One Friday night in mid-January 1970, I walked into the old Richmond Arena, my notepad in hand, to cover a boys varsity basketball game between Armstrong High and John Marshall for the Richmond News Leader.
Although I had already worked for a couple of years — first as a summer intern, then as a freelancer, for the Norfolk Ledger Star — this was my first assignment for my adopted hometown’s afternoon newspaper.
The plan was to watch the contest from courtside, interview coaches and players afterward, then write 500 or so words describing the action and interpreting what I’d seen.
John Marshall won 58-56 in overtime. The difference was two free throws with 35 seconds left by Luther Branch, a “nervous sophomore guard” who had driven the right baseline after taking an inbounds pass, attempted a layup and drawn a foul.
Afterwards, I spoke with Branch as well as the two coaches, Armstrong’s legendary Maxie Robinson and the Justices’ Bill Chambers, a relative newcomer to the profession.
Little could I have imagined that Chambers would land at Collegiate a couple of years later and that he and I would become colleagues and friends.
And little could I have imagined that I — as a University of Richmond senior majoring in journalism and trying to pick up a few bucks for gas money — would still be cranking out stories, now for the Times-Dispatch, all these years later.
After graduation, I worked for the News Leader for two years, then accepted an offer to teach and coach at Collegiate with the understanding that I could freelance.
The plan was to return to the paper full time once I’d gotten this save-the-world thing out of my system, but that was 1972, and the educator-by-day, sportswriter-by-night arrangement has worked out pretty well.
Over the years, seven different sports editors have dispatched me to more than a thousand high school football and basketball games plus competitions in cross country, track, baseball and softball. When they were really in a bind, they sent me to cover soccer, tennis and gymnastics, about which I knew next to nothing until I did my homework. I’ve also covered a good bit of college football and basketball and contributed numerous human-interest features and several guest columns.
All along, I’ve followed several guiding principles. Here they are, in no particular order of importance because they’re all important.
- Do your best, regardless of space, time constraints, fatigue at the end of a long workday or the relative importance of the event in the day’s news cycle. Sometimes, the words flow easily. Often, you grind them out. Regardless, do your best.
- Stay calm and present. Think clearly. Creating lucid, coherent prose on a tight deadline is the writer’s ultimate adrenaline rush. Embrace the challenge.
- Be positive and uplifting, highlight the good, write around the negative without sugarcoating and honor the commitment of athletes and coaches who put their emotions and self-images on the line for the world to see.
- Plan well, organize details and report accurately. Learned that from Joe Nettles, UR’s journalism guru and one of my early mentors. His mantra, by the way, was, “Facts, facts and more facts.”
- Paint a picture in words so that the reader can visualize the sights, sounds and even the smells in the athletic venue. Learned that from Frank Soden, the iconic Richmond radio broadcaster whose narration brought action to life for several generations of listeners.
- Write creatively and concisely, proofread and edit scrupulously and do right by your subject. Learned that from Jennings Culley, the sports editor who long ago took a chance on a college kid with much desire but minimal talent.
- Savor your connections with coaches, athletes, fellow media folks, game personnel and fans. We’re all in this together.
- Question tactfully. Listen attentively. Report precisely. Everyone — famous, oft-quoted, or obscure — has a story to tell. That story is important, compelling and unique. Do it justice.
- Write about life, not just sports. Games begin. Games end. The backstories — those of sportsmanship, humility, resilience, grace under pressure, defiance of odds, refusal to quit, dignity in defeat — are salient and enduring.
- Let the effort, not the byline, be your reward.
- Be fair and honest. Be prompt, precise and diligent. Be unbiased. Be principled. Subjects trust you to tell their stories. Honor that trust.
- Finally, strive for excellence. There are no shortcuts. If there were, I’d have figured them out by now. If I ever reach the summit, I’ll let you know. I’ll keep trying, though. That’s a promise.
So just like that: 50 years. A landmark of sorts. A half-century of experiences, some exhilarating, many humbling, all opportunities to grow and improve.
Fifty years of anything is a long time, though. Sometimes I wonder, simply, why?
Why one more cold, wet night under the Friday night lights, one more interview, one more story, one more mad dash to beat the deadline?
Then, I recall a conversation with Jay Pace — a long-time friend, now deceased, who was then the editor and publisher of the Hanover Herald Progress.
“How’re you doing?” he asked one evening years ago when we encountered each other at the Tomato Bowl, as he had dubbed the annual football rivalry between Patrick Henry and Lee-Davis.
“Great,” I responded, “but I’d get a lot more sleep if I didn’t have this habit of sports writing.”
He paused. He regarded me with that stern, over-the-top-of-his-glasses look that my grade school librarian directed my way whenever I acted up. Then, he smiled.
“Sports writing isn’t a habit,” he said. “It’s a passion.”