I looked up from my laptop on a Saturday night in January, nearly finished with my basketball game story from the Nashville Invitational Tournament.
An Assembly Hall gym that an hour or so earlier had been full of fans was now deserted except for me and the janitorial crew. No players, no coaches, no officials.
The cleaning crew were doing their best to clear away the remains of what those fans left behind in the seats and bleachers while the stereo system cranked out tunes from Bob Seger, Johnny Cash and REO Speedwagon.
“On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha ...” played as I finished my story. I told them good-bye on my way out the door — the cleaning crew at Nashville always had the best music — and headed toward home.
As I prepare to write the final few stories of a sportswriting career at the Belleville News-Democrat that spanned nearly 32 years, I thought of nights just like that. Many, many nights like that.
Some nights my office was a gym. Other nights it was a football field, baseball field or a sold-out hockey arena. Some nights it was a World Series game at Busch Stadium, other days it was in the Edward Jones Dome press box watching Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” shred another defense.
One thing is for certain — my office has always been like nobody else’s office. This was no 9-to-5 job with nights and weekends off, where everybody waves good-bye and heads home for the weekend.
Sportswriters work nights and weekends and days and morning and afternoons. Your day off may turn into a full day of work if a big story breaks.
We go to work every day with the possibility of seeing something no one’s ever seen before. Our toolbox includes our eyes and ears, a laptop, a cell phone, a tape recorder, car and a notebook.
Maybe a day at the office will include watching a running back going for over 400 yards in a single game. Maybe it was seeing an opposing team cheering when one of their own finally manages to hit a foul ball off future major league pitcher Jake Odorizzi, the pride of Highland who now wears the uniform of the Tampa Bay Rays.
▪ I was there for Wayne Gretzky’s introduction to perhaps the largest crowd to ever see a St. Louis Blues game for his 1996 debut. I was covering the game in Detroit when Blues defenseman Chris Pronger took a shot to the chest and fell to the ice in dire need of medical attention.
Fortunately, “Prongs” was OK and he will be forever be linked to my Blues coverage since my first day on the beat in 1995 was when he was traded here for Blues icon Brendan Shanahan.
On one of my first days after being hired at the News-Democrat in October 1985, I was in the press box to see Ozzie Smith’s “Go crazy folks, go crazy” game-winning playoff home run. I saw many of Mark McGwire’s home runs during his record-breaking 1998 season, including home runs No. 69 and 70.
I covered the best of the Rams and the worst and through the years also covered University of Illinois football and basketball ( I had that triple-OT Braggin’ Rights thriller, too).
While covering the KMOX/7-Up/Coca-Cola/Shop ‘n Save Shootout in St. Louis I got to see basketball players like Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter, Penny Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning and LaPhonso Ellis play when they were still in high school.
My job was fun like that. I never knew what to expect and I never took anything for granted.
What other job could you have where you do a feature on 7-foot-6 basketball skyscraper Shawn Bradley one day and a few nights later find yourself covering the Freeburg Midgets?
What seemed like an average regular-season game might morph into something crazy. It might be a sold-out gym for Mater Dei-Central volleyball or several thousand people gathered — after tailgaiting, of course — to watch the annual Mater Dei-Central Milk Bowl football game.
▪ I came in to this job before the Internet when filing a story meant writing it on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 dinosaur laptop that allowed you to see — get this — eight entire lines of type at a time!
As I leave the sportswriting world, we have state-of-the-art laptops that can send stories from anywhere at any time thanks to wi-fi (when you have have a signal), but we’re also doing videos with everything featured online.
Being active on Twitter is something I am particularly proud of. Though I began using it with my fellow hockey writers, I quickly realized it could be used to create a bigger social media footprint for high school sports as well.
High school athletes never mind a little extra exposure and attention, so I tried to create that for them on Twitter and it quickly caught on. Through experimentation, I came up with the #618football, #618hoops, #618baseball and other #618 hashtags while tweeting updates on games, recruiting info and linking my BND.com stories.
Somehow it caught on and my thanks to all the players, fans, parents and coaches who helped make that happen.
▪ I played sports in Dupo — and by playing sports I meant I had a uniform and occasionally saw action in games — but that also helped fuel my interest in sportswriting.
My earliest journalism mentor was a giant in the field, longtime Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor Bill Ward.
Professor Ward took one look at the handful of beginning journalism classes I had taken during two years at SIU Carbondale before transferring to SIUE. He promptly decided those hours would not be coming with me to his program.
Start over, he said. From scratch. So I did.
We got off on the wrong foot, but I think I got his attention by always reminding him I planned on being a sportswriter. He would argue with me about that, telling me I had to learn all facets of the business, from photography to editing and layout and design.
He turned my early writing efforts into a sea of red ink. With his long gray hair, quirky mannerisms and haughty air of authority, it always seemed like he was speaking to you from on high.
“Remember, Mr. Sanders, to multiply every mistake you make by the number of newspapers your company produces.” “Never use one source when three will do.” “Have you answered every question? Isn’t there more to this story?”
“Sports isn’t about stats, it’s about people. Write about the people.”
I thought I was good, but he made me better. The man made you live in fear of his deadlines and at some point probably urged all his students to consider changing majors.
He also made you realize that if you made him even the slightest bit happy, you had a chance to make it in this business. Thirty-two years later, Mr. Ward was right.
▪ I believe my work ethic developed from watching my father work long hours in the heat, cold and everything in between at the Missouri Pacific railroad in Dupo. My creativity has to come at least in part from my mother, a church organist for more than half a century whose love of music also helped turn me into a drummer who has played in several local bands.
Growing up and playing sports in a small town like Dupo made me realize how much small towns appreciated coverage from the News-Democrat.
The first state championship I covered was Marissa winning the 1986 baseball state title. The Cahokia Conference spoiled everyone after that, with Columbia winning state in 1987 and 2007, Freeburg in 1989 and Dupo in 1996.
Carlyle won a state football title and state basketball title during the same school year in 1988-89 while Althoff won a state football title and state baseball title in 1990-91. The 1990 Wesclin state championship team had as much small-school basketball talent on any team I’ve seen.
Watching East St. Louis football in the late 1980s and early 1990s was like watching a major college team. Bob Shannon didn’t have much to work with in terms of finances, facilities or equipment, but he knew how to turn young boys into men who respected him and devastated most opponents.
The back-to-back Althoff state football championship teams of 1989 and 1990 were loaded with talent and included as many as seven Division I players along with a future major leaguer in quarterback-basketball guard-ambidextrous outfielder-pitcher DaRond Stovall.
▪ I knew I was getting old when I started covering sons and daughters of athletes I had covered before. It also made me realize how fortunate I was to get to know several generations of families during my time at the newspaper.
Even though I’ve got a new career opportunity, don’t think I won’t miss you.
You made me a small part of your lives. You grabbed my work off your lawns and driveways in the morning or found it when you fired up your cell phone or iPad or laptop.
You brought it with you to work, shared my stories on Facebook and retweeted them on Twitter.
You invited me into your kitchens and bedrooms (probably bathrooms, too) and took a few precious seconds of your time to read what I wrote about teams and players you cared about.
For that, I am forever grateful.
I made so many friends through this job and those will never go away. Whenever I needed help, there was always someone there to answer my calls and texts, to hook me up with a cell number or email address or to have someone call me back.
Thank you to all the athletic directors, coaches and assistant coaches. That goes for you, too, athletic officials, school secretaries and college sports information departments.
To all the athletes whose performances inspired me to write thousands of stories through the years, I salute you. You not only made my job easier, you helped me stay young by doing things that amazed, thrilled and stunned us all through the years.
The stories were always about you, never about me.
▪ I’d like to thank my fellow BND sports staff members through the years that all helped me in many, many ways: Pat Keefe, Glenn Brownstein, Steve Korte, Brian Bretsch, Mike Chamberlain, Brian L. Jones, Joe Ostermeier, Mike Brown, Dean Criddle, Brian Henry, Bill Etling, Rod Kloeckner, David Wilhelm, Pat Kuhl, Todd Eschman, Kyle Ishman, Brian Altemeier, Lea Maue and anyone else I may have unintentionally forgotten.
Thanks to my editors through the years that made me look better and thanks to all the writers from other papers who helped me as well.
While one journey ends for me, another one begins. Whether I was riding the storm out or flirting with disaster, I tried do things with more than a feeling.
Now it’s time to turn the page.