As we wrap up the first month of under-new management at Iron String Press, I am sure you have seen some changes, big and small, in the newspapers and perhaps on the website. And while all of them were needed in my opinion, the one I am most – excited about, proud of, nervous about, all of the above – is the sports page.
I am, after all, an old sports guy. And for some reason, old sports guys end up editors. This is my third time becoming editor of something more or less based on being an old sports guy.
There is a newspaper truism about old sports guys becoming editors: we’re insufferable about our sports pages. We miss them. Gazing at an editorial page makes my brain hurt and my heart sink, but I could spend an hour with the sports pages, even in these days of shrinking newspaper products, because of the corporate newspaper death cycle.
However, like all old sports guys, I am critical. It is hard to let go of the way I would do sports and let some entry level cub reporter mess up the look and style of the page or section.
At the pension fund, the ratio of sports people who listened to old sports guys vs. those who tuned them out was probably a wash. The long-time sports editor and his assistant mocked their old sports guy editor endlessly with a falsetto imitation that still makes me laugh.
Of course, their old sports guy had some points. No one on any court, pitch or field is literally on fire. And my family can attest, from hearing me yell at the TV, there is no dial. Therefore, nobody in sports, other than maybe a baseball manager in an era before push button phones, is dialing anything, let alone in an upward direction.
My best sports protege at the pension fund took it in good humor and I had hoped he would stick around long enough to write the state championship soccer stories, but like all 20-somethings far from home serving a dying institution, he finally took a look at himself and made a different plan. After a sabbatical back home, he has a New York City job creating a soccer line for Topps, which probably isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but still sounds like a lot of fun.
My point is, one reason we are covering sports is because sports matter to me. There are plenty of reasons. I loved sports as a kid, and like a lot of old sports writers, I probably never got over that I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be playing sports. Writing about those who are great at it, or those who aren’t great at it, but on one day do something amazing, is the closest thing I get to reliving days in my life that were less complicated fun.
As the parent of a complicated teenager, who struggles in school, I know I am grateful he picked a sport he liked and stuck with it. He has had about a dozen coaches, but since travel soccer began, I have always gotten to be his assistant coach. I joke I wanted him to play football, baseball and wrestle. He chose soccer twice a year and bowling in the winter for fun.
I was lucky enough to hear another parent speak of her kids’ sports paths as “their journeys where I drive the car.” So, 10 years and one football tour of England and Wales later, here we are. I knew nothing about soccer when his journey started, but we have learned together. With him at an age when communication is hard and issues seem potentially life changing, it feels good to have one strong connection with him now. I know the idea of November 2021 has kept him motivated to stay in school, too, which is a blessing I cannot even explain.
His soccer coaches can reach him in a way his parents and teachers can’t. I can’t explain it, exactly, but maybe it is as simple as there are no grades on the pitch. Still, as any sports fan knows, there is teaching, there is learning, there is growth.
One thing I was amazed to watch, and hope to continue to watch the next few years, is what was essentially a 12-to-15-year plan to train soccer players from K
to college, instituted by our soccer club’s director of coaching, Dr. Matt Spencer, who is also our travel coach. Matt designed a system similar to a British club program, which is essentially a school for soccer. We weren’t that advanced, of course, but I often reflect on the idea that our kids were purposely groomed to have peak soccer years.
That is a story that has not been fully written, but one of the reasons I love sports, is the stories that have been written: Tom Brady’s dominance in the Super Bowl or Cal Ripken’s iron man streak or Tiger Wood’s last Master’s win. Some of my favorite stories here have been sports stories, too: the state championships, of course, but also Jacob Russell pushing Patrick Dewey all the way to and then through the Boston Marathon, for instance.
One of the most amazing stories I ever witnessed was as a volunteer wrestling coach in a small town on the Selma-Prattville Highway, in Autaugaville, Alabama. I had been asked to help out at a private school where I had become friendly with the football and wrestling coach. He had about six wrestlers, but he was a middleweight guy, so the bigger guys had no one to work out with. We spent about a month working before their private school state tournament. The heavyweight did best, placing second in the state.
The guy he lost to was from a tiny Montgomery religious school, Calvary Christian Academy, that gave athletic scholarships to inner-city Black kids. This was counter to much of the reason the Alabama Independent School Association was created, in exactly the deep South way you would imagine. The giants of the AISA were Black Belt academies, in places like Selma, Demopolis and Hope Hull, where a school named Hooper Academy was an especially tough wrestling school.
My guy got fired by the headmaster/athletic director/basketball coach that summer and the next winter only a couple of kids wanted to wrestle. One of the dads called me to help and I coached them in the state tournament. Our heavyweight had graduated and Calvary had two guys in state final matches at the same time, so I was asked to sit in and advise the heavyweight.
He was a Black guy named Latrico, the team called him Trico. I tried this week to track him down or find some old papers to confirm his last name, but it escapes me now. Calvary Christian Academy shut down about a decade ago and the AISA no longer offers wrestling or keeps records on past tournaments. But I mention Trico’s race for a reason.
In the finals, Trico had a rematch with a the third-place finisher from a year earlier, a wrestler from host Hooper in Hope Hull. (I wish I could explain how that sounds in an Alabama accent, because I still hear it in my head: “Huhpah Academy in Huphul.”) The Hooper wrestler had beaten Trico during the dual meet season, in another match in Hope Hull, one with some controversy, I was told. That seemed to be the book on Hooper, at least to their rival schools. Autuaga and Calvary were small schools, but Hooper was one of the giants of the AISA and they dominated wrestling. Rival schools took umbrage and portrayed them as a bully, the central Alabama wrestling version of Cobra Kai.
And that is where I found myself matside for the private school heavyweight wrestling championsh in 1994, with half of the gym shouting “Huh-Pah! Huh-Pah!” and the other half chanting
By then, Calvary’s coach had joined me, and as Trico won a second state title by decision, the coach leaned into me and said, “this is probably the first time ever that half of the AISA is rooting for a Black kid.”
That’s why I think sports is important. It isn’t so much the scores as the stories and experiences.
It isn’t so much the results as the effort that earns those results. Sports are a melting pot that few other aspects of society offer us. We can argue about entertainment or politics or religion with no one correct answer, but in baseball there is a right way and a wrong way to play and there is not (as much) debate about it.
There is a meme going around that I loathe that says the reason we are in “this mess” is “high school coaches teaching civics classes.” And while I might concede that forcing coaches to teach civics is part of the problem, I take issue with the idea that a coach is not a teacher. In their subjects, coaches can be the best teachers. And the best coaches can become lifetime advisors to their players, in much more than games.
The great baseball columnist Thomas Boswell once said a favorite team should be a prerequisite for someone when seeking a partner. In his view, if you find someone that has no favorite team “you have probably hooked yourself a cold fish.”
I tend to agree. But it does not matter to me what team or sport the favorite is in. I find the differences fascinating. To understand why one town is a football school and the next town over is a soccer school is like finding a piece of the puzzle to understanding a place. I know when I learned that Cooperstown means baseball to the world, but basketball is the favorite sport of the school
community, I felt like I had figured something out about my then new hometown.
I often observe how schools do with girls sports and that tells me a lot about a community as well. Are girls sports an afterthought or a powerhouse? Do non-dominant sports still get community support (wrestling or volleyball in Cooperstown, for instance) or are they viewed as competition to the main sport like wrestling was at Auguga Academy or like anything but fall football was at a lot of Alabama schools.
I also note when people don’t cover sports. Treating sports as an afterthought was one of many reasons I did not like the old product. Even if the previous editor did not care for sports himself, what about the readers? What do they want? What do they care about?
That’s the main reason we are covering sports now. It isn’t (just) because I care about sports. It is because you care about sports. And in a local newspaper, I think you care more about it than opinions or politics. Maybe it isn’t more important than local news and arts, but part of the job of a newspaper is to provide something for all of its readers.
So, that’s why we are covering sports, but we cannot do it without your help. We need coaches to call or email results, or parents to email or message box scores. We need help with proper formatting (email me for a guide, unformatted track results won’t run). We need help with story tips. Send them all to firstname.lastname@example.org and send good photos, too.
Like pretty much everything here under new management, this is a work in progress, but it is one I am thrilled to undertake and I hope it is one you are thrilled to see.
Thanks for your help.