The calendar flips one year to the next. One Stanley Cup becomes 20 Stanley Cups. The World Series, the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Fours, each grow well into double digits. One Olympics becomes four with indelible memories of Athens and Beijing.
If you’re fortunate enough, a college or high school class invites you to speak along the way. The young faces never seem to change. Yours does, until one day you look in the mirror and barely recognize yourself. The question invariably arises: What is the most unforgettable story you have covered.
The answer over four decades has not changed.
Imlay City had the best team in the Blue Water Area and the 10th best high school team in Michigan in late February 1979. The small-town Spartans were led by Don Rathjen and Joe Pistrui, a special pair of co-captains inseparable since kindergarten.
The two were at a weekend birthday party when Rathjen decided to walk home shortly after midnight. Pistrui offered him a ride. Rathjen declined. Fifteen minutes later, Pistrui headed home in his car. He never saw Rathjen walking on M-21, halfway between Flint and Port Huron, where a 23-year-old kid was writing sports for the Times Herald.
Pistrui only heard the horrible thud.
The 23-year-old kid had seen death before, but never such incalculable grief. Pistrui and Rathjen’s mother walked together into the funeral with 500 mourners packed into Sacred Heart Church. Holding each other tight, they would leave together.
“Why us, Joe?” Evelyn Rathjen kept saying as they walked down the church steps. “Why us?”
Later that afternoon, Pistrui was dry mopping the court in the empty high school gym when he sat down to talk. He buried his head in his hands until, finally, he looked up with eyes reddened.
“I killed my best friend,” Joe Pistrui said.
Sports columnists, at least the diminishing breed of general newspaper sports columnists, have a busy mission. They are coverage reporters as much as opinion makers. They are story tellers as much as hell raisers. They live on the hamster wheel of nightly deadlines. If they are great, they make readers think, laugh, cry — and still manage to be hated sometimes by biased audiences.
Some never loose their fastball. Some are human pincushions, able to painlessly absorb every criticism from every angle, deserved or trolled. I envy both.
After two open-heart surgeries, eight stents, a herniated disk, numerous cars worn out returning from New York and Boston in the middle of the night, 26 years as a general sports columnist and 44 years turning out run-on sentences like this one, the fastball isn’t there every night. Some may say it never was.
After holding WNBA player Liz Cambage up for equal criticism as Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller a few months ago, much of the reaction directed this way was venomous. A white man’s opinion about a woman of color is worthless, I was told. Go away old man, ordered another. After living my life on the left, yeah, it just about finished me.
“Let’s see,” my wife said. “Now, the left hates you. The right already hates you. And UConn fans hate you.”
“I guess my work is done,” I answered with a half-way grin.
Only it isn’t.
The fastball to identify the correct topic immediately, to think an opinion through and to write it well, may not be there every night anymore. Yet I still have the passion to throw the fastball when needed and deliver all the other storytelling pitches, too. So when Hearst Connecticut Media Group gave me the opportunity to become its high school sports columnist I eagerly accepted.
I’ve chatted about the possibility for a couple years now with sports editor Sean Barker. Numerically and substantively, Hearst has the best resources in Connecticut. With its ever-growing influence in news, sports, et al, coupled with the state-wide reach of GameTimeCT, there is nearly endless potential for high school sports coverage.
GameTimeCT already is the state’s most prominent high school site. There is great video, strong coverage, compelling podcasts, feisty discussion over polls, All-State teams, etc. There is room to grow.
My mission is to tell compelling stories from all four corners of the state. My mission is to offer opinions through the lens of the high school world.
A captivating human-interest story is a captivating human-interest story, no matter the age or place. A strong opinion on COVID-19 or transgender athletes has as much a home on GameTimeCT as it does on ESPN or the New York Times.
This does not mean a loss of perspective. Participation, skill development, teamwork, leadership, handling adversity, rising to the challenge, winning and losing with dignity are all vital to why we play high school sports. With more than 90 percent of kids not going on to compete in college, so are memories that last a lifetime.
A few years back, Maria Wesleyj stopped me at Mohegan Sun Arena to thank me for a piece I had written. “It’s still hanging in my room,” she said. Wesleyj hit the three-point, buzzer-beater to win the 2013 Class LL state basketball title. After losing three state finals in a row, Mercy’s long pass off a timeout, the pass, the shot, it was as dramatic an ending as any in the history of Connecticut high school sports. The celebration was, well, it gave faith to the faithless. It was on ESPN SportCenter. Heck, it was shown around Europe.
“It’s the rawness of high school,” Mercy coach Tim Kohs said. “They’re kids. They’re not doing it for the money or the fame. They do it for each other.”
Considered thought is a great thing, yet at the highest levels of professional and major college sport it has long given way to the immediate shriek of highly paid shouting heads. By the time someone reads an opinion in the newspaper, it’s old news. Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless or Kendrick Perkins already have filled your head and shattered your eardrums.
Newspapers have pulled back travel and coverage in recent years and Connecticut has depended more on wall-to-wall, year-round coverage of UConn basketball. Independent websites have emerged, too, and sometimes it is difficult to discern if those are governed by journalism or fandom. State U still needs to be held accountable.
The local columnist in smaller markets, the ones willing to take unpopular, even harsh stands, have become dinosaurs. I don’t want to be Jeff Jacobsaurus. I’d much rather return to my roots.
I found a resume I sent out in May 1979, a few months after that story on Imlay City. After professional objective, was this: Sports columnist on a metropolitan newspaper. That goal eventually was reached, and after writing those words I went back to a high school story on the Algonac Muskrats or Port Huron Northern Huskies or Bad Axe Hatchets.
Newtown’s miracle touchdown pass by Jack Street.
Darien’s Emily Wiley, one of the state’s top tennis players, overcoming a horrible on-court pit bull attack.
The enthralling baseball spring of East Catholic’s Frank Mozzicato.
Watching my son play high school basketball reawakened me to the joys. More and more over the last few years, I’ve savored the compelling stories of high school. Ones where you can sit and talk, without jumping through the hoops of limited availability, around a bank of TV cameras and into a big-time coach or athlete who doesn’t want to be there in the first place.
Maybe, just maybe, we can help make some memories for our kids that they can go back read and savor 44 years from now with their kids and grandkids.
[email protected]; @jeffjacobs123
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