Friday, September 26, 2014

Obliquely Speaking

The AP, my employer the last 32 years of my journalism career, also served as the springboard to one of the most enjoyable sidelights of my experience as a journalist _ a chance to play professor at a distinguished institution of higher learning. I doubt Syracuse University would have come calling in the autumn of 1984 had I not been the Syracuse correspondent for the world's largest news-gathering organization at the time. But I was, and the university did, in the form of an invitation from Dr. Sam Kennedy, chair of the Newspaper Division of the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, to organize and teach a sports-writing class the following spring.

I gulped while accepting, having just been informed that I would have to develop everything from scratch. I'd also been told that the university had the resources to cover for me in the event airplanes fell from the sky or ships collided in the St. Lawrence Seaway (one of my favorite beats) on the one day a week that I was to scheduled to lecture on sports writing. That was reassuring, and I set about writing a syllabus, compiling a reading list and mapping out a schedule that would allow me to be in class three hours per week and then grade the spot quizzes and writing assignments for 15 students.

It was during the preparation phase that I realized I wanted to teach one principle of good writing which I could not find in Stanley Woodward's "Sports Page," the textbook that first year. It was the principle of triad chords in music _ harmoniously stacking a set of three notes. The application in prose is to stack three similar thoughts, with each repetition intensifying the effect of what the writer is saying. I'd seen the triad used frequently in the work of incomparable Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, and planned to cite examples from his writing. Murray, who won the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association's Sportswriter of the Year award 14 times, mixed caustic humor with deep insight. He famously described tennis as:
"A game in which love counts for nothing, deuces are wild, and the scoring system was invented by Lewis Carroll."
In another column, one of my favorites, Murray borrowed a proverb attributed to Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus to begin his epic putdown of boxer Floyd Patterson:
"In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In a congress of murderers, a cutpurse is an honest man. And, in a heavyweight division of palookas, Floyd Patterson is a champion."
The catch was that I didn't have a term for what Murray was doing. I came up with one in the nick of time, coining the term "oblique entry" for that type of circling a subject to create interest at the top of a story. It worked well _ it was gratifying to watch the young would-be writers in the class reach for notebooks, It was also a bit alarming: I could envision one of them telling a real professor something like, "Mr. Reisner says Oblique Entry is the way to catch a reader's attention," and having that get back to the faculty lounge. So I told them something like, "Now, this is my own term. You won't find it in a textbook, because I haven't written a textbook. But try repetition of a theme at the start of a feature story or column if you want to jazz up your writing."

I've followed my own advice on utilizing the harmonic triad many times since, and people seem to like it.

In the most extreme example in "The Leather Man," Chapter 31 is 50 percent oblique entry. The first half of the three-page chapter discusses the Bear River Massacre, a little-known battle between a cavalry regiment and the Shoshone Tribe in southern Idaho. Some estimates put the Native American loss of life at 450, making it one of the greatest slaughters in Indian Wars history.

As the story unfolds, readers come to understand that the chapter is not really about the battle _ the historical markers which interpret it for interested motorists simply lie on the route the Canyon State team bus has taken to reach Logan, Utah, and a game against Utah State which the Wranglers have little chance of winning.

A paragraph in the middle of the second page conveys the message. As the bus passes the monuments, sports information director Marc Carter tries to imagine the scene near the Bear River in January 1863, and an idea strikes him:
What we're heading into is a long way from a massacre, but that's probably what the Sunday papers will call it.
That sentence is a bridge between the drawn-out entry and the introduction to the most important game in Canyon State's history. Carter's musing continues, and he expounds on the reasons Utah State is an overwhelming favorite: tradition, more money, a history of success against a stronger schedule, and great players. Carter, a character in my work-of-fiction first novel, recalls eight Aggies players who began NFL, AFL or Canadian Football League careers during a seven-year span beginning in 1959.

The Canyon State-Utah State game, pairing a fictional college with an existing university, posed a special problem for me. I had to choose at the outset whether to invent a successful, upper-level college program or work around the pitfalls inherent in a meeting of fictional-historical teams. I chose the latter and made it work by not giving the year of the game or mentioning a Utah State player or coach by name. I want Aggies fans of all ages to know that I have great respect for the program. In fact, it was their dominance of regional opponents in the 1960s that led me to pick them as the overwhelming favorite against Canyon State.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pink Cheeks and Gray Around Their Eyes

There is one truly poignant chapter in the first half of "The Leather Man" _ Chapter 12, in which Ben Steinbrecher is forced to confront the fact that he will never get to play in the National Football League despite having been born with physical gifts bestowed on only a handful of mortals.

That's one of the steps that reduces Ben from Superman to Everyman, and it humanizes him.

As a superhero, Ben would have been just one more comic-strip character in a panoply of fictitious friends of society; a role model born of wishful thinking instead of strategic planning. As a human being, by way of contrast, Ben remains large and forceful, but he becomes someone readers can relate to because his shift in focus from playing a sport to coaching others is an allegory about reaching adulthood _ tutee become tutor, a theme as old as literature itself. Consider Paul's wake-up epistle to early Christian converts in Corinth:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
In Medieval times, an understanding of the common destiny of mankind gave rise to morality plays, in which personifications of moral values try to persuade a protagonist to choose good over evil. "The Somonyng (Summoning) of Everyman," written late in the 1400s, became the flagship of the genre. Its frontispiece describes it as (in modern English) "a treatise how the high Father of Heaven sends Death to summon each creature to come and give account of their lives in this world."

Death also contributes to the poignance of a later chapter, but in a different, sharper context: Quintus LeClaire, whose post-Vietnam adventure of rediscovery begins with the decision to track down the parents of a slain Marine Corps buddy, finally gets to meet them in Chapter 30.

The circumstances are different than he could have imagined when he boarded a bus in Louisiana half a year earlier. In the interim, he has become the starting tailback at a small college in Idaho's Magic Valley, has found friends and allies, including a police chief who understands the horrors of combat, and has begun to put his life back together. As the chapter unfolds, Quintus turns out to be a better ball carrier than anyone expected: He sets a school single-game record for yardage rushing in Canyon State's season-opening victory over Northern Oregon.

What Quintus isn't privy to is that Sam Moody, the police chief, has arranged for a surprise visit by the Royale Evans family of Portland, Ore., the parents and younger brother of Royce Evans. After the game they are escorted down to the field to meet the young man who befriended their fallen family member. In an emotion-charged scene, Quintus shakes hands with Royale and Viola Evans and exchanges compliments with Rindell, a prep-school linebacker.

Royale tells Quintus that Royce called him a white man he could trust _ a weighty homage from a black man during the Civil Rights Movement. Quintus realizes that Royale is looking for something more and begins to describe the reconnaissance mission he and Royce were on:
The point man stepped on a mine and we started taking fire. Royce was behind me, so we wound up on our bellies behind a log until we figured there was a machine gun off to the left.
Quintus says he and Royce were hit taking out the machine gun, and Royale expresses his condolences, saying the letter of notification he received gave him no suggestion that anyone else on the mission had been injured. Then he asks for one more piece of information: Did Royce have any last words? That question leads to what I consider to be one of the best of all the original word pictures in my book:
He had been trying to reconstruct the scene, intuiting that the question would be asked, but it was difficult. There had been trees and tall grass, and bullets hitting them filled the air with fiber like the inside of a sawmill. Noise, confusion, nineteen-year-olds with pink cheeks and gray around their eyes, looking like Death warmed over while the real thing went flying around at Mach Two.
Quintus' attempt to convey a final message, rather than the message itself, brings peace to the hearts of the Evans family, and bringing them to Canyon City proves to be one of the best moves the Purple Stampede booster club could have made.


Friday, September 12, 2014


Foreshadowing is a particularly important tool in a novel because it creates tension, a singularly good way to hold a reader's attention.

Literature is usually excluded from the sequential arts, a term applied to comic books, Such arts employ sequential images to tell a story or impart information. But I wrote my first novel with chapters which are sequential by subject interwoven with other chapters which have little to do with the tension-building sequences.

A significant theme of "The Leather Man" _ the crumbling of Ben and Gloria Steinbrecher's marriage _ is hinted at in the second, third, 11th and 15th chapters. In the latter two, Ben meets Sherry Sullivan, and Brock Banning, a standout in Ben's Canyon State Wranglers defense, reminisces about striking up an acquaintance with Gloria. With character development for the novel complete, the theme of marital instability then forks into separate sequences in the middle section, defined in my earlier post "Balancing The Book" as Chapters 16-39.

Chapter 20 ("St. Agnes' Eve") is where Sherry has to confront her feelings about Ben, and another sequence begins with Chapter 26 ("Undertones"), in which Gloria feels compelled to catch Canyon State practices, something she's never done, to watch Brock in action.

By Chapter 29, the Gloria-Brock angle has taken a tick upward: She's looking through the wine section at a grocery store when her mind drifts to the previous day's last full-contact practice session before the season opener. Specifically, she remembers the middle linebacker with the tight pants whose fierce roars at the offense are especially audible with no crowd noise. Then she awakens to reality with Brock looking at her over a display of cheeses.

Gloria wonders if she's blushing, but bounces back quickly with a mild put-down:
"You're Brock, right?" she said, feeling more in control as soon as she uttered the words. Let him try to cross that gorge! I met you last spring, didn't I?"
Brock isn't fazed by the low-caliber snub and reminds her that he met Gloria and Sandy Wilson, another coaching wife, months ago in a college hangout where she ordered gimlets. He observes that her tastes seem to have evolved from gin to wine. Gloria says she has a small wine collection at home, Brock responds that he wouldn't mind sampling it, and Gloria tries one last bit of banter, saying that "Coach Steinbrecher" doesn't invite players to his home.

That's when Brock breaks through the persiflage:
"You said it was your wine," he answered, looking into her eyes. "I wasn't thinking about any group get-together, just a private look at all the burgundies and chardonnays lying on their sides."
That's enough to alert Gloria to a turning point in their relationship, and, as if it weren't, Brock lets her know, a few sentences later, that he's been eyeing her from the practice field:
"The way you and Sandy have been coming to practice, I'm surprised you didn't know my number too."
"Fifty-one," she replied. "I'll let you know about the tour."

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sports Information

My intention when I began to write Chapter 27 of "The Leather Man" was to broaden the average reader's grasp of sports information directors and what they do. That is to say, what I imagine they do; I never worked in the field of sports coverage as anything but a reporter, but I had a chance to observe some of the best SIDs in action.

The first who impressed me was Larry Kimball, who retired  in 1997 after 31 years as the head man for Syracuse Univerity's press-box operations _ a string that included attending 383 consecutive Orange football games and 42 Intercollegiate Rowing Association regattas. Tom Duddleston Jr. of the University of Arizona nearly matched Kimball's longevity before retiring in 2013. Duddleston was known for his dry wit, including hilarious public-address announcements at Wildcats home games that a ball carrier had committed "self-tackleization" by tripping over his own feet. On the professional level, Budd Thalman sticks out for his professionalism _ during his 13 years with the Buffalo Bills, the team made the playoffs just three times, but the NFL asked Thalman to assist with media relations at seven Super Bowls.

In my opinion, sports could not have grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry without SIDs, who went by that title in the 1960s but today are more likely to be known as media relations directors. In the upper level of college sports, most of them have titles that include the words "vice president" _ apt when you consider that they direct a roomful of assistants and run press boxes filled with hundreds of media types. Whatever the position is called, the work is the same: Facilitate coverage of the events lined up by the institutions or professional franchises which field the teams that attract the fans.

Implicit in that sentence is the need to deal with some unpalatable situations, starting with the outcome of almost any game _ there can only be one winner in most sports, and nobody likes losing. Then there's the matter of player behavior; it's axiomatic that being strong and aggressive doesn't always lead athletes to act like adults.

But SIDs have to be unflappable, and most are. The acid test is when the situation involves a funeral.

Doug Tammaro grew in my estimation when I saw how he handled Arizona State's tribute to Pat Tillman after Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004. Tammaro, ASU's athletic media relations director, joined the Athletic Department as an assistant SID in 1993, a year before Tillman arrived on the Tempe campus. Tillman developed from the last Sun Devils football player to receive a scholarship that year to the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year by the time he was a senior, then went on to star for the Arizona Cardinals. He became a national icon in May 2002, when he turned his back on a $1.2 million annual salary to enlist in the Army Rangers, and I believe his death by friendly fire marked an early turning point that swung public opinion against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although you could tell Tammaro's personal feelings were involved, he handled the news conference with aplomb and tact. It was a nice touch that former Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis was invited. McGinnis' comments about Tillman as a man's man were poignant and powerful.

In my novel, the Canyon State SID is Marc Carter. He is working on the football flip charts for the Wranglers' season opener when Canyon City police chief Sam Moody walks in with a request for complimentary tickets _ one of the most frequent incidental requests that sports information offices receive.

In a short conversation, Moody explains that he's tracked down the family of Royce Evans of Portland, Ore., and that they'd like to see Quintus LeClaire play his first game. It turns out Evans was a friend of LeClaire who was killed during LeClaire's last firefight in Vietnam, and Moody believes meeting his friend's family could help the troubled tailback cope with his combat experiences.

After handling that request, Carter returns to preparations for the game, interrupting his routine to wonder if LeClaire will play up to his potential. If he does, Carter still sees a tough road ahead to get national attention for any player at a small Western college. He wraps up the subject by noting that it's all speculation until the kickoff:
The thing is, he needs to do something spectacular first. You can't sell brass as gold bullion, no matter how you hype it.