The Wall Street Journal’s Russell Adams wrote a story last week about four grown men who’ve spent the past 23 years playing tag. Their shenanigans started in high school, and the men have gone to hilarious (and occasionally expensive) lengths to maintain the narrative into adulthood, and to avoid being “it.” Paragraphs 5 and 6 from Adams’ story:

The game they play is fundamentally the same as the schoolyard version: One player is “It” until he tags someone else. But men in their 40s can’t easily chase each other around the playground, at least not without making people nervous, so this tag has a twist. There are no geographic restrictions and the game is live for the entire month of February. The last guy tagged stays “It” for the year. 

That means players get tagged at work and in bed. They form alliances and fly around the country. Wives are enlisted as spies and assistants are ordered to bar players from the office.

Adams has been a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal since July 2005. Before becoming an editor, he spent four years as a media reporter, focusing on newspaper and magazine publishers adapting to a digital world. Previous beats, at the Journal and elsewhere, included Major League Baseball, and the legal industry.

How’d he find this story on grown men playing tag? He explains:

I wish I had a story behind this story that made me look like a great reporter. But this one was more about dumb luck than anything. One of my best friends, Josh, told me recently that his friend knew a guy in Washington named Patrick Schultheis who was in his 40s and still playing tag with his friends. I had this vision of a bunch of middle-aged guys chasing each other around a playground, which seemed awkward and creepy. Then I learned the details, and thought it was one of the funniest and coolest things I had ever heard. I got a number for Patrick, who opened up about the history of the game and all the crazy, hilarious things that have happened over the years. He also tracked down a copy of the contract that governs the game, and put me in touch with the other players.

The biggest challenge—other than squeezing so many great anecdotes into a 1,000-word piece—was figuring out how to write the story in a way that didn’t leave people thinking, “What a bunch of idiots.” I saw this first and foremost as a story about friendship, and I wanted to convey that without banging people over the head with it.

It’s been so rewarding to see how readers have responded. I think there’s only one line in the story that speaks directly to this idea of the game as a vehicle to keep these guys connected to their youth and to each other. The rest of the story is about guys hiding in trunks, sneaking into bedrooms and generally acting like children. And yet so many people I’ve heard from said they envy these guys and what they have. It seems to have struck a chord. They’ve been bombarded with media and other requests since (last) Tuesday. Now I’m just hoping they don’t secretly hate me for upending their lives.

“How’d you find that story?” seeks to demystify one of the trickiest parts of storytelling: finding a great idea. If you’re wondering how a certain writer landed a narrative, e-mail us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org, and we’ll try to get you an answer. Our last installment featured The New Yorker’s Adam Green and his piece about an amazing pickpocket.

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