You write both nonfiction and fiction. What are the differences other than the obvious? Do you prepare differently? Do you prefer one over the other? Why?
I’m very lucky at this point in my life to be able to write both fiction and nonfiction. I think going back and forth between the two genres helps keep me fresh and motivated. Of course the kids’ fiction I’ve written—this is my eighth kids’ mystery in all—is based on a lot of the reporting I’ve done through the years. I’ve always believed the best fiction reads like nonfiction. When it’s believable, the readers thinks, “This could happen.” I enjoy creating a story line and characters and, at the same time, trying to make that story feel real.
Why do you think reading is important for an athlete?
I think reading is important for everybody regardless of age, sex, or whether they are an athlete. I do think it is important for anyone interested in playing a sport to have an understanding of what might be ahead in terms of being recruited; in terms of coaching and—maybe most important—understanding when their parents are too involved. That’s the biggest danger we have for kids who are gifted athletes, and the more a kid can understand that, the better
Were you for or against last year’s changes to the college football game structure?
I like the changes to the college football structure in that four teams will now have a chance to play for the national championship instead of two. That’s a small step forward, but not nearly enough. The playoff should involve at least eight teams—and even better, twelve. Get rid of the meaningless conference championship games and play four first-round games at home sites the first week in December. Play quarterfinals on New Year’s Day at bowl sites, semis the next week. Then the championship game the week before the Super Bowl. Unlike with the basketball tournament, players would miss almost no class time, and a twelve-team tournament would let teams like Boise State, TCU, and Utah—which each went undefeated in past years—try to compete for the national championship. They would have the chance to do what Butler, George Mason, and VCU did in the basketball tournament—some of the most magical moments we’ve had in sports.
What should teams and fans look for this season?
Things to look for in this college season? The SEC will still have more good teams than anyone else. Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU will all make noise nationally. No one in the ACC will beat Florida State. The Big Ten will be down—again. The Pac-10 will be the most fun because no one is dominant but almost everyone is good, and the Big 12 will be Oklahoma, Baylor, and everyone else. Even so, the two games to see will be the same as they always are: Harvard-Yale and Army-Navy. Tradition. It’s great.
What do you look for in terms of stats, news, info in preseason for both NFL and college football?
I really don’t put much stock in preseason at all. Teams have gone 0–4 in exhibition games and won the Super Bowl. Bad teams often go 4–0. What matters are serious injuries—at every level, because football is so violent—and suspensions for bad behavior or steroid use. Unfortunately, even at the high school level where Alex Myers plays, they’re an important part of the game.
Any advice for aspiring sports journalists?
My advice for anyone wanting to get into journalism—whether in sports or not in sports—is always the same:
- Read a lot. Even reading bad writing helps because it teaches you what NOT to do.
- Don’t specialize when you’re young. If sports is your goal, that’s great. But I learned more from covering police, courts, and politics than I knew at the time. It helped make me a better reporter, and that’s always been critical for me.
- Don’t give up on writing. Everyone wants to be on TV these days. The best way to get on TV is to write and report very well. That way you aren’t being hired for your looks and you’ll last a lot longer.
Which writers inspire(d) you?
I’ve been inspired by lots of people since I first discovered reading as a kid. The “triple threat”—Alex Myers—was inspired by reading the Chip Hilton books, written by the great basketball coach Clair Bee (a mentor of Bob Knight’s). I was remarkably lucky to start my career at the Washington Post, where I learned from Bob Woodward—THE Bob Woodward of Watergate fame—David Maraniss, who has only won THREE Pulitzer Prizes, and superb sportswriters like Dave Kindred, Ken Denlinger, Tony Kornheiser (yes, he was once a real reporter and writer, proof of what I’m talking about as a TV star), and Tom Boswell. All took an interest in me and taught me lessons not only about how to report a story but how to RECOGNIZE a story. I’ve always thought my greatest strength was understanding you don’t have to be rich and famous to have a story to tell. I learned that from the people I worked with at the Post. As a reader, David Halberstam inspired me with his amazing eye for detail, whether reporting on Vietnam or the Portland Trail Blazers. I love reading thrillers, too—especially those that, as I said before, feel as if they could be real.
Which players do you admire?
I tend to admire athletes more for what they accomplish away from the playing fields than on them. Arthur Ashe was a great tennis player—three major championships, including the very first U.S. Open in 1968—but a better man. He made people think about important issues rather than trying to use his name to become wealthy. Bill Bradley, whom I watched as a kid because I was a Knicks fan, was similar to Arthur. He saw his ability as an athlete as a means to make a difference in the world, which he did as a U.S. senator. I’ve been close to many coaches, especially in basketball. Dean Smith helped desegregate restaurants in Chapel Hill in the late 1950s as a young assistant coach at North Carolina and took part in civil rights marches and nuclear freeze protests. Mike Krzyzewski is one of the most loyal men I’ve ever met—he never forgets a friend. While dying of cancer, Jim Valvano set up and organized the V Foundation, which has raised more than $100 million for cancer research since his death. He knew he was going to die but wanted to leave a meaningful—truly meaningful—legacy behind.
Any international sports you wish would gain a greater fan following here in the USA?
The one sport I always wanted to cover more and learn more about that is not a big deal in this country is cycling—specifically the Tour de France. Unfortunately, Lance Armstrong and so many other drug cheats have sullied the sport to the point where it will be a long time before anyone takes it seriously again. I was awed—before I knew about all the steroid use—by what cyclists did, riding 100 miles a day, up and down mountains, and then doing it again the next day. People only get interested in swimming in this country during the Olympics, every four years. As an old swimmer, I would love to see people care more about the sport—but you can’t tell sports fans what to like and not like.
What are the dangers of steroid use by young high school athletes?
The most stunning facts I uncovered while researching the The Walk On—I do research my fiction to try, again, to make it feel like nonfiction—were about steroid use among high school athletes, especially football players. Teenagers believe they’re immortal, so health warnings don’t really affect them, especially when they read constantly about millionaire NFL players who are suspended for four games for steroid use and then come back to be cheered and continue to make millions. One doctor told me steroids are an “epidemic” among high school football players, in part because there isn’t very much drug testing at the high school level. The reason I made steroids a part of the story in The Walk On is because they are so prevalent.
Do you think it’s safe for young children to be playing contact football?
I have very mixed emotions about kids playing football. I love the sport, loved playing it as a kid, though I didn’t play past ninth grade because I was a swimmer and because my mom wasn’t thrilled about it. I’m not sure I would want my son to put his heart and soul into a sport that is bound to beat up your body. I think I would try to steer him in another direction. One of the reasons I wanted Alex to be a three-sport athlete was to keep his future options open
Do you think writing nonfiction makes you a better fiction writer?
The work I’ve done writing nonfiction is very much at the heart of my fiction writing. Every story is based on events and people I have covered. If I hadn’t been writing nonfiction for as long as I have, I doubt I could write fiction in the manner or style that I do.
How would you suggest a parent or teacher introduce books to a reluctant reader?
One of the most gratifying things about writing kids’ fiction—besides my own kids’ involvement as editors—has been the response I’ve gotten from a lot of parents who have reluctant readers in their house—more boys than girls. Many have told me that they have given their child one of the books and said, “You love sports, this is about sports, try this,” and have gotten very positive responses. Many write and say, “Please get your next book out soon so I can give it to my son and get him back to reading.” I like hearing/reading that. So, to all of them, here’s The Walk On.
What kinds of books did you like to read as a child?
As I mentioned, I read the Chip Hilton series—twenty-four books—as a kid. I also read the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. One of the best books I ever read, one that inspired me to eventually become a history major in college, was Johnny Tremain. I think every middle school kid should have to read that book. I also read a series called Signature Books, which was a collection of biographies of famous people. I think learning what I did from those books made me want to know more about people who were successful—or even not successful but had interesting lives—when I grew up.
The Walk On
by John Feinstein
Library Binding: 9780385753470