The Fury Files: John Millea

Posted: August 31, 2011 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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Welcome to the second edition of the award-winning Fury Files (soon-to-be was dropped by the copy editor before that last bit). If you missed the first installment with former St. John’s quarterback Tom Linnemann, click here.

This week’s guest is John Millea, a longtime newspaper reporter who moved his typewriter from the Minneapolis Star Tribune to the Minnesota State High School League last year. Millea worked at the Star Tribune for 20 years and before that he worked in Arizona and Iowa. At the Star Tribune he started out on the copy desk before landing a writing position. He covered a little bit of everything as a general assignment reporter – Twins, Wolves, Vikings, colleges, bowling, boxing, and other sports starting with “b.”

He was probably best known for his outstanding work on the Minnesota prep sports scene, where he covered big-school dynasties like the Eden Prairie football team and small-school ones like the Ellsworth basketball team. In March 2010, after 10 years on the prep beat, Millea left the paper to become the Media Specialist for the MSHSL, where he’s become something of a trailblazer. According to John, “no other high school governing body in the nation has a staff person doing what I do.” For all intents and purposes, he’s still a reporter – only instead of working for the Star Tribune, it’s with the MSHSL. He’s also well-known for being a really nice guy who’s always willing to help out fellow journalists, whether it’s people who started in the business with Sid Hartman or are fresh out of school.

A native of tiny Graettinger, Iowa – population 900, and home to, at least according to Wikipedia, the oldest Labor Day parade in all of Iowa – Millea graduated from Drake, but now makes his home in Minnesota – and on the state’s highways. Last year, during the school year, Millea visited 821 schools/teams and drove 11,029 miles. And as those who follow his writing on the entertaining and informative John’s Journal on the MSHSL website know, he drank nearly that many Diet Cokes.

You can read his writing here, Facebook him here, and follow him on Twitter here.

And now, John talks about his transition to the MSHSL, his career as a dominant center for the Graettinger football team, the future of high school athletics, his best interview subjects, the allure of small town sports, the 1998 Atlanta Falcons (sorry Vikes fans), and a lot more.

Thanks a lot for your time, John.

If you see this man at a state tourney, give him a Diet Coke.

You do a lot of work with aspiring reporters, including working with high school SIDs and speaking to kids who are attending a journalism camp, where I picture fresh-faced youngsters running around with AP Stylebooks and used copies of The Kingdom and the Power, when they’re not sitting around a campfire telling stories about NBA agate and the Pentagon Papers. A couple of questions:

* Do these young people have the same worries about the future of the profession that so many people working today have? Or is there a bit of youthful optimism (naivete?) there?
I always stress to young journalists that just because the traditional newspaper industry is struggling, there are more opportunities now than ever before because the Internet has created so many more ways to work in journalism. In my day (say that in the voice of a cranky old man), we all figured we could find jobs at small papers with hopes of someday working at metro dailies, and the best of the best might find jobs at magazines. And that was about it. The journalism world is so much bigger now, and I think young people realize that the opportunities are almost endless.
* And do you have any main theme that you tell them about the future of the profession, whether it’s related to newspapers, online or TV? And has your attitude about those issues changed at all since you left the Star Tribune for the MSHSL?
I tell them that the newspaper business is in a transition phase, but newspapers will always play a major role in how people communicate. The traditional printed product is becoming secondary to online content, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. News just moves much faster than it used to. I don’t think my attitude on this has changed since I left the newspaper world, but working in the online-only world has made me realize even more strongly that this is the future of journalism and communications, and we are moving into that world very rapidly.

When you first started with the MSHSL, were there any discussions about editorial control or any subjects that would be off-limits in your stories or journals?
No, there were no discussions like that. I think the people at the MSHSL knew me and trusted me enough to know that I would do what’s right. A couple of my personal themes at the Strib were “We’re writing about high school kids, not professional athletes” and “I treat the kids I cover like they were my own kids.” I try to keep those things uppermost in my mind as I do my job. In my work at the Strib I would occasionally poke at the MSHSL (such as calling a one-day Prep Bowl “dumb” and criticizing the former transfer rules). I won’t blatantly criticize the MSHSL in this job, but now I can affect change from inside the velvet ropes.

I saw on your journal that the High School League’s website received 6.2 million page views last February 21-March 27, which was a million more than for the same time frame in 2010. While maintaining some modesty, how much do you think your arrival and work helped with that increase? Just for myself, I used to check the website frequently for brackets and scores during tournament time, but now I check it much more often to read your journals and stories. Have you heard from coaches, players or fans with any anecdotal evidence like that? And if it’s not you…what does account for the increase? Niftier brackets?
Chris Franson, who is our staff webmaster, told the MSHSL board of directors that the web hits had increased by about a million from the 2010 winter tournament period to 2011. I think his quote during the board meeting was something like, “And I attribute that to John’s Journal.” I’ll take his word for it. I am seeing plenty of evidence that people are reading John’s Journal as well as our Facebook and Twitter information. I’ll be at a game and hear someone say, “Are you John?” And they’ll talk about something I had written, ask how many miles I have driven, etc. I hear this from coaches, administrators, officials, parents, students, etc. It’s very encouraging to know that somebody out there is following my work.

John hails from Graettinger, Iowa, and remains an avid supporter of small-town athletics. Here, the town celebrates his 2-point conversion in 8th grade.

Graettinger trivia question: Without using Google, how many career points did 6-on-6 legend Shelby Petersen score in her career while starring at Graettinger, before going on to star at the University of South Dakota? And you will receive full credit for your answer if you come within, oh, 300 points.
You’ve stumped me. I was long gone from Graettinger by the time Shelby was setting basketball scoring records. Here’s another Graettinger sports trivia question: John Millea was a very ordinary high school football player, squatting over the football and snapping it to the quarterback. But in his junior high football career, how many points did he score? Answer: Two (the big slow dumb eighth-grader stumbled across the goal line on a two-point conversion during a truly historic victory over the Mallard Ducks).
*Fury note: Petersen, a 1990 Graettinger grad, scored 4,182 points, earning her the No. 9 spot on the all-time Iowa girls’ scoring chart. She went on to the University of South Dakota, where she’s now in the school’s Hall of Fame, and was a first-team All-American in 1992. As far as I know, John did outscore her 2-0 on the football field.

When you were a student at Drake, what was the dream job you envisioned in journalism?
My dream job was working at the Des Moines Register, the newspaper I read every day as I grew up. Back then the Register was one of the best newspapers in the country, with a Pulitzer Prize count that rivaled the New York Times and other big hitters. When I transferred to Drake for my junior year I was hired by the Register to answer phones on busy prep nights. Soon after that I began working as a part-time editor on the sports desk, and when I was a senior I worked 40 hours a week on the sports desk. When I graduated I was officially made a full-timer (which meant a few more dollars in the paycheck). I loved the Register and thought I was set for life. But a year and a half later, a few months after getting married, the newspaper cut its staff and I was laid off. That was tough, but I found another job and survived.

How concerned are you about the future of high school athletics in the state? With funding issues for schools always presenting major challenges, people often speculate if athletics could one day be endangered. Do you ever see a day where club sports/AAU/traveling teams become more prominent than high school sports?
This is an issue that has to be recognized. Swimmers, soccer players and others have options that can take them away from their high school teams. I can’t pretend to know what will happen, but I do think we’re a long, long ways away from seeing high school sports seriously threatened. Club sports have their own issues and problems, including funding. My bigger worry in this area is that kids whose families can’t afford to pay activity fees will miss out on high school activities. That would be criminal.

Best interview subject you’ve ever worked with? And how about breaking it down at each level: Best pro interview, best college, best prep. Coaches or players.
Best pro interview: Kevin Garnett, without question. He was always the last Timberwolves player to return to the locker room (after sitting in the whirlpool, getting a massage, eating pasta … and whatever else goes on where the media cannot enter), but he was always worth it. He didn’t speak in clichés, he thought about the questions and he gave honest answers. He looked you in the eye as he answered your question. My favorite Garnett quote: “I’m only afraid of two things. God and my mom.”

John agrees with Austin Murphy: Tom Linnemann's a great interview.

Best college interview: Tom Linnemann, former St. John’s quarterback (and recent Q&A subject right here). When Touchdown Tom was a junior, the Johnnies lost a heartbreaker in the postseason. Tom and a couple teammates were being interviewed when Tom was asked if he had started thinking about next season. He looked up, smiled and said, “Oh heck, I’m goin’ out for cross-country next year!”

Best prep interview: Sasha Doran, former Wayzata quarterback. Sasha’s story is one of the most memorable in my career. He was living on the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia, when police took him to an orphanage. He was reunited with his two older sisters and all three were later adopted by a couple in Plymouth. I talked with Sasha several times in researching his story a couple years ago (ESPN later picked up on the story). Listening to him talk about how he hid in subways and lived on the streets, and how much he appreciates his life in America … priceless, unforgettable stuff.

The MSHSL takes a lot of criticism, often when it comes to realignment, whether it’s in sections or classes. Old-timers, of course, specifically remember the one-class state basketball tournament and the one-class hockey tournament and anyone born before 1952 will still recite the starting five for the Edgerton basketball team of 1960. Are people who still pine for those long-gone days simply suffering from a bit of romanticism or do you occasionally wish there were fewer classes in some sports? Or have the benefits of adding classes – giving more teams a better chance to compete, giving more teams a shot at state titles, giving more kids those once-in-a-lifetime experiences – outweighed whatever nostalgia was lost?
I don’t think we’ll ever see single-class sports again. And we shouldn’t, particularly in team sports. Teams from schools with 3,000 students just shouldn’t compete against schools with 100 students. I’m not totally opposed to one class in individual sports like wrestling, track and golf, but I don’t think that will happen. Having more classes means more kids will experience a state tournament, and that’s a positive. I would be happy with three classes in basketball instead of four, because more classes can equal more apathy among the general public.

As a newspaper guy, which story generated the most reader reaction, whether positive or negative? In other words, the most letters – whether in the mail in the olden days, or email today.
Two stories immediately come to mind. One is the Sasha Doran story. That story touched so many hearts and gave me the opportunity to meet other families that included kids who were adopted from Russia. I was honored to speak at a fundraiser as Sasha’s family was preparing to return to the orphanage, bringing clothing, supplies and toys to the kids there.

The other story concerned Laura Griffiths, a basketball player from Cherry High School. She had a heart defect that required surgery, but her family couldn’t afford the procedure. Her coach and others started a fundraising effort, and I wrote about her situation. The day the story ran, I got an email from someone who wanted to help. It was Mark Dayton, then a former U.S. senator and now the Minnesota governor. Mark told me, “When I read your story about Laura, all I could think about was my own children.” He paid for the surgery, and I sat in the waiting room with Laura’s parents and grandmother during the procedure. That was a very fulfilling thing for me, and the reaction was phenomenal. Both stories went far beyond sports, and they are proof that stories that touch people on a very human level are the best stories.

During your time at the Star Tribune and now with the MSHSL, it’s always been obvious how much you enjoy covering small town sports in the state. You’ve written countless memorable stories on rural football programs and basketball dynasties in out-of-the-way places like Ellsworth. How much did the fact you’re from Graettinger play into your desire to seek out those stories that might be ignored by other big-city reporters or publications? And is there still something specific about the small-town high school experience that appeals to you?
Growing up in a small town impacts me every day. My colleagues who have lived only in large cities have a hard time relating to small-town life, so I have a built-in edge there. I tell people that when I drive into a town and see church steeples, a water tower and grain elevators, I am home. Last week in Fulda I ate my pregame meal in a storage shed garage that had been filled with tables and folding chairs while football parents grilled burgers and brats outside. During the football game, some people sat in lawn chairs, kids sat on the grass and some walked the sidelines (as I did). That’s how I grew up, and I will always love those small-town settings. And games in small towns are much bigger to the community as a whole than are games in the metro.

How tough of a transition did you have going from being an ink-stained wretch to working with the organization you’d spent so many years covering? You jumped right into things with the state tournaments in 2010, so did that make it easier to make the change or was it pretty smooth since you are still doing many of the things you did as a newspaper reporter?
For the first six months or so it was a little strange. I had been working for many years with a great group of reporters and editors at the Star Tribune, and all of a sudden I was a one-man crew. But making the change during the winter tournaments was good timing. I covered the state wrestling tournament for the newspaper, took the next week off, and my first week working for the MSHSL was during the girls state basketball tournament. On my first day in the office I asked Chris Franson, “Can you set up a blog on the web site for me and show me how to post stories?” He said, “Sure, what do you want to call it?” Without thinking about it for more than two seconds I said, “How about John’s Journal?” The next day, the blog was up and running and within hours I was sitting courtside at the basketball tournament, posting stories. And after those first six months, I really settled into this job. Now it feels like I’ve been doing this for 10 years.

 

Cole Aldrich is in the NBA now, but John Millea knew him when he was just a high school freshman.

Who is the most memorable high school athlete you’ve covered? Maybe not necessarily the best or the most dominant, although he or she could have certainly been those things as well.
That’s a tough question, because there have been so many memorable athletes. I keep coming back to stories that go beyond the game … Edina catcher Connor Rabinowitz, who returned to baseball after a heart transplant … Kolby Gruhot of  Stephen-Argyle, who played football with a prosthetic leg … and many others. But if I had to pick one, it might be Bloomington Jefferson basketball player Cole Aldrich, who went on to Kansas and became a first-round NBA draft pick. I watched Cole’s first varsity game as a freshman and saw his high school career end in the state tournament. I talked with his mom after that first prep game, because she was his ride home, and got to know his dad, too. I had many conversations with Cole over the years, and he was always so joyful, so full of life, so darn happy and friendly.

I say this as someone who’s been told by a doctor and a dentist, not to mention friends, family members, co-workers and people I pass on the street, that I have to stop drinking so much Dr Pepper. Do you foresee a day when you give in to those who implore you to stop drinking so much Diet Coke at state tournaments?
Oh boy, here we go. This Diet Coke thing is clearly out of hand. (Background: When we began doing things online at the Strib, I started keeping a Diet Coke Count during state tournaments. I still do so.) I walked up to the concession stand at the gym in Hawley, Minnesota, last winter and a kid working there said, “Hey! You’re the Journal guy who drinks Diet Coke!” Yes, this is the sugar-free cross I bear. I actually don’t consume a lot of soft drinks otherwise, but during long days at state tournaments a guy’s gotta stay refreshed … as well as caffeinated. I don’t anticipate the Diet Coke Count going away until I do.

Toughest event for a journalist to cover, whether it’s logistics, figuring out good storylines in a sea of them, deadline pressures or all of the above: The state wrestling meet with all those mats and all those individual matches and all the team showdowns; the state track and field event with dozens of events and countless kids; or the old 8 a.m. till…11 p.m./midnight Prep Bowl?
Preparation is key. The first time I walked into the state wrestling tournament I was a lost little puppy. But once I figured out how the thing works, it was easy. The key often is knowing what you can ignore. That’s why I might spend several hours before a state wrestling/track/similar event preparing … knowing the schedule, the athletes to watch, which mats/field event areas are key, etc. If one person is trying to cover a state wrestling tournament or track meet in its entirety, that’s a tough assignment and that’s why the Strib reporters do it in shifts. The old one-day Prep Bowl was a bear (as are the current six-games-in-one-day state football semifinals), the state wrestling tourney is a big rodeo, but the state track meet might be the toughest assignment. If you watch the triple jump/high jump/discus, etc., you can’t be at the finish line on the track, and vice versa. But if you’re prepared and you know what’s going to happen when and where, you might survive.

Vikings fans still hate this picture. But John had a slightly different perspective.

Of all the events you covered as a newspaper reporter – whether it was a high school, pro or college game – is there one game that stands out as being the most memorable? Or, if there isn’t just one, how about a Top 3.
Let’s do three (because I clearly have problems narrowing these things down).

1/ Vikings-Falcons, NFC championship game, January 1999. I had spent the previous week in Atlanta, originally sent there to cover the Falcons-49ers playoff game and then being assigned to stay for the week and write about the Falcons every day leading up to the game at the Metrodome. This was in the Dennis Green era, when the media was not always looked upon kindly by the Vikings. On my first day at Falcons headquarters, coach Dan Reeves saw me walking across the parking lot, came over to say hi and let me know that the Falcons media relations staff would take good care of me. I was in the Falcons locker room every day after practice and everyone I interviewed was friendly, gracious and just plain nice. It was one of the most fun weeks of my professional life, so needless to say I was not terribly crushed when the Falcons beat the Vikings in overtime.

2/ Blake Hoffarber scores from his backside. Hopkins was facing Eastview in the 2005 Class 4A state title game when Hoffarber made the shot that saved the day and brought home an ESPY. It looked like Eastview would win in overtime; Hopkins had the ball but it was rolling free with very little time left when I put my head down to work on the “Eastview Wins” story. Then I heard a roar from the crowd and someone yelled, “No way did he just make that shot!” I thought, “Shot? Shot? What shot? There was no time for a shot!” I saw the replay on the scoreboard, Hopkins won in two overtimes and I quickly rewrote my story.

3/ Michael Floyd arrives on the scene. I don’t remember the season or the opponent, but I’ll never forget seeing the Cretin-Derham Hall wide receiver make his first big splash. It must have been his sophomore year; Cretin was playing a home game at the University of St. Thomas and Floyd was remarkable. Not only could he run outrun everybody, he could outjump everybody and dive to catch balls that were uncatchable for any other high school player I had seen before or since. He made a diving, one-handed catch for a touchdown that absolutely made my jaw drop.

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