BY COURTNEY RATKOWIAK
Daily Sports Editor
Published December 13, 2009
It was Oct. 22, 2006, and I had just turned in my first story for the Daily. I received a few edits in red pen and a healthy dose of horror stories. “The Daily will suck you in,” one of the seniors told me. “You think you have other interests right now, but the Daily will take over your life.”
I didn't find that funny. So I was careful not to get too involved as a freshman, volunteering to write stories only when it wouldn’t get in the way of watching “American Idol” with my roommate on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. I had absolutely no interest in giving up my weekends to travel to away games, so I didn’t.
It was Sept. 10, 2007, and I wasn’t going anywhere fast. Not on foot, anyway. I had had foot surgery three weeks before, which meant on this particular Monday night, I was lying on my futon with a bright blue ice pack strapped to my cast. My cell phone rang. I only answered it because I didn’t have the number saved in my phone.
Then-Daily sports editor Nate Sandals was on the other end, telling me the editors really wanted me to come in that night to interview for a position on the hockey beat. I purposely hadn’t signed up for an interview, I told him. I was perfectly content writing about the men’s swimming team for the next few years, which was a four or five hour-per-week commitment.
But somehow, after an hour-long phone conversation, I hobbled to 420 Maynard St. to meet with six upperclassmen I barely knew. They were apparently desperate for someone to fill that spot on the four-person beat, and I didn’t really understand what I was signing up for.
Turns out I had only lasted 11 months before getting sucked in.
There’s no way I would have known how lucky I was.
It was Oct. 18, 2007, and I was quickly forced to change my mind about road trips. Hockey coach Red Berenson allowed fellow beat writer Mike Eisenstein and me to hitch a ride with the hockey team on its charter plane to Marquette. It was an unprecedented invitation for any Daily writer, and we went through about two minutes of security, walked right onto the plane and found out the “airplane food” included Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and beef jerky.
We were just starting to feel at ease when Berenson rose from his seat, turned around and addressed his team before takeoff.
“Be on your best behavior,” he told them. “Reporters are in attendance.”
He turned to give us one of his legendary stares. I don’t think Mike or I said a word to each other the entire flight, out of sheer intimidation.
But we got to know Coach Berenson better after that. Each day after hockey practice, the coach would trod out of the coaches’ locker room, wearing socks (no shoes) and holding a steaming mug of hot coffee. He’d take his seat on the couch and patiently answer all of our questions. He wasn’t as intimidating then, and I knew I was lucky to be there.
It was April 12, 2008, and I found myself wedged between big guys holding bulky photo equipment, craning my neck to see the final seconds of the NCAA hockey national championship tick down. Michigan had lost in the Frozen Four two days before, but Boston College was about to win the NCAA title and we wanted to be in the middle of it when it happened.
Our media credentials said NO ICE, but beat writer Andy Reid and I snuck past security to try and blend in with the all-access guys and their neon press armbands. The buzzer sounded, the arena went crazy and we ran out, taking turns feverishly snapping pictures of the celebrating Boston College players with my point-and-shoot Nikon as if we were really doing our jobs.
We must have looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care. That was as close to a national championship as I got in my time here at Michigan, and I knew I was lucky to be there.
It was Nov. 21, 2009, and I had just watched Michigan football lose its 16th and final game of my two years in the press box. I had been sure to pull out all the stops for this Ohio State game — waking up to blaring tailgate music at 7 a.m., heckling Buckeye fans from my friend’s house on State and Hill, then changing into business casual and watching from 10 feet away as the football team stormed out under the GO BLUE banner.
After conducting postgame interviews, the four seniors on the football beat walked back down the tunnel and onto the Michigan Stadium turf for the last time. Andy joked about playing a game of pickup football on the field, and I burst into tears. And the tears didn’t stop, even as I transcribed football quotes for the last time and as we slung our press box chairs over our shoulders to take them home as souvenirs.
All of our group photos from after that game suck. My eyes are red and puffy, and I’m forcing a smile.
Now that I look back on it, it was embarrassing, really. But it only happened because even though I covered two terrible football teams, I knew as I walked out of the Big House press box for the last time that I was so, so lucky to be there.
It’s now December 14, 2009, and this is my last byline for the Daily.
Over the past three years, one month and 22 days, I’ve written more than 320 articles and logged 16,800 away game road trip miles.
I’m currently the second-highest paid member on the Daily edit staff, but my monthly salary evens out to a cool $1.25 per hour during football season.
And the thought of never writing for a newspaper again terrifies me, so I’m going to try to make sure that doesn’t happen.
When I was prone on my futon a couple years ago, that bright blue ice pack on my cast, I was worried I wouldn’t get the real “college experience,” whatever that’s supposed to be, if I was working in the press box instead of screaming in the stands.
But now I know the brightest part of Michigan blue has to be writing sports at 420 Maynard St.
And for that, I’ll always feel lucky.
— Ratkowiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.