The story started in one direction and ended up going in a jarringly different one. But when the time came to write a feature on the Auburn Tigers softball team, ESPN’s Tom Junod went back to where he’d started.

 

With a big difference. He was now untangling a knot that he didn’t expect to find. He set out to write something of a love story. But now he was writing a mystery.

 

In the opening scene of the story, Junod is riding the tour bus with the Tigers. He stands in the aisle, at the coach’s urging, and tries to explain just why he is there.

 

He is interested in the emotion that softball players seemed to thrive on, he tells them. He is interested in the sadness and the joy that he’d seen freely expressed in the sport. The clean drama he’d seen on television. The drama that seemed to have slipped away from men’s sports.

He expects the team to be supportive. Instead his words fall flat.

That’s when the story pivots on a long and twisted sentence, well into the fat fourth paragraph of the piece, and offers the first real sign that things are not what they appear to be. From Junod’s story:

I could not have suspected, much less known, what they, even then, had to know – that the very dream I extolled would, within the space of days, be broken and that the bastion of simple joy I described would, before the next season began, lay in ruins, with their coaches disgraced, their athletic director resigned in the wake of scandal and investigation, and two of the players on the bus being shunned by their teammates.

His narrative turns on that sentence. One long sentence that introduces the darkness that creeps its way into the story like it is about to creep into Junod’s consciousness. You know something’s wrong, but you don’t immediately know what it is.

“Bob Dylan has a whole song on the process, right?” Junod said, making his point. The song is called “Ballad of a Thin Man. “

“And you know something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do ya, Mister Jones?” Junod half-sang the last part over the phone to me in a decent Dylan imitation.

“That’s a song about a reporter,” he said.

 

Some background: The construction of Junod’s piece – which is also published as “Secrets Within the Game” on Magzter.com – was actually determined over the last year as Junod and other ESPN reporters broke news stories on the scandal that he began unveiling that day on the bus. (The online version of the feature story also includes links to the news stories.)

 

An Auburn investigation found that associate head coach Corey Myers engaged in unwanted sexual contact with two players. Myers, who was Auburn’s acknowledged “coach in waiting” – heir apparent to the softball dynasty – resigned and was banned from campus. His brother Casey Myers, an assistant coach, resigned. Their father, legendary head coach Clint Myers, retired. Jay Jacobs, Auburn’s athletic director, stepped down.

The news stories laid out the nuts and bolts of the scandal that Junod stumbled into when he set out to profile the team and its passion for the game.

“The existence of the news stories influenced and determined the construction of the feature,” Junod told me.

So when it came time to write his feature, Junod worked in the spaces that remained empty: How the unfolding scandal presented itself and later, in the second of his two-book narrative, what resulted and how it affected the people involved.

With the news in his pocket, Junod started his longform piece by returning to the scene on the bus and his own romantic introduction to the Auburn softball program.

“What I tried to do is recreate my almost complete lack of knowledge,” he said.  “I went in there completely naïve and completely unknowing. I got wised up, really, against my will. I didn’t want these people to be what they turned out to be.”

“That whole story is an exercise in putting off revelations.”

The story’s slow reveals are the same reveals that Junod came upon through his observation – even if he couldn’t totally put his finger as it was happening.

“It’s not often that things reveal themselves all at once and in dramatic fashion,” he said. “Things are often glimpsed and you think, ‘Did I see what I just saw?’”

That’s one of the basic conundrums of a reporter. Which observations are telling and which aren’t? Which anecdotes are revealing and which aren’t? Junod’s story is good because, in large part, he collected his initial observations while reporting his planned story. Then, when the news broke, it was a case of looking back again and making decisions about approach, tone and structure, this time with the knowledge of how the story ends.

“That whole story is an exercise in putting off revelations,” he said. “Kind of hinting that there’s something going on, but putting off revelations.”

 

And that’s what makes Junod’s story resonate. There’s something going on, but you don’t know what it is. Like any good mystery, those unfolding hints create narrative drive. The effect is an ominous sense of darkness with occasional camera-flashes of light and suspicion.

Junod (the observer, the reporter and the parent of a ball-playing daughter) inevitably becomes a character in the story. Some of his personal experiences and observations seemed strange at first. On second thought, they become revelatory – almost an echo to Junod’s own revelations: Don’t trust first impressions. The ground moves.

That’s what makes this story hard to shake.

Like the time that there is an empty seat at the players’ table during dinner at a Gainesville restaurant. Junod asks some players if he can join them.

’No,’ she (senior third base man Kasey Cooper) said flatly, before explaining that the seat was spoken for.

Later, Cooper, the reluctant spokeswoman for the team, says she wants to be a surgeon because it is the only job that would allow her to help humanity and at the same time remain in control and essentially alone.

’I hate people,’ she said for effect, but also with something like resignation.

And another excerpt that points to a player isolated from the rest of the team:

Wherever the team was, she wasn’t, and she was always occupied by the life apparently unfolding on her phone. I would have thought her simply standoffish if she didn’t also seem so sad, as isolated as she was enigmatic.

In another scene players are passing their phones back and forth and clapping their hands over their mouths in shock or bursting into angry and heartbroken tears.

Junod’s challenge: Did I see what I thought I saw?

 

Most times, reporters do their work after the news has happened. We don’t usually get to do our reporting while the bank is being robbed.

There are several things that make Junod’s narrative special. First, he was with the softball team, although for another story, while it was happening. Second, he was inspired to attempt the initial story because his daughter is a softball player with thoughts of playing at the college level. At one point, Junod even sets up a meeting between his daughter and Auburn Coach Clint Myers. He enters the story not just as a a reporter but as a parent. It feels warm and inclusive when Myers tells Junod that he is now part of the Auburn softball “family.”

Later Junod realizes that he is anything but.

The ground moves.

 

Junod said he had never worked harder on a story for ESPN. (For many years he wrote for Esquire.) The time invested – he lived with the story for more than a year – was just a start. At one point he pulled an all-nighter, going to bed at 3 a.m. only to get up and back to the story an hour later. He filed 138 interviews on his computer, most of them off-the-record conversations with people who wanted to see the story come to light, but were unwilling to have their names attached. To provide cover to one source, he met her in mid-afternoon at a Mexican restaurant a couple towns away.

 

Which brings us back to that opening scene on the tour bus. The afternoon when the Auburn players surprisingly don’t swing at Junod’s opening pitch. When he catches a glimpse … or does he?

It is a challenge then. Later it informs his storytelling technique.

After his story was published, Junod said he talked to Auburn assistant Sports Information Director Cody Voga. “He was a really good guy and he said, ‘So tell me, you really didn’t know anything?’

“I told him, ‘I knew nothing.’

“And he said, ‘I find that really hard to believe.’

“And I said, ‘You have to believe it. I knew nothing.’”

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