Maybe someday I will have earned this column.
Maybe I will be 60 years old and bleary-eyed from staring at screens and squinting at podiums. By then, they’ll have figured out how to safely administer coffee directly into my bloodstream. What a time it will be.
Maybe I will have been a great sportswriter — not just a good one — and write a true farewell column; not one en route to the next great adventure but the last whistle of the final one.
Maybe then I will have earned the “great goodbye and summation” of all of my proudest moments and clips. Maybe it’ll be in listicle form, or a slide show, or whatever shape journalism has taken by then.
For now, though, I continue to be a product of those I’ve met along the way. The beat is football, I like to say, but the story is people.
So it’s only fitting that I tell you about them.
I wouldn’t be here if John Boogert and Debra Leithauser didn’t give me a shot. When we first spoke on the phone, a bit over two years ago, I know they could hear in my voice how badly I wanted a chance to get a big-time beat of my own, and mold into something of which I continue to be fiercely proud. They gave me that chance, and I have worked every day to return that investment tenfold.
James Franklin and I sat down three weeks after I’d gotten to State College. Why he gave me the time of day, for 13 minutes before his 7 a.m. meetings, I still don’t know. I mispronounced his wife’s name. Twice. He cradled a non-fat triple shot vanilla latte and didn’t take a sip; left it on his desk when he left. He said, “I think my greatest quality is my drive. But I also think it’s what might be my undoing.”
There have been many, many more interactions with Franklin and his staff since that simple, throwaway meeting. That’s the phrase that has stuck out to me since.
The head coach, and the sports information directors around him, are crucial in allowance of access. I won’t pretend it has been perfect — it isn’t anywhere — but I was always treated with an enormous amount of respect by Franklin, Jeff Nelson, Kris Petersen, Greg Campbell and Mark Brumbaugh as we have navigated the push and pull (sometimes a little heel-dragging on both sides) of gaining access to some of the more personal stories of players.
Without them, I would never have watched a former safety’s face melt into tears as he talked about his deceased grandparents, who were the inspiration for his baptism right before the start of his senior season. I would never have sprinted out through the Heinz Field media room tunnel after a sobbing receiver to shake his hand and thank him for volunteering to speak to us through his emotion. I’d never have met a once-in-a-lifetime running back or heard why he’s proud he looks just like his mother. I wouldn’t have had a chance to see the square-chinned defiance on the face of a young quarterback when he was reminded time and again of all of the qualities that make him an underdog, or seen a defensive tackle take the field days after his father passed away. I’d never have seen the slow-burning pride of a young man using his platform courageously to articulate matters of race and social injustice in America, an interview that honestly has changed my life.
These players, and so many parents, coaches, assistants, recruits and even professors have trusted me with their stories here at Penn State. To them, I express my sincerest gratitude. I have learned so much from them.
I read everyone on this beat every week. I think a constant study of others’ contributions is so important in this work. From York’s Frank Bodani, I’ve learned how important it is to veer a different direction when so many go for the star player. From FightOnState’s Mark Brennan, I’ve been reminded how important adaptability is in this profession, while staying true to the foundations of good journalism. From DKPittsburgh Sports’ Audrey Snyder, I’ve been reminded why the tough questions are so important, despite the backlash they often receive. This beat is filled with strong women, and I cherish each one of them and the impact they have on young women all over the country. From the tireless work and willingness to help others of PennLive’s Greg Pickel and StateCollege.com’s Ben Jones and Mike Poorman I have constantly been reminded of the old coach’s idiom, “Do the little things right and the big things will take care of themselves.”
Rich Scarcella, from Reading, invited me out to a dinner with some people on the beat (about 50 writers cover the team, and most travel). I have known what a beat is since I was old enough to read, but it wasn’t until that dinner that I discovered it could also be a family.
Inside the newsroom, Lori Falce taught me how to dissect legalese and court documents. She also fed me during the season when she found out I was existing on coffee and to-go cups of soup. The sports team, copy, digital and design desk — Ryne Gery, Johnny McGonigal, Gordon Brunskill, Lauren Muthler, Matt Hymowitz, Sarah Rafacz, Dave Kubarek, Nate Cobler, Jess McAllister, Shawn Annarelli — have put up with panicked emails, obsessive-compulsive tweaks to stories at 2 a.m., and sometimes very wordy writing for which, bless them, they always found room in the newspaper. I can’t tell if a person has to be nocturnal, amazing, or just plain crazy to work as a newspaper copy editor, designer or digital editor, but I think it’s probably all three at once.
Abby Drey has been the best photographer, travel partner and person I have known in this profession. The community is lucky to have her capturing its multitude of moments.
Finally, State College has been unforgettably warm. I get handwritten letters from some of you, and I want you to know that I keep every one. A woman emails me every week to let me know what she liked about my stories the week before, and my landlord’s mother-in-law, a CDT reader, left cookies for me on my seat in press row at the Bryce Jordan Center because she felt bad that I couldn’t be home for the holidays. I have loved the dialogue; I have even appreciated the shouting on either side of the Joe Paterno divide because it has been fascinating (and at times overwhelmingly frustrating) to explore the nuance of the community’s feeling toward the former head coach.
I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to cover the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer alongside some truly wonderful people. I leave in days; but it doesn’t feel like I’m actually going. Maybe it’s because it has all happened so fast.
But maybe it’s because it’s true that I’m a product of those who have surrounded me.
I don’t feel like I’m leaving, because you all are coming with me.