On Wednesday, Deadspin published a story questioning the football bona fides of U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, a Republican who's running for the Colorado Senate seat currently occupied by Democrat Mark Udall. We fucked up. After the story was published, the main source we'd relied on reversed himself on a key point, and the central thrust of the report turns out to have been wrong. For that we're sorry and embarrassed.
In a recent Washington Post profile, Gardner hauled out his high school football experience in Yuma, Colo., to draw an analogy to Democrats today. Here's the Post's lede:
Cory Gardner figures that what he needs to know about big-league politics he learned as a fullback and middle linebacker for an eastern Colorado high school so small that the guys had to play both offense and defense.
"I used to play against a high school football team that always used to run the single wing. And eventually, other teams figured out that they ran the single wing. And so they prepared for it," the two-term Republican congressman said as he made his way through a game-day crowd at the Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium this month. "The Democrats are stuck running the single wing."
The Post's emphasis on his two-way playing sounded off-key to us—separate offensive and defensive platoons are more the exception than the rule in normal high school ball. On Tuesday, acting on the instinct that his football credentials might be embellished, we phoned up a now-retired Yuma High School teacher named Chuck Pfalmer, longtime stats keeper for the football team. Pfalmer remembered Gardner as a student, but said he had no recollection of his football career. "I know Cory," Pfalmer said. "I'd know if he played."
Pfalmer was an authoritative source, and what he told us was consistent with the other facts we uncovered. An editor at the local newspaper, the Yuma Pioneer, told us that while everyone in town knows Gardner, no one remembers him as a football player. We could find no mention of Gardner's football career in his online bio or in any article in the LexisNexis database. And a little research into Gardner's anecdote about the single wing suggested he had the story backward: There is a team in the area that clung to the single wing well past its sell-by date, but the Akron Rams weren't undone by their reliance on an antiquated system; they won back-to-back-to-back state titles from 2006 to 2008.
The story went up Wednesday evening, and soon enough the Gardner campaign—which hadn't returned our calls before publication—was pushing back. Gardner tweeted a photo of himself as a young person in a football uniform, and the campaign told Eli Stokols of FOX-31 in Denver that "Gardner played football through soph year of high school, never played varsity."
By the time the Denver Post reached him, Pfalmer, our source, had changed his mind:
In fact, Pfalmer says, Gardner played football his freshman, sophomore and junior years at the high school.
"He was not a starter, but he played in those years," said Pfalmer, 77, who retired from the school in 1997.
"That's a low blow about (Gardner)," Pfalmer told The Denver Post on Wednesday afternoon. He had not yet seen Deadspin's story. "I'll tell you this: I'm proud to know him. He's a very intelligent man. I don't have nothing against him. He's one of my best students."
We spoke with Pfalmer again last night. "Cory did play football for three years" in high school, he repeated to us, adding that his records show that Gardner spent his junior year "on varsity."
So, that's the story. We're still not sure what happened with Pfalmer between his certainty Tuesday that Gardner hadn't played and his certainty Wednesday that Gardner had—Pfalmer told us last night he'd checked his records after our initial conversation and discovered Gardner's forgotten three years—nor can we explain why he is now giving Gardner a year on the varsity team that the candidate himself isn't claiming. But whatever the case, the most damning implication of our story, that Gardner didn't actually play high school ball, is wrong. That's shitty of us. As serial collectors of media fuck-ups, we add this self-portrait to the gallery. For more thorough coverage, you can read Erik Wemple over at the Post. As I told Wemple—and I sincerely meant it—given that our main source went and unsaid everything he'd said 24 hours earlier, the only thing for us to do now is to eat shit.