An Interview with Seth Wickersham — Part One
“Tank loves the rush of pulling the trigger. I had never shot a gun before, so on the advice of my editor, Gary Belsky, I went to a shooting range and squeezed off a few rounds of a semi-automatic rifle, just like the one Tank used to own…it helped me interview him about what he feels when he fires a gun.”
“ESPN hired an interview consultant, John Sawatsky, and he’s changed my entire approach to interviewing. His methods sound basic and elementary – ask short, open-ended questions; don’t disguise statements for questions; listen to the subject’s answers and work off them – but so many journalists don’t use them.”
“For that story he wasn’t very cooperative…Finally I pulled Peyton aside after a press conference. I had enough information to write without him and I knew specifically what holes I had. The interview lasted seven minutes but I got what I wanted out of it. You don’t need these guys to pull off a story.”
Seth Wickersham: Interviewed on January 4, 2008
Position: senior writer, ESPN the Magazine; columnist, espn.com
Born: 1976, Boulder, Colorado
Education: University of Missouri, 2000, journalism
Career: ESPN the Magazine 2000 –
Personal: married (Alison Overholt)
Favorite restaurant (home): PJ Clarke’s, Manhattan; Peperoncino, Brooklyn “love the spicy gnocchi”; Chocolate Room, Brooklyn “best desert in New York”
Favorite restaurant (road): Moose’s Tooth Pizza, Anchorage “I grew up in Alaska but I never get sent there for work”
Favorite hotel: Marriott Towers, San Diego – “a roof deck and a gorgeous view of the harbor”
Seth Wickersham excerpted from ESPN the Magazine, October 24, 2007:
Nobody needs to tell Tank Johnson why this bubbly, petite, frosted blonde is suddenly not so bubbly, why her blue eyes are darting around, why her hands are fidgeting and her voice is unsure. He knows.
The two are standing in the lobby of the Ashton, an upscale apartment building in uptown Dallas. Johnson, who’s been living out of his suitcase, is wearing the same outfit on this hot October Tuesday that he has worn for the past few days: black hat turned sideways, basketball shorts, white V-neck, metal cross dangling over his chest.
The woman is one of the managers evaluating Johnson’s rental application for this 21-story slab of luxury that offers, among other things, panoramic views of the city, valet parking, a rooftop pool, a wine room, an art gallery, a gym and a library. Johnson, the Cowboys’ new nose tackle, can afford the rent. But he can tell by the manager’s edginess as they discuss his application status that money isn’t the issue.
“We’re just, um, checking on a few things,” she says, twisting her locked hands, eyes avoiding contact. She’s trying hard to be friendly, because it’s her job.
Johnson is trying hard to be friendly too, because he knows what a Google search will bring up: that his fascination — obsession, really — with guns has led to all kinds of legal problems in the past two years; that while he was a member of the Bears last December his suburban Chicago home was raided by a SWAT team, where, according to reports, six guns, 500 rounds of ammo and two ounces of pot were found; that police feared for the safety of his fiancee and their two young daughters and escorted them out of the house; that the following night Johnson went to a club and his best friend was shot to death; that he served 84 days of house arrest last winter and 60 more in jail this spring, both for violating his probation on a prior gun charge.
Suddenly, Johnson feels the need to make his case. He asks the manager, “Can we talk alone for a moment?” Behind closed doors he tells her he’s a good guy who’s had a few credit stumbles. Never does he mention his affinity for guns. Never does he mention that his guns have been confiscated.
And never does he mention that he misses them…
Q. What’s it like being inside of Tank Johnson’s head?
For me it was foreign. What you’re looking for whenever you do a story is to find some moment where you share an emotion or you can understand where somebody is coming from in a human way. When it came to Tank his specifics didn’t resonate with me, but here was a guy looking for redemption and acceptance. In some ways every person has been in those shoes, albeit not as extreme as the ones he was in.
Q. How do you cross the cultural gap between you and someone like Tank?
A. By listening and asking as many follow-up questions as you can. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in the circumstances he grew up in. I had no idea how dangerous some areas of Chicago were that he talked about visiting. The best I can do is just listen. That’s the best you can do under any circumstance. Do your best to understand where he’s coming from.
It’s so easy to write these guys off as being crazy or detrimental to society – he was put in jail for a reason. Your job is to listen and get a sense of these guys. Their judgment may not always have been sound for past actions – you want to understand that. Mike Sager has a website and tips for interviewing people. He said interviews are for listening – reserve judgments for when you’re writing.
There’s so much media today – it’s harder to get time when you can listen, to sit down and have a conversation and get into the details of somebody’s life. I have it good. ESPN helps so much. It’s beat writers and other people I feel bad for – they have to deal with the sheer quantity of people more than I do.
Q. Describe your reporting and writing process for the Tank piece.
A. I spent four days with him shortly after he signed with the Cowboys. He’d pick me up at my hotel early in the morning, and we’d go to the Cowboys facility for his workouts, then drive around Dallas the rest of the day and grab a bite at night. Obviously, we spent a lot of time together, but I wouldn’t say we ever really hit it off. A lot of it was awkward, just me watching him interact with people, including lots scenes that I didn’t use. We’d go 15, 20 minutes without saying anything. I’d wait until he started bringing up his obsession with guns on his own and then tried to get as much out of those sessions as I could.
One day, we went to a high-rise apartment building. He was applying for residency there. Once I saw how the building’s management treated him — they initially rejected him based on his problems with the law — I knew that would be the story’s arc. He was searching for acceptance every minute — from his new teammates; from the NFL; from this building’s management; from me, to an extent — while deep down missing his guns and wishing he could have them back.
Tank loves the rush of pulling the trigger. I had never shot a gun before, so on the advice of my editor, Gary Belsky, I went to a shooting range and squeezed off a few rounds of a semi-automatic rifle, just like the one Tank used to own. Frankly, I didn’t see what the big deal was. But I’m glad I did it, because it helped me interview him about what he feels when he fires a gun.
Q. Frustrations and difficulties of covering the NFL?
A. Access. People assume that when you show up from ESPN the Magazine, you get the keys to the place. Not true. Sometimes, you have to be pushy. But once you get access, you have to do something with it. You don’t want just scenes. You want moments.
Q. How do you do a story in which access is too limited?
A. You have to report around it. That’s the basics of the job. You make all the calls you do anyway even when you get access – you always want to over-report.
A couple of years ago when Peyton Manning set the NFL record for TD passes I wanted to do a story about his hand signals at the line – about why he was annoying fans by draining the play clock to the final seconds. Those audibles are his identity – a lot of people are annoyed by him and yet have a great appreciation for what he does – most have both.
For that story he wasn’t very cooperative. I worked the lockerroom, called his friends, called his parents, and talked to at least one starter at every position on offense – I even took a receiver out to eat. Finally I pulled Peyton aside after a press conference. I had enough information to write without him and I knew specifically what holes I had. The interview lasted seven minutes but I got what I wanted out of it. You don’t need these guys to pull off a story.
Q. What about the game itself – how do you reconcile with the violence?
A. By not having any illusions about it, and sharing what I know and have seen with readers so that they don’t have any illusions, either. In 2005, I spent a week in Houston with Broderick Thomas, the former linebacker whose post-NFL body is a mess. One night he unnecessarily slapped one of his sons upside the head because the kid was misbehaving at the dinner table. The child wasn’t doing anything other kids don’t do. But patience requires energy, and Thomas has none because he’s in so much day-to-day pain.
Last year, I wanted to know why (Albert) Haynesworth lost it after getting hit in the knees by a cut block and how he would prevent it from happening again. Sure, he went to league-mandated anger management counseling. But he also took an approach that, depending on how you see it, was more realistic: He went to a pass-rushing specialist in Atlanta who taught him how to break an offensive lineman’s ribs or forearm legally. And he didn’t tell his anger-management counselor about it. You can find those types of conflicting currents in almost every NFL player, albeit to widely varying degrees. So I reconcile with the violence by getting as close as I can to it and understanding it.
One of the best stories I’ve read in a while was Tom Farrey’s essay in ESPN the Magazine making a case for the NFL to legalize HGH. It was one of the most thoughtful, smart opinions I’ve ever read about the realities of pro football.
Q. What do you think about legalizing HGH?
A. I saw Tom’s point, but I haven’t investigated it as much as he did. It was a provocative essay that got people thinking ‘look, if the NFL really cares about these guys they’ll consider letting them use HGH in administered amounts – so they can heal faster.
Q. How do you explain the size of NFL players compared to 20 or 30 years ago?
A. Often I’m in the lockerroom and I wonder who out of this group of players will be one of the guys whose quality of life will be impacted by the moments they’re enjoying now. I think about that constantly.
Q. Will history view NFL writers as naïve?
A. I don’t know. It would take something like what’s happened in baseball for that to be the case. I have no idea how many NFL players are on steroids or HGH. I’d imagine the figure is higher than people would think, but I don’t know if it’s a majority.
I think if people want to be proactive about this they should listen to some things Tom wrote in that essay. He really has a forward-looking stance and a smart one and I think the league would be wise to consider it. Already some NFL players have medical clearance to use it – we just don’t know which ones. That’s one thing he uncovered. He said for medical reasons the NFL should allow some players to be administered doses of HGH. The league already does – obviously he’s on to something.
Q. What condition qualifies for legal usage?
A. I don’t think he had the details on that, but I’m not sure.
Q. How did you learn to report and write?
A. I wish I could tell you that I’ve learned. Try learning. One of my most basic reportorial lessons occurred in college with my best friend, Wright Thompson (espn.com) Missouri’s offensive coordinator had just been fired, and Wright and I were co-writing the story. We played paper-rock-scissors to see who would call the athletic director versus the canned coordinator. I lost and had to call the AD, which I did and got a few quotes. Wright called the coach, got his answering machine and said, “Look, I realize I’m the last person on Earth you want to talk to right now, but if you can find a moment to call me back I’d really appreciate it.” That was a quick lesson: Be human.
ESPN hired an interview consultant, John Sawatsky, and he’s changed my entire approach to interviewing. His methods sound basic and elementary – ask short, open-ended questions; don’t disguise statements for questions; listen to the subject’s answers and work off them – but so many journalists don’t use them. Here’s an example of John’s methods in action. During one of my interviews with Haynesworth, I asked him what he wanted to accomplish when he stomped on (Andre) Gurode. Out of context, that question would get my ass kicked. But it was prefaced with two hours of questioning, basically in chronological order, of events that lead to that point. That’s John’s thing: Get subjects into moments and keep them there. So once Haynesworth’s mind was in that timeframe, with his foot lifted, the question was fair. And Haynesworth answered honestly.
My writing has been helped most by my friends and editors, specifically Beth Bragg at the Anchorage Daily News, Greg Mellen at the Columbia Missourian, and Scott Burton, Chris Berend, Chad Millman, Gary Belsky and Gary Hoenig at the Magazine. Friends like Wright, Steve Walentik, Eric Adelson, and Bruce Feldman have been great through the years. My wife, Alison Overholt, is a senior editor at the Magazine, and she reads my stories before I file. As she does, I’ll pretend to be reading, cleaning, watching TV — anything to disguise my obsessing over what she’s typing into the Word document. She’s always right — about my stories and everything, for that matter.
Q. Journalistic and writing influences?
A. There are specific things that I’ve learned from reading great writers that I hope to someday grasp. Tom Junod at Esquire combines stylish writing with incredibly deep reporting — his profile of Frank Sinatra, Jr. is beautiful. Rick Reilly (ESPN), Tim Keown (ESPN) and Tom Friend (ESPN) are versatile in terms of sports and style and can write with personality without using first person — read the stories on Marge Schott, the horse jockey and a man who thought he was Mike Tyson’s brother. Great stuff. Reilly wrote his Schott story at 5,000 words without a single section break — a clinic on transitions. Rick Telander (Chicago Sun-Times) puts sports into a societal context without resorting to clichés. Dave Fleming (ESPN) knows the NFL so well that he effortlessly finds three or four universal truths about football in every story. Their skill is inspiring … and depressing.
Q. Who and what do you read to keep up with sports?
A. I depend on beat writers the most. I start every day by going to redzone.org – it has every link for every NFL story the local papers do. I go through those the best I can. The work those guys do keep me connected as a writer and as a fan. I appreciate the ones who do it well – often I see a phrase or a quote in a story that could turn into a story for me.
I go to espn.com, si.com, and yahoo as far as daily stuff. I read our magazine, SI and Sporting News when I can – they’ve done some smart stuff in the past year.
I try to get up early to do it. By 7 or 7:30 so it doesn’t eat up the entire day. You could literally spend all day going from link to link.
Q. Non-mainstream media?
A. I go to thebiglead.com. Aside from that I might go to Deadspin or profootballtalk.com. I don’t go to too many blogs – nothing against them.
Q. Can you be a professional journalist and a fan?
A. You have to care about what you’re doing. Dan Jenkins said the best way to write about sports is to care about them. At the end of the day you have to be at an event, or sitting across from an athlete, and you want to like what you’re doing enough that it doesn’t feel like work.
Q. How often do you write?
A. Once a week for website. I average 10 or 12 stories a year for the magazine.
Q. How much time do you get for a magazine piece?
A. Depends. The Haynesworth piece I worked off and on for over a month – I visited him twice. It wasn’t the only thing I was working on. With Tank Johnson, and Favre-Jennings I had two weeks lead. Maybe less.
Q. Why couldn’t Missouri beat Oklahoma?
A. Hard to say. I wish I could break it down like a coach could. Sam Bradford is really good. Missouri made its name this year passing the ball and Oklahoma just matches up well – they were able to break through Missouri’s pass protection and the receivers just couldn’t get open like they could against other team. They never were going to be the number one team in the country. We got lucky for that week.
As soon as they were number one in the BCS Wright and I booked a hotel and restaurant – Jacquimo’s – in New Orleans. We cancelled four days later.
Q. Is there an NFL angle to the presidential race?
A. If there is tell me because I’ll take it.
Seth Wickersham excerpted from ESPN the Magazine, January 4, 2007:
THAT’S JUST the thing: Few understand.
Haynesworth knows the hypocrisy of what we want from him. We want him to rid himself of the dark currents that pushed him to bloody a man’s face, and once purified, to be a better father, husband and man. And when he’s done with that, we want him to beat on his opponents and punch his way to the quarterback. Haynesworth is human enough to be sick over what he did, but not naïve enough to be shocked. Nor was he shocked when, shortly after his return from suspension, Chargers defensive tackle Igor Olshansky was fined for punching Broncos center Tom Nalen over a cut block. Or when Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce drilled Michael Vick out of bounds as restitution for the Falcons O-linemen’s doing much the same thing. Or when Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour stomped on the helmeted head of Colts offensive tackle Tarik Glenn after Glenn attacked the All-Pro’s knees.
The rogues who are paid millions for their brutish talents understand; they can relate to each other’s struggle to be violent on the field and virtuous off of it. That’s why Haynesworth says one of the “greatest deals of this whole thing” came not from Peters or Smith or even from Stephanie. It came in October at an Atlanta Waffle House, where Haynesworth and Smith were eating. A Lamborghini rolled up, and out walked Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, a renowned hard hitter and one of the most fined players in the NFL. Haynesworth rose to introduce himself, and Harrison broke into a warm grin before saying, “Oh yeah, I know who you are.” As they ate lunch, Harrison told Haynesworth that everybody makes mistakes, to ask God for forgiveness and to keep playing. Before leaving, Harrison gave Haynesworth his number and said, “If you’re not back with the Titans we’d love to have you.” Haynesworth says now that “just to hear it from him, a future Hall of Famer, was awesome.” It meant someone understood, in a way that even his counselor, Dr. Sheila Peters, can’t.
When Haynesworth brings up Smith’s teachings in his Monday counseling sessions, he “doesn’t go into detail because it’s just football.” And Peters doesn’t press him.
What about his wife, Stephanie? After witnessing Albert traverse both of his therapeutic paths, she says, “He’ll never admit this, but that play might have been the best thing that’s happened to him.”
During his suspension, she says, she and Haynesworth went from not communicating to, well, communicating in their own way. Right before Albert’s reinstatement, he and Stephanie were at the dinner table when suddenly he pulled out his cell and started to tap. Momentarily, his wife’s phone buzzed. Weeks later, she still hasn’t erased the text message she received. “Thanks for being w/me thru thick & thin,” it reads. “I luv you a lot.” She loves that note. She loves that her husband started going to church with her while he was suspended and even talked about getting baptized. But as soon as Albert was playing football again, helping the Titans finish the season by winning six out of the last seven, she noticed that all his emotional progress began to disappear. Stephanie had to wonder if he could be a better husband at the same time that he tried to be a better player.
And if not, which path he’d take….
(SMG thanks Seth Wickersham for his cooperation)