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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.