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Books | Sports

October 30, 2012

Closing the Gap

Like the quarterbacks he covers, ESPN's Seth Wickersham wants to make the leap from good to great.

Andrew Kahn

NFL quarterbacks are the most covered athletes in all of sports—and it's not even particularly close. There is so much coverage of this elite group that it can be tempting to skim through the articles, but you might want to check the byline first. If Seth Wickersham wrote it, it's probably worth your time. Last year, the ESPN The Magazine features writer wrote stories about Michael Vick's prison experience and Matt Ryan's quest to become the best. "I saw a little of myself in Matt Ryan," says Wickersham, who was born in Boulder, Colorado, and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. "I think I'm good at what I do and I want to be great at it."

Seth Wickersham
"You have to find a way to carry people for 4,500 words. I write and re-write and re-write."

Seth Wickersham

Wickersham has also varied his writing interests to "stay fresh." He says, "I think for a while I was drawn to dark or controversial subjects. Then I felt the need to go the opposite direction, away from athletes. I was once taking part in a discussion about writing with Gary Smith, and he said he tries to find the central complication in a subject's life, then sets out to see how he or she is trying to solve it. That's pretty good advice, no matter the theme of the story."

Gelf interviewed Wickersham about his craft and his subjects, including how to play the game of access in the NFL and what it was like to interview Vick about Leavenworth. The following interview was conducted by email and has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Did you play football growing up? Do think you need to have played football at some point to be able to be able to cover it?

Seth Wickersham: I did play, in junior high and in high school, in Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up. In some ways, I think it would help to have played major-college or pro ball. I think there's a level of trust that helps former players connect with current ones. They are peers: they speak the language, they have suffered the pain, they know the culture, they recognize the stakes. But often for all those reasons, they can't explain, observe, and question football as well as the best outsiders. (Unless you're Rick Telander, of course.) It's almost like marriage, where sometimes the people inside it are so close to it that they can't describe it, or notice its nuances, as well as a thoughtful observer. There are a lot of writers out there who observe football well, who explain it as both outsiders and insiders, from David Fleming to Tim Keown to Michael Lewis to J.R. Moehringer, and others I'm forgetting. I think the goal is to understand it from the weeds well enough to be able to explain it to the masses; to do that, you need to be curious and inquisitive in reporting and eloquent in delivery, which you need not have played to do.

Gelf Magazine: What are your thoughts on all the Tim Tebow coverage? Is it too much? If so, who is to blame?

Wickersham, Tebowing on the slopes

Wickersham, Tebowing on the slopes

Seth Wickersham: I mean, it's way too much on strictly athletic merits, considering that now he's neither a starter nor the most prolific so-called Wildcat quarterback. It was warranted last year—he started and won games in his own awkward, thrilling way. For a while, it seemed similar to his college days, when his football celebrity served as a testament to his religious celebrity, not the other way around. Everyone who covers football covered Tebow, whether it was ESPN discussing him daily or SI putting him on the cover twice in a month. This year, I haven't paid much attention to the Tebow coverage, because he hasn't been a factor for the Jets. He is now a celebrity for reasons that have more to do with how he runs in Central Park than how he runs on the field, and the longer that goes the less coverage he'll receive, I think. All of that said, the Tebow saturation didn't stop me from Tebowing on the top of a mountain in Alaska when I went heli-skiing last spring.

Gelf Magazine: What are some of the pros and cons that come along with covering the most popular sport in America?

Seth Wickersham: Special access is at a premium, and the dance to gain access can often be exhausting and deflating. But sometimes, it's easier than you expect, and it can be very rewarding. You never want to be the type of writer for whom access is a necessity and a crutch; it can be liberating, not to mention a reportorial confidence-builder, to write around the subject.
Still, one of the aspects of my job that I'm most thankful for is that my bosses have never restricted me from exploring other sports, or other stories that interest me, even if they overlap with football—and because football never really ends, they all overlap with football. Here are two examples from last year:
•Being from Alaska, I love hockey and wanted to write about it, so I spent a week in the middle of football season with Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who after the story ran made me look very smart by nearly carrying an average, exhausted team to the Stanley Cup.
•And in January, I went home for a week to write about a suicidal Kenyan runner at the University of Alaska Anchorage. While I was there, I was also writing an NFL story and I flew straight from Anchorage to San Francisco for the NFC Championship.
So it's extra work and more time away from my wife and daughter, but it breaks me from the monotony of NFL locker rooms, which helps both my sanity and, I think, my NFL coverage.

Gelf Magazine: Are NFL quarterbacks the most covered athletes in all of sports? For your feature on Matt Ryan last December, how do you come up with a fresh approach and angle given how much has already been written about him and about the QB position?

Seth Wickersham: Yes, they are the most covered athletes, because the NFL is becoming more and more quarterback-driven each year, and the position holds an unending mystery over the American public. Everyone wants to know how those who do it well are able to do it well. I played quarterback when I played football—not very well, I might add—so I have that curiosity, too. That's the recurring theme of all of my quarterback stories—from Eli and Peyton to Tom Brady to Jake Locker at Washington. How do they do it?
The Matt Ryan idea sprung from that question, with a twist. I attended the Packers-Falcons playoff game in 2011, when Aaron Rodgers blew Ryan off the field—and remember, Ryan entered that game appearing to have more upside. Then, I watched him struggle during the following season, and I could see the pain of stalled ambition on his face and in his play. Here was someone who was clearly one of the 10 best people in the world at what he did, and more than anything, he wanted to be the best. Rodgers had made that leap, in front of Ryan's face. How do you close that gap?
Honestly, I saw a little of myself in Matt Ryan. I think I'm good at what I do and I want to be great at it. I'm not trying to sound arrogant or falsely modest. When you're ambitious, you have a ubiquitous ego, but confidence ebbs and flows; same with quarterbacking. Last year, Ryan's confidence was down as he was playing well but far short of where he wanted to be. In a small way, I could relate to that.

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of quarterbacks, you wrote a story on Michael Vick's time in prison. Can you talk about how you got some of those details? There's a line about how Vick ran his fingers on the hotel-room wall upon his release—how did you get something like that? You couldn't have been with him all the time.

Seth Wickersham: I wasn't with him for a second of it. In summer 2011, my bosses at the magazine decided to do a Michael Vick-themed issue for the NFL preview. Nothing big or definitive had ever been written about his prison experience, and I was assigned to do it.
Vick seemed to be on board with our plans to dedicate an entire issue to him, but I'm not sure he really understood the scope of it. My first interview with Vick was on a small plane that he had chartered, from Philly to Virginia. Senior writer Dave Fleming and I were there, and so were some of Vick's buddies, and we talked for probably 30 minutes. (Vick is scared of flying—especially on tiny planes—so it was hard for him to concentrate.) More than what Vick told me, though, that flight helped me meet the friends who had visited him in prison. I got all of their numbers, and Vick didn't stop me from talking to them.
I interviewed his friends over the next month, as well as everyone I could find who had visited him at Leavenworth, including his fiancé, often for hours. Vick had a friend who videotaped his actual release from prison and the subsequent days, and I flew to LA to watch the footage. That's where the last scene, in the cornfield, came from.
Armed with details, I'd circle back to Vick and ask specific questions. That was both easy, because Vick responded well to specific questions, and socially awkward, because I was usually pulling him aside for a few minutes in a public place, taking him back to painful memories. Sure enough, I had to ask him about a story that one of his friends had told me about a near-fight that broke out at Leavenworth when someone had taunted him during a basketball game. But Vick talked openly about it, as he did other questions that I had.
I interviewed him for a third time at training camp. That was the most awkward, as he was sweaty and still in pads after practice, and I was asking him about Leavenworth. He got mildly irritated, and I couldn't blame him. But it turned out fine.

Gelf Magazine: You recently covered a Giants game to get a look at Eli Manning for an upcoming story. What kinds of things do you look for while watching a game that involves a future story subject?

Seth Wickersham: Subtle stuff. Little things that might support your thesis, like an audible or body language or whatever. After the game, you might grab a guy to set up a longer interview, or just hang out in the tunnel outside the locker room, just to see what happens. There's no set routine; it's more just using the fact that you're not on deadline to the fullest advantage possible.

Gelf Magazine: Your latest Magazine story is about writer Dave McKenna's "feud" with Redskins owner Dan Snyder. How'd that story come about?

Seth Wickersham: Kind of similar to the Vick story, my bosses decided over the summer to do a DC-themed issue. So Snyder seemed like a natural subject. I approached it with an open mind; he had never done anything to personally offend me. My first job was to try to separate the man from the cartoon character. I neither expected to receive nor ended up receiving cooperation from Snyder, so I had to call as many people as I could find. That was difficult because so many people close to him are scared to talk about him on the record, fearing his wrath. But if you make enough calls you always make progress, and I scheduled a trip to DC to meet with a few people in person.
Before that trip, I had talked on the phone with Jack Shafer, a longtime DC writer. He suggested I reach out to Dave McKenna (a Varsity Letters alumnus), whom I hadn't thought to contact. During that DC trip, I met Dave and interviewed him about his career and about covering and being sued by Snyder, beginning with the first and only time they met. I returned home and kept making calls to Snyder's friends and enemies, and as I did, the notion of revisiting the 2011 lawsuit occurred to me. McKenna and Snyder are around the same age, they're both locals from the same generation of Redskins fans, and they both were unique in their respective professions in that they were outsiders who approached their jobs as fans. Through them I decided to tell the story of how your relationship to the team that you love most changes as you become closer to it. So the final direction of the story was something I stumbled into, not preconceived. That occasionally happens when reporting a story, and it's cool.

Gelf Magazine: You write for the web and print. What do you like/dislike about each? Would you steer aspiring writers toward one or the other?

Seth Wickersham: I like both. Web writing tends to be more immediate and event-driven, so you get the ego boost of adding your two cents to the overall coverage of a game—like when I attended the Giants Super Bowl party last year—and the rush of the quick publishing cycle. Magazine writing is much more involved. You have to find a way to carry people for 4,500 words. I write and re-write and re-write. Sometimes, you might only have 1,000 words, and you have the challenge of making it feel magazine-y, transcending the space it's allotted. I wouldn't steer young writers away from one or the other; I'd steer them toward the one that allows them the most opportunity and the best editing—that's most important.

Gelf Magazine: You are doing well with your NFL picks for Any advice for other prognosticators?

Seth Wickersham: It's all luck. Seriously. Don't bet on my picks. (But do realize that usually at least once a week, a home underdog pulls off an upset, so make an educated guess as to which one.)

Andrew Kahn

Andrew Kahn is a freelance sportswriter who maintains his own blog.

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Article by Andrew Kahn

Andrew Kahn is a freelance sportswriter who maintains his own blog.

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