Writing a game on deadline can be a challenge no matter what sport you cover. But high school football may be the most challenging of all. First, night games typically end less than an hour before deadline. That means getting quotes from players may be more difficult, unless you grab a player before he heads in to hear the coach’s post-game speech. You might also be forced to walk the sidelines in severe weather, thanks, in part, to press boxes filled with announcers, stat assistants, and friends of the program. Press box is a misnomer at many fields across the country.
However, compiling stats on deadline may be the most daunting task of all, something that confounds most new sports reporters. Unlike college and NFL games, high school football stats are not hand delivered between quarters. In many cases, the stats are poorly recorded by student managers or volunteer parents who care little about the visiting team’s stats.
More and more, newspapers are starting to put more emphasis on prep coverage, something smaller papers have done for years. ESPN, cbs.sportsline and others already focus on national sports news, but these national news outlets do not focus on community sports on a regular basis. Instead, readers go to local newspapers for their prep sports coverage. Expect to cover many more high school games than pro games in your career. (And, frankly, that's much more exciting for someone who wants to break news, not emulate what every other news source has offered.)
"I would say that a newspaper's high school coverage is far more important than its major college or pro coverage," says Bryan Black, high school sports editor for The Virginian-Pilot.
And prep football coverage is far more challenging since you'll need to record, verify and compile pretty much everything. "With a major college or pro event, you have professional PR people supplying you with info -- you can be pretty darn lazy and still write pretty good stuff,” Black says. “With a high school event, it's all on you. No one is going to hand-deliver you anything. Every bit of information you gather is on you. You might even have to figure out the roster yourself. You're going to have to double-check name spellings yourself. If you get it wrong, it's on you. And, with a high school event, if you make a mistake, you're likely going to get called out on it. With a major college or pro event, you're just another media hack out there doing a job. If you make a mistake, the guy's mom or dad isn't going to call you. But make that same mistake with a high school event, and you're likely going to get calls from the kid's mom, dad, grandparents and coach.”
So, if you want to cover prep football, you need to develop a precise, efficient system for keeping stats, one that enables you to compile them quickly.
“We train our reporters and football correspondents to also be official statisticians for games,” Black said. “We have a lot of football coaches who love to inflate their players' numbers. In addition, our deadlines are so severe that there's no way we could get high school football stats from games in the paper unless we kept them ourselves. So our reporters and correspondents are trained to do stats by official NCAA stat procedures as well as to keep a play by play. Our staff writers also are adept at making notes for themselves while keeping track of all this. It's an extremely fast-paced and hectic way to work, but our very best reporters love it. The get an adrenaline rush out of it. There's nothing like covering high school football, especially when there are talented athletes on the field. And we have a lot of those in South Hampton Roads.”
“This (keeping stats) is a bigger deal than one might think,” says Jim Ruppert, sports editor for the Springfield (Ill.) State-Journal Register, “especially when the football press box is filled with non-press -- more times than I'd like to remember I have asked school officials why they call it the press box if there's no room for the press -- and the reporter has to walk the sidelines in the rain. It is not possible to cover a game without statistics, and in a lot of ways I think it's more important to have a person more proficient in keeping stats than writing on high school coverage.
“Most of my young stringers are scoretakers who have earned a shot,” says Art Kabelowsky, prep sports editor for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “It’s a meritocracy, though; if you don’t pan out, you don’t pan out. Working for a smaller paper will help you improve your game. Even if you are writing for a weekly, find out what the daily paper’s deadline is and try to write your story to meet that deadline. It’s good practice.”
There are many ways to keep score during games. I still use a system shown to me more than 25 years ago by Joe Arace, former prep sports editor for the Fort Myers News-Press. This system enables you to do several things at the same time -- record play by play, calculate player stats, and note key plays. You can either create a pre-printed page like the one below or you can simply draw lines down some line paper. My comments, of course, are not nearly as clean as the typed ones below, but they work nonetheless. In the first column (far left), I cite the number of the player who ran, passed or caught the ball. On the second column, I cite total yards gained or lost (along with a brief description). In the third column, I record the down and yardage needed. The fourth column reflects the line of scrimmage for the play. As you can see below, I invert the location for information when possession changes. I also use two different colors to record the information so I can more easily follow change of possession as I review this while writing. I might use blue for one team and red or black for the other.
At the same time, I record stats for every runner, passer and receiver, updating them on each play. You can get a sense of this system by looking at the stats below.
The only difference is that I cross out the previous number before adding the next one. As you can see, No. 20 ran for 90 yards below on 13 carries (each number denotes a carry). And No. 32 below ran for 28 yards on nine carries. You would also create rows for receivers and quarterbacks for each team. For team stats, you could also create rows to more easily add stats for punting, penalties and first downs.
There is really no reason to do this at college and pro games, where sports information and public relations folks offer stats and complete play-by-play. You should take notes in other manners for these games.
You will also need to do several other things to write a solid game story. Editors want stories that are tight, that include quotes from local players and coaches, include key stats, and that include very little play by play. Instead, editors prefer stories that tell a story.
"The game story should tell you a little about the status of each team and the thoughts and emotions of the coaches and key players who made tonight's events happen," says Kabelowsky. "Anecdotes and good quotes are better than play by play. You can communicate how much a team dominated on the line with some quick statistics. If there was a lot of scoring in the game, try to sum it up by saying 'Bill Smith scored three rushing touchdowns' and then say why he was able to do so well. Inexperienced writers are especially prone to writing box-score stories that fail to reflect an understanding of the big picture and the emotion and humanity that come to light through high school sports."
“For our game coverage we want tight and bright," says Ruppert. "Tell us who did what, provide some quotes from the key combatants and make deadline. But while you're covering the game, look for human interest angles for a good feature next week. There are all kinds of good stories out there, but those stories don't often fall in your lap. Talk to the PA announcer or the trainer during halftime or even during the game. Get to know one of the assistant coaches who can provide insight into the "people" stories on the team. Game coverage is a necessary evil, and I'm not big on the "featurized game story." Cover the game or write a feature, but it's tough to do both at the same time.
Here are some tips for covering your next football game.
BEFORE THE GAME
Make sure you arrive early for games. Give yourself time to find the field, if you have never been there. Plus, you want time to get rosters, speak with team managers and statisticians, and find a place to cover the game. I’d recommend getting to get games at least 30 minutes early, but would strongly encourage you to get there an hour beforehand. That way, you can also scout the locations for the locker rooms and find a suitable parking spot. You’ll also want to check with the official statistician, managers and coaches to ensure the players and numbers match up on the program. At high school games especially, verify the class standing and any team and individual stats for players on both teams. Record full names, numbers and class standings of all players before these games. … Also, make sure you have read past stories on both teams to find potential angles leading into this game.
Elements to put in the first several paragraphs.
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Team records
■ Location (specific name of fields, stadiums)
■ Game’s significance. Does the game clinch playoff berth or eliminate the team from the postseason? Is this a conference or district victory? Does this advance the team in a tournament?
■ What’s the “big picture?” What does this game mean to the teams involved? How does it affect them? Why is the game important?
■ Avoid holiday leads. Football games covered on Halloween should not be filled with players galloping or flying like ghosts or about a monstrous defense or a ghoulish finish to a game. Please, avoid these. Readers will get bored with so many references in so many games and copy editors will not tear out tufts of hair with each a succession of trite, clichéd references. Find a more creative way to approach the game.
■ Sometimes, the best lead is the straightforward approach that focuses on a key play or key stat, along with the game’s result. The Associated Press follows this formula when filing its initial game story for NFL and college games, knowing that many newspapers rely on these tight stories for roundups, where only the first 1-2 paragraphs are used. Only later does AP file the more featurized game lead. So, feel free to write a straightforward lead like the following, especially if you are filing your story for the next day’s editions or for your online editions.
If you are writing a story that will be published a few days later, find an angle that focuses on why or how your local team fared. If you are writing for online editions, you can still use most of the original story. You can just revise the lead elements and keep the remaining analysis and play-by-play.
“Tony Romo threw touchdown passes to Jason Witten and Marion Barber as the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Chicago Bears 34-10 on Sunday night.”
A few other straight leads from NFL games this weekend:
“Randy Moss had touchdown catches of 45 and three yards as New England posted its third straight rout, a 38-7 win over Buffalo.” … “Joseph Addai ran for two scores and Adam Vinatieri kicked three field goals to lead Indianapolis past Houston, 34-20.” … “Donovan McNabb threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns, Kevin Curtis had 221 yards receiving and three scores as the Eagles earned their first win.”
THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Success inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, something that is now regularly referred to as the ‘red zone.’ It never hurts to explain the red zone to readers, some of whom may not know such terminology.
■ Total yardage. Compare teams’ total yardage, addressing any major differences or on a team’s particular prowess (400-plus yards) or inadequacy (100 total yards).
■ Tackles. A team that has more tackles either played a much better game, or was forced to play longer on defense because it’s offense played poorly. Determine the reason for the number of tackles. You can also focus on players who have more than 10 individual tackles in a game, describing a few key tackles and offering reasons for this player’s prowess. Perhaps, an inside linebacker kept plugging holes up the middle to stop the opposing team’s running backs – or, perhaps, a cornerback had to tackle running backs that kept slipping past linebackers for longer gains. Remember, stats can show both success and failure, so don’t assume a high number is always a good thing. Clearly, a cornerback with more than 10 tackles is usually something coaches fret over.
■ Key drives. Include number of plays, yards and time expired, especially if the later two elements are significant. Drives that last more than 10 plays, that cover more than 75 yards and that run off more than eight minutes are particularly interesting. That’s what you would focus on a key drive in the Jaguars’ win over the Broncos. So you could focus on the key drive by writing:
“Jacksonville started with a methodical 80-yard, 18-play drive that lasted 11 minutes, 44 seconds, which was capped by a three-yard touchdown pass from David Garrard to Reggie Williams.”
■ Key plays. There were several key plays in the Giants’ victory over the Redskins. This writer also included a trend:
“The Giants converted seven straight third downs to put together three touchdown drives in the second half, the last a 33-yard pass from Eli Manning to PlaxicoBurress with 5:32 to go. Washington responded by driving to the Giants’ 1-yard line in the final minute, but running back Ladell Betts was stopped on third and fourth down runs.”■ Turnovers. See how many times a team, or player, fumbled the ball, particularly if these turnovers led to opposing scores or if they halted a drive inside the 20-yard line. Check past games to see if this is unusual, or a trend.
■ Trends. Perhaps, a quarterback threw several interceptions during the game, which allowed the opposing team to score and/or halted scoring drives. Maybe, a defensive lineman made several key plays, tackling running backs before they could get first downs and sacking the quarterback. Or maybe a player lost his composure:
“The Panthers came up with the victory largely because DeAngelo Hall lost his cool. Atlanta’s Pro Bowl cornerback picked up three penalties for 67 yards on Carolina’s tying drive.”■ Isolate a moment. Consider this play in a game between the Browns and Raiders.
“As Phil Dawson lined up for the potential winning field goal, Oakland coach Lane Kiffin told the line judge he wanted to call a timeout before the kick. He had watched Denver coach Mike Shanahan use the same strategy to beat his Raiders in OT the week before. So Kiffin decided he’d try it himself. The move paid off when Tommy Kelly blocked Dawson’s last second attempt, allowing the Raiders to snap an 11-game losing streak.”■ Match-ups. Determine one-on-one and team match-ups. For example, determine how one team’s defensive backs fare against the other team’s receivers? You can also assess how one team’s all-conference linebacker fared against an opposing all-conference running back. [Note: Avoid calling players ‘stars’ in games.]
■ Time of possession. High school and college games are typically 12 minutes, while the NFL plays 15-minute quarters. Teams that control the ball typically win the game for many reasons. That means a team kept driving the ball. That also means the other team had the ball less frequently to do the same. This could also result in one team’s defense getting worn down, especially in the fourth quarter. So a team that controls the ball for 39 minutes in a 60-minute NFL game is usually going to win. (The same holds true for a high school team that held the ball for 30 of 48 minutes.) If the ball-controlling team does not win, focus on the reasons for this. For example, the other team may have capitalized on some turnovers or made some quick, lengthy scoring plays. Either way, this is an interesting aspect of the game.
■ Cite who the next opponent will be, including the location of the game and the opponent’s record, somewhere in the story. Unless the game is pivotal, such as a playoff match-up or a game that can determine a conference champion, you can cite the next game near the end of the story. You might also create a fact box that lists the next opponent as part of all game precedes stories.
■ Check to see what the team’s all-time series record is against its opponent.
■ Show, don’t tell. Show how a freshman was the player of the game by describing how he played in key moments. Don’t just write that the freshman was “the player of the game.” Show how this player performed better than everyone else.
THINGS TO KNOW
■ You can put records in parentheses, especially when they also reflect conference or district marks. For example, you would write that Eastern Illinois (9-2, 8-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference) is one game away from earning an NCAA bid. If you have mentioned that the game is a conference or district game, you do not need to cite that information in the parentheses. For example: Lake Brantley (8-1, 6-0) scored four times in final quarter to rout Lyman (7-2, 5-1) in a key Class AAAA, district 8 game.
QUESTIONS TO ASK PLAYERS AFTER THE GAME
Essentially, you want to offer fans some perspective they cannot get by watching it in the stands or on television. That means asking players and coaches how they felt, what they saw and why did they acted as they did. Speak with as many people as possible – and make sure you speak with players and coaches from both teams to get a well-rounded perspective. Otherwise, the reader will be stuck with a single perspective, typically the home team’s POV. That won’t impress fans or potential employers.
Interviews go much differently in high school, compared to college and the NFL, where players brought out for press conferences. At high school, you’ll have to scramble to speak with players and coaches before they hit the locker rooms. “The entire atmosphere of a high school game is less structured than the pro/college setting,” Ruppert says. “On the high school level, you're on your own to get interviews with players and coaches. You have to remember you are interviewing 16-17-year-old kids who might not realize how their words will look in the paper the next day.”
“At the end of the game, grab the most important player right away for a couple of quotes,” Kabelowsky says, “then tally your second-half stats for a couple of minutes while the coaches address their players. That’s when you can approach the coaches with some intelligent questions about the big play, the game, what worked and didn’t. Usually, game coverage is on deadline, so you need to know your main points and ask about them right away. Neither of you has time for a rambling conversation.”
Here are a few questions that might help get your game stories rolling.
■ Ask players and coaches for roster changes. For example, you could ask why Ravens quarterback Steve McNair was removed from a game in the fourth quarter. “I could tell he was favoring it a little bit,” Baltimore coach Brian Billick said.
■ Ask offensive lineman about the opposing defense, seeing the game through their perspective.
■ Ask defensive lineman about the opposing team’s offensive line or running backs. As a result, you may get a response the following that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
But the Buccaneers were surprised not to see the Rams stretch the field.
“I really thought they would try to go down the field more with their talented receivers,” said Bucs defensive end Kevin Carter.
“The one thing I was surprised about is they didn’t go downfield more,” Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said. “Because that’s kind of what their passing game is known for – the real deep digs, the deep comebacks.”
■ Ask players how they were able to come from behind. Even if the rally falls short, this is worth a question. Here’s a comment from Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson after a Texan rally fell short: “It’s a new team. There’s no quit in us. in the past, the game might have got out of hand. But now we expect to win football games, no matter who we are playing, no matter who is injured.”
■ You can also ask players to describe disappointing starts to seasons. Yes, it is difficult to ask people why they have failed, but that is part of the job. Here’s what LaDainian Tomlinson said after the Chargers lost to go 1-2. “It’s still a long season. But I mean, right now we just -- I don’t know. I’m lost.” This tells readers much about the mindset of the team.
■ Spell out RB (running back), WR (wide receiver) and QB (quarterback) in first reference
■ Here are some spellings for commonly used football terms: ball carrier, end zone, handoff, touchdown.
■ Hyphenate nouns when used as adjectives, like field-goal attempts, and goal-line stand, but write field goal and goal line are not hyphenated when used as nouns.
Use numerals for yardage. So you would write 9-yard line, 8-yard pass, and he ran in from 4 yards. You would also use numerals for downs, such as fourth-and-2 and second-and-8. But check with your local sports editors to make sure local style does not usurp AP Style.
■ These are games, not “contests.” That’s true for any sporting event. Pie eating? Now that’s a contest (and a tasty one at that.)
■ Avoid playing off team nicknames by writing that the Panthers were on the prowl or that Warriors are ready for their next battle.
Some final advice: “With covering major or pro sports, it often gets to be about the writer/reporter's ego,” says Black. “With high school sports, you need to stay in closer touch with your audience. It's not about you, and it's never going to be about you. It's about the kids you cover and their schools. And, for high school reporters who think it is about them, they're on the wrong beat.”