I grew up in New York City in the 1960s in a family of newspaper readers. Each member had their own favorite: my father the Times, my mother the Herald Tribune, my grandfather the World-Telegram and Sun, my uncle the Post and the Daily News. Reading the newspaper was a given ritual, like smoking cigarettes on airplanes. I fell quickly in love as a nine- and 10-year-old. It all seemed impossible—a new round of information every 24 hours—and impossibly romantic.
I came from a family of sports eccentrics. My father went to Dartmouth. My grandfather went to Harvard. We had season tickets to the New York Giants and the New York Jets back in the days of the old NFL and AFL.
Every fall, we took the Eastern Airlines shuttle to see the Harvard-Dartmouth game. We grabbed a cab to Cambridge. Without fail, my grandfather tipped the driver copiously to wait for us after the game. Without fail, he never showed up. We still managed to make it back to LaGuardia. We wolfed down something that felt like hamburger, but didn't ask questions. We went to the Jets game Saturday night. Then the Giants game on Sunday.
I went to Andover and became the sports editor of the weekly paper. I went to the University of Pennsylvania and became the sports editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian. I knew I would become a print reporter, but I soured on sports because of the way athletes treated writers, even at Penn, with mockery and ridicule.
I entered the business in 1976 when everybody wanted to be another Woodward and Bernstein. I applied to 307 papers in all 50 states. I got job offers at three, one in Wyoming and two in Virginia, and the only reason I was offered the one in Wyoming is that I kept neck-and-neck with the editor in the job qualification of alcohol consumption despite going to the bathroom and throwing up. I guess he never knew.
I began my career at the Ledger-Star, based in Norfolk, Va. Newspapers wanted investigative reporters. Newspapers wanted long-form narratives. Even as a cub journalist covering courts and cops, I wrote 5,000-word stories. I was very lucky, in a place and time that no longer exists as we move further and further into the Internet of creative oblivion and attention spans smaller than a sound bite.
I worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1980s, then the most exciting newspaper in America. I had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard in 1985—1986. It was the most intellectually stimulating year of my life. I felt obligated to try something different, so, of course, I decided to write a book. So, of course, I had no clue.
Before I returned to the Inquirer, I drove out west with my fellow Nieman and friend, Laura Parker. We took the southern route. We went through dozens of tiny little dots on the map, Main Street sad and shuttered. We drove a few blocks out of town.
There was the high school football stadium with those spindly lights rising beyond heaven and the glowing green of the field and the intimacy of the bleachers crowding the field like a family reunion. I was hooked, as the combination of journalism and sports that had been the poles of my life merged.
The rest became the rest.
|Buzz Bissinger is the author of Friday Night Lights, Three Nights in August, and coauthor with LeBron James of Shooting Stars (Penguin Press).|