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So I'm a Real Journalist Now?

I guess I must be doing something right. Five months ago, I only had six by-lines for the Winston-Salem Journal to my credit, all of which were high school baseball or softball games. I was commuting 40 minutes to make 35 bucks a night at a steakhouse in Elkin because Rock-Ola never called me back.

Today, I got a $100 check in the mail from The Miami Herald. That’s right: a paycheck from The Miami Herald. Probably the same exact check that Dan le Betard gets, minus a decimal place or three.

Last week I wrote a feature that ran on the front page of the sports section of the Winston-Salem Journal. This is the same Anders Larson whose most notable feature story to that point was on the word “Noobie.”

How did I get here so fast?

Well, first of all, am I really “here?” This could be an aberration, this feature story-writing, Miami Herald-by-line nonsense. Maybe I haven’t improved at all. Keep in mind I’m not even making an A in Intro to Journalism.

Either way, I’ve been logging some serious hours writing quasi-important stories the past three weeks. I’ve covered three high school football games, one college football game, one state cross-country meet, and I wrote a feature. The Winston-Salem Journal has gotten at least two letters from readers commenting on the quality of my writing.

But the Herald article remains my crown jewel up to this point. No offense to the Journal, but I don’t think we’ll see Lennox Rawlings doing a “Voices” segment on Sportscenter any time soon.

I certainly hope and expect that this is only the beginning of the successful journalism career of Anders Larson. But just in case, I’m going to recap that fateful weekend so that eight years from now, when I’m working at Denny’s and I blow up at a customer, screaming “I had a by-line in The Miami Herald!” – I’ll have this column as proof.

And by the way, the Journal didn’t really get any letters about my writing. Tell me you didn’t believe that…

Anyway, I’ll begin my story the night before the WFU-Florida State game, at Northeast Guilford High School in McLeansville, North Carolina.

There was nothing particularly unusual about that night, at least not in comparison to the rest of the fall up to that point. As I had done nearly every Friday, I covered a high school football game – this time it was Glenn against Northeast Guilford. This just happened to be the beginning of my “6 articles in 16 days” rampage.

Then again, up to this point, I encounter something a little different in each high school game I cover. For instance, about ten minutes after I had settled into my seat in the press box, the other men asked me for help removing the windows. It was 45 degrees out, and we were removing the windows. They said something about how the windows were too glossy or dirty or something – but there was no sense of surprise about this, as if these windows were there merely for decoration.

And then I had a classic awkward moment after the game, although I think I’m probably the only person that noticed it. As I was wrapping up my interview with the losing coach, I shook his hand and said “Thanks, coach. Congratulations.” We parted ways, but I instantly realized what had just happened: “Congratulations?”

Did I seriously just congratulate him for losing? I didn’t say, “Congratulations on a good season so far” or “Congratulations on beating those drug charges.” I just said, “Congratulations.” The whole way home I killed myself over it. What if the coach had asked me about it? And more importantly, what if I made that mistake tomorrow?

Because tomorrow was the day that really counted, the day I covered a college game.

So I wrote my story for the Journal that night without incident, then headed home and made sure to get plenty of sleep. Writers for The Miami Herald need to be well-rested. The next day I headed over to the stadium, Groves Stadium, at 1:00 for a 3:30 kickoff. Before one of my high school games, I took a nap in my car 30 minutes before kickoff. This was just the first sign that things work a little differently at the college level.

I wanted to get there early for a number of reasons, the main one being that Dan Collins, the Journal beat writer for Wake Forest, told me to. But I also wanted to get settled in, meet Steve Holder, the Herald beat writer, and let him know that there was probably a 70% chance that I would make some irreparable mistake by the end of the day.

One cause for concern was that the Herald wanted me to write a sidebar, and not only had I not written one before, I didn’t even know what a sidebar was until 3 days prior. But for some reason, this didn’t bother them, and neither did the fact that I used to play for Wake Forest, or that I had never covered a college game, or that I had less than 15 by-lines in my career, or that I write columns with titles like “Things That Suck.”

So after a brief snafu at the media will call gate, I headed up to the press box. I walked around aimlessly and tried to look natural for a few minutes, then I finally found my seat and set my computer up. Over the next two hours, I filled in Steve on my situation, and we chatted for about sports journalism, college football, and how Dan le Betard is an ass. (I’ll admit I made up the last one – just in case Dan le Betard is reading this and might say something to Steve about it.)

Between talking with Steve and Dan Collins introducing me to a bunch of other reporters, the two hours before kickoff evaporated fairly quickly. When the game started, I found myself taking too many notes and generally trying to make it seem like I knew what I was doing. Overall, this was the easy part of the day for me – the bulk of my article would come from post-game quotes. The hardest part about the game was trying not to get too excited when Wake jumped out to a 14-3 halftime lead, especially when I was working for a Florida paper.

Actually, a small part of me was relieved when the Seminoles came out on top – the last thing I wanted covering my first college game was to be scarred for life when Wyatt Sexton pulls a Ryan Leaf on me after throwing four picks and losing to Wake Forest.

Of course, even though I only had to interview Florida State players for my story, the potential for disaster was still significant. Before the game, I had been told that the players would be available to interview after they got out of the locker room. So when the game ended, I casually walked out on the field as all the other reporters rushed around waving microphones in the players’ faces. Of course, I quickly tried to do the same, eventually spotting linebacker Buster Davis with a bunch of reporters around him. I recorded a few seconds of him talking to the other guys, and then hurriedly asked him a couple of my own questions just before he headed to the locker room.

I soon found out that these players would all be available 15 minutes later, so thankfully I wouldn’t have to use exclusively Buster Davis quotes in my story. I then followed a bunch of the other guys into the field house for Bobby Bowden’s press conference. This actually had a much more relaxed atmosphere than I anticipated; if you wanted to ask a question, you just asked. No one pulled the “say your name and what paper you work for” routine. And of course, I just stood there holding my tape recorder out and hoping someone else would ask the questions I needed.

Listening to Bobby Bowden was one of the more entertaining experiences of the day. He hasn’t reached the Joe Paterno-level quite yet, but he doesn’t have too many years left. Not only did he refer to most of his players by their numbers, but on more than one occasion he asked reporters what happened on a particular play, either because he couldn’t remember or because he didn’t see it. His happy-go-lucky attitude makes him extremely likable, and it masks the fact that his program is now in complete shambles after losing to Maryland and leading Duke 9-7 at half.

(One other note: Bowden actually said in the press conference that he wanted to put Rix in the game at halftime of the Wake game, but his assistant coaches talked him out of it. That ought to be sufficient evidence that Bobby’s judgment is slipping just a hair.)

After the press conference, I followed a couple of reporters back around the field house back to the field. We were half-running at the kind of pace you use when you’re late for class, but you don’t want anyone to see you break into a full sprint. As we all know, you can’t show off that top gear in public, except under extreme circumstances (e.g. running from rabid dog, hail storm, really have to pee).

When we arrived back outside the locker room, the players who had been requested came out over the next ten minutes, as the Florida State SID announced their names like contestants in a beauty pageant. I first talked to defensive tackle Travis Johnson, who made the only Playstation 2 reference of the day (“It’s like on the Playstation 2, on them little sticks, when you hit that L2. That home-field advantage is a big deal.”) Unfortunately I couldn’t incorporate this bit of wisdom into my story. I also talked to linebacker Ernie Sims, but the highlight of my day was talking to my former Mount Tabor teammate A.J. Nicholson.

I walked up behind him as he was talking to another reporter and waited to introduce myself, but after a few seconds he caught sight of me and immediately wheeled around made a big scene of the fact that I was “his boy.” He introduced me to a couple of the team managers, and generally just boosted my street cred. I finally asked him a couple questions for my story, and he gave me some decent quotes, including “Oh, man, I can’t believe you’re interviewing me, this is crazy.” That one didn’t make the final cut.

After a few more minutes searching for people to talk to, I headed back up to the press box to write my sidebar. My deadline was in roughly 13 minutes, but Steve had assured me that the 8:15 deadline was ridiculous and that I should concentrate on writing a solid story. It ended up taking me about an hour to write the article, which was made up mostly of quotes. All in all, the writing wasn’t too difficult – my main problem was that I forgot to bring headphones for my tape recorder, so I had to play back my clips on an ultra-low volume and hold it right up to my ear. For the first time all day, I really looked like the rookie that I was. (Actually, I probably gave that away when I couldn’t figure out how to tie my press pass onto my pants like everyone else – but I got it eventually.)

I filed my story around 9:05 and walked out to my car like a total badass. Of course, I was expecting several phone calls from the Herald telling me that my story was unusable for one reason or another, but the call never came.

In fact, when I checked the Herald’s website the next morning, I was shocked to see that my article had run with hardly any changes. They even spelled my name right.

Crazy. It’s still on the Herald’s website, you just have to search a little for it. My friend got me a hard copy of the sports section as added proof. And just in case, I have this column, just so everyone knows that there was indeed an article in the Miami Herald
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