What An Opportunity

Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

Fighting fanhood as a journalist

In Sports on September 29, 2013 at 9:03 pm

I have a problem.

Sports are my passion. I was enthralled with the mere sight of a ball as an infant, and the love affair has been constant since.

The problem is not that I love sports – in fact, that’s a great thing, in my opinion. The problem is that most people who love sports are fans; I am, admittedly, a fan – I am also a journalist.

That is a clear conflict of interest.

I always need to be cautious of what I post on social media. No Facebook pictures tailgating at Buffalo Bills games; no tweets stating my allegiance to the Buffalo Sabres.

Truth be told, I was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y. It’s hard to not love the sports teams here, and I suspect many of the local sportswriters who grew up in Western New York face the same quandary.

With that in mind, I have covered both pro teams here, as well as the Buffalo Bisons and University at Buffalo, quite a bit. I have written many stories, and I’d like to think I have maintained objectivity.

People often ask me how to do that. How do you hide your fanhood, or not cheer in the press box, or not turn into a fan boy when you interview some of the best players?

The answer: It’s an acquired skill, but reporting on a game is a different world. When you’re a journalist, objectivity is everything. When I’m working for a publication that trusts me to be an objective journalist, you had better believe I’m going to honor that faith.

I’m also one of the youngest, if not the youngest, reporters covering every game I attend; I want to prove to the long-time professionals that I belong.

I can still enjoy watching Bills games on TV with my friends, but it’s an entirely different scenario if I’m covering one. I won’t be rooting, and you won’t see any fan-like opinions in my stories.

Your readers trust you to give the full story. You can’t do that if you’re partial to one team.

Grantland Flexed: Giraldi’s piece on Heath is astounding

In Sports on September 29, 2013 at 6:07 pm

grantland

Sometimes I feel like I’m living a double life: I spend most of my day in the intellectual realm of academia, coaching writers and evaluating scholars, and then head to my second home, which sometimes feels like the most shallow place on earth – the gym.

I became committed to weight lifting about five years ago, the first time I did the popular fitness program P90X. Shortly after completing the 90-day regimen, I joined a local gym and started hitting the weights with one of my close friends, who had been a serious weight lifter for a few years. The gym quickly became a way of life, and gripping cold steel became an enjoyable reprieve from every day.

I have a couple of friends who have gotten into serious bodybuilding. That’s never been for me, but I see the physical and emotional toll it takes on a human being; it’s intense. That’s why I particularly enjoyed this Grantland piece – Atlas Flexed: A behind-the-scenes look at Mr. Olympia Phil Heath’s 2012 defense of bodybuilding’s most important title, on the weekend of this year’s competition – and have declared it The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week (slams gavel).

Just what makes it so good? Glad you asked.

The full-disclosure method 

I was taught that you should never use pronouns like “I” or “me” in writing, but Grantland is no old-school journalism site; it’s modern, it bends rules in many of its stories, and all of it works. It is my favorite sportswriting website, so I forgive the disregard for traditional journalism rules that is sometimes prevalent in Grantland’s articles. In this case, author William Giraldi talks often about his own modest career in bodybuilding as a teenager, and it’s a vital addition.

It makes the story feel more personable, and frankly, some of his descriptions of Phil Heath would have sounded downright creepy if I didn’t know he had an eye for bodybuilding. Which ties into point number two…

The ludicrous-but-effective descriptions

Giraldi makes Phil Heath sound like a deity with his egregious accounts of Heath’s body. Let’s run down a few:

Heath’s arms are almost two feet in diameter and would make the good Lord run the other way in shame.

Heath looks suspiciously either of no race at all or else of every race on earth, a glorious global amalgam.

One marvels at his bubbled superhero form, at the faultless proportions of his mass, how it all jells and melds.

They’re preposterous analogies – making God run away in shame, really? – but the writing is so beautiful and creative, and Heath’s physique so preposterous in its own right, that it simply works here.

The compelling set-the-scene description of the gym 

If you’ve read any of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week before, you know how much I enjoy a well executed set-the-scene description. Giraldi makes us feel like we’re there with him and Heath in the gym as Heath rocks his wireless headphones and black baseball cap and others stare as he does military presses on the Smith machine (might I add, that’s a great exercise not just for safety but for isolating the shoulder muscle and attaining a solid pump) (NEVER FORGET).

Oh, and there was also this flawless piece of writing describing the gym: Everywhere the tall mirrors give the impression of spaces within spaces, of other rooms within other rooms to vanish into. The scent of rubber and oiled metal begins to smell aphrodisiacal.

The insight

As I mentioned, I like that Giraldi explained that he had a background in bodybuilding. With that in mind, it makes sense to us as readers why he can analyze Heath’s training and provide commentary on lifting like an expert.

What I didn’t like 

I’m being nit-picky here, but what is a thorough review without at least one suggestion for how the subject could have been improved?

Here is my one issue with this piece: Either the writer has an insane vocabulary (he might) or he used a thesaurus quite a bit. A few big words are OK, but I think words like “élan” cross the line from reasonably understandable to “what does that even mean?” I was taught that you don’t want to confuse your reader, and several of the dollar-fifty words in this piece had me perplexed; they felt unnecessary.

Who We Are

In Life on September 28, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Something incredibly enlightening happened to me tonight.

I spent some time in a group talking with two people that I hadn’t spoken to at serious length in quite a long time, and I came away from the conversation blown away by my own feelings. These two particular people are indelible reminders of my past – one of high school, the other of a past relationship – and I was flat-out rocked by the intensity of the emotions that talking with them conjured. No old flame was rekindled or new interest sparked; in fact, quite the opposite occurred. I was not enlivened, rather crushed. I felt very small. I felt unsure again.

You see, I got a late start on finding myself. I was homeschooled until the age of fifteen, an age when many have already become entrenched in their social niche and resigned themselves to it. I, on the other hand, was effectively a blank slate when I entered the world of high school. Even a tiny Christian high school, tame as a mouse in comparison with many scholastic monstrosities, was daunting to me. I had no sense of identity or place, so I tried to fit in everywhere.

May I endeavor to describe to you how miserably I failed? Senior superlatives came out in the yearbook a week before graduation, and while my classmates received humorous titles or creative labels, mine were “Biggest Tool” and “Most likely to kill a joke.” Seriously. Those are actually the two lines under my picture in the back of my senior yearbook. I’ll never forget the moment of reflection this led me to: “Well, those three years went well.”

Basically, those three years were all I had in my personal bank to define myself by. And that was how it ended… bankrupt. Time is an amazing teacher, though, and I have matured significantly since those days. I have found my identity and a well-founded confidence through my faith in Jesus and a great deal of personal growth, and I thought I was well past those high school feelings. But that leads us back to tonight. I was amazed at how I instantly time traveled during my conversation with these two girls. I literally felt like the person I was three, four, five years ago. I felt small and insignificant and flawed and guilty again. And that shocked me. But it proved a couple things to me. First, it showed me just how powerful our most significant feelings are. They never really die. So, be incredibly careful about how you make others feel. You may make them feel like I felt in high school; don’t ever do that to someone. And second, don’t ever let anyone make you feel small. You are significant, you are important, and you are incredibly valuable. Find your identity in that.

Stay strong,

Andrew

On concussions, and why I’m not sure I’ll let my kids play football

In Life, Sports on September 23, 2013 at 2:03 am
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Me hanging out with Zack (left) in a Boston hospital this past winter. I have a 16 (his football number) tattooed on my back. Inside the numbers is his favorite Bible verse: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

I have known what I should write about all week, but I have been putting it off. The topic is painful to address, and sometimes, if I ignore it, I can pretend it doesn’t exist.

Earlier this week, a high school football player from my area died after sustaining head injuries from a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game. His name was Damon Janes. Here is a column from The Buffalo News’ Bucky Gleason on how the Brocton community is handling the devastating situation: Hearts are heavy in Brocton as a community mourns Damon Janes.

This situation hit me hard; it hit me right in the stomach. Head injuries sustained during football games are a scary, scary thing. I learned that when I was 16 years old – the same age Janes was when he died. I was in high school and was at a bon fire with my senior class on a Friday night when a friend called.

“Zack is hurt,” he said. “It’s really bad.”

Just how bad, I had no idea. Zack McLeod, who my friend was referencing, is one of my dearest friends. We grew up together.

The year was 2008, and Zack was a star defensive back on his high school’s football team. That night, in a scrimmage, he dropped to the ground.

Zack suffered a serious brain injury from a hit in the game. He collapsed to the ground and had to be Mercy Flighted to the trauma unit at Boston Medical Center (he lives in Massachusetts). There was a blood clot in his brain and it was swelling.

The weeks that followed were emotional. He was in a medically induced coma for three weeks. Nobody knew if he’d survive, much less walk or talk again.

It has been a long road since then. Zack learned to walk again – though not perfectly – and put together a few phrases. Then he fell off his porch this past winter and hit the same part of his head he had injured before. He’s still fighting his way back.

He can’t speak very well – though he does the sign-language signal for “love” quite a bit – and an IQ test labeled him mentally retarded. What he can’t say in words he’ll express with high-fives and bear hugs. He can still type, and sometimes he’ll send Facebook messages. Here is the last one he sent me:

“Hey there aaron I beleoive and hope that our great great great god has been working incredible wonders In and out of thine ebeautful life Hey i .liove a dub you to The illestt littlee bit ovet ythere brlther bear”

When I look into his eyes, it’s hard to explain, but I just know he’s the same person. He understands everything that’s going on. He laughs at every joke. He’s there. He just can’t communicate very well.

I could go on for hours about Zack, and if you met him, you would do the same thing. He is legitimately the best person I know, and he is my inspiration every day.

But his life will never be what it should have been. It makes me angry to think about it. He was such a talented person and such a good person, too, and everything he could have done in life seemed to disappear after that football game.

Don’t get me wrong – he is still an incredible man, and he impacts people on a daily basis. He hung out with Tim Tebow before and after the Denver Broncos’ playoff game in New England two years ago. Everyone who hears Zack’s story wants to meet him, and with good reason. But all his athletic pursuits and all his educational and career possibilities – the chance of him living a normal adult life and supporting himself – were taken away because of a violent football collision.

That’s why I’m not sure I’ll ever let my kids play the game.

I love you, Zack. Rest in peace, Damon.

Jets best Bills, and Times’ reporting, as always, impresses

In Sports on September 23, 2013 at 1:15 am
Santonio Holmes

Photo by Ben Solomon for The New York Times

For this week’s edition of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week, I chose to review The New York Times’ game story on the New York Jets defeating the Buffalo Bills, 27-20, on Sunday.

Here is a link to the story: Jets Overcome Their Mistakes With One Long Pass.

It’s a thoroughly well written article – and well written on deadline (it is worth noting this story, full of analysis and stats and exquisite writing, was online before The News had any game story up) – though there are some strategies author Ben Shpigel employs with which I respectfully disagree. We’ll get into those later.

Let’s talk about what makes this article great …

Every stellar story – even a game story – starts with an extraordinary lede.

“The ball left Geno Smith’s right hand as if shot by an arrow. It landed on Santonio Holmes’s fingertips like a bird returning to its nest.”

These two sentences display excellent setting of the scene and imagery. The author could have simply said “Geno Smith fired a pass to Santonio Holmes,” but he put in creative imagery to make the scene come to life. Smith doesn’t throw the football; he shoots it out like an arrow with a precise destination – its nest. Holmes doesn’t catch the ball with his hands; he gently snares it on his fingertips. Who says you can’t get creative in a game story? There are two metaphors here in the lede. Great break-from-the-norm writing.

I was once told every lede should pass the “that was cool” test. This passes.

Every great lede ties into something bigger.

“So tight was the coverage on Holmes that the catch, which produced the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Jets’ 27-20 victory against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, strained the bounds of plausibility. Then again, much of what happened at MetLife Stadium did, too.”

I like this sequence because it makes it clear the Smith-to-Holmes moment means more than just those six points (though they were, of course, integral points). The play is representative of the day as a whole – that what you thought should happen, given conventional logic, and what actually happened in the game were two very different things. It was one of the strangest games I have ever watched, with flags and mistakes covering the field in abundance.

The ‘why does this game matter?’ explanation

“Three games into this season, already a theme has emerged for the Jets. As capable as Smith is of committing a mindless turnover – and he threw two more ugly interceptions Sunday, running his season total to six – he is just as likely to do something, anything, that sends a jolt of excitement rippling through the crowd and the Jets’ sideline.”

This is thorough analysis in a game story. I like that. It’s bigger than the nuts and bolts.

“The Jets were able to record an important divisional victory to keep pace in the A.F.C. East, a game behind unbeaten New England and Miami, because of a defense that pummeled Buffalo quarterback E. J. Manuel and a revived running game (182 yards, including 149 by Bilal Powell) and, most of all, because of that throw by Smith and that catch by Holmes.”

This sequence puts the game in perspective. ‘Why does this Jets win matter?’ one might say. ‘It’s only an early-season game between two young, struggling teams.’ Well, it matters quite a bit, actually, because it keeps New York close behind the unbeaten division leaders and shoots Buffalo to the AFC East’s basement.

The background information

“After their loss at New England on Sept. 12, the Jets had nine days to prepare for Buffalo. Nine days to prepare for Manuel and C. J. Spiller and the N.F.L.’s fourth-ranked rushing offense. Nine days to prepare for Mario Williams and Kyle Williams and a defense operated by the Jets’ former coordinator Mike Pettine, who last week said that he would be ‘a liar if I stood here and said this game didn’t mean more to me.'”

This paragraph goes beyond the game story. It stretches back earlier in the week and gives the reader some background knowledge on why this divisional rivalry was a little bit heightened this time around.

“Maybe so, but it also meant a lot to Ryan, who adores scheming against a rookie quarterback. Only once in six previous games had Ryan lost to a rookie (Russell Wilson of Seattle), and all week he exuded confidence that no amount of debriefing by Pettine could help Manuel overcome the pressure he would face Sunday.”

This paragraph is also important to provide supplemental information and let the reader know everything the writer knows.

The quality description

“A legal pad could not slide between their bodies.”

This is great because everyone knows what a legal pad is and knows just how thin it is. Putting the separation between defender and receiver in these terms, instead of leaving it at “Rogers blanketed Holmes,” makes the reader see just how tight the coverage was. ‘Wow,’ a reader might think, ‘that’s not very much space at all.’ Now it really makes sense just how incredible that pass was.

That’s concrete imagery and a veteran writing technique. Very well done.

What I didn’t like

“He spun around and scampered the remaining distance, about 25 yards, into the end zone. The Jets led by 20-6 after Nick Folk drilled a 34-yard field goal with 9:48 remaining in the third quarter.”

This seems like a harsh transition to me. It just goes from the scene of the catch, which occupies five sentences, to another moment earlier in the game. I understand there are spatial and time constraints, but this transition is perplexing to me.

“Buffalo took advantage of the Jets’ struggles, kicking one field goal and then another, before benefiting from what could be best described as self-destruction by Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson.”

I liked the analysis earlier, but I’m not sure I like this. It seems too opinionated to be in a game story. I like that the writer injects his voice, but I don’t like the opinion. I was always taught game stories should be objective. If this was a column, it would be a different story, but this is a game story. I’m not a proponent of subjective statements like this one.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Fantasy Football

In Sports on September 17, 2013 at 8:39 am

It’s that time of year again, the time when the NFL runs the world for five months. The league so dominates American culture that some estimates indicate that two-thirds of Americans watch the NFL at some point each season. If people aren’t talking about the crazy finish to last night’s game, they’re talking about their own fantasy football team; they might even be more interested in their fantasy team. In this case, to succeed in fantasy is to succeed in reality, and here are some “do’s” and “don’ts” that will help you procure your very own championship-caliber squad.

DON’T fail to study and fully understand your league’s intricacies.

Each fantasy league has its own idiosyncratic rules, rewards, and points system. Don’t miss your opportunity to study these closely to gain an advantage over your competitors. For example, if your league awards points for catches in addition to receiving yards and TD’s, then a possession receiver who catches 90 balls for 900 yards and 6 TD’s (someone like 2011-12 Percy Harvin, for example) may be just as valuable as a deep threat who catches 60 balls for 1,100 yards and 9 TD’s (like 2011-12 Vincent Jackson). The glamorous numbers will attract your less astute rivals, and you can gain the upper hand by noticing players of value who are available in later rounds.

DO look for the intangible traits that take a player to the next level of value.

It is easy to fall into the trap of ordering running backs by rushing yards and quarterbacks by passing yards, and never wavering from this list. But a vital component of fantasy success is finding hidden value. Having a running back that runs for 100 yards per game is good. But having a running back that runs for 90 and catches passes for 40 more? Now you’re talking. Similarly, while a quarterback who passes for 3,500-4,000 yards is awesome, a QB who can dependably add in a few rushing touchdowns is even more awesome. Noticing these intangibles will lead directly to fantasy success; when you see potential for points that others may miss, you can acquire the superior players that will take your team to the top.

DON’T overvalue a receiver who is transitioning from being a #2 option to becoming a #1 option.

Anticipating a breakout season from a newly promoted receiver is a common mistake, but make a commitment to yourself to avoid this pitfall. It is easy to think that receiving more attention from his QB is bound to increase his receptions, yards and TD’s. But in reality, the extra defensive attention that a top receiver commands will often offset any potential gains. In the mid-2000’s, Peerless Price and Muhsin Muhammad personified this reality. After seasons of 94 receptions, 1,252 yards and 9 TD’s for the Bills (2002-03 Price) and 93 receptions, 1,405 yards and 16 TD’s for the Panthers (2004-05 Muhammad), these receivers changed teams to become primary options for new QB’s. The seasons that followed were tremendously disappointing, with Price and Muhammad producing just 64 catches, 838 yards and 3 TD’s and 64 catches, 750 yards and 4 TD’s for the Falcons and Bears respectively.

DO take a player’s circumstances into serious consideration, looking beyond his perceived ability.

Good fantasy management goes far beyond name recognition. To achieve success, you must go deeper than drafting someone solely based on the fact that he had a good statistical season the year before; you have to account for all the circumstances surrounding him. For example, selecting a running back because he rushed for 1,200 yards the previous season can be an excellent decision in the right situation. However, if that running back’s team just drafted a “can’t miss” RB in the first round, or signed a high-profile free agent back, then your guy’s prospects for this year have suddenly become far less promising. Make sure that your analysis goes beyond the players themselves; a potential Pro Bowler is not much good to your fantasy team if he’s stuck playing behind a potential Hall of Famer.

DON’T overvalue players on winning teams, or undervalue players from losing teams.

Because the NFL’s winning teams receive so much more attention than unsuccessful teams, players on these victorious teams often receive undue fantasy consideration. In reality, the intelligent fantasy GM realizes that a team piling up wins may be extremely counterproductive for his personal interests. In a worst-case scenario, a coach may bench your best player in week 16 or 17 because their team has clinched everything and has nothing to play for, even though those weeks are your most important of the entire fantasy season. What a nightmare. But even if you do not find yourselves in these regrettable circumstances, understand that a player on a 3-13 team may be the key ingredient to your fantasy championship. Think about it; when teams are losing, they need to score quickly, so they throw the ball. This can create a great deal of (buzzword alert) hidden value, because a TD catch by your receiver with 3 minutes left in a 24-point blowout is every bit as valuable to you as another receiver’s game winner.

DO be active and aggressive on the waiver wire.

If the NFL is renowned for anything, it is its unpredictability. On average, 5 out of 12 teams who made the playoffs the previous year do not qualify the next season… thus the saying, “Any given Sunday.” As a result, analysts have great difficulty forecasting team results in the preseason with any kind of accuracy. In a similar way, fantasy experts often struggle to identify prime fantasy performers in the preseason. Know this going in; the best drafts do not always win fantasy football championships. The NFL is constantly evolving, even from week to week, and preseason predictions are often laughably off base. A key acquisition or two early on can make all the difference for your season. Do not get discouraged and think that you are stuck with those disappointing draft picks; keep your eyes peeled, and when you notice a surprisingly stout defense or a backup RB on a team whose starter just went down for the season, hit that waiver wire hard. Who knows what might happen? Yours wouldn’t be the first team to go from worst to first in a few weeks.

All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and NFL.com

Emotions flow freely, and so does Sullivan’s quality writing

In Culture, Sports on September 15, 2013 at 10:58 pm
EJ Manuel

Photo by James P. McCoy / Buffalo News

The Buffalo Bills won today, 24-23, in one of the greatest Bills games I have seen in the past decade. There were many things to write about – Fred Jackson’s clutch play, Mario Williams’ emergence (finally), Robert Woods’ impressive day, and more.

But Buffalo News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan picked the two storylines that were most compelling: EJ Manuel’s incredible two-minute-drill piloting and first win as a National Football League quarterback, and Doug Marrone’s first win as an NFL head coach. In addition to the “first NFL win” similarity, Manuel and Marrone also both had emotional moments after the game.

I can imagine it was a very powerful post-game press conference, considering there were tears involved. It takes a great writer to capture a moment – and a moment after a huge game, nonetheless – and put emotions into words. It takes a special kind of writer with loads of experience and perspective. A writer like Jerry Sullivan.

Jerry is one of the most polarizing journalists I can think of. People in Buffalo either love him or hate him, mostly because he is paid to be a cynic and critic.

I have had the pleasure of working with Jerry the past two summers at The News. I am not kidding when I say that when people I find out I have worked at The News, they almost always immediately respond with, “Is Jerry Sullivan an asshole?”

Here’s the answer: He is one of the most helpful, interesting people I have met in journalism. He is a very grounded man full of wisdom. He is a tough marshmallow. I genuinely believe he is as big a celebrity as there is in Buffalo, but he has never been too busy to offer me – an amateur college kid – writing advice or to just talk about life. I have never publicly praised him or his work in more than 140 characters, so I figured this Bills column provided a perfect opportunity to discuss Jerry’s writing in the second edition of The Best Sports Writing I Read This Week.

First, here is a link to Jerry’s column: “Emotions flow freely on a feel-good afternoon

It is also important to understand that the column was published at 8:51 p.m. Sunday. The game ended at about 4:30. The press conference and post-game interviews probably ended around 6. That means this wasn’t some grand work upon which Jerry spent days or weeks contemplating its strategy, wording, and execution; it was a hurried column he drafted in roughly two and a half hours.

And as for the actual writing, well, you’ll have to discover it for yourself. There is perspective, but there is also optimism. It’s tough to be an optimist covering Buffalo sports, and no one has been doing so as thoroughly as Jerry since 1989. The positive tone of his column (there’s even a paragraph that begins and ends – and this is an extreme paraphrasing – with, “This one feels a little different … we might look back on this as the day when the EJ Manuel era began, when he truly began to arrive as an NFL franchise quarterback.”) says something about the promise of the day, but it also says something about Jerry. He is not above simply enjoying the basic goodness of a beautiful day. He does not need to posture or create some crazy storyline.

Why would he? The storylines were right in front of him.

Doug Marrone was mourning the loss of a friend; EJ Manuel was celebrating the birth of his career and his father’s birthday. That’s pure, raw emotion that begs to be told. And the writing is pure, raw goodness.

I suggest giving it a read, maybe even checking out The Bucky & Sully Show on television, and perusing Sullivan’s work whenever you see his trademark photo in The News. You’ll always be wiser for doing so.

***

 Non-sports writing that I have thoroughly enjoyed this week:

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for Esquire, on “20 Things Boys Can Do To Become Men.” It’s as awesome as it sounds.

2. This life perspective article on “How to Get Flat Abs, Have Amazing Sex and Rule the World in 8 Easy Steps.” It’s not at all like it sounds.

Going to the dance

In Sports on September 12, 2013 at 10:08 pm

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I have never met another leader as effective as my freshman basketball coach, Seth Edwards. My friend Andrew already described him very aptly in this blog post: What makes a leader great? And I’m expounding on his story to provide my favorite sports memory of all-time.

When I knew him, Coach Seth was a mid-20s English teacher with a smooth three-point stroke, fiery temper and contagious passion for winning. He was a dominant guard in his heyday (we would often watch in awe as he rained jumpers while we warmed up), but these days he took to torturing high school kids – in a good way – and teaching them life lessons through the game of basketball.

I had no idea what I was in for.

The best sports memory of my life came in 2006, my first season on the varsity basketball team and the only one I spent under Seth’s tutelage. Our team finished 2-17 that year after the squad had won two league championships in the three previous years; we were young, and we struggled. We conditioned at a level that I cannot consciously think about without wanting to throw up.

Good Lord, it was awful. I can almost taste the puke in my mouth now.

We had to run fast because we were legitimately scared of what would happen to us if we didn’t. Seth’s tirades were legendary – shattering water bottle holders, punting basketballs, chucking his clipboard – and there were a few times I actually thought the veins in his neck were going to burst. But they were all executed strategically. He knew when we needed inspiration. He knew when we needed to have our butts kicked – and he certainly knew how to kick our butts.

We got better throughout the season, thanks to experience and Seth’s unbelievable ability to coach a disorganized group of rowdy youngsters. And by the end of the season, we could compete with anybody in the league.

This was never more evident than the last regular season game of the year. We needed to win to earn our second league win and qualify for the last seed (woo hoo!) in the playoffs. We were playing the second-best team in the conference. We had gotten blown out the first time we played this team, its rich-looking uniforms emblazoned with royal blue and gold, on our court.

This time, the game was to take place in their home gym and it didn’t seem to be a favorable matchup. But Seth had imparted this never-back-down mentality; we weren’t scared of anyone. We knew we could win.

And we did win. It was a tight, hard-fought game, but we stunned the conference, and the crowd, and pulled off the upset.

I can’t quite describe the emotion in the locker room afterward. We were all sort of anxious as we waited for Seth to enter in his traditional sweater vest, Diet Coke in hand.

How did that just happen? Had we really improved that much? We’re in the playoffs! Are we gonna have to run more? Oh God, please tell me we don’t have to run more.

We had these old, navy blue uniforms that looked like they belonged in the 1980s; they were stained dark with sweat from the battle. We just waited, unsure of how to respond.

Could we celebrate? Would celebrating bring punishment? Had we earned the right to celebrate?

Then he burst into the locker room. “CINDERELLA’S GOING TO THE DANCE!” he exclaimed.

We jumped. We screamed. We chanted our school’s name like something straight out of Coach Carter. I felt a rush I haven’t experienced since.

We ended up losing by two points to the No. 1 seed, which won the championship, in the first round of the playoffs.

After that year, we went to three straight league championship games and finally won the title my senior year. That same year, we won the independent state championship.

Throwing the ball to the ceiling at the final buzzer of that game – my coach kept me in until the horn so I could do just that after four years of toils – was a genuinely beautiful moment, but nothing I have experienced in life has come close to comparing to “CINDERELLA’S GOING TO THE DANCE!”

Making that team as a freshman was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I contemplated quitting every single day that winter. When you’re 14, hard work really sucks. Getting to a point where we could compete with the league’s best required many hours of dedication and an insane level of commitment. We were committed to getting better because of Seth, though, and his intimidating-but-infectious spirit kept me around.

I’m a high school coach now, the head JV basketball coach at my alma mater, largely because of Coach’s influence. I hope to one day inspire a group of young men in the same way he inspired my team.

Maybe we’ll even have a Cinderella moment.

The Buffalo News’ Canisius football preview: Why it worked

In Sports on September 8, 2013 at 1:02 am

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I swear this won’t be a regular thing: I’m not going to praise the work of my professor, Keith McShea, on this blog. But in this case, his work deserves praise. And, as part of a new series of “The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week,” this piece earns the honor.

Here is a link to the online story: State No. 1 Canisius is gifted and talented.

As I tried to explain to some of the sports writers at The Spectrum, the story wasn’t safe. It wasn’t your average high school season preview story. It was different. I was impressed.

Keith employed the fly-on-the-wall technique. You rarely see that in season preview stories, and that’s because it takes work and fine tuning and multiple drafts and creativity. There are a few reasons this story worked:

1. Keith had access. He was allowed into Canisius’ meeting room the first day of fall practice. The No. 1 team in the state wouldn’t give that privilege to just anyone. Keith has established a reputation as the high school guru in Western New York. You having that type of access means you have the team’s respect; thus, you have my respect, and I’ll keep reading.

2. He thought about this story, and he planned it out in advance. He didn’t just spit out the “here’s why Canisius is really good” narrative and visit a practice one day for quotes. That would have been easy. No, he got creative, and he made sure he was there Day One to observe everything happening and set the scene for readers. I can imagine his thought as Coach Robbins was talking: Here’s my lede. I love that feeling — that immediate recognition of what’s going to be your lede — and I know he had it.

3. Rich Robbins is a quote machine. His speech is gold. And Keith recognized that — that’s why he used so many quotes from Robbins’ speech in his story and even let Robbins be as much a part of telling the story as he was. A writer with more hubris would have rejected that idea. But Keith made the right decision — the humble decision. Robbins’ words alone got me fired up. I felt like I could kill a bear after he was done.

4. The description put the reader into the scene. I felt present in the “cozy, cement-walled team room in the basement of the Delaware Avenue building the school has occupied for nearly 70 years.” Why? Details that made you feel the serious, driven vibe of the room, such as: “Robbins was ready. He looked that attention in the eye, and then looked his players in the eye.” Great juxtaposition.

5. This team is really good. People who follow local sports know that. But Keith didn’t just say that, and he didn’t assume people knew it; he explained it. He discussed the transfers of key players, like the Wheatley brothers, and the returning stars, like running back Qadree Ollison, and how that stacked roster has Canisius ranked No. 1 in the state.

6. He also got quotes from rival coaches Jerry Smith (St. Francis) and Kraig Kurzanski (Williamsville South). When your peers admit you’re scary good, you know you’re scary good. Keith knew that, so he got the necessary quotes to add a dimension to his story and justify some of the hype.

7. Lastly, he finished with something I love in writing — readdressing the lede in the closing paragraph. It gives the story a sense of wholeness. I aim to do it frequently, but sometimes it feels forced. Not in this case. Starting and ending with Robbins’ voice works wonders, and it gives a wholeness to this article.

On today’s column: My reasoning, the response and the backstory

In Sports on September 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Spectrum

Considering this is my first blog post for ENG 399, the sports journalism class at the University at Buffalo, it only makes sense to talk about the UB sports journalism issue that has pervaded my life today.

Today is Friday. I woke up to hundreds of texts, Facebook messages, emails, Twitter mentions, etc. Some were slanderous; some were complimentary. It was the craziest inundation of feedback I have ever personally experienced.

The cause was a column I wrote in The Spectrum, UB’s independent student newspaper, on second-year Athletic Director Danny White’s decision to revoke our privileges to travel with the football team and provide coverage of road games.

For reference, here is a link: White plays favorites, benches Spectrum.

Let me emphasize this point: I get it. I understand why some have called me things like spoiled, whiney and ‘b****y little child’ today, and I am not surprised people have resorted to ad-hominem argument tactics.

I knew that type of feedback was inevitable when I set out to write the column.

There is no objective way to say, ‘the athletic department took something from us and gave those privileges to the student government,’ in a way that appears content or simply OK with what happened.

With that being said, the feedback to the column has been about 85 percent positive. Most people have agreed with my stance, and I want to thank them – particularly those on the paper’s staff and Spectrum alumni – for their support. It might sound silly, but you develop thick skin by working for your school’s newspaper for three years. After the first column I ever wrote, one reader took the time to inform me that I would never lose my virginity, get a job or make a decent living. Negative feedback has been a regular thing since then, just part of life. I had never, however, gotten a response as overwhelming as that of today, so every positive word has helped.

The backstory, and how I wound up traveling with the team

I’ll start at the beginning. I joined The Spectrum’s staff in spring 2011, during my freshman year, as a sports staff writer. It was my first semester, so I didn’t cover the major sports for the most part (except when I got thrown a bone to cover the men’s basketball team once in a while, which felt like covering Game Seven of the NBA Finals). Men’s tennis was my beat.

There was, as there often is at student newspapers, huge turnover on the staff after that semester. The senior sports editor was elected editor in chief, and most of the other editors graduated.

It was a transitional time in my life. I was planning to leave UB after the spring and move to Florida. It was all laid out: I would work and live with relatives in Tallahassee for a year before establishing residency and transferring to the University of Florida. But the new EIC, my former senior sports editor, asked me to take his old job.

There was one part of the position that was particularly enticing: The senior sports editor got to travel with the football team all fall to provide coverage. It was a dream come true.

I accepted. I put off the Sunshine State for the time being – and, 2.5 years later, it appears for good – to cover UB sports. The Spectrum had two passes to cover the football team, and we either took the team’s bus or, more regularly, flew on the charter plane to road games. That meant I went to every game, always accompanied by one of the three other sports editors.

I was 19. You can imagine my thoughts: This is incredible. I feel like Adam Schefter.

Here was my introduction to the trips, a summary of what I was told by those who went before me: Someone on the outside might see this situation as a conflict of interest, but we’ve never had an issue because the athletic department understands we are an objective newspaper. Warde Manuel, the athletic director [remember, this was 2011], supports student-to-student journalism and furthering the education of not just his athletes but also the UB students who express their love for sports through writing. He also understands how many students rely on The Spectrum to be informed. We will never allow our coverage to be influenced by these trips.

Boy, did that prove to be true. We wrote some critical columns that year, and the athletic department said nothing. Our responsibility to maintain objectivity was understood, and our access was never threatened.

We had incredible times on the trips. One of the highlights was a road game at Tennessee. We went on six trips in total that season, and not one was a disappointment.

With that being said, the team sucked.

That’s the only way to put it. The Bulls finished 3-9 (2-6 in conference) in the second year of the Jeff Quinn Era. I developed respect for the guys on the squad, though, as we developed familiarity. I was learning a lot as a rookie writer. I wrote stories about the quarterback, Chazz Anderson, and running back, Branden Oliver, that made me genuinely appreciate who they were as people.

I loved being a beat writer.

Our coverage involved hard work. We did features, game stories, game previews, scouting reports, opinion columns, live chats, blogs, Twitter updates, photos, videos. We cared about what we were doing, and attending every game heightened our ability to give readers top-of-the-line coverage.

I became the editor in chief of The Spectrum in May 2012. We continued to go on the trips last season. This is my senior year, and I’m back as EIC.

Finding out we lost the trips

I got a text from one of the sports editors in July. He had contacted athletic communications, as we usually did around that time in the summer, to ensure we would have two passes to every game – two people today have told me The Spectrum has gone on the trips since the early 2000s – but he received a different answer from what we expected.

Here is the summary: “Uhh, yeah … about those trips. Danny cut those. I was planning on telling you eventually.”

My first response was that it made sense. I wasn’t going to throw a temper tantrum, because it was Mr. White’s money and his decision.

Shortly thereafter, I got my first red flag that something weird was going on. UB has a radio crew that also travels to every game, and we hung out with those guys on the trips. A week or so after we found out we wouldn’t be going on the trips, I was chatting with one of them. “Sorry to hear that,” he said. “But I’ve known for months.”

What? UB Athletics made this decision months earlier but was going to wait until we confirmed to tell us? OK, but still, considering someone could perceive the situation as a conflict of interest, it made sense – I got that reasoning, and I still do.

No matter how poorly White has gone about executing his plan, it was still his decision to make.

It did bother me when I found out he had decided to pull the trips from us only after the coverage we printed turned negative (which is because the season turned negative). That’s when White decided it was a conflict of interest. We don’t bash the athletic department; in fact, the writer who penned the critical column White referenced wrote one last week about why students should be excited for this year in UB sports: The year of the Bulls.

We’re UB students, and we want the teams to succeed as much as anyone.

But as I said in my column, we praise the teams when they deserve praise and criticize them when they deserve criticism – like a newspaper should.

Addressing the arguments of those who have disagreed with my column

1. I don’t have a problem with White’s decision, but his execution

I think what a lot of people have missed is this: I’m not saying it’s unfair that White took away those trips. As I said: It’s his decision, and I understand why people on the outside would perceive a conflict of interest. What I am saying is, the way White took them from us was messed up.

First, UB Athletics lied about his reasoning. You can’t logically explain how you don’t have the budget for two people to go to the games and then give their passes to two other people. White has been caught in a lie.

His decision also simply doesn’t make sense, in my opinion. Look at it in theory: Why should the student government ever need to go to the football games more than the student newspaper? If you don’t want to bring us, don’t bring us … but don’t turn around and bring the Student Association, with which you have a $30,000 contract ‘totally separate’ from this arrangement. Us going on the trips was a perceived conflict of interest; that is a real conflict of interest.

White had two reasons for taking the trips from The Spectrum. One was a lie and the other is a double standard. So what it comes down to is that Danny White just doesn’t like us; that’s not my opinion but what numerous people in the athletic department have told me. Revoking the student newspaper’s trips because you hold a personal grudge seems petty and immature to me – perhaps a sign of White’s lack of experience.

2. I, too, wish we could pay our own way – but we can’t

A lot of the people who have contacted me have said, ‘this is how it should be and student newspapers should pay for their own trips.’ And, yes, I agree with that in theory.

We wish we could pay our own way, but we can’t. We aren’t like most student newspapers; we don’t get funding from the university or the student government. We don’t have donors or any outside source of income. We’re a self-sustaining entity that just floats by on advertising dollars, unable to splurge on things like covering to travel the football team.

We’re also college students who go to school full-time and work at The Spectrum in all our spare time, so we don’t personally have the $700 to pay for a flight and hotel. Editors from Division III schools have told me they traveled to every game for their teams and paid out of their own pockets.

It’s an entirely different situation.

Did your team play games in places like Texas and Georgia? Most D3 schools will play maybe one out-of-state game per year, whereas the Bulls play out of state for every road game. The travel expenses are astronomical, and as I said, we have no way of affording them.

So when the athletic department offered us the opportunity to travel with the team all year, of course we were going to take it.

3. UB doesn’t pay for other media outlets to travel

White only addressed my column Friday in one tweet, and here’s what he said:

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You’re right: It isn’t common practice for media outlets to travel with the team. It also isn’t common practice for those media outlets to be fully comprised of UB students or for that media outlet to dedicate 100 percent of its coverage to your institution. It isn’t common practice for you to have a full page in every newspaper dedicated to your sports teams.

As I said in the column: Mr. White should be thankful he has our coverage.

Finally, it isn’t common practice to sign a $30,000 contract with another organization and then offer that organization two season passes and claim they’re irrelevant to the contract and have ‘no strings attached.’

One former SA official told me White sees SA President Nick Johns as malleable and expects offering the trips will help him land another contract.

Again, if you’re avoiding a perceived conflict of interest, why turn it into a real one?

No word from White

I’ve been checking my email all day – still nothing from White. I don’t expect to hear from him.

We’ll be keeping a scoreboard in The Spectrum that will tally the games after which we have been able to speak with Coach Quinn and one player following the press conference, which was the proposal at the end of my column.

I expect an 0-1 start Saturday.