As part of the first week of my Sports Writing and Reporting class, I had my students pick their favorite piece of sports writing, bring it to class and discuss why they like it.
It’s an idea I got from Kevin Van Valkenburg’s excellent reading list/syllabus. The idea, as Kevin so eloquently put it:
If you can’t pick a piece of journalism that has inspired you over the years, one that you’ve read countless times and still discover new stuff nearly every time you read it, you aren’t much of a reader.
Their picks are posted here, on the class Medium page (check in throughout this semester to see the writing they do). This assignment also inspired me to bring my favorite piece of sports writing to class to discuss.
And boy, was that a hard pick. I mean, picking one piece of writing as your favorite? It sounds like it should be easy, but when you sit down to do it …
But one piece kept coming to the top of mind, one above all others. I’m not saying this is the best piece of sports writing I’ve ever read. I’m saying it’s my favorite. There’s a difference. I would never argue that Ghostbusters is the best movie of all time, but it is my favorite.
With that in mind, my favorite piece of sports writing: A Big Game by Charles P. Pierce.
Picture it: Olean, N.Y., 2000. I was in my first year as a sports writer and columnist. Pat Vecchio, who was the paper’s editor (before becoming an excellent professor at St. Bonaventure), suggested I start reading the sports writing of Charles Pierce in Esquire. He thought I’d like it, that it would strike the same chord in me that it did in him. I bought “Sports Guy,” an anthology of Pierce’s writing, sight unseen from Amazon.
A Big Game is the first piece in the book, a brief essay that is centered around a Kansas-Kansas State basketball game at Allen Field House. But it’s more about the difference between a Big Game — one that organically matters — and an Important Game or Championship Game, both of which are ordained from the outside and often by commercial interests. It also lays out Pierce’s worldview of sports.
I am a sucker for a Big Game. Which is not necessarily the same as a Championship Game. It is not necessarily the same as an Important Game, as defined by television hucksters. A Big Game is more than that. It is a piece of living history, a theater of the generations with an outcome more compelling than theater of any other kind. Thousands of actors have played Hamlet, but Hamlet always dies. Thousands of players have played in the Harvard-Yale football game, and very few of them have the same story to tell. If all the elements are right, and if history has aligned correctly with the emotion of the moment, I would rather be at a Big Game than almost anywhere else in the world.
It has been said that we all carry our own America with us. My own personal America comes with six seconds left and the home team-anybody's home team-with the ball and trailing by a point or a goal. There is barbecue at the concession stand, and there is beer in a paper cup, and a band is playing across the way. I can be happy there.
As someone who grew up around sports media but read mostly traditional sports writing — game stories, features, columns, many of which were outstanding and well done — this piece was a revelation. I remember feeling like I’d gotten a glimpse of something new and wonderful. There’s such a beauty to the writing, the lyrical flow of the sentences, the command of language, the depth of thought. This was smart, intelligent sports writing, at a level I hadn’t seen before.
For me, it felt like the moment a rock musician firsts listens to, say, Abbey Road. It’s the moment where you realize “Oh, THIS is what’s possible! THIS is what I want to do.”
Which is why it’s my favorite piece of sports writing.