Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Writing follow-up stories

I’m always looking for fine examples of college writing. And I found one in our own publication, a game-day follow by Matt Daniels. Matt, who worked as a sports intern at Springfield's State-Journal Register, has continued to improve each semester. This story is as good as any you’ll find in a professional daily. (Yes, I may be biased but this is an excellent story worth emulating. I’ll break it down below.)

As I’ve mentioned before, writing a sports feature is like writing a short story – except we do not make up any of the facts. Story, not news, drives these features. That means you need to grab readers quickly in a lead that tells a compelling story or introduces an interesting character. Matt does that here, introducing a player who has far exceeded expectations in a football game. We get to see the player recuperating after a rugged afternoon on the gridrion. We also get a brief physical description.

Sweat trickled down Ademola Adeniji's face 30 minutes after Saturday's football game against Eastern Kentucky.

The air conditioning in the conference room he sat in at the O'Brien Stadium football offices worked fine.

But the 5-foot-10, 215-pound running back still showed the effects of the best game of his Eastern Illinois football career.

The story also has a nut graph, a sentence or two that serves as both a thesis statement and a reminder, telling readers the reason a reporter is writing this particular story. Here, the nut graph says:

The Springfield native rushed for a career-high 186 yards on 25 carries during the Panthers' 28-21 loss to the Colonels.

He broke tackles, used his speed to outrun defenders and used his hands, which Eastern Illinois head coach Bob Spoo said were not the best earlier this season, to catch three passes for 58 yards.

Next, we have a lead quote, a comment from another main character who summarizes what was just addressed. Notice that the quote is from the opposing coach, something that impresses readers and editors for several reasons. These comments offer a new point of view, one your readers may not be familiar with through your regular beat coverage. As a reporter, you should be looking for new, fresh insights. You will not usually get that from the 10th or 20th interview with your hometown players or coaches. Editors will be impressed that you made the effort to collect additional sources, something way too many beginning (and some veteran) sports writers fail to do.

"Oh, I tell you what, he really surprised me," said Eastern Kentucky head coach Danny Hope. "There were two or three times in the game where we had guys hit him in the backfield or hit on the line of scrimmage and he powered his way through."

The story also offers context for this player’s big game that includes some background information. New writers, especially, lead with background information. That should come a little later. Matt also includes a quote from the profiled player himself in this section -- in the eighth paragraph, not in the second one – which allows the comments to have more weight.

He did this on a day with temperatures in the high-80s, unusual for an early October afternoon in Illinois, and without other healthy running backs to give him a break.

Travorus Bess was limited with a leg injury (two carries for two yards), while Ron Jordan ran once for no gain before he tweaked his right ankle again. Norris Smith didn't dress because of a lingering knee injury and fullback Chip Keys is out for the year with an ankle injury.

"In a sense, it's a running back's dream," Adeniji said of being the only healthy running back. "But certain amount of carries, certain amount of plays, so you can stay fresh to make plays - you need at least two, three running backs."

But it was all for naught because it was the Panthers' first Ohio Valley Conference loss at O'Brien Stadium since 2004.

"Each week in the OVC, you've got to play game in and game out," Adeniji said. "I mean, individual accomplishment is great, but you need to come out with the 'W.'"

This story also includes key moments from the game. Follow-up stories can be written like mini-profiles in the sense that you are profiling a player’s performance in a previous athletic event, not their entire life. So the key moments will be those on the field. Notice also, in this section, how the writer offers careful analysis and clear descriptions. You should also take note that yard lines and yardage are included in the brief play by play. (Avoid filing stories with an overabundance of play by play; however, key moments can help illustrate your analysis and man points.)

Adeniji's first three carries of the game did not indicate he would have a breakout game. He rushed for 3 yards on his first three rushes, but made it up for it on his fourth rush.

His 17-yard run up the middle on the Panthers third offensive possession moved the offense from their own 5-yard line to the 22.

Adeniji struck next with less than three minutes in the second quarter and the Panthers trailing 9-7.

Adeniji took a handoff from quarterback Bodie Reeder at Eastern Illinois' own 27. He appeared to be tackled by EKU defensive lineman Andre Soucy at the line of scrimmage, but broke the tackle.

With EKU playing man coverage on the wide receivers on the outside and Colonel free safety Zach Denton the lone defender dropped deep, Adeniji had plenty of room to run.

He used his speed and cut back to the middle, past EKU's linebackers, after breaking Soucy's tackle.

With only Denton to beat, Adeniji ran past him near midfield en route to a career-long 73-yard touchdown run.
"He's a warrior," Reeder said. "He exemplifies what our entire offense needs to be. We all need to fight from the very first snap. He did that and he didn't give up the entire day."

Finally, this story offers some observations (about the formation), a key play (backwards pass), and some analysis ("The warm weather started to affect Adeniji in the fourth quarter").

The Panthers employed a formation they hadn't used all season in order to spell Adeniji.

Reeder lined up in the shotgun formation with five wide receivers, three to his left and two to his right.

The formation, which Reeder said was installed during practice last week to give Adeniji a break, did not have much success.

The first time the Panthers used it, Reeder threw a backward pass to wide receiver John Gadson and EKU recovered the pass on the Panthers 11.

Eastern Illinois used it eight times and gained a total of four yards. Reeder, not known for his speed, ran two quarterback draws out of the formation and gained a total of one yard on the two draws.

One of the draws, a pre-determined play call, came with the Panthers on EKU's 4 on third-and-goal with EKU ahead 21-14. Reeder was stopped at the 3, and kicker Tyler Wilke missed a 20-yard field goal to end the Panthers drive.

"Maybe I chose the wrong running lane or something like that, but just got to give credit to their defense," Reeder said. "They played well especially when we got down close to the end zone."

The warm weather started to affect Adeniji in the fourth quarter, he said.

It was evident with the Panthers on EKU's 2 with less than two minutes remaining and EKU leading 28-14. On first-and-goal, Adeniji's draw up the middle went for no gain. His next rushing attempt went up the middle again, but he was tackled a yard short of the end zone.

"My wind was fine, but it was my legs," Adeniji said. "You try to conserve your energy as best you can each play, but as you can see with the defense, the more you're out there, the more the heat is spreading on you. I want to run 100 percent, if I possibly can, every play."

Spoo said Adeniji's performance the last two games (49 carries for 278 yards) showed Adeniji's true ability.

"You've got to warp him up or he can break tackles and stay on his feet," he said. "He did that again. Just a hell of an effort on his part."


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