This story is the epilogue to Gary Lloyd’s book, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.
Most people know him through his poignant books on his family, his longform stories on New York bodegas under siege, a bomb in Oklahoma City, a South Carolina mother who drowned her sons, and an Alabama church, full of people at the time, ripped to shreds by a tornado.
I signed up for his sports writing class for the Spring 2009 semester, and I was intimidated. The man had won a Pulitzer Prize with The New York Times in 1996, penned a national bestselling memoir a year later and would be touring the country for another book tour during our semester. Expectations for his pupils, I was sure, would be high.
On our first day, January 13, 2009, he laid out the semester for us. We would write three stories — a profile of someone in sports, a column about a college football playoff system and a game story — each worth twenty percent of our grade. Another thirty percent would come from a five- to eight-page magazine story. The remaining ten percent stemmed from attending class and speaking up.
We didn’t go over a whole lot that first day. The professor told us that clarity is the foundation of writing, to use lots of description, and to read old articles by Frank DeFord, Jim Murray and Grantland Rice. I scribbled it all down, as if my career and life depended on it. He instructed us to wave sports and life together, to listen for color, imagery, detail, irony. He encouraged us to stay away from our cell phones so that we could pay attention to the things around us. That may be the best advice of all.
A week later, we learned the art of interviewing for a profile story. Keep your tape recorder out of sight. Ask questions that elicit colorful, deep responses. Avoid yes-or-no questions. Ease into the tough questions. Get as much background as possible, including the careers of the subject’s parents, dreams and fears. Make the person feel what is being discussed is the most important thing in your life at that moment.
My first article was about a friend of mine, who played all youth sports growing up before settling on go-kart racing. I sat with him in a dimly lit living room in Tuscaloosa, and I turned down beer and cigarettes. I applied all the traits I had learned. I kept my recorder relatively out of sight. I asked many open-ended questions. It helped that my friend didn’t mind the tough ones. We talked about go-kart racing, the death of a mentor, a midnight firefight in Iraq when he unloaded his clip. I spent quite some time writing that story, and I thought it was great. It was colorful. It weaved sports and life. It had adversity. It had the overcoming of adversity. It had purpose. It had breakthrough.
I made a C. I was marked off for using one cliche and a stilted sentence. For some reason, I failed to break my story into paragraphs, and the professor wrote, “Unless you are writing in the 19th century, you have to have paragraphs.” He told me that the content of the story was worth an A, but because of boneheaded mistakes, I earned a C. Message received.
As each class meeting happened, the professor got funnier, yet more strict. He told hilarious jokes but limited us to five grammatical mistakes in all our papers. He wanted our writing to show him something, not simply tell him.
I wrote a solid column in February advocating for a college football eight-team playoff, and I thought my kicker feature Bear Bryant earned me bonus points. He used the words “good,” “thoughtful,” “solid” and “smart” to describe it. I was thrilled, and energized heading into our magazine-length article, which he told us he took very seriously.
I had always been drawn to North Carolina State University basketball, so I chose to write about the program’s two most famous coaches, Kay Yow and Jim Valvano, both of whom battled cancer. My goal was to weave together sports and life. I interviewed an NC State hoops historian, a guard from the men’s 1983 national championship team and a graduate assistant from the women’s team. I worked harder on that story than anything I’ve ever written. I earned a B, and the admiration of my classmates, one of which now works at ESPN. He asked me how I managed to land those interviews.
For the last two months, we didn’t meet much as a class. The professor was on a spring book tour, so at times we went two weeks without meeting. I read his memoir to fill that time, and took many notes. He encouraged us, in the little time we spent together, to write books, and to do so as early in life as we could. I began formulating ideas that afternoon.
I still have that purple notebook from the JN-491 class at The University of Alabama, and I keep it in my desk in my home office. I refer to it often. My papers from that class are inside it, as are the professor’s Sports Illustrated features on Nick Saban and Sylvester Croom.
I realized not long ago that I scrawled notes across just nine pages. He didn’t have to say a whole lot in quantity, but every bit was quality. That’s the reason I kept the notebook. The words are genius.
The last day our class met was April 21, 2009. There are notes about entering my NC State story for an award, writing in a “Show me, don’t tell me” fashion and sending job applications all over the country. On that last page of notes, we discussed writing books. Clearly it was a dream I wanted to pursue. I jotted down the professor’s three simple words.
“Just keep going.”