For as long as I can remember, on my parents’ basement wall there’s been a simply framed one-page handwritten letter. The paper is a light shade of blue with University of North Carolina letterhead printed at the top. It’s largely unremarkable; if I didn’t point it out to you, your focus would be drawn nearby to a picture of my tuxedoed father, posing for the cover story of a novelty Forbes magazine. But if you looked closer at the letter, you’d see two words in the lower right hand corner that make all the difference to our Tar Heel bred family: Dean Smith.
Years ago, when my mom worked as an executive assistant for a small company in Rocky Mount, NC, she set up a meeting between the company’s executives and Dean Smith–the Dean Smith. Being a huge UNC fan, she was ecstatic to get a chance to meet and speak with the legendary coach. A few weeks later, she received a letter in the mail from Coach Smith himself. Not from his secretary, with a signature rubber stamped at the bottom of a typed form letter, blandly thanking my mother for her support, but a fully personal letter, thanking her for setting up the meeting, referencing their conversation in detail–all in his actual hand writing. This letter quickly became a prized possession, and is the closest thing my family has to a holy artifact (the Shroud of Tar Heel). Over the years, that letter has always stayed with me. Not because of its place on my family’s walls, but because of the reason it was written at all.
Coach Smith believed everyone he met had importance, regardless of what they could do for him. I still hear stories from fellow colleagues in the sports world. About how they had met him once and, many, many years later, as they passed by each other in the halls of some gigantic sporting arena, he said hello to them by name. He didn’t have to write my mom a letter: lord knows I wasn’t a potential recruit; she wasn’t a big dollar athletic donor; we weren’t even season ticket holders. He just believed that everyone was worth knowing. That everyone was worth his attention and respect. That strong personal belief was probably a powerful motivating factor in his political activism for civil rights. He believed everyone was worth something, well before the US government, or even the majority of his team’s fans, did.
He was also famous for his staunch dismissal of attention: for a reunion of his ’82 Championship team at the Smith Center (you know, the place with his name on the outside), we basically had to lie to him, telling him he wouldn’t be singled out during the ceremony before he agreed to be a part of it. After he was introduced to thunderous applause, he proceeded to wave off all of our cameras putting him on the video boards. Coach Smith didn’t crave attention–he outright rejected it.
Coach Smith was the first to tell you he was just an ordinary man.
But he was wrong about that. He wasn’t just a man.
The school board chose to send a message. That message was that the health and continuity of the football team is more important than the health and safety of young women in that community.
When future anthropologists point to the moment that American sports fully coöpted the country’s soul and completely superseded ethical concerns, perhaps they will point to a coach–in the middle of “Real America”–that, according to a convicted rapist, thinks allegations of rape should be swept under the rug and laughed at.
A coach who saw those allegations as merely worthy of a two game suspension.
A coach who threatened a reporter, growling, “You’re gonna get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”
A coach who was not only spared a summary termination, but is granted an extension.
I read a couple of articles today about the worship of college basketball coaches as demigods. One example:
The experience of the coach is simply much more accessible to almost every grown-up fan than the experience of any high-level player…He’s still connected to the magic of sports, but with him it takes the form of inspired halftime speeches and brilliant late-game stratagems — basically work e-mail lifted to a spiritual plane.
“Look at the intensity of these coaches,” [Dick] Vitale crowed as ESPN went to its own timeout. “You think these guys don’t want it?”
And Vitale was not wrong, as both Crean and Izzo were screaming and gesticulating and emoting like late-period Al Pacino. But amid all that noise and college-kid emotion and fraught promise and everything else, amid all that, the coaches?
Both articles are interesting reads, especially the first one from Grantland, and they’ve given me something to chew on–the sports media and fans really do elevate their authority figures to ridiculous heights.
I was ashamed of my own transgressions–DEAN SMITH IS A GOD–but before I fully explored my alter of coach-deities, my mind went to a memory involving the aforementioned Dick Vitale.
Before a massive game against #1 ranked Ohio State, I was eating dinner with the media in the tunnels of the Smith Center when Vitale decided to take a seat at the table I was eating at. (Side note – whatever you think of Dick as a broadcaster, he was incredibly polite and gracious to our table of 20-something punk kids. My recollections, however, might be colored slightly by my starstruck-ness, as I was fresh out of school.) Where we were eating happened to be on the way to the visitor’s locker room, and the giant trees of OSU’s team were soon lumbering by us. As soon as Thad Matta got near our table, Vitale lit up with a huge grin and sprung out of his seat to greet the up-and-coming superstar coach. It was evident they had spoken before; they had the appearance of good friends. Though he spoke briefly with their injured center, and jolly giant, Greg Oden, Dick ignored the players and focused on exchanging pleasantries with their coach. Later, when Vitale was gushing over Thad on the broadcast that night, I thought there was something slightly off about the display of friendliness I had witnessed before the game–though Vitale’s just a cheerleader, a prop to ignite excitement in the game, there still should be some distance between the commentator and the commented upon.
The articles I read today gave me another perspective on their interaction: Dick avoided talking to most of the players not because it wasn’t necessary for the broadcast, but because he couldn’t relate to them. So, of course, he’s going to point out the coaches during the game–after all, he’s more comfortable in slacks than gym shorts.
I was near the back of a small Elks lodge in Barre, Vermont, nearly a thousand miles from home—might as well have been a million. An audience of Canadian and New England racers listened respectfully as legendary TV announcer Ken Squier spoke of his late friend Chris Economaki, a fellow motorsports legend of his own right. Economaki had passed away early that morning. The remarks weren’t particularly intimate, yet they made me feel young and small—I’d barely been covering the sport for three years, while Squier and Economaki had 150 years between them; I had just met Ken and had never met Chris.
As I listened along with everyone there, present, but not participating, I felt the shadow of a feeling from years earlier: I was trespassing.
This was not the first time I witnessed eulogizing that made me feel young and small—half a decade ago, I stumbled upon a moment so raw, so wonderfully terrible, it left a scar in my memory.
In 2008, I was working in the video division of the Athletic Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On my way into work one evening, I walked into the reception room outside our office and a small group of people were gathered in a tight circle. I moved quietly towards the group of a dozen people or so, stopping before I was noticed, straining to hear what was being said. Men’s basketball coach Roy Williams was holding a framed UNC jersey, and while a few members of the basketball team were there, this was not a team celebration—the mood was somber.
Tragedy had struck the campus a few months earlier. Eve Carson was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—she was student body president, avid volunteer, and murder victim at age 22. The crime was senseless, pointless, but also emblematic of her life: gunned down for her ATM card, she offered to pray with her assailants with what remained of her time on earth. Eve’s life was a beautiful tragedy: a tragic end to a beautiful life. Like so many others, Eve’s death hit me hard, though I did not know her directly. (The same day Eve’s death became public, I vividly remember Brett Favre’s (first) retirement conference, seeing him cry, and being so angry at him for crying over something so ultimately trivial.) There was a palpable period of mourning on campus, while everyone searched for some small measure of comfort.
In that small reception room, everyone looked to Coach Williams for that comfort. Grief emanated strongly from the middle-aged couple by his side. As they fought back tears, he addressed them with a few delicate remarks; once he was done speaking, he presented Eve’s parents with the framed jersey he was holding, the name “CARSON” cross-stitched on its back.
Though my memory from that small ceremony has faded, I still remember the thick, stifling sorrow in that room, along with the realization I was bearing witness to an intensely personal moment. I will always be grateful to have witnessed something so moving—it helped me process my own grief—still…
I was an intruder.
But, here’s the thing: it’s my job to be an intruder. If you’re a good journalist, you’re constantly putting yourself in places you don’t naturally belong. While I don’t quite fancy myself a “good journalist”, I am quite good at putting myself in places where I am an outsider.
In fact, my very first day on the job, I felt like an outsider: sitting in on my first pre-show meeting, I knew less than nothing about racing and almost nothing about TV production, so the show rundown might has well have been written in Elvish. It was awesome and terrifying. Since then, I’ve grown in knowledge and experience—mainly by learning from my countless mistakes—so I rarely have that out-of-place feeling at work anymore.
However, that feeling never goes away in the field. Sometimes, it’s from being in a strange place, like a shop that makes stickers the size of a car. Other times, though, I’m asking people to relive the worst moments of their lives, a strange and scary thing to do with a total stranger. In those cases, I have to tread lightly, respecting their emotions and vulnerability, all the while pulling them out of their shells—which is not so different than a therapist would behave (my psych degree comes in handy more times than you might guess). If they are gracious enough to let their guard down, I must be careful to present their story as honestly as possible.
Back in Barre, Ken’s comments about Chris were brief and over quickly, and he went back to talking about the main reason I was there—it was the 50th Annual Milk Bowl, a race that runs a unique format Ken created as a model for TV, though it never caught on with NASCAR and television execs. I did not need to tread lightly over sensitive subjects, as this was one of those fun stories in a strange place—Thunder Road, the track Ken co-owns and where the race was to be held, is the most unique track I’ve been to; nestled under the great trees of Vermont, the people and culture at the track are as unique as the setting itself.
But, for one brief moment, I felt I was back in that small reception room at UNC, back where I don’t belong.
Guy snaps his neck in racing accident, fights back from comas, paralysis, death itself, miraculously regains mobility, and, against every odd there is, drives a race car again. That story contains some larger significance, some poetic closure, right? I mean, it’s got to. He’s conquered paralysis—symbolically, at least.
On a brisk Saturday afternoon in Rockingham, NC, I got to witness this very thing firsthand. There was something noticeably in the air as Shane Hmiel pulled off pit road in a modified race car, and onto a track for the first time since this terrible accident. It was one of those moments that makes it difficult impossible to remain impartial–in that moment, when he accomplished what was once unfathomable, all I could think was, This is big. This is important.
Now? I’m not so sure.
So long as I’ve known him, Shane has given no sign of being less than totally grateful for his second shot at life. Seriously, no sign. Trust me, I’ve looked—multiple times I’ve tried to find a crack in his positive exterior. The kid is non-stop, glass half-full. I say it’s impossible to keep on a happy face All.The.Time., he responds with (what else?) a happy face and says that it isn’t. Marty Smith said it right: Shane seems indomitable. Saturday was no different—he was excited to get back on the horse that threw him, determined to show everyone watching that you can do anything you set your mind to. Who there could argue with that?
In the days that followed, I gradually detached from the emotions at the track. I found my thoughts dwelling on my interview with Shane after he drove—I asked him what it all meant, and he spoke of elation, incredible sensations and powerful emotions. What he didn’t talk about, though, was the significance of the event, even as I gently encouraged him to do so. At the time, I attributed this lack of Grand Meaning to his personality and adrenaline. Looking back over the footage, however, I wonder if I was subtly biased by my own selfish desire for an easy narrative—man is ruined, rebuilt, redeemed. Rinse, repeat, re-air.
We buy into these convenient narratives because they represent how we wish life worked—it has to be true because, well, I want it to be true. A few weeks back, there was an excellent piece from one of the founders of Deadspin, Will Leitch, that tackled this very problem in sports journalism, in regards to the Manti Te’o hoax:
The fact is, this story exists because sports media wanted it to exist…This is what happens when you report on sports as if they are some sort of metaphor for life, or that athletes are somehow more “inspirational” than regular people. This is what happens when you think sports are more than sports.
Let me be clear: Shane Hmiel is not Manti Te’o. The struggles Shane has gone through are very real, heartbreaking, and genuinely inspiring (not to mention, actually IRL). His story does not need manipulation or sappy music or a gauzy sit-down interview; it stands on its own merits and is inherently encouraging to others. Shane himself has been upfront about confessing his various sins and not hiding them. But I have been guilty of maximizing emotional impact in my features. And frankly, it’s very difficult for me not to; I am—my wife can attest to this—both jaded cynic and eternal optimist. I tend to see the world in exaggerated shades of ugly and beautiful, taking both ends of the spectrum a bit too far. I have a penchant for assigning Grand Meaning where I find it, though the story might not, in reality, support one. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up on these kinds of stories—especially from ESPN; for a long time E:60 was a prominent inspiration for me—or maybe it’s because I’m lazy and I want more bang for my narrative buck. Probably a little of both.
Even with a story that stands on its own, as Shane’s clearly does, without need for embellishment, I still found myself pontificating on its Grand Meaning that Saturday. A great story was already there, and yet I was searching for something more. It’s not a matter of getting more eyeballs or clicks or compliments, though I appreciate all of those things—it’s just more personally satisfying to make pieces that are emotionally resonant. I’m seeking my own catharsis. In fact, it’s a large part of the reason I love my job.
So what’s the big deal? What does it matter if I tidy up my narratives a little too perfectly, or add my own cherry on top? Being faithful to Reality—which is usually far more nuanced and interesting than we give it credit for—helps us live a more honest, authentic life. For instance, I could have asked Shane if it was a bittersweet moment: although he was back on a track, it was only a shadow of what he had experienced before the accident. That question would have informed the piece at a greater depth than the assumptions I had going in.
But it also matters in a larger sense, for everyone that doesn’t tell stories for a living, if you don’t mind indulging me a lowercase grand meaning: the world is messy, and the sooner we demand our media (e.g. myself) to present it as such, the sooner we can come to terms with real life. As opposed to sharing convenient stories that are too good to be true (Manti Te’o), we could share inconvenient stories that challenge our preconceptions (here’s a fewto getyou started). By saying we should actively seek out the tough stuff, I don’t mean to suggest that life is less meaningful or bleaker than we like to think, only that it exists on its own terms, protected from our self-conceived notions. To avoid the difficult is to avoid existence. I know that all of this seems self-evident, but Facebook feeds full of bogus, easily debunked viral stories suggest otherwise. The people who share them know they are probably not real, they just want them to be.
This part of Shane’s story has no Grand Meaning, nor is it a perfect ending: he has years of therapy ahead of him, and he may never walk again.
But last Saturday at Rockingham Speedway, he was helped into the only handicap-accessible race car in the US, and drove on a track for the first time since a terrible accident left him with a 10% chance of living, let alone moving again.