SCI publisher Jim Wexell does something like this, and I always enjoy those articles, so I'm going to take you through a bit of the background of how my story on Stevenson Sylvester came together.
I want to use more of the quotes I got, and inject some more opinion. Hopefully, you can get a more complete picture of the third-year 'backer.
Interview Time Mix-Up
A member of Stevenson Sylvester's representation emailed me, bringing me up to speed with his 2011 season and letting me know his plans of working hard and preparing to contribute for the Steelers in 2012.
It's not exactly rare we get requests to run certain stories or press releases notifying us of the winner of this or that contest. Not all of them merit a response, unless with it comes the possibility of a live interview with the subject, provided that subject is someone of value to SteelerNation.
I was critical of Sylvester's performance in Week 8, and felt it fair to get his take on it, so I asked the agent if I could get 15 minutes with him directly.
From a writer's perspective, especially one who doesn't get the opportunity to get original quotes and ask specific questions, I couldn't pass on it. The agent set it up for the following Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET. Not the best possible time for me, but manageable, and I figured telling him, "I can't interview your client because it interferes with my real job, something that has nothing to do with football or writing" wouldn't exactly help my cause, so I replied with "Yes, absolutely, that works!"
It's 4:15 p.m. ET, and I'm mowing through the end of my work day. I've got almost an exact 30 minute drive from work to home, so I'm working to cut out a few minutes early so I can get home and give Sylvester a call. My phone started to ring, with the familiar 412 (Pittsburgh) area code. We're strongly discouraged from answering our cell phones while inside the office, and I can't leave to answer it at that second, but it's definitely odd; first, the area code of the number Sylvester's agent gave me was in Las Vegas, and this number didn't match any of friends and relatives I have in the Pittsburgh area.
A few minutes after the call, I go outside to listen to the voice message. It was from a very confused caller.
"Hi, ummm....this is Scott Brown from the Tribune-Review, I was calling, uh, I was looking for Stevenson, I was scheduled to speak with him. My number is blah blah blah."
It seems much simpler in retrospect, but as I'm sitting there, already plotting my early escape from work, an aggressive driving plan that would save me, hopefully, five minutes, as well as an outline of questions I had prepared, the last person I expected to call me was a Steelers beat writer from the Tribune-Review.
My first thought was how the hell he got my phone number. I don't get a great signal where I'm working, so I couldn't quite make all of it out, but it was definitely Scott Brown, and he was either looking for me, or the guy I was scheduled to interview in about 75 minutes.
Curiosity gets me, so I call him back.
"Hi Scott, this is Neal Coolong calling you back."
Confusion clearly was much stronger on the other end of the phone. Not that he had any idea who I was (I explained to him I wrote for Behind The Steel Curtain and also had an interview with Sylvester today), but I explained my theory on what had happened; I'm guessing, since we both apparently had interviews with Sylvester that day, the agent forwarded part of my email, including the part where I gave him my phone number in case he needed to call me, to Brown. Brown in turn took that has Sylvester's number.
I did what I could to clear that mess up, and found the gall to ask Brown if he ever read this web site, and what he thought of it. Pretty sure he said he read it just to get me off the phone, but he was at least friendly about it.
Not trying to be That Guy, but I've interviewed hundreds upon hundreds of people over my journalism "career," I don't recall any of them starting as weirdly as this one did.
I never did bring any of it up to Sylvester (the player is usually oblivious to the workings of the agent, just that someone's going to call him at this time for an interview, and they usually have a few of them strung together back-to-back). I, of course, miscalculated my arrival time, and burst through the door to an over-excited dog who needed to pee. I put him on his chain and basically threw him (not literally) outside, and called Sylvester.
Needless to say, I haven't heard from Brown since.
Setting the Stage with a Snowball Fight
A trick many journalists will use when starting an interview for a feature story is to establish some kind of connection with the subject. The trick can backfire easily when you don't really have confirmation of whether your connection is strong or not. In my case, I grew up with a guy named Bennie Joppru in the Minneapolis suburbs in the 1990s. Bennie would eventually get a football scholarship to Michigan, and while there, he would be second only to Iowa's Dallas Clark in most tight end receiving categories. He was second to him in the draft as well; Clark went to Indianapolis in the first round, and Bennie went to Houston in the second.
Bennie's younger brother, Chris (the quintessential annoying tag-along younger brother, from what I remember) played at Utah with Sylvester.
So, I'm now name-dropping a random former teammate of his, no idea if he remembers him, in hopes he'll be able to chat about him a little bit before getting into the real story.
Fortunately for me, he did. He seemed to think fondly of him as well. Chris Joppru ended up being around 6-foot-7, and just like his older brother, was an excellent athlete. Sylvester told me a story once about how the Utah football team got in a snowball fight, and everyone avoided him because he was bringing Verlander-like heat.
Good. It worked. Great story if I was covering Utah football around 2009.
Accountability without Apology
When writing these kinds of features, a hardened news professional doesn't want to come off as a shill - someone who panders the subject and refuses to do anything but paint him/her in the most positive light.
The BTSC community knows I savaged Sylvester after the Patriots game, so I wanted my focus in this piece to be on that game itself, his reaction to it and how he responded to a line of questioning about it.
What I really liked was how up front he was. It wasn't an apology by any means, he was displaying the same amount of emotion talking about that game as he was talking about his dominant college career. He struck me as a kid who doesn't let much bother him. He wasn't afraid of my questions about his performance, and he spoke as if he held himself accountable, but he had done that a long time ago. He was past it. I like it when people will be aware of past failures, and are open about it, but let you know without stating it directly they've learned that lesson and are onto the next chapter.
Does Intelligence Beget Leadership?
Stevenson left Utah with one more year of eligibility, but he already had earned a degree in Mass Communication. He said he is about seven classes away from another degree in Economics. I asked him about plans for life after football, and he didn't give specifics, but I got the strong impression he had some kind of business venture in his mind. He offered up "maybe going back to Vegas and making money there. There's lots of money to be made there, and I'm not talking about gambling" as one tongue-in-cheek plan.
He spoke in a very relaxed manner after the first few questions, and really seemed more like a guy everyone knows. I thought about asking him if he ever had an intentions of running for office, but decided not to. Seemed like too much of a softball, but that's how well-spoken he is.
While I'm still struggling with my increasing age, and how the absolute one thing every football fan who doesn't see or hear these players speak every day is how truly young they are (you do not get that over TV and radio), Sylvester sounded like a younger dude, but a really smart one, too. Book smarts do not necessarily translate onto the field, but I don't know many people who can communicate as clearly as he did who are naturally dumb human beings.
It was obvious to me just in talking to him why he was a two-year captain of his college team. Many times, fans get stuck in the mentality that the captain of the team is the best player. That's often true at the high school level, but in the levels that follow, players are living and breathing with their teams. Coaches take captaincy far more seriously, and to name a junior a captain takes even more guts. From what I've learned of him, it seemed like the choice was a no-brainer.