Storyboard contributor (and Charlotte Observer columnist) Tommy Tomlinson recently sent us a link to a sports narrative by Dan Wetzel, describing it as a great example of a story done on deadline. Tomlinson noted the pressures faced by newspaper reporters covering athletic events, adding that Wetzel’s story made him “wonder if newspaper people should change their strategy on this kind of story—maybe do two versions, quick-and-dirty for the paper and in-depth for the Web.”
Wetzel, who is Yahoo! Sports’ national columnist, covered the January 7 BCS National Championship game, in which Alabama beat Texas 37-21. He turned in a well-written tale of two Texas quarterbacks facing defeat, with a wonderful opening scene.
We talked by phone this morning about his column. While a few hours to turn around a narrative piece is hardly a big window, Wetzel felt that he was fortunate to have more time than print reporters in which to write.
During the interview, Wetzel also shared how he found his lede, offered some unofficial rules of sports writing, and highlighted two things necessary for turning out good stories. Here are excerpts from our talk:
When you covered the BCS National Championship game, you focused on the two Texas quarterbacks—a senior and a freshman—who lost the game. At what point did you know that was your story?
You’re allowed to go down the field for the last seven minutes of the game or so. I was standing on the sideline, and the Texas freshman was making a big comeback. It was down there that that I decided that I would probably go with the quarterbacks. But the game fell apart on him, and Alabama ended up winning by a couple touchdowns.
I was debating with myself, because it’s a risk in sports writing to write about the losing team. It’s not an ironclad rule, but you better have something good if you’re writing about the losers. It was right up until the end of the game that I was making sure that was what I wanted to do.
Can you talk a little about the structure of the piece? It seems like five distinct scenes, yet you fold the whole game in.
I thought they were intertwined—the two of them. McCoy was this huge star, so you have one story with McCoy. Here’s this kid, he’s played four years, and he’s from Texas. His name is Colt McCoy, and he’s from Tuscola, Texas, and all he wants to do is lead Texas to the national championship. So he prepares his whole life for this moment, his whole career, and then he gets hurt. You get this same kind of thing sometimes with the Olympics, because the Olympics are about these singular moments in people’s lives. The disappointment of that moment was one story—I could have written the whole story on Colt McCoy.
Then you have this freshman who they had to throw in there, who’d barely played at all the whole year. And he’s just absolutely awful. That adds this whole human element of “the worst night of your life.” Imagine getting on the biggest stage in college football and being terrible. He’s from Austin, which is where the school is, so his whole life all he wanted to do was lead Texas to the national championship, too. And then he makes this incredible comeback, but it falls apart. So there’s this whole other story on Garrett Gilbert.
So there are two different stories, and then the fact that they’re intertwined came out of the interviews. Obviously, Garrett had looked up to McCoy from the moment he’d gotten to campus. He wanted to be the next Colt McCoy. There was this relationship with the two of them that Garrett explained in the locker room. I had never spoken to Garrett in my life and knew nothing about him before he got put in that game, but there was enough good stuff that I felt like I needed to have them both in there.
Another thing about sports writing is that you always want to write about the star—that’s another general rule. McCoy’s the big name, so even though Garrett’s story is pretty compelling, part of you doesn’t want to hinge a whole column on it.
With the Internet, you’ve got to fight for every reader. It’s not like the paper, where people can pick it up and leaf through it to see what’s interesting. You’ve got to grab them, or else they’ll read not only the other 20 things on your site, they’ll go to some other page. You’re not just competing against other news sources, you’re competing against everything. You can’t get too cute with topic. That was part of the motivation on using McCoy—I had to get McCoy into the story.
Who did you talk to for the piece?
I went out on the field right after the gun fired and watched McCoy—I tried to follow him. He was getting interviewed by the ABC reporter, Lisa Salters. So I had a little bit of that scene. I couldn’t hear what he said, because it was so loud. But I watched him on the field after the game.
Then I followed Gilbert. He went over, and they sang “The Eyes of Texas.” He tried to keep it together then. They had incredible access at this thing—you could walk right off the field with the team, which usually they don’t let you do. Guys were patting him on the back, and then he started to cry. He was emotionally spent.
There were like 30 or 40 minutes in the locker room where both these kids were just incredibly poised. I don’t think Gilbert knew any better. He just stood there and answered every question. McCoy, who is just an incredible kid, and really mature, intelligent and articulate—he answered everything, too. Really without those two being such good talkers, and being open to interview questions, it wouldn’t have worked. You can’t always get football players to talk about when they were crying. I think that’s the whole strength of the story.
Colt McCoy trying to throw the ball to his father is a great image. What made you open with that?
After the game, McCoy was talking for a while. All the reporters kept coming up to him, and particularly for television, they were asking the same basic questions. So it was a very disjointed way to do an interview, but if you stick with it, you can fish out the good stuff.
I wanted to know the moment he knew he couldn’t play. He goes, “Yeah, we were in here.” And he described throwing the ball. And then I said, “Who’d you throw it to?” And then he said it was his dad—his dad was this huge figure in his life, his high school coach.
I asked, “How many times have you thrown to your dad?” And he said it was millions. I knew that was the moment. With stories like this you want to get people who don’t care about the game to buy in. This is a scene that I think everyone would understand. Every single person understands that dads and sons pass the ball back and forth, that these two guys had thrown a million passes to each other. Now here he was trying to throw one more to his dad, and he couldn’t do it. And so he couldn’t play in the biggest game.
There’s such a human element to that. Again, it came out of McCoy wanting to tell that stuff, but once the dad got involved, there was no way that couldn’t be the big scene. Instead of going with a timeline, I think about when I get home at night—or the next day when someone calls me—what’s the first thing I’m going to tell them? That’s the most important part of the story.
What time did you hand in your story? Who edited it?
I don’t know how long it took to write—maybe an hour. Generally we try to get our stories in an hour and a half after the game. That was kind of a longer process. Football’s a little tougher—you have to get around and back out of these big stadiums. It was probably an hour after I got back. And then we actually had an editor on site—Gerry Ahern, our college editor. He edited it and I’m sure it went to our desk in Santa Monica, and somebody read it there.
What’s your background—where did you get your start covering sports?
I covered sports at a college paper, at UMass Amherst, and then I did some news and city reporting in Indianapolis and Chicago for a little bit. And then I went back to writing sports at a kind of small basketball magazine … Basketball Times. Just about everything from hard news to magazine writing. I’ve worked online since the late ’90s, and I’ve been at Yahoo! since 2003.
You’ve clearly had some success writing in different formats. There’s a lot of discussion in journalism about how longer narratives do or don’t work online. What do you think makes for good online storytelling?
Topic, I think. If it’s interesting, people will read endless pages online. Sometimes you’ll see an Esquire thing or New Yorker thing that will go viral, because it’s about the right topic. I’m a big topic guy. Obviously you’ve got to keep things rolling. I didn’t look at this as a feature story exactly, but it is longer than I would normally write a game column. If you’ve got enough to make it long, go ahead and do it. If you’ve got a lot of freedom, write the story the best way you can.
The two most important things to me in writing are time and space. I have space. No one’s going to cut out the last five inches of my story just because there’s a tire ad in the way. And I had time. I didn’t have days to write the story, but I had time to talk with Colt McCoy. I wasn’t trying to get out of there so I could get back and write. I was on deadline but not really—if I had worked at a newspaper that night, I would have been scrambling to file something. So I had time to talk both of those guys without feeling panicked. If it had taken me an hour and a half or 45 minutes to write, it didn’t matter.
But with sports writing and newspapers, the deadline is extreme. When I’ve done it, it’s the hardest writing you can possibly do. The outcome of the event can change three minutes before you have to file, and everyone’s seen what you’re writing about. People were writing during the game that Texas got blown out, then all of the sudden, they were making a comeback—what would have been the greatest comeback of the title game. But then he ended up blowing it.
There’s extreme pressure on those guys who have to file immediately. But anybody with the time and the space I had would have gotten that story.
Anything else you’d like to say about the story—anything interesting we wouldn’t know from reading it?
I wanted to find the dad, but I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere for him. That would have made it a lot better, so that was frustrating. I got one guy who wasn’t supposed to talk to the media to confirm that [McCoy] was throwing a ball, because you never know. I didn’t think Colt McCoy was lying, but recreating a scene based on one person’s account is a little dicey. It would have been a very unusual thing for McCoy to make up, but you still want to check.
But I really wish I could have found the dad, because his emotion—any parent would feel worse about that event than the child. If the dad had gotten in there, Garrett Gilbert would have been out of the story.