A Day on the Beat

Conor O’Neill and Les Johns were both up this morning long before me. And unlike me, they were up and at’m.

Over my last days as an every day working stiff, I was lucky enough to get to know Conor and Les well. And few people on this planet know better what their day will be like covering Wake Forest against Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl, Conor for the Winston-Salem Journal and Les for Demon Deacons Digest.

Both, I feel pretty certain, were out the door by 9, wondering if they were leaving early enough. Traffic around Charlotte can be a bear, a riled, ill-tempered grizzly bear at that.

If all went well, they would be have pulled into the media parking at Bank of America Stadium by 11, leaving them the requisite (at least for me) two hours to get into the stadium, find the media workroom, check out the wireless, and woof down whatever fare the folks that run the Belk Bowl might have laid out.

The conclusion I reached early in my career was we all have to spend the two hours before a game somewhere, and for me, the best place was on site, among friends getting myself settled into the routine of the day. On the rare occasion I got to a game late, I felt like I was catching up all day.

So both were well into their assignment long before the 1 p.m. kickoff. College football games usually run between three and three and a half hours, so barring overtime or anything really crazy, they could expect it to be over by 4:30.

The big break of the day is that the game is being played in Charlotte, and not somewhere like El Paso, where N.C. State was dispatched to play Arizona State in the Sun Bowl. (Exotic trips such as those to west Texas can be fun, but especially taxing, especially during a time there’s also basketball to cover). And the 1 p.m. kickoff meant that Conor’s deadline won’t be demanding.

When the game does end is when their real work begins. The most critical hour of the day is post-game, the time to talk to the players and coaches and get the quotes that will hopefully make their stories what Conor and Les want them to be.

As my 40 years in the business passed, and media splintered into countless internet sites offering instant information, game stories became less and less about what happened. Everyone already knows that. What we could give the reader, though, was the reaction from the participants, why they dropped that pass in the end zone, why they audibled out of one play into another that led to a touchdown, why they punted on fourth and one at the opponent’s 43.

So if Conor and Les are lucky, they’ll be back at their computers in the workroom by 5:30, their heads spinning with all they’d seen, heard and absorbed. Time to put it all together in the written word – and in Les’ case, knock out a video or three.

My post-game pace was dictated by deadline. When I didn’t have one pressing, I usually needed between 60 and 90 minutes to compose, edit and transmit my offering into the Journal’s system. But don’t think I was done then.

Over my last 10 or so years, I ended pretty much every assignment by knocking out a post for my blog, My Take on Wake. The tone of this writing was less formal, more conversational, like what you’re reading right now. The blog gave me a chance to broach and amplify elements of the game that couldn’t be crammed into my 750-word lede.

So it will be dark, and cold, when Conor and Les finally get back to their cars by around 8 tonight for the drive home. I can remember how dead tired I would be by then, but I could always count on the adrenaline of the day to carry me in.

Again, if all goes well, Conor and Les will be back home and done for the day by 9:30 or 10 tonight. And they’d better not stay up too late power-gliding off the day because both will have to be up and at’m early tomorrow – that is, if they want to make it to Chapel Hill two hours before the Deacons’ noon basketball game at North Carolina.

One of the go-to jokes of my career is that working sportswriter is a contradiction of terms, but knowing what my two compadres are dealing with today belies that notion.

As for this old boy, I got up this morning when I felt like it, knocked out this post and ate a few pizza rolls, all in time to settle down in front of the TV to watch the game with an adult beverage in hand.

I did what Conor and Les are doing today year after year after year. I don’t miss most of it, but I do miss the pre-game camaraderie.

And what I miss most of all is laying my head down on a pillow after an endless, exhausting day, and knowing I had done all right.

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