The view from the other side of the keyboard

One of the things implored on me often by angry sports fans that have Twitter accounts is that I am criticizing things that I don’t know about. You don’t know what Josh Allen is like. You don’t know that drafting this particular running back early is bad. A lot of sports writing from an analytical perspective is about empirical reasons to not believe things that fans want to believe — and well, it’s not conducive to constructive conversations. People want to be inspired to believe that their team is different. Often, it isn’t.

So today I want to write about something that nobody can tell me I don’t know about: My own career in sports media. I will pull no punches about where I came from or what I did to get where I am today. Some of it was luck, some of it was skill, some of it was timing. Each of those things have been both good and bad, at different times. This is an exercise in sharing what I learned along the way. Hopefully it’ll help out some people who aren’t sure about whether they want to write or not.

The early years

I went to college to try to get a creative writing degree because it was essentially the only thing I’d been encouraged in since I was 13. I had a knack for writing terrible things as a child and being encouraged to write less terrible things.

I suppose I should perhaps explain that a bit more. When I was a child, my parents divorced when I was 2. This created, at first, a dynamic where I was almost drowning in attention. My parents competed for me in some respects. As I got older, my father became more distant. He gave a kidney to his brother and struggled with an addiction to painkillers he developed from that situation. My mother re-married, and all of the sudden I had two ADHD-diagnosed step-brothers and a new sibling that left me completely isolated in my own house — and then I’d just moved to a big high school from an elementary school with a graduating class of two.

In some ways, this was a good thing — I became a lot less needy and gained a lot of perspective I’d otherwise not have. But it also made me chase that encouragement gap. I don’t think about how things could have been different often because it’s something I just take for granted now. But looking back, that was probably the impetus for all of this.

I only remember small bits of the early years of college internet writing, but I was baseball-focused in those days. I wrote a dreadful fan fiction article at a site called MetsGeek that got me on the staff and won me a set of DVDs. I remember arguing that they should sign Barry Zito. I was really in on those mid-2000s Mets, with Carlos Beltran and David Wright. The 83-win St. Louis Cardinals broke my college-aged sports heart.

I’d always kind of admired the idea that someone could write on the internet. In those times, days of internet sharing before we all discovered how to really be assholes to each other, it was rewarding to bask in that earnest energy. You’d seek out your niche websites and accumulate good stuff to read and think about. I gravitated towards sports more and more because writing what I studied was much easier than writing fiction to me. My most successful fiction story at this age was about Al Borlin building a balsa wood bomb shelter, and not a single character in it had multiple dimensions.

I dropped out of college a couple of times because my now-divorced mother had suffered some heart attacks. She couldn’t work quite so much as more, and I was trying to help her out as the invoices of her graphic design company became less frequent. Investing the money I’d spend on college on trying to make her life easier was a sacrifice I wanted to make, and helping her with some of the duties of raising my half-sister made me feel like I was repaying her for all the trouble of raising me.

Early football

I became aware of this site called Football Outsiders for the first time around 2006 or 2007, and not only did I enjoy the basic vision of it, I was happy to see football in a new light now that my city had a football team and a head coach that wasn’t Dom Capers. One of the first things I remember doing with football is volunteering to chart games for Football Outsiders, back before there was a Pro Football Focus or anything like that. I taped these games on a literal VCR and rewound them for hours. The first game I remember charting was the game where this happened:

I really had no idea how many broken tackles I was supposed to assign to this one.

I finally became comfortable enough with my football knowledge to post about it on the internet in 2009. I started my own blog, posted some game charting observations, and wrote just often enough to catch the eyes of the SB Nation Blog for the Texans, Battle Red Blog. (Mostly by annoying them with e-mails. Remember when you e-mailed websites with stuff you thought would be relevant to their interests?)

2010 and 2011 were years of massive growth. I quickly ran up from Battle Red Blog to SB Nation Houston writer to SB Nation Houston editor — I took in some of the advertising money that BRB got when I did those posts, and the SBNH posts were some of my first actual paid writing pieces. (I believe I never made more than $60 for a post on any of these.) The writing was good, but not great. I memorably can remember then-SBNH editor Tom Martin pulling me aside to make me stop double-spacing after a period. I also remember an obsession with nose tackles that was passed on to me via osmosis from people I otherwise respect. I still spent plenty of time charting games for FO. This was all work that I could not have done without a lot of privilege, because a lot of it was for free or cheap. SBNH’s editor role paid $800 a month, if you’re curious to know about where we’re at with that. Compared to the media stuff I’d worked on in college — assistant editing at a magazine and writing for The Daily Cougar — it was a lot of money.

One thing about Battle Red Blog and SB Nation that I still feel like I’m chasing in some respects was the ability to write about whatever I wanted. The further up the food chain you go, the more you have to negotiate every piece. Editors get involved. Site direction isn’t yours as you cater to a specific audience. I’m not going to tell you I’m some unique flower who hits all the right notes when I write alone, because that’s not true. What’s actually true is I write Found Jacoby Jones poetry. But I do feel like writing alone makes me more productive on a per piece basis, because nobody is stopping me from just letting the words come out.

Anyway, they were years of massive growth, but they were also years of massive personal loss. My father overdosed in 2010. There’s a long non-fiction story about driving up to collect what he had left from a trailer park in Hays county that I still need to write some day. The hellstorm that his life became, that I walked into upon opening his trailer, was a sobering moment that I think scared me straight from some bad paths.

My mother’s health continued to decline, and she succumbed to a stroke in early 2011. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as painful to me personally as the night before she left for the hospital and never came back. My mother was a proud woman, who was always picking herself off the mat after bad things happened to her, over and over again. She was coming off another heart attack, had been diagnosed with cancer, and after doing some work for a friend she just plopped on the couch. She had nothing left. It never crossed my mind that she would die — and I don’t think it ever crossed her mind that she would die, either — until I saw her on that couch, exasperated with her state of being. She snuck in one last “I love you” on a gurney before a crew of doctors overwhelmed her. I was given her phone and instructed to call the family together. I never saw her awake again.

This was by far the most uncertain time of my life, in January 2011. I didn’t have a settled place to live. I didn’t have a plan for the future. I made that same $800 a month. I didn’t even know how to make scrambled eggs. I lived for a solid week off a huge portion of barbecue that my then-SB Nation higher up John Taylor sent me. In writing this post I dug through some of the old emails — it’s kind of ridiculous just how easy it is to document my mood swings from these moments. That’s what online journaling will do for you. But between my grandfather trying to kick me out of my mother’s old house, me self-medicating with food, and the uncertainty of where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do, it was a lot.

This was a tumultuous five months which then culminated with…

Football Outsiders

I’d been chasing the Bill Barnwell-vacated Football Outsiders Assistant Editor gig. I had no idea how many people were in the race, or what their qualifications were. I don’t want to say that Football Outsiders saved my life, because that’s kind of cliche. But … if I didn’t get this job, I was probably going to be working at Starbucks or something. I was probably about three months away from just taking any old job I could and getting out of the game at a serious level.

I came on with Danny Tuccitto and was alarmed when given the mailbag keys at the people I’d beat out for the job. Nate Dunlevy was one name I can remember. It was, uh, an interesting transition to go from “I edit a website that serves a very small community” to “I’m now writing reaction pieces to free agent signings on ESPN.com.” I went from making $800 to making $2500 a month, plus some other compensation that came with helping to write the book I’d grown up reading for most of my early adult years and other outside projects.

I took a few things for granted at FO. One was getting to edit much better writers. Imagine pouring over Mike Tanier’s stuff for three years and somehow not getting any better. The original roster we had at the time was phenomenal. I only briefly got to edit Doug Farrar. But we had Bill Connelly, we had Ben Muth, Tom Gower, Brian Fremeau, and Matt Waldman. And that’s only the people who were there when I first started, not even getting into other writers I loved editing like Cian Fahey and Matt Hinton.

FO is a family. I haven’t always kept up with those guys, but I feel like I could meet up with them anywhere and naturally shoot the shit. But when I was working there, our boss Aaron was dealing with some difficult times in his personal life — I won’t get into them here, but he’s documented them plenty well in the past — and after a few years I was looking for growth and not finding a lot of open areas. I wanted to apply the knowledge I had gained from editing all these guys, but wasn’t finding it easy to fit a niche that the website wanted fit. The result was I got a column that sometimes came out on Sundays called Three-Cone Drill, and it was all over the place both in the way I wrote it and in how it was received by both Aaron and the readers. To be honest, I was all over the place too around this time. I’d had a rough breakup that I’m still not entirely comfortable relating online, and the overall takeaway of it left me wanting to close myself off from everybody.

It was sort of a situation where I was looking for a next step, and I was getting frustrated with being held back. I understood why it was hard for Aaron to make that a priority — but I felt like I was dying on the vine because I wasn’t making the same sort of advancements I’d made when I was on my way up the ranks. I felt like I needed to get permission to do anything. I was getting jaded.

And that’s about when I got some feelers from Collin McCollough over at Bleacher Report kind of sussing out my interest in joining. I had reservations about joining an online publication that had such a bad record historically, but I also knew that they were chasing a bunch of other talented writers. And, well, as noted above, I like feeling like someone actually reads this stuff and wants me on their side. So, it was time for this…

Bleacher Report

I came aboard to Bleacher Report on a one-year contract for $47,500. That’s more than I’ve ever made doing this, and it was a first-class operation every step of the way. When I had acute bronchitis and could barely sleep without choking, they did not make me feel like I was doing them a disservice, and did not force me to the computer. I have nothing but good things to say about my main editor, Wes O’Donnell, nor the weekend editors Justin Onslow and Ian Kenyon. They had a writing coach on-staff (I forget her name and I think my Bleacher Report e-mail was scrubbed) who was a joy to talk to.

The problem from my perspective with the Bleacher Report gig became one of scale. I didn’t bring very much of a following with me. At the same time, something that becomes very true with every one of these big sports media websites is that there is only so much promotion that can be done on the company’s end. They can’t promote everybody, and when you pay big bucks to make your national team better with people like Matt Miller and Mike Freeman, the promotion deservedly goes to the people the company has the most investment in.

Another issue of that scale was that if the national writers cover something, you don’t want that duplicated. Some of our division writers got to write in places with huge economies of fan scales that had a lot of interesting players and topics for discussion. On my end, I covered the 2014 AFC South. The Jaguars and Titans were two of the worst teams in the NFL, and didn’t have big fanbases to begin with. The Jaguars literally started the season with Luke McCown at quarterback. The Texans had J.J. Watt’s near-MVP season — I think I wound up writing about 2-3 total pieces about Watt all year because national writers poached him. Then, we had the AFC South Champion Colts, with Andrew Luck being a witch and carrying an otherwise bad team through the Pagano-Grigsonverse. They made the AFC Championship, and got destroyed 45-7. Those were the two interesting players in the entire division and there was no real race. The only surprising thing I had to write all season was when the Colts beat the Broncos in the divisional round.

At the end of the day, though, I still feel like I failed BR in some important ways that I had to learn. I didn’t really commit to the company the way I should have — I didn’t Tweet my fellow writers’ posts often enough, I didn’t follow enough of the right people at the right time. I wasn’t very good at Twitter at the time, and was afraid of self-promoting myself, let alone promoting other people. I don’t think I totally slacked it off or anything, but I think a little extra effort would have gone a long way towards getting my contract renewed in a different form than it was.

As it was, they completely axed the divisional writing program — a smart move by them, I think. The only thing I think a big national for-free brand gains from doing team-by-team coverage is the small share of fans who are so married to the brand that they never look for other team coverage. As the internet becomes more and more ingrained in our culture, people are more and more used to searching for the content they want.

I didn’t take this well, but it didn’t really have anything to do with Bleacher Report. It was just a bad fit for my first real time writing for a national audience. The minute I hit this beat it was irrelevant and it only grew more irrelevant with each passing day. My audience certainly couldn’t make it relevant.

The Freelance Life

Without breaking it down to specific dollar amounts — because it would take a long time to remember and list out every company I’ve written for over the past couple of years — I never wrote for less than $75, and my high dollar amount for an article delivered was $750.

Freelance writing has overall, not been my favorite job. It combines one of my least favorite things, uncertainty, with one of my other least favorite things, rejection. I mostly wound up here because I was a terrible networker. I could have spent the latter half of my Bleacher Report gig trying to find real work elsewhere, but I didn’t. A lot of the gigs I’ve wound up doing have been people approaching me, mostly from people who know me in the past. I’m no different than your average football coach, just staffing with whoever has worked with me before.

I learned a lot of harsh lessons about freelance writing in a very short time, mostly about what kind of #content people do and don’t want. But, as I said with Bleacher Report, I think when you are only a writer, and you come into it without a big pre-settled audience, you’re at a big disadvantage. I had problems holding on to bigger gigs because they were looking at their numbers and not seeing the kind of metrics they wanted. When you’re freelance, nobody invests in you. They give you a couple of articles to see if it’s working, then tell you to screw off if it’s not.

Football writing tends to be a seasonal thing. When football season has been on, and I’ve been actively trying to work, I often wound up with seven or eight pieces a week. When football season is over, I have working in the Football Outsiders Almanac, I have done Athlon Magazines a couple seasons in a row now. But other than that, it’s usually been pretty dead. Hopefully that’ll change with some of my recent things, and more of a re-commitment from me to the cause.

2017 was the closest I ever came to just giving up on writing. For one, I had a new hobby that I was rejuvenated and engaged by: speedrunning Final Fantasy IV at a world record level. It’s been extremely rewarding to actually have something I can make progress at and see results in without having to worry about how someone else sees it. The time is the ultimate arbiter, not some impressions number on a stats page. I can pitch a hundred things I think are awesome ideas at companies and not get anywhere … or I can play a video game for speed with the strats I already know are killer and satisfy that internal desire to compete with people that I thought died with my YMCA basketball days.

At the same time, I just felt like I was going through the motions and not learning anything new. I wasn’t sticking up for my writing time, I wasn’t trying to get better anywhere. I got married and moved in the 2018 offseason, so that contributed to the feeling that I just didn’t have a lot of time to deal with it anymore.

But … I was actually super inspired by the challenge The Athletic Houston gave to me this past season. It was a paysite, the best of the best, so I knew I’d want to spend time raising the quality of my work. They chased me and even had a phoner interview for a freelance position. I knew I’d get a chance to actually cover games at the stadium, which was something I had wanted to do for a long time but never had much experience with.

I knew I was in for some topsy-turvy asks when our site editor was assigned to us after I came on board. I wasn’t the editor’s pick, and the editor wanted to do what worked everywhere else in his opinion — film pieces. I hadn’t ever done specifically a film piece before, but I was happy to accept the challenge. I’m not claiming I became Chris B. Brown overnight or anything, but I think I created a good body of work and learned better practices for creating videos. The fans certainly seemed to respond to it, and as I got more comfortable with the gig I think some of the best work of the season happened down the stretch. I was getting good quotes from players. I was creating things I would have wanted to read. I was really hoping that I’d be able to spend more time working on the videos for them this offseason, maybe get a full press pass next year. But, alas.

Getting let go from that gig wasn’t a huge surprise because I don’t know that my role was ever going to be a long-term ride there. They hired a newer beat writer in the KC Star’s Aaron Reiss, and I think they wanted a more established name helping to bring people to the table for the start of things. Aaron is awesome, by the way, and he’s going to slay the gig. I can already tell.

Anyway, being let go kind of inspired this. Both this post and this rejuvenation to actual self-writing on a basic-ass blog. Because I had a funny feeling that I lost somewhere along the way of all this freelance stuff and rejection: I was earnestly wanting to share things again. When I got the phone call that I was let go, for the first time in several of these calls or e-mails, I had no dread about the situation. I pounded the goddamn rock for The Athletic. I gave it my all and improved. And I’m ready to embrace that improvement again.

Getting let go like that inspired me to look back on where I’d been and — for the first time in years — get myself in that mindset I had before the helplessness took over. And no matter how the freelance stuff goes this year (or hopefully, no matter what happens as far as me getting an actual full-time gig) I know I need to make sure to write some things that I want written no matter how many places reject them.

For some writers it will be the money, for some writers it will be about the fame, for me it’s the combination of feeling like I’m in the sandbox and people I respect are admiring whatever I happen to slap together.

Thanks for reading.

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