Many people hate looking at old photographs of themselves. Maybe it’s a picture from elementary school, a prom portrait or a family photograph filled with five frozen faces and an infinite number of unspoken resentments.
No one wants to see ridiculous mullets or bizarre crew cuts. If it’s not the hair it’s the clothes – red and black parachute pants, gray moon boots and short-shorts on the basketball court that leave no doubt you played for the boys’ team. And if it’s not the hair or the clothes or the acne or the braces or the stupid grin it’s the company. Who did I hug in that picture? And why? Which prison is that person incarcerated in again?
I actually don’t mind pictures.
But I do have some negative reactions when looking back at my early stories as a sports journalist, when I possessed big dreams and a love of tortured metaphors and similes. I had a lot of questions back then, but also thought I owned most of the answers.
I thought of all this while reading the Worthington Daily Globe online this past weekend. The Globe’s my old paper, my first paper. It’s been a decade since I worked there but it remains a daily read. The paper recently hired a new sports editor and sports writer. They’re both young and from what I’ve read already, both the editor – Chris Murphy – and the writer, Jocelyn Syrstad, appear to be very talented. One went to the University of Illinois, the other Penn State. They’re at a paper with a rich tradition. They work in an area loaded with talented sports teams, which should provide plenty of material. But if they ever encounter a day when they turn in a story they’re not happy with or take a call from an angry parent or misspell a kid’s name, they should know it happens to everyone and they’ll eventually get over it. That all happened to me, and in the 14 years since I’ve almost gotten over all of it.
The first high school football game I covered ended in a blowout. Still, I felt good about the story I filed that night on a tight deadline. Talked to the coaches. Spoke to the key player, a receiver who broke the game open with a long touchdown pass.
At the time I didn’t have my own apartment in town and lived with my grandma, about 20 minutes away. When I got home around midnight, I ate a few of her chocolate chip cookies and watched some TV before walking upstairs to my bedroom. About 30 minutes later, I sat up, in a scene that would play as the worst cliche if it appeared at the beginning of a movie or book. But sit up I did, struck by a horrific thought: I spelled the star player’s name wrong. To be more accurate, I completely renamed him. This wasn’t like calling a kid Sean instead of Shawn, though that is an egregious error. No, I rechristened this kid. His last name was Masters and I was pretty sure I had called him Doug Masters. The only problem? His parents and everyone else in his life called him Matt.
In the dark, I envisioned my computer screen from two hours earlier. What name did I use? I couldn’t handle waiting for the Saturday paper to arrive, so I left grandma’s and made the drive back to the paper, sneaking back in long after everyone else had left, long after any hope I had of correcting a possible mistake had passed. Scouring the final proofs of the night, I saw my error in black and white: Doug Masters. Why Doug? I had used the name of the main character in the film Iron Eagle, a movie I had enjoyed in the 1980s but not one I thought had left an indelible imprint on my brain that would cause me to make a horrific error years later. Doug flew high in the movie, taking down a dictator, but he had not flown down the football field that night. Perhaps I should have searched through the roundups I wrote that night to make sure I hadn’t named anyone after the Karate Kid or Gordon Gekko. I worried about being fired. Maybe I could get my old job at the airport back.
Remarkably, we never received a complaint, meaning people didn’t care or, worse, didn’t read it.
Writing made up just one part of the job. Two nights a week I handled layout duties for the sports section, skills I had to learn on the job as I had no experience with design. This meant learning Quark. My boss, Doug Wolter, who was the longtime sports editor at the Globe and became a good friend and a great teacher, still used a pica pole, a relic that these days is probably as rare in the newsroom as smoking. He sketched everything out on paper long before he did anything on his screen. Architectural blueprints weren’t as detailed.
I, too, learned to use a pica pole. These responsibilities stressed me out much more than the writing. Headlines, photos, agate, boxes, packages, briefs, story placement – it all overwhelmed me. We also manually pasted the pages together, with the help of the production folks. As a C- art student, my lack of skills in these areas were obvious. If there hadn’t been anyone looking over my shoulder in disappointment and disgust, the NBA standings might have run in the scoreboard section horizontally.
The first few weeks Doug helped me out in the office when I worked on the desk. My first time alone fell on the night Cleveland faced Florida in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Florida won in dramatic fashion. Wish I could tell you what headline ran in our paper the next day. But I failed to make it through the night. Instead I left early, about 7, after vomiting in the newspaper’s bathroom, sickness caused by, well, some might say nerves. I’d say McDonald’s. Either way, I left early, leaving layout duties in the hands of the night editor, who had experience, empathy and a stronger stomach.
My design skills eventually improved, as did my constitution. As the years passed, I even started to enjoy the layout process.
Writing remained my greatest love, as it is for most young journalists who start working at a paper. Layout and design are necessary, crucial elements of a paper, but writing is a passion. As my design skills improved, so did my reporting and writing. I grew more confident interviewing people, whether they were high school athletes or 70-year-old referees. I did my best to eliminate the ridiculous openings and trying-too-hard endings.
Those first few months as a full-time newspaper reporter were tough. But even with my mistakes and cringe-inducing sentences those first few months also reaffirmed what I had known since the first time I stepped into the Globe’s newsroom as a college kid four years earlier: I loved newspapers. I loved writing. I didn’t love my salary, but I loved the job and the life.
Still, next time I’m back in Minnesota and digging through cardboard boxes in the basement, I will find that first football feature I wrote. I’ll read it again and smile to myself. I’ll remember the players and how nervous I was waiting for them to come off the practice field. I’ll see the bylines of my co-workers and fondly remember them.
And then I’ll burn the paper.