gone to school with the same six boys for so many years that she’d decided to defer romance till college and focus meanwhile on clamping them in headlocks in the hallways and flattening their right arms on the school’s picnic table during lunchtime arm wrestling.

In that one paragraph, Smith packs eight scenes; a narrative slide-show, rich with evocative details (brown spit; five-year-old Bonnie climbing on a bucket; camouflage shorts loaded with energy bars) that show us a lot about Richardson.

Great stuff. Read the rest here.

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Fine writing in unexpected places

One idea my instructors at Johns Hopkins hammer home is the notion that to be a great writer, you need to “read like a writer.” More and more, I see what they mean. I read newspapers and magazines differently these days, dissecting paragraphs and words as I go, noticing small bits of writing technique and style that work well.

Ty LawsonThis short Sports Illustrated article on the national champion North Carolina Tar Heels is a good example. I printed it out to read after my Tar Heels won the title, and finally got the chance to read it today. Unlike many articles written about the championship game, this piece by Tim Layden looks beyond the score and tells the story of North Carolina’s season and the different challenges faced by some of its key players. Layden crafts some deft bits of writing in this piece, like this:

On the afternoon of the championship game, Lawson was so nervous that he could barely touch his pregame meal of chicken, steak, rice and potatoes. But hours later he went out and devoured Michigan State with a game-high 21 points, eight steals and six assists, with just one turnover

It works well not only because it is witty, but because Layden did his homework to be able to describe, with detail, the meal Lawson couldn’t eat, and contrast it with his stats from the game. Structurally, he builds two lists of four items and runs them parallel to each other.

Layden also does a nice job blending direct observation and reporting with analysis. He shows scenes that lead the reader back to the outcome of the game:

By 11 the next morning Williams and his assistants were huddled in a private room at the team’s hotel, studying video. They cued up Michigan State’s emotional upset of Connecticut, breaking down the Spartans. They did this, as always, with the sound off. A day later they would silence the Spartans more forcefully.

It’s a small thing, but connecting the observation that the UNC coaches studied the game film of the Spartans with the sound down with the way the team silenced the crowd and their opponent the following night is clever. Layden didn’t just report the game like countless other sports writers; he told the story with narrative and metaphor. Just because an article is a sports story doesn’t mean it can’t be good writing. Layden proves that in this piece.

Read the rest here.

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