Saturday, March 29, 2008

Don't you forget about me

An interesting combination of circumstances conspired to form the genesis of this post. Yesterday, I was riding back from a field trip to the Globe and Mail's Toronto office with several Journal colleagues, sitting in a crowded van, listening to 80's music and reading Sports Illustrated's Fifty Years of Great Writing. The Simple Minds song Don't You (Forget About Me) of Breakfast Club fame came on, and it struck me that in many ways, that's what great sportswriting is really all about: capturing the games, events and legends and firmly entrenching them in the readers' minds. The ability to do that turns a talented backfield from merely Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden, who would have been remembered as merely one of the many talented units in 1920s college football and likely forgotten about soon afterwards, into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who have remained outlined against a blue-gray October sky for almost 84 years and seem probable to stay there for many more.

There are many different ways to immortalize someone. Some, like Grantland Rice, the man who transplanted the Horsemen from the realm of fantastic apocalyptic literature to the much tamer gridiron, take athletes and almost mythologize them. However, as revealed in Mark Inabinett's terrific book Grantland Rice and His Heroes: The Sportswriter as Mythmaker in the 1920s, Rice also took pains to humanize his subjects off the field. Others take the approach of negative immortality, or creating legends who will forever live in infamy. A great example of this (to someone who was more than deserving) is Russ Conway's superb takedown of Alan Eagleson in his "Cracking the Ice" series for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, which was later turned into the book Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey. Still others receive immortality for being the traditional role player who steps up to make the big play at the crucial time: great examples of this are Paul Henderson and David Tyree. Then there are those who are famous only because of tragedy: John Malangone, who Gary Smith immortalized in Damned Yankee, and Mickey Renaud, who thousands have wrote about, but Gare Joyce perhaps best chronicled.

The overarching point is that making people and events memorable, whether they're already famous in their own right or not, is the essence of a sportswriting job in my mind. Sometimes, you're in the right place at the right time to cover a spectacular event and catch lightning in a bottle: other times, you have to go out and find the story. There are plenty of ways and styles to etch people or events in memories, whether it's Rice's poetic allusions, the emotion Smith conveys to the audience, or Conway's scathing investigative journalism. Sports are one of the best arenas for legends: many of us can recall the "Shot Heard Round the World," the "Rumble in the Jungle", or the exploits of Cyclone Taylor, even though they were long before our time. It's up to this generation of sportswriters to carry the torch, and make it so people 50 years down the road will be talking about events like Manning-to-Tyree (or, as I prefer, "David and Eliath" or "The Great Escape"), Barnsley knocking off Chelsea, or closer to home, the overthrow of the Ravens, and people like Bobby Orr or Michael Beasley.

As an interesting sidebar, I went to a 1920s party last night, and of course chose to dress as Grantland Rice (fedora and all, thanks to Mike). Many people had no idea who he was, but a few of the more sport-inclined types got it, which is pretty impressive considering that Rice died 54 years ago. Perhaps spending a career immortalizing legends sometimes brings its own deserved immortality.


  1. Me next to Pos? That's character assassination by association.

    Man, a 1920s party ... university students are so much more sophisticated now; I'll pretend everyone got the idea from Fever Pitch (the Barrymore/Fallon remake; I have the better version too).

  2. Haha, I refused to watch the baseball version of Fever Pitch: I figured there was no possible way to turn a fantastic soccer book (one of my favorites) into a movie about the Red Sox involving Drew Barrymore without completely destroying it. It also didn't have Nick Hornby involved, so that further degraded it in my books. I didn't know there was an original soccer version until now though, so I'll definitely have to check that out.