An Interview with Tim Layden (Part 1)
“This story I was emotionally immersed. I felt the story. It was acting upon me. It was such an emotional time you couldn’t help but feel it…My emotionalism carried me through – somehow I got in my car and got to the office. I couldn’t screw up. I just couldn’t let myself screw it up. I sat down to write at 7 p.m. and finished at 10.”
“I’ve been doing this 31 years if you count college and what it always comes down to is if the people or the subjects of the story are engaged in what you’re doing. If you’re not doing an investigative or adversarial story, if the people connect with you – whether it’s a profile or an enterprise piece that involves something broader – then you have a chance to do something good and enjoy it.”
“To do your job, whether it’s a technical story or a profile, if you are a good listener and a diligent student I think you can do the job. You’re a bridge between the subject and reader. I’ve told athletes and coaches, ‘I’m the translator here, you say what you have to, but I have to explain and go one step further. I have to explain to people who know less than I do’. “
Tim Layden: Interviewed on July 16, 2007
Position: senior writer, general assignment, Sports Illustrated
Born: 1956, Whitehall, NY
Education: Williams, 1978, English
Career: Schenectady Gazette 1978-86, Albany Times Union 86-88, Newsday 88-94, Sports Illustrated 94 –
Personal: married (Janet), two children (Kristin, Kevin)
Favorite restaurant (home): Harvest Cafe, Simsbury, Ct., “Fresh, innovative lunches. My wife and I have been going since we moved to CT in 1995. Friendly, unpretentious, relaxing”
Favorite restaurant (road): Sapporo, Louisville, Ky, “sushi – I go with Mark Beech of SI.com – we love to gather people for sushi in Louisville – noses turn up at us but it’s a great spot”
Favorite hotel: “I hate all of them – being in hotel means you’re on road and away from family – every time I check in I just want to get my work done and get home”
Tim Layden excerpted from Sports Illustrated, July 24, 2007:
Reggie Bush had never been drilled like this in his life. In high school and college he had always been the best athlete on the field, too fast and too elusive to leave himself open to a clean shot.But here, in an NFC divisional playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, his initiation came suddenly. A swing pass floated into the right flat, a flash of green helmet and white jersey, and now Bush was on his hands and knees on the turf of the Louisiana Superdome, crawling in his black New Orleans Saints uniform like a small child, sent back to his infancy after getting blown up by Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown. The play resonated throughout the league: Watching it on TV a thousand
miles away in Chicago, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher rose in appreciation. “Those are the ones you dream about,” he’d say later. The New Orleans crowd, frenzied only seconds before, fell silent.
…Bush rose quickly to his hands and knees, then to one knee and then to a standing position. And then back down to all fours, pawing at the ground. “I popped right up,” says Bush, smiling at the memory. “Then I was like, Ooooo, I can’t breathe, my wind is gone. I better get back down. I never felt anything like that before.” Bush sat out one play before returning to the game.
Q. What is your Big Hits story about?
A. The whole culture of big hits, starting from square one – how does a big hit occur? I talked to guys involved in them last year. Jeremy Shockey was laid out. How did it happen to him, what does it feel like – generally and specifically – and how did it affect him psychologically? Was he ever knocked out? I take it to the realm of equipment they wear, which isn’t much, although the average fan doesn’t know that.
By and large guys were happy to sit down and talk about it. They warmed up to it, I think, because I wasn’t asking how they would beat the Bengals this week, or what it was like to grow up in grandma’s trailer. Sportswriting 101 – you can do better with a subject if you take them where they haven’t been. If you ask Reggie Bush what the pressure of being a No. 1 pick is like his eyes are likely to glaze. Probably half the guys who received big hits were willing to talk about it, and he was one of them. He jumped right into the topic. You could tell it was something he hadn’t been asked before.
One of the things I tried to ask players was if they thought fans understand the level of violence in the game. NFL is the most popular game in America, but the majority watch at home on TV. They’re attracted to the hitting and violence, but they don’t understand it to a significant degree. We asked players, “Explain what they’re missing.” A lot had to think about how to put it into words. Most of these guys are tormented in their own little world. Except for the superstars, their jobs are on the line every week and month. They’re as insecure as the next guy. Delivering hits is all part of what they go through. It’s a fascinating culture.
I was assigned a story last September – the NFL editor, Mark Mravic, thought it would be interesting to do a story on the Cover 2 defense. He was in a conference call with the reporters, and we all tended to mention profiles, which can be the richest and easiest story. Let’s be honest, you need access to one guy and then you paint the edges. Mark said ‘let’s do the Cover 2, we hear it every week and no one knows what it is’. There was silence on the phone. After 15 seconds I said ‘okay, put me down for that one’. I pecked away at it for three months – it was long and complicated. But I got a tremendous response, in letters and e-mails, and from peers and players telling me it was tremendous. A book agent called and suggested expanding it into a book on other defenses and offenses. It just blindsided me.
As journalists sometimes we miss what readers want to read. Usually you want to do a story that makes readers cry or gets turned into a movie or a miniseries – a Gary Smith type of piece. That causes you to miss a more obvious thing that serves the reader well. A month later I did a Super Bowl preview with Manning and Urlacher, about what each of them sees on the field. Urlacher gave me a long chunk of time, about what he sees 30 seconds before the snap, 15 seconds, 10 seconds, and five seconds. That story got another huge response. I guess there’s a message there somewhere.
Q. How much technical expertise do you need to cover football?
A. To do your job, whether it’s a technical story or a profile, if you are a good listener and a diligent student I think you can do the job. You’re a bridge between the subject and reader. I’ve told athletes and coaches, ‘I’m the translator here, you say what you have to, but I have to explain and go one step further. I have to explain to people who know less than I do’.
I don’t know that football is the most complex game but it’s presented that way. We can’t understand most of what’s going on, but we can try to explain most of what’s going on to readers, at least on a certain level. I sat in a lockerroom with a Ravens player who spent 45 minutes explaining one play to me. Obviously that’s too much – I can’t go that far with it. You don’t need too much technical expertise, but you do need a willingness to listen and learn.
For the Cover 2 story I got on the phone with Pete Carroll, who was its architect way back. I would say this and he would say ‘no, you’re getting close but there’s more to it than that’. I would say ‘Give me more’.
Q. What are your favorite stories to write?
A. Hard question. A story can present itself and turn out to be lousy. Other occasions you dread a story you’ve been given to do and it turns out to be good. I’ve been doing this 31 years if you count college and what it always comes down to is if the people or the subjects of the story are engaged in what you’re doing. If you’re not doing an investigative or adversarial story, if the people connect with you – whether it’s a profile or an enterprise piece that involves something broader – then you have a chance to do something good and enjoy it. Investigations – you’re always going to be fighting uphill.
So much of what you get with the big-time sports, NFL, MLB or NBA, is rote. The athletes, coaches and front offices are so programmed by watching ESPN, they’re so familiar with what media interviews are supposed to sound like that they only say those things. Whenever they can get a step beyond that, to answering questions thoughtfully, you can have a story that works.
A year ago, the first fall I was on the NFL fulltime for SI, one of my early stories was on Rex Grossman before he became a poster boy for disaster. I went out to dinner with him and went to his family’s condo in Chicago after he played well. I’m not saying he was insightful because insight doesn’t come naturally to him, but throughout the interview he was telling stories in response to my questions. I got honest answers and narrative from a human being saying what he felt. With big-time athletes that was kind of rare.
Q. The Grossman story – why did it happen?
A. In that case, it was another mechanical function of our profession – I caught him at the right time. He had been a big star in college, came in as a high draft pick and was injured and dropped off the radar. Then he did well again and was news. I got to him just as it was happening. He wasn’t talked out or jaded and things were going well. It was a confluence of things where he was willing to tell stories and talk about himself and be loose about it. He even gave me the cell phone numbers of his wife and dad. A month later that story couldn’t have been done – he hit the skids. He began to mistrust the media and felt we had an agenda and the window closed. With a guy like him it closes for good. With a lot of athletes it does. They develop a media persona, which is different from the way a human being would be conversant if you were talking while having lunch together. A media persona talks in vanilla speak.
ESPN is a good example. If you look at a typical week of SportsCenters and the best pieces ESPN does, say by Tom Rinaldi or
Chris Connolly, those are three to four minute pieces usually with athletes who are under or next to or off the radar, who haven’t been talked to death. When they do a Reggie Bush or a Matt Leinart or a Barry Bonds it has to be tricked up, with music and quick sound bites. It’s almost a music video because the substance provided by the athlete is minimal. We do the same thing in print journalism. You trick it up, interview around the person and hope to get substance from some other source.
There’s just so much media now. The average pro athletes feels like he has a microphone in his face 18 hours a day.
Part of it is timing and part of it is being who you are. The larger media outlets can still take a crack at the big names. Scott Price (SI) did a terrific piece on Tony La Russa. Maybe the timing was right in the sense that there was news – new things to look at – La Russa’s DUI in the spring and a player who died shortly after that. In a way that was almost a timing thing, too. My point was that athletes who are overexposed can open up with the right media, SI or ESPN or the New York Times. Sometimes you get a guy who has talked too much to talk a bit more.
Q. What was your favorite story?
A. People ask that all the time. I didn’t used to have an answer but now I do. It was the Joe Andruzzi story after 9/11. SI put out an issue that was devoted to the events of the week that followed 9/11 – it was one of the magazine’s finest moments. My story was about a guy in sports but it went way beyond sports. Joe’s brother Jimmy had made it out of the south tower seconds before it collapsed. He walked into the house and told me that story. That’s something a sportswriter gets to do maybe three times in a career – a story with that kind of national gravitas. I got so much response on this story.
The politics of 9/11 have changed so much since then but at the time no politics were involved. That was a story on a journalistic level. The athlete and family let me into their home and the story had meaning and value and power.
Q. How did it come about?
A. 9/11 was on a Tuesday. I got the call on Thursday – an editor said this would be a good story. As a reporter you think, ‘how do I make this happen? Who do I call first? Will all these people talk to me?’ You’re being told to do something and you’re not sure it can be done. I called his agent and it went back and forth, no, no, maybe, and then late Saturday afternoon the agent called and said the Andruzzis will talk to you tomorrow on Staten Island. Selfishly, that’s where I wanted it to be.
I drove down the Jersey turnpike, where you could still see the smoldering smoke from the towers and I drove by the site of the attacks. And then I drove to Staten Island where the Staten Island Advance had page after page of head shots of dead firemen and police. Joe’s mom knew all these men who had been killed.
So many stories we do are mechanical. You’re not so much concerned about getting a great story as with getting a story. It’s a series of gets – you’re not engaging with people as much as checking off a list. This story I was emotionally immersed. I felt the story. It was acting upon me. It was such an emotional time you couldn’t help but feel it. Then to be in their house – your cynicism and professional mechanics go out the window.
Then I drove in to Manhattan to the magazine’s offices. My emotionalism carried me through – somehow I got in my car and got to the office. I couldn’t screw up. I just couldn’t let myself screw it up. I sat down to write at 7 p.m. and finished at 10.
Tim Layden, excerpted from Sports Illustrated, September 24, 2001:
On the day after the disaster, Joe sleepwalked through meetings and practice in preparation for a game at Carolina that he hoped would not take place. “I was there, but not really there,” he says. When the NFL announced the next day that its games were canceled, Joe drove to Staten Island. Late last Friday afternoon he was sitting in the living room of his parents’ modest split-level house when Jimmy walked through the door and stopped at the entrance to the room. He raised his right hand and held his thumb and index finger less than an inch apart, wordlessly demonstrating the margin of his survival as his lip trembled and his eyes watered. Both men began to cry, and they embraced in the center of the room, sobbing for longer than either could ever remember.
…At the core of this immeasurable disaster, the missing firefighters were at once heroes and victims, symbols of bravery and tragedy. It will be years before their ranks fully recover the experience and skill that was lost. Two days after the towers fell, Jimmy joined the thousands of firemen and other volunteers searching through the rubble for survivors and bodies. Standing atop a pile of twisted steel and compacted concrete, he felt another rumble, similar to what he had felt 48 hours earlier. He ran from the pile in terror and promised not to return soon.
His brothers Billy and Marc have done multiple shifts on what rescue and recovery workers have come to call “the mountain,” their name for the pile of rubble that had been the tallest buildings in the city. “I hate to say that it’s hard to appreciate what it’s like down there,” said Billy on Sunday, “but television does not do justice to how terrible it is.”
The previous evening he had held a fellow firefighter’sankles as the man reached deep into the wreckage and scooped intestines out of a detached torso for DNA identification. In another place he picked up a single tooth. “By the end of my shift down there, I smelled like death,” he said, and then he too began to cry.
On a cool, crystal-clear Sunday morning, Joe went with Jimmy to the Engine 5 station house, a three-story building that is one of the oldest firehouses in the city. He found tough men, scarred but battling for their sanity. “There were guys there who said they’d been crying for three days and it was time to stop,” Joe said later. They were also worried about Jimmy, who had taken things harder than most. “They said he’s not back yet,” said Joe. “They said he needs more time. I hope it helps him to talk about it.”
Joe sat on the steps of his mom and dad’s home. A soft breeze ruffled the American flag on the front of the house. Inside, the table was set for dinner. Soon Joe would return to Massachusetts to begin preparing for this Sunday’s game against the New York Jets in Foxboro. Football business. “Regular game week,” said Joe.
Normalcy beckons, but reaching it will take longest for those survivors who were closest to the flame.
(SMG thanks Tim Layden for his cooperation)