Editors’ note: Yesterday we published part one of Owen Strachan’s interview with Sports Illustrated senior writer Thomas Lake, in which they discussed sports as life, head trauma in football, and moral arc of storytelling. Their conversation continues and concludes today with attention to sports as cultural cache, the value of long-form journalism, how to relate preaching to everyday life, and the legacy of a life well-lived.
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I was deeply moved by your piece on Wes Leonard, the Michigan high school athlete who died seconds after hitting a game-winning shot. Did that story have a lasting effect on you?
I still think about it a lot. When I go to write about a person, I try to look at this person’s life from many different angles, talk to many people about them, read whatever I can find about them. I admit that there are times because of that process that I have found out more than what I wanted to know. Then the question is, What do we publish? We don’t want to hurt the family further. But you have to keep your allegiance to the truth.
The reason I bring that up with Wes Leonard is that it simply didn’t happen here. I couldn’t find anyone who said anything bad about the kid. He was a sports star, but people liked him so much because he took that power, the prototype of American power, and used it for good.
When he would see bullying happening, he would put a stop to it. He would make sure kids with disabilities sat at his table in the school cafeteria. He exemplified a good life, which is a really hard thing to ask of a 16-year-old. I’m not saying he was perfect, but in general, he understood at a young age that when you’re given a position of power, you can do incredible things if you use that power for goodness and kindness. Even though he died at 16, I think his example lives on, not only in Fenville but all around the country because of the coverage he received.
In an age when there’s pressure for every piece to be “7 Quick Tips on Time Management,” you write pieces that stretch for pages and range over thousands of words. What is the value of long-form journalism?
I’m thrilled to see that even when newspapers and magazines are struggling to survive, readers out there hunger for real stories. Longform.org—-a lot of the people are grabbing stories from there and reading them on their iPhones or iPads. Just because dead-tree publications are in trouble doesn’t mean people have stopped wanting to read complex stories. That’s great news for me, because those are the stories that I get to make a living writing. It’s a tremendous reward, especially in a magazine that has such a long reach both in print and online. So for a story like “The Boy They Couldn’t Kill,” I got a chance to look at the unedited letters to the editor. That was a validation of all the time and effort that went into the piece.
There is a qualitative difference when someone is given the time to dig in and put it all together—-to read the whole trial transcript, to do the extra five interviews that can give a much richer experience for the reader. To get to do that and still pay my mortgage—I hope it continues for many years.
You took some heat from Deadspin and other sites for stepping out of the writer’s chair and publicly advocating for the welfare of Pop Herring, the struggling former coach who “cut” Michael Jordan. Remarkably, through Indiegogo, you raised more than $1,200 for Pop. How are you thinking about all that these days?
That was a tough one. Some stories have a moral and others—-they’re a string of events that much later you’re still making sense of. People were mostly upset that what I wrote in the follow-up piece could be interpreted as self-righteous, which made them angry. I understand why. If I did it over again I would change the ending: “And then like most of the people who have ever known Pop Herring, I left him, got in the car, and drove away.” That was the truth.
But many people responded in a positive way and asked, how can we help? I hadn’t set up the account before the column came out. Someone on Twitter said, “Have you thought about an Indiegogo account?” I had no idea how much money would get raised. It wasn’t ultimately much, but it was better than nothing, and my friend Brandon Sneed was gracious enough to go down there with his wife and make sure it all got spent on things Pop needed.
What is it like working at Sports Illustrated, the premier spot for excellent sportswriting?
Here’s the weird secret: a lot of the time I’m at home in a little room by myself. The HQ of the magazine is on the Avenue of the Americas in NYC up on the 31st floor. It’s a very exciting place to be, you see the SI logo and get tingly. You see the editors’ offices, and they have spectacular views of Manhattan. But it’s not as if by osmosis while looking out the window you’re going to get a great story to tell!
The senior writers on the mag are mostly allowed to live wherever they want, so they’re spread out all over the country. I said to my editors that I would like to stay here in Atlanta—-basically my hometown—-and they said there’s a lot going on there, so it’s a great base of operations.
What would you say to pastors about the work of preaching? In general, how can evangelical pastors grow as storytellers?
That’s one I’ve never thought about before. Every pastor lives an actual life and sees things. The more preaching can be connected to the actual life we live—where the alarm goes off at 7:36 a.m. and we hit the snooze button three times and the baby is screaming and we’re dragging and four bills are due by noon—-the better. Life is very gritty and not simple. I love a good parable as much as anyone does, but I also love to read stories that have rough edges.
Look at somebody like John Steinbeck. I have no idea about his religious beliefs, but I enjoy his stories because he seems to present life as it is. But he also shows that he loves the people whose stories he’s telling, in the way that ironic novelists don’t. Even though life is complicated and unceremonious and not often fun, there is this amazing spark when we catch glimpses of something more grand that shine through all the minutes we forget. If there’s a way to tap into that as a preacher then I’m sure people in the congregation will relate.
What do you want to come out of all this? In 40 years, what do you want others to say of your work?
I think about the situation my father’s in now. He was a pastor for about 25 years, and about 15 years ago he decided he was going to try a new career, after six kids, age 45, with a degree from Pinecrest Bible Training Center—-not something that necessarily translates into the larger world of academics.
But he wanted to be a college professor. So he started taking classes, one day at a time, and incredibly about 12 years later he finished his doctorate. He recently turned 61 and is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University. His goal is to become a full professor, and he said he will have to work until he’s 75. He works harder than somebody who’s 25, trying to get published in all these journals, and this at a time when he would love to spend more time with his grandkids.
I told him I was inspired by what he was doing, because he’s refused to let coming late to the game stop him from where he wants to go. He still preaches and is very faithful. It made me think of what the apostle Paul writes. I said to my dad, “God’s going say to you, ‘Well done, my faithful servant.’” He fought the good fight, just like the apostle Paul said when it was all over (choking up).
I hope the same is true for me.