Thursday, February 16, 2012

Excellent Sports Writing - from Ballard, Lake, Bamberger & Hruby

There have been a number of sports pieces I've come across lately that featured really solid writing worth noting.

Personal favorite was "Man in Full" from Chris Ballard a week ago for Sports Illustrated. It was profound and thoroughly reported (as detailed in my blog post linking to a Ballard interview) writing on Chicago area high school wrestling coach Mike Powell. Stricken with the muscle wasting disease polymyositis, Powell is put in horrible personal circumstances and what makes the story so compelling is his continued relationship to the team of kids he leads. Really well done piece by Ballard which includes Powell's career path working with kids in need and imparting to his athletes a lesson of "manliness" different than is traditionally associated with the term. Its not to say one guy exactly the same as another, but the story of Powell reminded me of that I saw years ago on youth track coach John Baker (who had an elementary school named in his honor).

The most recent Feb 20 issue of SI also had two pieces that stood out with one being another profound high school athlete related story and one an insightful golf piece. The "writing with great meaning" was done by Thomas Lake and titled "The Legacy Of Wes Leonard". Subtitle to the piece is "You may have heard about the Michigan high schooler who made a game-winning basket and then died. Here's the rest of the story: a violent car crash, a bone-shaking tackle, a near-perfect season, a reluctant substitute and a search for the will to carry on" and what got me most from the story was the content about the automatic external defibrillator. Leonard suffered a sudden cardiac arrest of his heart and its definitely unknown whether a defibrillator would have saved him, but the potentially lifesaving machine at the high school had been neglected and found to have a dead battery when applied to Leonard's chest. Out of this sad situation has come some good, though, with mother Jocelyn Leonard creating the Wes Leonard Heart Team and spearheading efforts to have a working defibrillator available at youth sporting events with someone trained to use it. Additionally, of note on the Heart Team site is a link to an ESPN Outside the Lines 16 minute story "Wes Leonard: Never Forgotten".

From the same issue of Sports Illustrated came a piece that stood out to me in part because I didn't expect it to. "The Meaning Of Pebble Beach" by Michael Bamberger could have simply been a recap of the recent PGA Tour event, but instead wound up as an insightful look into Tiger Woods and where he is now in both life and his golf game. Its very cool to come across pieces like this that don't scream out "feature story on something of great meaning", but wind up as interesting and insightful.

Last piece to note here was written by Patrick Hruby in the Yahoo Sports ThePostGame section. "End Game: Brain Trauma And The Future Of Youth Football In America" details the head injury suffered by Sequim, WA high school QB Drew Rickerson and then gets wider on the danger of concussions and need for concussion education. It was sad, but not surprising to read of mother Jean Rickerson and her attempt to further awareness and training around concussions and getting ignored by some coaches and administrators. This difficulty in getting people to move past their preconceived notions of "toughness" and "playing through pain" reminded me of something from the excellent Thomas Lake SI story "The Boy Who Died of Football". Lake wrote the following towards the end of a piece on Max Gilpin, a 15 year old who suffered heatstroke during a practice and then passed away: "Later, when he looked back at his son's last practice, Jeff Gilpin was filled with pride and wonder. "I underestimated this kid, big-time," he said. "His heart. Can you imagine the fortitude it took to keep running out there?"

Back to Hruby and his piece on concussions, his commentary at the end of the piece is me thinks spot on with "Protect our national pastime. Protect our children's brains. The hope is that we can do both. Biology and physics suggest otherwise. Safer does not mean safe. In locker rooms and school board meetings, quiet funerals and noisy grandstands, the future of youth football may not be matter of risk management. It may be a matter of risk acceptance. Roll the dice."