Last spring, on a particularly late night at the Daily, the Sept. 12, 1994 sports section of The Michigan Daily was sitting on the table in the center in the conference room. Surrounded by bound volumes on the shelves, and a few on the table, the standalone issue stood out.
It was the oldest issue of the Daily the current editorial staff had ever seen that wasn’t contained by a bound volume or framed on the wall. But more thrillingly, it included a column from Michael Rosenberg — the 1995 editor in chief of the Daily, now a senior writer at Sports Illustrated — on the front of the sports page.
Today, Rosenberg is one of the most prominent sports writers in the country. He has written for some of the top papers in the country, including The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Sacramento Bee. His work was featured in the 2005 edition of “The Best American Sports Writing,” and he has been featured in the Associated Press Sports Editors top 10 column-writing awards multiple times.
It was especially exciting, then, that on the front of the sports page from that issue was an especially moving feature by Rosenberg on then-Michigan receiver Walter Smith.
Rosenberg has written several phenomenal stories throughout his career, but there was something about Smith’s that made it especially poignant.
Smith injured his knee before his senior season, and Rosenberg set out to tell his story — a gripping, emotional tale about the life he had moved away from but had irreversibly shaped him. The following passage captures its essence:
“ ‘I cried before every game last year,’ Smith says, ‘because I thought we were going to lose.’
He does not cry when his friends are killed. He cries when his football team loses, or might lose. People usually cry when a friend dies partly because it is a shock. When Smith’s friends die it is not a shock. It literally happens about as often as his football team loses.”
Rosenberg had to treat this story with immense care in order to be fair to Smith, just one of many traits that make his work so respected.
So when the Daily caught up with Rosenberg before Michigan’s 2015 season-opening football game at Utah, we asked about the story — in writing it, Rosenberg exemplified one of the most important lessons he learned during his time at the Daily.
“It’s not just getting your facts right,” Rosenberg said, “but (that) you’re taking the proper care.”
The Smith story had such sensitive subject matter — about Smith’s upbringing in Detroit and his resulting distrust of people — that it was especially important to be careful and courteous.
Normally, a journalist doesn’t get to find out what his or her subject thinks of their story. But six or seven years ago, Smith reached out to Rosenberg via e-mail.
“It was one of those little things, where, he emailed me so many years later that I’m like, well, I guess something in his brain (thought) I got that story right,” Rosenberg said. “Sometimes you have to go back to someone three or four times to make sure the tone and everything is handled respectfully.”
The Daily reached out to Smith to talk about the story. All these years later, he still has a copy of the piece, titled, “Self-made man,” but he had no idea Rosenberg was now working at Sports Illustrated.
Asked what Rosenberg did to make him feel comfortable sharing such a vulnerable story, Smith talked about how relatable and understanding Rosenberg was with him. At the time of the piece, Smith had injured his ACL and was reeling from the realization he couldn’t play football. But Rosenberg still managed to connect with him, showing empathy and treating his life story with care.
“He made me feel like I wasn’t hurt,” Smith said.
“That’s an art.”
The Daily strives to foster the growth of exemplary journalists like Rosenberg. And in order to grow, making mistakes is inevitable. Rosenberg learned that lesson at 420 Maynard St., too.
Back in 1992, New York Yankee legend Derek Jeter briefly attended the University. Back then, Jeter was just a draft pick out of Kalamazoo Central High School. He wasn’t playing for the Michigan baseball team, so he was, for all intents and purposes, a regular student. Rosenberg decided to write a story on him, setting up what became an embarrassing learning experience.
“I did a story on (Jeter), and for some reason, and to this day I have no idea why, I mentioned he played football, which he didn’t do,” Rosenberg said. “I must have, I don’t know, but I’m assuming I heard it from somebody in the newsroom, and being a freshman in college, I just didn’t check it. It wasn’t like I could Google it at the time because there was no Google. It’s my fault, it’s my story, but it’s not like I came up with it on my own.
“I just didn’t know what I was doing. I was literally 17.”
Jeter and Rosenberg ran into each other a few times upon Jeter’s trips back to campus. Jeter was always friendly, saying hello and not mentioning the error. Of course, that wasn’t the end of it.
“I found out years later that he was pissed about the story, cause his friends were giving him shit about it in Kalamazoo,” Rosenberg said. “And he should have been pissed! It was wrong!”
Fellow Daily alum Ken Davidoff, now a baseball columnist for the New York Post, eventually clued Rosenberg in to his mistake, leaving him mortified, but allowing him to make good on it.
After a couple years — Rosenberg doesn’t remember exactly when, only that Nick Swisher was on the Yankees at the time — he paid a visit to the Yankee captain at a Detroit Tigers game.
“I went into the Yankees dugout, before a Tigers game, of course he remembers me,” Rosenberg said. “He might have forgotten me if I had gotten the story right, but it’s years later, and I hadn’t talked to him since I’d heard that. And I said, ‘I just wanted to say I’m sorry.’ And he was entertained. He was like, ‘This guy said I played football!’ ”
A friendly observer to the situation, Davidoff eventually asked Jeter about it.
Asked about the error, Jeter said, “It’s not the first time someone wrote something wrong about me,” to which Davidoff replied, “Actually, I think it was!”
In journalism, as in any field, errors shape a writer as much — if not more — than their successes. And while Rosenberg was already an established columnist by the time he found out about his Jeter mistake, he still counts it among the various ways the Daily helped him to grow.
“You just learn,” he said.
It was at the University and at the Daily that Rosenberg learned some of the most important lessons for a young journalist.
“Just because a story is accurate doesn’t mean it’s fair — especially if it’s their personal life,” he said. “If you catch a coach breaking a rule, that’s fair game. If a coach’s wife has cancer, and doesn’t want you to know it, it doesn’t matter if you know it. That’s their life. It’s just a story to you.”