An Interview with Mike Sielski

An Interview with Mike Sielski

An Interview with Mike Sielski

“It’s a story that touches on a lot of themes and topics: the connection between sports and the military – as much as there is one – small-town America, football, the war, parents’ feelings over their son’s decision to join the military, the impact that sports can have on someone’s life. It was important to me to find a story like this to explore in depth; I didn’t want this to be a stereotypical sports book.”

“On one memorable night, with my tape recorder running, I did my best to go beer-for-beer with a half dozen members of Bryan’s company, hoping that I wouldn’t pass out before the Marines finished telling stories about Fallujah.

“Usually, I’m chewing my fingernails and slurping down a cup of cold, bad, press-box coffee while I’m typing. But the sense of accomplishment you get from writing something halfway decent under the gun often exceeds the satisfaction that accompanies reporting and writing an in-depth takeout.”

Mike Sielski: Interviewed on August 21, 2009

Position: Sports Columnist for Calkins Media Inc., syndicated in the Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times, (Doylestown, Pa.) Intelligencer, and Burlington County (N.J.) Times.

Born: 1975; New Brunswick, N.J.

Education: La Salle University, 1997, BAs in Communication and English; Columbia University, 1998, MS in Journalism.

Career: The (Doylestown, Pa.) Intelligencer, 1996-2002; The (Allentown) Morning Call, 2002-03; Calkins Media, 2003-present; Adjunct professor at La Salle University, 1999-2002 and 2008-present.

Personal: Married (Kate)

Favorite restaurant (home): Bridget’s Steakhouse, Ambler, Pa. “Great atmosphere, great burgers, great steaks, and a shitake mushroom sauce that will buckle your knees.”

Favorite restaurant (away): River City Grille, Dallas Airport Marriott South. “Hard to beat a restaurant that stayed open late on Christmas night 2006 to feed a dozen hungry Philly scribes who had just covered an Eagles-Cowboys game.

Favorite hotel: Conrad/Hilton MaldivesRangali Island. “My wife and I went to the Maldives for our honeymoon, and the place was unlike anything we had experienced or will experience again.”

Author of: “Fading Echoes: A True Story of Rivalry and Brotherhood from the Football Field to the Fields of Honor”

Mike Sielski, excerpted from “Fading Echoes: A True Story of Rivalry and Brotherhood from the Football Field to the Fields of Honor”:

Tuesday, September 1, 1998

The football field wasn’t so much a football field as it was an expansive lawn with goalposts, fit for the front of one of the elegant, colonial-style homes that rose, alp-like, from the emerald earth of central Bucks County, Pennsylvania. A slight hill sloped up from the student parking lot behind Central Bucks High School East to one sideline, and beyond the opposite sideline were trees, nothing but trees, a wall of them tall and green and brown. There were no bleachers or stands surrounding the field, just a low, gray chain-link fence and an oval track of charcoal gravel; it was a practice field, nothing more. But on days like this, when the sky was clear and the sun was warm and practice felt like one of the touch football games he had played with his father in the yard, Colby Umbrell was happier nowhere else.

The previous spring and summer had been memorable for him — life-changing, in a way. He had attended a football camp at the U.S. Military Academy, an experience that reconfirmed a lifelong desire: to become a cadet and then an officer in the U.S. Army. The thought had been a daydream for him when he was a young boy; his family’s annual vacations to Washington, D.C., and to Arlington National Cemetery stirred a sense of patriotism within him, and after he experienced firsthand, if only for a few days, the history and honor at West Point, his mind and heart were fixed on the goal of getting there. Since participating in the camp, he had received a nomination to the academy from his congressman, Republican Jim Greenwood, and playing football for Army now had become an option for him, too, because he had bulked up so much over the previous months. Charlie Packman, the new strength coach for CB East’s football team, the Patriots, had had players pair up as workout partners during the off-season, and Colby and one of his best friends, quarterback Steve Kreider, had attacked Packman’s weight-training program with vigor. Kreider had put on fifteen pounds, but Colby had put on thirty-five, adding mass and muscle in anticipation that he would change positions on East’s offensive line from his junior year to this, his senior season. He had played center the year before; he would play offensive and defensive tackle this season. The extra weight took him up to 240 pounds. Standing six feet one, he had a puffy blond crew cut, a slight gap between his two upper front teeth, and a large lower jaw that jutted forward as if it were in search of a left hook. During practices and games, he usually did not say much.

Colby’s reticence had been the reason that Larry Greene, East’s head coach, at first hadn’t selected him to be one of the Patriots’ team captains. At the team’s season-ending banquet in 1997, Colby had sat stunned at his table when Greene announced the names of East’s senior captains for ’98 — Kreider, Phil Laing, and Bryan Scott — and he wasn’t among them. Greene, like everyone else on East’s team, didn’t question Colby’s work ethic, but he just wasn’t sure that Colby had the right personality to be a captain. Kreider? He was gregarious, the quarterback, a natural choice. Laing? He was the sort of kid, Greene thought, who looked like he’d started growing facial hair at age six. Laing was going to start at fullback and middle linebacker. Scott? He sang in the school choir, started for the varsity basketball team, was an all-district-caliber sprinter, was respected and well liked by most of East’s student body—and was perhaps the best high school football player in Pennsylvania. A tailback and safety, Scott seemed to have an NFL-ready body at age eighteen, a chiseled six feet two, 205 pounds. Penn State was the front-runner in the race to recruit him.

Eventually, Greene reconsidered his decision and named Colby a captain, too. But that initial disappointment was a lasting memory for Colby for years afterward, perhaps because he had looked forward to his senior season as his last, best chance to change the dynamic of a football rivalry that for nearly thirty years had defined his hometown of Doylestown. For most of those years, CB East had been the redheaded stepchild to its neighbor in the school district: Central Bucks West. It wasn’t that East didn’t have a respectable program. The Patriots had won a league championship in 1979; had reached the district playoffs in 1996, Colby’s sophomore year; and were perennially a better-than-average team in the Suburban One League National Conference, which comprised ten schools in the suburbs north of Philadelphia. It was that West was the premier high school football program not just in the National Conference, but arguably in all of Pennsylvania

Q. What drew you to the ‘Fading Echoes’ story?

A. There are just so many layers to it. Here were two guys – Colby Umbrell and Bryan Buckley – who were from the same small town in suburban Philadelphia – Doylestown – and were the same age. They knew each other but weren’t close friends. Each of them was part of a great high school football rivalry – Central Bucks West vs. Central Bucks East) – and each of them embodied his respective side of the rivalry.

Bryan grew up wanting nothing more than to play football for CB West, for the greatest program in the state. Colby grew up wanting nothing more than to play football for CB East — and to beat CB West. By 1998, Doylestown was not the stereotypical Pennsylvania high school football town, not a steel town or a coal town. It’s quite affluent, with boutiques and high-end restaurants and a Quaker tradition and an accent on the arts. Yet not only did the East-West rivalry flourish there and reach its peak in 1998 — Colby’s and Bryan’s senior season — but these two men, independent of each other, then followed parallel tracks over the next several years to the elite of the armed forces. Colby became an Army Ranger; Bryan, a Marine. They ended up serving in Iraq at the same time, and one of them didn’t come home.

It’s a story that touches on a lot of themes and topics: the connection between sports and the military – as much as there is one – small-town America, football, the war, parents’ feelings over their son’s decision to join the military, the impact that sports can have on someone’s life. It was important to me to find a story like this to explore in depth; I didn’t want this to be a stereotypical “sports book.” I know I’m not breaking new ground by saying this, but the best sports stories always get beyond the minutia of the games and the transaction ledger. If you read David Maraniss on the 1960 Rome Olympics or Adrian Wojnarowski on St. Anthony High’s basketball team, you’re not just reading about Rafer Johnson or Bob Hurley. You’re getting a sense of time and place, of sports’ context and importance, the way it fits into our history and our society. That was the sort of book I wanted to try to write, and Colby’s and Bryan’s stories allowed me to do it.

Q. How did you report ‘Fading Echoes’?

A. I had certain advantages and disadvantages throughout the reporting process. My first full-time job in sportswriting was as the Intelligencer’s beat writer for Central Bucks West and East in 1998. I covered most of Bryan’s and Colby’s games that season and had kept boxes of notes, articles, and interview transcripts from the five years I spent covering East and West. I watched game tapes, and I interviewed and re-interviewed many players, parents, and coaches to gain the fresh perspective of hindsight. Because of my familiarity with the schools, the teams, the players, and the coaches, and because of the resources at my disposal, I could reconstruct that ’98 season with relative ease.

Things were more challenging in reporting the non-football aspects of the book: Colby’s and Bryan’s college years, their military training, their tours in Iraq. I had seven months, from July ’08 to February ’09, to finish the manuscript, and unfortunately, I had neither the time nor the financial resources to travel to Iraq. Even though I had arranged to take three months of part-time leave from Calkins to work on the book – I was supposed to write two columns a week from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 – the Phillies decided to complicate matters by winning the World Series. So for all of October, I was paid part-time wages for working full-time hours covering the Phils. Meanwhile, I was also teaching two writing classes at La Salle and researching and writing the book. It was exhilarating … and exhausting.

To make up for my inability to get to Iraq, I read everything I could about the country and the war just to have the requisite background and knowledge. I’m an Amazon addict anyway, so I bought and read what I hoped were the most authoritative books available on the subject. I tracked down as many members of Bryan’s and Colby’s units as I could, mining them for as much detail and perspective as they could give me. I drove to Washington, D.C., to meet with Colby’s commanding officer, a Seattle resident who happened to be visiting the East Coast for a few days with his wife. I spent a week in Jacksonville, N.C., near Camp Lejeune, talking with several Marines who had served with Bryan. On one memorable night, with my tape recorder running, I did my best to go beer-for-beer with a half dozen members of Bryan’s company, hoping that I wouldn’t pass out before the Marines finished telling stories about Fallujah.

And the Umbrell and Buckley families were as open and honest and accommodating as I could have hoped for them to be. I spent hours and hours speaking with and observing them, and they provided me with military documents and letters and e-mails from Colby and Bryan that added touch, texture, and detail to the narrative.

Q. Hollywood loves films about high school and teenagers – why is that?

A. I’m no expert, but I’ll take a shot at this. A teenager’s life can include much of the drama and many of the serious problems that an adult faces, but it’s also flavored with a sense of promise and potential. Plus, teenagers don’t have wrinkles. They’re young and fresh and handsome and beautiful, and mainstream Hollywood generally doesn’t fancy films about older people — unless Morgan Freeman is driving Jessica Tandy to the Piggly Wiggly.

By the way, if you’re suggesting that “Fading Echoes” would make a darned good Hollywood movie, I’m not going to argue with you. Any chance Steven Spielberg or David Fincher reads Sports Media Guide?

Q. They do. What does it feel like to write a column under deadline?

A. It’s a rush. Usually, I’m chewing my fingernails and slurping down a cup of cold, bad, press-box coffee while I’m typing. But the sense of accomplishment you get from writing something halfway decent under the gun often exceeds the satisfaction that accompanies reporting and writing an in-depth takeout. The hard part is that you have to remind yourself that, when a reader clicks on your column link or picks up the paper the next day, he or she doesn’t know how much time you had to write — and doesn’t care.

Q. Best and worst columns you’ve written?

A. I guess it depends on how you define “best” and “worst.” I’ll start with “worst.” If I file a column with a typo or a factual error that somehow sneaks past the copy desk, I’ll beat myself up for a good long while. That’s happened more than once, and that’s one kind of “worst.” The other kind is when I offer an analysis or opinion that turns out to be flat-out wrong. For instance, when the Sixers hired Jim O’Brien as their head coach in 2004, I wrote that the hire could mean that the Allen Iverson era would end soon. After all, O’Brien had left Boston after Danny Ainge had traded away a couple of defensive-minded players and brought in a shoot-first guy in Ricky Davis. It seemed logical, then, that O’Brien and Iverson would clash. Instead, by the time Billy King fired O’Brien a year later, Allen was one of the few people in the organization that O’Brien hadn’t totally alienated.

As for the “best” columns, again, it depends on how you define “best.” As Rich Hofmann mentioned in an earlier Q&A here, we have a group of terrific columnists in the Philadelphia market, and it’s a challenge to distinguish oneself among them. I try to base my columns around my reporting. These days, anyone can spout off on a blog, on a message board, on talk-radio. Hell, lots of columnists do it. And there’s a place for it. But not everyone has the access that professional media are afforded, and in this age of unlimited opinion, it’s vital that we take advantage of that access, that we report thoroughly and write eloquently.

I want to be the guy who makes the extra call, reveals the new angle or fresh take, or gets the athlete/coach to open up about a sensitive topic. Over the last few years, the columns I’m most proud of are the ones where I’ve done that: following Jeremy Rose into the jockeys’ room after he and Afleet Alex won the 2005 Preakness, a race in which Rose could have been trampled to death; getting Brian Dawkins to explain how dealing with the premature births of his twin daughters affected him, his family, and his play; listening to the Philadelphia Flyers complain about biased officiating in the playoffs, then calling them out for their baseless whining, then showing up the next day to take the heat. Yes, showing your face after you criticize someone still matters. It should, anyway.

Q. What sports media do you consume – and avoid – and why?

A. Ah, the name-dropping question. Just kidding…

I consume as much as I can of the local sports media because Philadelphia is such a parochial market: phillyburbs.com , which is the site for the Calkins papers, philly.com , i.e. the Inquirer and the Daily News, delcotimes.com, delawareonline.com, csnphilly.com, nj.com. I click on Deadspin and The Big Lead each day, but that’s as far as my blog reading goes.

Honestly, I’d rather read a 6,000-word narrative or personality profile — something with depth and style and with a beginning, a middle, and an end — than a Twitter update about whether the Red Sox might include Clay Buchholtz in a trade for Roy Halladay, who might not be traded at all.

I still look forward to Sports Illustrated every week, especially if the issue includes a big back-of-the-mag piece by Gary Smith or S.L. Price. I read Yahoo! Sports and ESPN.com often, and there are several columnists whom I read regularly; they know who they are. I pester them with e-mails and phone calls and Facebook “likes.”

I avoid anything having to do with Brett Favre or soccer.

Q. Career influences?

A. There’s none bigger than Bill Lyon, the former sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He took me under his wing when I was in college and remains a friend and mentor to this day. Great writer, better human being.

Q. Next project?

A. I’m trying to come up with another book topic or subject. I’m open to suggestions.

Mike Sielski, from the Bucks County Courier Times, August 16, 2009:

PHILADELPHIA – For the last three days, Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid have been selling themselves as the second coming of Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers, as the leaders of a sports franchise bent on effecting social change.

They have signed convicted puppy killer Michael Vick to a one-year contract, taking a chance on the man who, before his two-year jail sentence, was the NFL’s most dynamic athlete. And there was Reid once more Saturday at the NovaCare Complex, trying to answer a simple question: What criterion will he use to judge whether the signing was a success? Is it more important to rehabilitate Michael Vick the person, or Michael Vick the football player?

“I think,” Reid said, “it’s a combination of both.”

No, it isn’t. It can’t be. From their board room to their coaches’ room to their locker room, the Eagles are behaving and speaking as if the skills that Vick could supply were a secondary consideration, as if saving Vick’s soul were the franchise’s primary mission. It isn’t. Winning football games is. Winning Super Bowls is. Winning is.

It’s supposed to be, anyway, and there are only two conclusions to be drawn from the way the Eagles have handled Vick’s signing: Either they turned the NovaCare Complex into Boys Town and put one man’s shot at redemption above their pursuit of a Super Bowl, or they are too scared to admit that they decided to sustain some severe public-relations damage for the sake of trying to improve their football team.

?

First things first: Arguing the Eagles shouldn’t have signed Vick is to argue, by implication, that no NFL team should have signed him. Sorry, that doesn’t wash. Vick committed heinous crimes, and they suggest a darkness in his soul that might never be cleansed. But he served his time in jail. He paid his societal debt. He ought to be able to earn a living if someone is willing to allow him.

The Eagles are willing, and that’s fine, because they are just another professional football team (despite Lurie’s claims that the Eagles’ accent on “character” sets them apart), and in the warped world of pro sports, a franchise’s first responsibility is to do all it can within the rules of its league to win a championship. So Reid can stop playing the role of Sister Helen Prejean any time now. If he wanted to be altruistic, he could have helped Vick get a job anywhere – in coaching, in community service, in a pet shelter.

Instead, Reid cut a player from the Eagles’ roster – the player who lost his job, by the way, was defensive back Byron Parker – so that he could line up Vick in the “Wildcat” formation and hope that Vick’s legs and arm improve the Eagles’ efficiency in the red zone. This is nothing more than professional sports at its purest.

When Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier, a large part of his motivation was to win baseball games, so he found the toughest, most talented black athlete he could. Even in that historic decision, Rickey was guided by more than just virtue; he wanted to tap into a dormant talent pool so he could build a dynasty.

It goes without saying that Vick is no Jackie Robinson – no matter what idiotic comparisons Jesse Jackson might make. What Vick can be, though, is an offensive threat to help the Eagles – and their quarterback, in particular.

Understood at the most basic elements, here’s what happened Thursday: Donovan McNabb asked for a weapon, and the Eagles gave it to him. He wanted Vick here, and Vick is here. And no one has said anything more accurate about Vick’s arrival than what McNabb said Thursday night:

“I’m going to tell you right now: If he gets back to where he (was when he) played in Atlanta, and for him to even have five or eight plays and he gets out of the pocket and picks up 20, 30 yards, nobody even thinks about what happened two years ago. Everybody will be talking about what we can do in order for this team to win the Super Bowl.”

You bet they will. They got over Brett Myers’ alleged assault of his wife, and if Vick plays well, they’ll get over this, too.

Lurie appeared to be completely sincere on Friday when, Hamlet-like, he laid out his inner conflict over signing a player who spent six years torturing and killing dogs and then lying about it. But the only reason Lurie was so torn was his misguided belief that a sports franchise, beyond winning games and selling tickets, must be an agent of social progress, and his genuine hemming and hawing doesn’t change anything now.

For Michael Vick is here, and he’s here to help the Eagles win, and they should start admitting that more often. It would be unsettling. It would be unseemly. But at least it would be honest.

(SMG thanks Mike Sielski for his cooperation)

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