Following Widespread Panic, Life in Mississippi and Writing: An Interview with ESPN’s Wright Thompson
For the longest time, readers have asked us: Why haven’t you interviewed Wright Thompson? Today’s that day, folks. He’s much more eloquent than we are, so we’ll just step aside and let him enthrall you with stories about dealing with Nick Saban and writing about Elvis (Grbac).
Q: At this point you’re one of the more highly-acclaimed features/takeout writers in sports, and a couple of folks seem to think it all started during your days at Missouri when you beat the KC Star on a coaching hire story, and one of your keys to success – as the story goes – was tracking the school’s corporate plane (before it was wildly popular). Do you think this is when your career ‘took off’ and if not, what would you call the tipping point?
I don’t really think anyone believes their career has taken off. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think when you’re inside it, living and dying with each story, your world doesn’t extend that far into the future. I certainly don’t think I’ve quote-unquote made it, or have this figured out. This business humbles all of us every day. And I find that I’m never satisfied. You know, at first, if I can just win one award, that’ll prove that my work is recognized. Then it’s, if I could just win one APSE award. Then if I could just win one APSE every year, then that would be enough. If I can just get into Best American Sports Writing once, I’d be satisfied. No, twice, just to prove I wasn’t a one-hit wonder. I don’t think the insecurity ever goes away. That moment you’re talking about, however, was a large confidence boost, which I needed. I’d been rejected by probably every newspaper in the country for an internship and, to be honest, I was wondering if I was cut out for this.
Q: Your college success sort of led to ‘pressure’ on you coming into the profession, mostly because very few sportswriters emerge from college with an APSE award. To create a basketball analogy, you were sort of like Carmelo Anthony – you made brief newspaper spots in Louisiana and KC and now you’re in the pros at ESPN. What was it like to be put under the microscope and have everything you’ve written get so scrutinized in such a competitive profession?
Well, I think that question has two separate answers. First, I’ve never felt like there was “pressure.” In college, I was part of a pretty amazing team and it felt like that. And I wasn’t the only one on that staff who’d had recognition. Justin Heckert won some of those awards, too, and Seth Wickersham was already working at the magazine. Writing on the same staff as Heckert is, well, I was going to have some line about cooking in the same kitchen with Thomas Keller, but everyone I tried out in my head sounded dumb, so let me just say that it is difficult. And I felt more pressure just holding my own covering the MU football beat with Seth than I did in New Orleans. I’ll never forget the first day, when he’d just come back from an internship at the Washington freaking Post and I’d been following Widespread Panic around the country, camping out at Red Rocks, writing for this free music pamphlet — literally printed on copier paper — in Oxford, Mississippi. I was sure that I was about to be exposed as a total fraud. I was incredibly intimidated.
In terms of the microscope, that’s been a bit strange. But, you know, I like it when people have nice things to say about my stories, so I can’t really bitch when they say something critical. It’s just part of it.
Q: One of the best stories we’ve heard about Nick Saban (when he was at LSU) is the time you supposedly made a five-hour drive to knock on Saban’s door and ask him if he was taking a pro coaching job. Is this story true, and what was his reaction when you showed up? What was it like covering Saban?
Sadly, that story is not true. Covering Saban was interesting. We had some blow-ups, mostly from me writing stories about a scandal at the academic center for student athletes, and I didn’t always like how he dealt with people. I thought he could be a bully. But, here’s the other side: Saban is an amazing football coach and it was always fascinating to watch him at practice, in tiny teaching moments. That’s where he genius lies. He might have a totally different view of this, but I think we left with a strange begrudging respect for one another. That could also just be what six years have done to my memories, burnishing and rounding them. I doubt I would have answered this question that way in 2002.
Q: You wrote a memorable piece on QB Elvis Grbac that had a great buildup, but ended with you outside of his house, choosing not to interrupt his idyllic life. Is that the kind of decision you come to yourself, or upon the advice of an editor? What was the feedback like from readers on that one?
That was my decision. The story, to me, wasn’t about Grbac but about Kansas City’s relationship with him. And there were two issues at play, one moral and another mechanical. First, I’d tried to set up an interview with him. He wasn’t having it. I’d spoken with him in the coffee shop; I was certain he wasn’t going to do the big sit down (which wouldn’t have helped the story really anyway, but more on that later). And when I got to his house, at the end of this cul-de-sac, and there was his cute house with his kid’s toys outside, I just realized that it was wrong for me to insert myself into his life because some fans didn’t like how he played a game. It just felt slimy and disgusting. I talked on the phone to Seth about it — maybe while I was parked there … I don’t actually remember — and he agreed with me, maybe was even more adamant that pulling away was the right thing to do. And, let’s be honest, going up to the door has the potential to wreck the ending of the story. Basically, there are four outcomes. One, no one comes to the door, which ruins the end, because its ambiguous and anti-climatic. Second, he comes to the door and is polite but says no, which doesn’t help the story and isn’t as powerful as driving away. Third, he opes the door and just MFs me, which would have been great, but I got the sense that he was too smart for that. Fourth, he invites me and talks for hours, which he’d done before to our paper, and all over KC, and that didn’t seem that interesting to me. So I felt like I wasn’t not doing my job in order to feel good as a person. The two things lined up. The larger issue is that I try to treat people as I’d want to be treated. Just basic human being 101, I guess.
Q: Something we’ve observed about your work is that in KC and Louisiana, you had crank out many stories because that’s the nature of the newspaper industry. Now it seems as if you have much more time to do in-depth reporting and craft lengthy, more substantive pieces (this Tony Harris piece being just one of them). Could you talk about how significant of a difference this is?
It’s a gigantic difference. I probably spent more than a week on a story seven or eight times in my four years in Kansas City. Now, I spent at least that every time out. I get to read all the books about a topic now, before I make a single phone call. I get comfortable with the history of a place or an issue, and I have time to go down dead-end streets in my reporting. The biggest difference, to me, is the time to write. To try things out. Before, in KC, I wrote most of those things live, on deadline, on Saturday morning. So I had to outline and write in a way that I was positive would work. There wasn’t time for a do over. Now, I have time to think about stories. The similarities — especially between KC and ESPN — are having the benefit of incredible editors. At KC, I worked with Mike Fannin — the best newspaper editor around. And at ESPN, I work with Jay Lovinger and Kevin Jackson every day. Jay is one of the giants of magazine editing, going back to Inside Sports, and he’s become a mentor and friend. KJ is amazing, too, and is also someone whose friendship I treasure. Those are the two that have to deal with me. I also work with Michael Knisley and Jena Janovy, the enterprise editors, who are responsible for some pretty awesome journalism. Over at the Magazine, I work mostly with Chris Berend, and he’s been a tremendous influence. So I’ve got a lot of talented people to keep me from making a total fool of myself in public.
Q: Who would you say were your key writing influences growing up?
Willie Morris is the reason I’m here. I read his famous memoir North Toward Home when I was in high school, and when I put it down, I knew I wanted to be a writer. He was from Mississippi, too, and was the editor of Harper’s at a very young age, just a giant of quote-unquote new journalism. He was friends with my daddy, and Willie gave me an inscribed copy of NTH when he heard I loved it so much. That is my most treasured possession. I didn’t read journalists really until I got to college; I, like everyone, was a huge Hemingway fan. (I still am.) In college, I read a lot of Bill Plaschke. Of course Gary Smith and Tom Junod and Michael Paterniti. I read Joe Posnanski a lot and, until I was sure of my voice, when in doubt, I’d try to imagine what Joe would do. Rick Telander’s been a guiding light and a dear friend, and also makes the world’s best margaritas.
Recently, I’ve been reading and rereading Norman Mailer. The book The Fight was very influential to me, because it showed me how a “real” writer, a novelist, someone who produces literature, would handle an event that I might have been sent to cover. He spent a lot of time on motivation, which seems obvious, but was interesting to see in practice. My stories have too often had hard earned and exclusive scene without telling the reader why someone was doing something. It’s something I’ll keep in mind.
Q: In an interview with us, your friend Jeff Darlington of the Miami Herald said he’d like to see you, 15 years from now, in the Florida Keys writing novels. Your thoughts?
I’d love to do that. I’m not there yet, either as a writer and as someone with a big idea. That’s the biggest hindrance to me writing a novel right now. I think stylistically, I could pull it off. But I just don’t have a story inside of me yet that demands to come out. But if that happens, I’m gone, baby, gone. I’ll be in Islamorada, writing and fishing. I bet Darlington’s ass will be there, too.
Q: ESPN allows its writers to live anywhere in the country, and you have chosen Mississippi, where you are from. Not sure how many readers we have in that fine state, but can you tell us what life is like out there?
I live in Oxford. In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect place for a writer to live. It’s nurturing; it has perhaps the best book store in America, which is owned by the mayor. There are a lot of writers here: several critically acclaimed novelists, a screenwriter, a poet, a guy who’s had a short story published in Esquire, the best food writer in America, a documentary filmmaker, a literary agent, a few magazine editors, a songwriter or seven. And the truth is, Mississippi has always felt like home to me, even when I lived other places. I kept my Mississippi driver’s license. I kept my Mississippi tags. I love the way people from here travel several hours to an old restaurant, just because their parents did, and because it feels the same. Nothing makes me happier than long drives through the cotton fields of the Delta to Doe’s Eat Place, or Lusco’s, or back home to Clarksdale to Ramon’s. I can’t explain it really, except to say that I’m glad to be home.
Q: Would you like to see more athletes take a stand on national and international issues? The most famous athletes – Jordan, LeBron, etc – avoid doing so, and the lesser-known athletes who choose to do so rarely have an impact because they’re not famous. Is this something sports fans should care about?
I go back and forth on this. It doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, because I try not to see them as sportsmen. I see them as entertainers, and they are protecting a brand. That said, it is insane that we hold up LeBron as a hero when he is tacitly approving of the China’s stance on Darfur. And yes. He is approving of it — not speaking out against China’s role there isn’t an accident; it is a conscious decision. You don’t get to sit the fence on such a clear cut moral issue. You’re for it or you’re against it. Not a lot of gray there.
Give us your a one-sentence thoughts on the political races this year. Go watch Obama’s speech from Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Last sports book and the last non-spots book you read: Non sports: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin. Last sports; What a Time it Was by W.C. Heinz.
Best arena to attend a sporting event? Augusta National.
Your favorite newspaper columnist to read right now: Geoff Calkins. Non columnists, which are more my speed: Wayne Coffey and Eli Saslow.
Boxing or MMA? Neither.
- John Tortorella And a Ref Dropped F-Bombs On Live TV During the Rangers-Bruins Game [Video]
- LeBron James and Paul George’s Epic Game 1 Battle Looks Even Cooler in Slow Motion [Video]
- Manchester City Players Were Super Excited To Catch Passes From Eli Manning [Video]
- Miami Heat Remix of Pitbull’s “Feel This Moment?” Dále!
- Buffalo Bills Fan Has O.J. Simpson Mug Shot Tattoo on His Thigh
- Smallie Bigs on Fox Sports 1 Heavily in Pursuit of Former NFL Player Trevor Pryce and ESPN Chicago's Sarah Spain
- Monster is Meth on Fox Sports 1 Heavily in Pursuit of Former NFL Player Trevor Pryce and ESPN Chicago's Sarah Spain
- dyslecix on Mario Gjurovski Celebrates Goal By Removing Shorts, Wearing them on His Head, Gets Red Card [Video]
- Some Random Old Dude on Fox Sports 1 Heavily in Pursuit of Former NFL Player Trevor Pryce and ESPN Chicago's Sarah Spain
- Some Random Old Dude on Fox Sports 1 Heavily in Pursuit of Former NFL Player Trevor Pryce and ESPN Chicago's Sarah Spain
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.