April 10, 2010

Crossed Over, III

From card-carrying member of the doghouse to assistant coach in three years – almost as good as a bunch of drunken cheerleaders.

The road that led me to Jinan can be traced back to Oct. 3, 2008. There were events before and after that also helped land me here, but early October in the Year of the Rat is a good place to start.

I was inhaling barbeque and sipping beers at the American Royal Festival. The American Royal is a Kansas City tradition – an institution, really – dating back to 1899. My 62-year-old mom and her sister used to go when they were kids, and at 23, I was going myself.

At the Royal, people from across the city (and region) bring their barbeque pits to a swath of ground that used to be a livestock trading yard near downtown KC. You can smell the festivities from blocks away – a rich, palpable aroma that makes you wonder if you might gain weight simply by breathing in the air. Along with the barbeque-induced haze, the American Royal is rife with live music. There is blues, rock ‘n roll and jazz competing with the barbeque for real estate in the sky.

Attending the American Royal, some things become clear. Like, say, why the jazz tune “Goin’ to Kansas City” isn’t titled “Goin’ to St. Louis.” Or why KC is perennially one of the fattest cities in the nation. Or why Missouri ranks in the top-third in the nation in beer consumption per capita, according to the Beer Institute. Indeed, it’s an orgy for the senses: Some of the very best barbeque in the world, fun music and an eyeful of girls who know that, because it’s early October, their window for wearing warm-weather (read: scanty) clothes is closing.

So, what does the American Royal have to do with me being in China? Well, let’s pick up the action when my cell phone started buzzing in my left pants pocket. I plucked out the skinny black rectangle and checked the number. It was a 785 area code – Lawrence, Kansas – and I knew who it must be: Tom, the sports editor for the Lawrence Journal-World.

The previous summer, I had mailed manila folders to sports editors around the country, each containing a résumé and packet of writing samples. When the editors opened the bundle – assuming they bothered to open the bundle – they would be greeted with a cover letter saying that a zealous, hard-working, wannabe sportswriter had just graduated college and was looking for work. Being from Kansas City, it only made sense that I would mail a packet to Tom since Lawrence is just down the road. But I didn’t discriminate geographically. I mailed newspapers and Web sites in California, Washington, Florida, Wisconsin, Alabama, New York – anywhere and everywhere that I could see myself working. (And a few places that, frankly, I couldn’t see myself working but would have jumped at regardless. Proof: I aggressively pursued a job in Garden City, Kansas.)

Well, Tom was one of the editors who got back with me. He sent me an email saying that he liked my clips and liked the fact that I had the gumption to seek a job, unprompted, at a paper where no openings were listed. He said that he would carve out a spot for my at the LJ-World, where I could continue a newspaper career that began with a few-times-a-year student paper back in the sixth grade.

I picked up journalism for real a few years later, in high school. My four-year high school newspaper career culminated with a pair of awards after an incredible series of events unfolded at our school. One day, the classroom speakers inexplicably summoned the entire varsity cheerleading team to the office. Such a request was highly unusual; it just didn’t sound right. And indeed, something was amiss. The circumstances: our 15-member cheerleading squad got wasted at one of the girls’ houses, that girl’s mother ratted out the cheerleaders to the administration, the other cheerleaders (and their parents) got super-ticked at the mom, Kansas City-area TV and radio stations picked it up, speculation galore. It was a crazy story that I retold well enough to garner some statewide honors. I still remember the lead:

Before it was on Fox 4, wdaftv.com or 980 KMBZ, it was on the classroom intercoms. It wasn’t spelled out for the 2,200 students who heard it, but when an announcement called the entire cheerleading team to the office, stories and suspicions began to swirl.

I had a two-year writing hiatus in college, what some may call my Finding Myself Period. I hastily decided to end my semi-retirement while studying abroad. See, my roommate’s mom slipped a Sports Illustrated into a care package, and having been divorced from American sports for about two months – in the heart of college football season, no less – I hijacked the SI and engulfed it. I read all the features. Then I read all the smaller articles. Then I read the blurbs. Then I read all the crud that they slip into the nooks and crannies of the pages. I basically devoured every inch of it, loved every inch of it. It was incredible the way that magazine transfixed me. This, I thought, is what I have to do with my life. So when I got back, my first priority – after scarfing down eight pounds of barbeque and Mexican food – was to find the editor of my college paper, tell her how eager I was, and get back in the mix. And that’s what I did.

I wrote some decent stuff in college and even won another award when I again unearthed a killer story. A few years earlier, our basketball team had this hotheaded player who was nearly kicked off the team as soon as he got there. Things reached a boiling point when, while getting chewed out during a game, the player sent a flippant, don’t-bother-me flip of his wrist toward the coach. The coach yanked him, looked at him on the bench and softly said, “If you ever do anything like that again I’ll have you on the first thing smoking out of here.” Basically they hated each other. But instead of transferring – which he almost did – the kid stuck it out and eventually became an ally of the once-tyrannical coach. A few years later he wound up as that coach’s assistant. From card-carrying member of the doghouse to assistant coach in three years – almost as good as a bunch of drunken cheerleaders.

Knowing, however, that high school and small-time college papers probably wouldn’t land me a job, I sought out internships. After sending clips to papers and magazines and Web sites all over the Denver area, I secured a pair of internships for the spring of my senior year, one with the Colorado Daily and one with Rocky Mountain Sports Magazine, both based in Boulder, Colorado.

The internships were fruitful – good clips, good references, good experience. I learned how to write a warp-speed game story; in fact, the first Colorado Buffaloes basketball game I covered for the Daily went into double-overtime, tightening the deadline that much more and making for my most nerve-racking newspaper experience since I interviewed that tattletale mom back in high school. I also wrote a few cool features, including one that I especially liked for the magazine. While working on different story, I learned about this town, Leadville, which is nestled deep in the Colorado Rockies. Turned out the town nearly disappeared back in the 1980s when the nearby molybdenum mine closed; literally overnight, Leadville had the highest unemployment rate in the nation. But this wacky guy – who himself worked at the mine – decided that Leadville should boost its floundering economy by hosting a 100-mile race. That’s like four marathons…at once…in the height of the Rockies. I went up there and talked with the brains of the operation, a delightfully crazy gentleman named Ken, to ask what in God’s name he was thinking, and how in God’s name this race has been running at maximum capacity for about 20 years.

With untamed, frizzy gray locks framing his wrinkly but vibrant face, he told me that he was confident people would come stay in Leadville and pay for lodging and groceries and the race itself. He couldn’t say where this confidence came from, but he was also confident people would come back the next year and the next, propping up the Leadville economy en lieu of mining. It was a desperate ploy, and it almost never got off the ground. But two decades later, it was definitely off the ground. The mayor of Leadville, some local business owners and a few nuts who actually ran in thing corroborated the tale. I loved the story almost as much as I loved reporting on it.

By the time I finished college in May of 2008, I thought I was in pretty good shape: I had another award in tow, I accrued some good clips at those internships, I had just graduated Magna Cum Laude with an Honors Degree (and the illustrious red sash that goes with it at graduation). I was surely on my way to a small-time job, ready to work my way up the journalistic ladder. I knew I had to cut my teeth somewhere, that I wouldn’t just hop on at the Denver Post or something. But I also knew that I was good enough to get a job, and that if I took care of business at that first job then I’d be on a collision course with a fruitful profession in journalism.

I didn’t have anything lined up when I graduated, so that summer I had an internship with the Democratic National Convention Host Committee in Denver. The Host Committee was a non-partisan organization charged with planning and organizing events in and around Denver, where the 2008 DNC was to be held. I worked in the communications office, drafting press releases and talking with various media folks who were covering the lead-up to the convention. It wasn’t sports journalism, but I was writing a lot and working on what turned out to be a pretty historic Democratic nomination process.

With Tom already having told me that I could hop on in some capacity at the LJ-World at the end of the summer, things got even better in August when I got a call from the sports editor at the Colorado Daily, a guy named Eliot, who had overseen my internship.

“I just was calling to see what was up with you,” he said before asking what my plans were. I told him that I was going to finish out this internship, which would be over in about a month, that I still wanted to be a sportswriter and that I had something lined up in Lawrence.

“Well, I’m actually going to be leaving the Daily,” he said, pausing for a moment as though he knew that the news would be music to my ears. “You should write the main editor there and tell him that you want the job.”

Perfect – a heads up about a job opening that wasn’t even open yet; there literally wasn’t a person in the world besides Eliot and me who knew that this vacancy. I thanked Eliot profusely, waited a week until he had told his boss that he was leaving and then emailed the editor-in-chief. I attached some clips, talked myself up and announced my candidacy for the spot.

Eliot was a cool guy, a 25-year-old from Georgia who took me on as an intern and even finagled the Scripps Company to pay me a few hundred dollars a month. During warm-ups for a Colorado women’s basketball game in early April, with graduation looming large on my mind, I peppered Eliot with some questions about how he became the editor at the Colorado Daily. He was doing what I wanted to, so I asked him how he did it.

“A few years ago I was working in real estate and I decided I wanted to be a sportswriter,” he said matter-of-factly. “I saw a Gonzaga game on TV and then wrote a column comparing Adam Morrison” – then an All-American forward for Gonzaga – “to Larry Bird. I sent it to a bunch of papers, and there was one in Arizona that thought it was good, and they hired me to cover high school football for them. I did that for about six months and then saw this job opening listed online and applied.”

Wow, I thought. Is it really that simple? Eliot didn’t study journalism, hadn’t had internships, didn’t have any experience as a reporter, and he shoots off a column to some papers and gets a job? And here I was, having already been the sports editor for my college paper, having recently won another award, having completed a pair of internships, having covered Colorado University athletics, having written features and game stories and all the rest. And all Eliot – a real estate agent – did to crack into the industry was write that Adam Morrison is kind of like Larry Bird?

I will definitely get a job, I thought. And in a fortuitous twist, it turned out that, hey, I might even get Eliot’s job.

So on a hot Sunday afternoon in late August I drove from Denver to Boulder and interviewed with the Colorado Daily. I was eager, I told them, to stay in Colorado, and more than capable of thriving as a writer for the paper. (Turns our the features editor would be doubling as the sports editor, and the opening was simply to be a writer. That, I thought, made me even more qualified for the job.) The interview went fine, and I had the added bonus – well, at least what I took to be a bonus – of handing over some clips that had Colorado Daily written along the masthead. Hell, I’d pretty much already had the job that I was applying for. I shook the editor’s hand, and he said he’d be in touch.

The Daily was my first choice. My second choice, my backup, was with Tom at the Lawrence Journal-World. Tom had emailed me on Aug. 11 to see what I was up to. The email read:

Just touching base with you to make sure you still are interested in talking about coming to work for us part-time, as many as 30 hours a week every week. Good luck at the convention. Thanks.

I replied:

I am definitely still interested in helping you out in whatever capacity possible; I'll work as much as you'll let me. I will be out here until the end of the month working on the DNC, but I should be back in Kansas by the first of September.

So again, I would love to work for you come September. I will be in touch as the month winds to an end. Please let me know if there is anything you need from me in the meantime.

I didn’t mention the Colorado Daily thing to Tom because, really, there was no point. If I got the full-time gig at the Daily then I would take it and wouldn’t be working for Tom anyway. And if I wasn’t hired at the Daily then there would be nothing gained by having mentioned that I was gunning for another job. That’s maybe a selfish way to go about things, and if you believe in karmic retribution then maybe I’ve been relegated to China because of moves like that. I don’t really consider it that bad though.

Tom and I exchanged a few more emails, the Convention went well, I went to a few DNC-related parties and events I had no business being at, and I rolled into Kansas City on the evening of Aug. 31. On Sept. 3, I made the 40-minute drive to Lawrence to meet with Tom about a job with the Journal-World. Tom is about 55-years-old and shaped a bit like Homer Simpson. He is a hair on the short side with a waistband that almost reaches his fingers when he shakes your hand. When we met, his short-sleeved button-up shirt was about 22 percent tucked in.

He and another one of the editors took me to a local coffee shop. I instinctively ordered coffee that was way too hot for the blazing late-afternoon meeting, and true to his build, Tom ordered a chocolate muffin. I brought a packet of clips that I offered to show the gentlemen, but they assured me that they had already read everything I sent. So they asked me some questions.

“Why,” asked Tom, leaning forward with his belly up against the table, “do you want to work at the Journal-World?”

“Well,” I said with the confidence of someone who was interviewing for a job that wasn’t even his first choice, “I’ve been a Kansas Jayhawks fan all my life, and I’ve been reading the Journal-World for years to keep tabs on KU. I grew up reading it and read it all through college. It’s one of my favorites papers and maybe my favorite sports section.” This wasn’t a fabrication. “Plus, even if I was just fielding phone calls or jotting down stats or covering high school volleyball, I want to get into a newsroom, I want to work in a sports department. I just want to get into the newspaper environment.”

Tom liked this answer – he said so – and I seemed to have quickly confirmed his suspicion that I was a worthy hire. After more than a half-hour of chatting at the coffee shop, and after Tom ordered another muffin, we lazily strolled a few blocks along the sun-baked sidewalk back to the Journal-World office. I met some of the writers and editors and headed home.

During our meeting, I told Tom about the Daily job. He seemed excited for me. He has a son a few years my senior who went through the trying-to-get-into-the-newspaper-business process himself, and I think in me he saw some of his son. He understood that if I were offered that job then I would (and should) jump at it. He told me, though, that he wanted me at the LJ-World if I didn’t get the job. I told him the feeling was mutual, which it was.

The next day, Sept. 4, I sent Tom an email thanking him for meeting with me. He replied:

Thanks, David. I should get approval for the position by late Friday afternoon. I'll let you know. I don't know if I remembered to mention to you that all potential employees must take a drug test. – Tom

I can’t prove to you that Tom wasn’t yanking my chain about the job. But I’d bet anything he wasn’t. After I sent him my packet that June, he emailed me before I even had a chance to follow up with the “wanted to make sure you got me stuff” email. In August, he emailed me before I had a chance to send the “wanted to see if you still think it’s possible for me to come work for you” email. Heck, he was talking drug tests. Plus, on an intangible level, he’s a genuine dude. Again, I can’t prove anything, but I would bet all $597 that I have to my name that he was serious.

Then things got tangled. On Sept. 6, the editor from the Daily sent me an unprompted email that read:

Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about you. We haven’t made much progress yet in the job searches, and definitely haven’t hired anybody.

I am now caught between a job that I really covet (the Daily) but don’t know if I get, and a job that I’m not as hot on (the Journal-World) but could probably have. This was exceptionally foreign territory for me; I deliberated endlessly about what to do. Should I just jump at the Lawrence job? Should I hedge my bets and wait for the Boulder job? Here’s what transpired, retold through emails. From Tom, on Sept. 11:

I haven't told the guy who has to approve the position, which I'm anticipating won't be a problem whatsoever. If you don't get the job, I'm going to tell him that second, bring you in the next day to fill out an application and make a drug screen appointment. We can stay in a holding pattern another week or two, if necessary. Good luck and be confident when you talk to the guy. – Tom

From the Daily, on Sept. 19:

Just finished interviewing several more candidates this week after a long delay, and we’ll be making a decision within the next week.

From me, to Tom, on Sept. 19:

Hey, Tom. I got in touch with the editor at the Boulder paper and he said that they “would know within the next week.” So I have what seems to be a definitive time-frame, but alas it still could be into late next week.

Sorry again to keep you waiting. I hope this is OK.


From Tom, Sept. 19:

No problem, I'm getting stalled on this end, too so it's actually working out perfectly.

The words “getting stalled” raised my eyebrows, but I was still confident. After all, I had irons in two different fires, so to speak, and both of those fires were blazing. I had already written for the Colorado Daily and had an endorsement from the former sports editor, Eliot. And if things didn’t work out with them, then oh well, because I still had the LJ-World and Tom, who had been an ally of mine for months. Tom knew what I was up against, he liked my eagerness, he wanted to help. Besides, even if he was getting stalled, things were still “working out perfectly.”

Two weeks passed, and I finally heard back from the Colorado Daily. Didn’t get the job. I immediately emailed Tom, and on Oct. 1 he replied:

I'll get back to lobbying to spring open that position and when I get approval, we'll have you in for a drug screen and to fill out paper work.

I thanked him, and he said that he would give me a call within a couple days to tell me exactly what was happening. My phone rang at the American Royal.

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