I shouldn’t even be writing this column. The odds of my having any connection to the sports world today have been against me since the second grade when I was the only little girl on my softball team never to get a hit the entire season.
In fact, for much of my life, I’ve actively separated myself from athletics.
I didn’t grow up hating sports, but they just weren’t part of my life. No one in my family was athletic. My dad wasn’t obsessed with a professional or college team. My mom is a bookworm; my brother is a computer genius. The role I filled was the girl who loved dresses and had sleepovers and who could recite verbatim every line of the movie “Clueless.”
Then high school came and the place to be on Friday nights was at the football games. My freshman year, I refused to go. What a waste of a Friday night, I thought, watching those senior and junior guys with their inflated egos and inflated muscles running around some muddy field throwing a stupid ball back and forth.
But by sophomore year, I desperately wanted to fit in. So before each game, I carefully applied blue and gold face paint to my cheeks — an “E” on each one that stood for “East” (as in East Grand Rapids). I learned the cheers and, to all those watching, probably appeared to be the typical sports fan.
Except I was miserable. I had no idea what was going on in the game. I was tired of making a point of saying “hello” to every popular girl and boy in my class at halftime. It all seemed so pointless.
Then I had an epiphany: I would become a cheerleader. Wait, you ask, wasn’t that counterproductive if the goal was to distance myself from the sport? Well, not exactly. As a cheerleader, I still was seen as supporting the team because of course I had to be at every game. The cool thing — and the reason I did it — was that I didn’t have to actually watch the game. All I had to do was face the crowd, smile real big, and wave my pompoms. My squad members used to whisper in my ear which cheer went with each play because I still had no clue how the game worked. But it beat being in the stands.
Despite Michigan’s athletic reputation, I left sports alone when I got to Ann Arbor. Living in Martha Cook my first year wasn’t exactly a sports-encouraging atmosphere (Isn’t that the place where they do tea? … yeah, that’s the one).
It actually wasn’t until sophomore year that I stumbled upon the Daily sports section. Michigan had just killed Michigan State, 49-3, in football, and a bunch of kids from my high school were hanging out in my living room.
Former sports editor Chris Burke (the one who’s had a column for like 10 years now) was there and suggested I try the Daily. You’ve seen the guy’s headshot — he’s pretty cute, right? Wouldn’t you say yes too? (Ok, maybe not … I should probably take this moment to remind myself that the majority of my audience is male).
Anyway, I didn’t expect anything to come out of it. I would write a few articles and that would be it. But of course that wasn’t it. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this column right now. I went on to cover several teams, serve as night editor and even spend a summer interning for ESPN The Magazine.
Not that I didn’t have my share of frustrations.
Like my junior year when I covered the women’s basketball team, yet knew nothing about the rules of the game. To prepare myself for the season, I bought “Basketball for Dummies” at the bookstore. I think I got only as far as chapter three, which meant I had learned three things: (1) Digger Phelps, the book’s author, used to coach at Notre Dame; (2) a three-pointer is a shot made from beyond that semi-circle painted on the court and; (3) that there are five players in the game at any one time: two forwards, two guards and one center. Wow, I was ready.
I’d sit in press row furiously writing down as much as I could observe about the game. But my notes would read something like, “Tabitha Pool catches ball and scores some points” or “Niki Reams had really good play in second half” — not exactly the deep analysis of a person who’s supposedly an expert on the team and the game of basketball.
Or when on my first day as an intern at ESPN, senior writer Jeff Bradley, after hearing that I went to Michigan, asked me “What do you think of Tom Amaker?”
After a five-second pause, I replied “Actually, I’m not sure who that is.”
Jeff, of course, gave me a horrified look and walked away. Only five minutes later did I realize that he was talking about Tommy Amaker, the Michigan basketball coach, who I’d actually interviewed earlier that year. I’d just been so nervous that my brain must have backfired at that moment.
So how in the world did a girl like me succeed in sports journalism and even come to (gasp!) love sports?
The thing I learned — and the point of this column — is that almost anyone can find something inspirational about sports teams. For me (and many other journalists), it was discovering the stories behind the athletes and their fans.
It was only after I let go of the notion that a journalist must write exactly what happened in the game and only what happened in the game that I started to enjoy myself.
I began to ask the players more personal questions — about who they looked up to, what their family was like, where they got those shoes, etc.
I still have what I like to call “Sports ADD” when I attend athletic events. I find myself distracted by the color of the teams’ uniforms or wondering what the guys in the dugout are talking about or how many years the drunk guys beside me have been rooting for this team. And all too often I’m turned the opposite direction when a goal is scored or a home run is completed.
I doubt I will continue on in sports journalism, but I will continue to appreciate sports in my own way. And maybe it’s not an accident that I’m here writing this sports column after all — maybe it just took me falling backwards into the game to realize my love for it.
With this first and final column, Ellen wraps up three great years in the Daily sports section. She invites all those who are equally clueless but also hopelessly addicted to sports to write her at email@example.com.