When Roger Ebert died last week, sportswriters were among the many to pay tribute. The beloved movie critic's words, Will Leitch wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, "felt like LIFE." As it turns out, Ebert’s writing life started in sports. In the late 1950s, the News-Gazette, Ebert’s hometown paper in Champaign, Ill., gave him his first journalism job. For 90 cents an hour, he churned out reams of purplish copy.
On Oct. 9, 1959, the News-Gazette sent a young Ebert to cover one of the biggest high school football games of the year. Decatur Eisenhower beat Urbana by two touchdowns that evening, dashing the Tigers' hopes of a perfect season. Afterward, the cub sports reporter on the scene filed a doozy of a story. It began:
The royal coach turned into a pumpkin, the glass slipper was broken, and the Cinderella Urbana Tigers stumbled and fumbled and fell here Friday night.
The faint tinkle of broken dreams could almost be heard in the background as a mighty Decatur Eisenhower team defeated Urbana 21-7.
And then the honeymoon was over. The Prince left for work. And the Tigers began thinking about next Friday, and Lincoln, and Homecoming.
Ebert was 17 years old. "I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing," he later explained in his memoir, Life Itself. "Grantland Rice's 'Four Horsemen' lead was my ideal."
Ebert's work in another genre would eventually surpass that ideal, but it was clear even then that he could write well about anything. After all, this was someone who liked to say that "it's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." He may not have loved sports, but he loved writing about them. "I covered mostly high school sports, and if I were a sportswriter again, I'd want to cover them again," he wrote in his four-star review of Hoosiers. "There is a passion to high school sports that transcends anything that comes afterward."
Ebert could say that in 1987, perhaps having forgotten all the less-than-transcendent things the job entails: Friday nights watching other people's good time, Monday mornings fielding calls from parents who demand to know why you didn't mention their son's two tackles, lying coaches, agate-page foul-ups, stories getting buried next to the Little League scores.
In any case, he did the job well. "Here was this kid with this owlish look with big glasses," remembers Ebert's News-Gazette colleague, Bill Lyon, who went on to become a longtime sports columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Then he started to write and it was apparent that he was talented."
The two began as rivals, Lyon told me, but quickly became friends. Ebert later wrote in his memoir that his pal, who was a few years older, gave him the best writing advice he'd ever received. "One, don't wait for inspiration, just write the damned thing," Lyon told him. "Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it's going?" That approach seemed to serve Ebert well. Few writers—of any kind—were as prolific. "He had an insatiable appetite," Lyon said. "Which probably shows up in the body of work he leaves behind."
The two practically lived in the News-Gazette's newsroom, sometimes bouncing ideas off each other until 1 or 2 in the morning. "We were young and naïve and extremely enthusiastic," Lyon said. "Writing was everything."
To a young writer with an ego, covering high school sports can be both profoundly soul-crushing and rewarding. Regarding the former, I speak from experience: Trying—and failing—to track down a field hockey score at 10:30 on a Friday night makes you feel pretty inconsequential. But even today, there are almost no entry-level journalism jobs that offer more freedom. Where else can a high school senior have carte blanche, besides maybe Bleacher Report and the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page? To Ebert, basketball and football games weren't just events. They were vehicles for a still-forming sensibility. "You weren't confined," Lyon said. "You could be out of the box. You could try things. It was almost like a rehearsal."
Ebert isn't the only wildly successful creative type to treat sportswriting as a rehearsal. In his book On Writing, Stephen King dedicated a passage to the time he spent covering preps for a weekly in Maine—even though he came in not knowing much about the subject. "These are games people understand when they're watching them drunk in bars," the paper's editor told the teenage King, who enjoyed the experience despite getting paid half a cent a word. "You'll learn if you try." Last year, Grantland's Bryan Curtis looked back at Steven Spielberg's stint covering sports for his high school paper. "Writing for The Falcon was a way to navigate this 'hell on earth,'" Curtis wrote. "In the high school social hierarchy, the newspaper is a third way between the dead-end nerdiness of the math club and full-on jockiness of the football team."
There are important creative lessons to be drawn from covering high schools. You are free to indulge yourself and your own whims, but you're ultimately writing for people who are interested in your prose style only inasmuch as the story can be clipped out and stuck on the fridge. You develop a certain humility toward the work and the audience. Maybe a little of that experience seeped into Ebert's film reviewing, which was marked by an absolute respect for its readers.
When Ebert left the News-Gazette, Lyon said, "there was no confetti, no parade, no nothing. I don't even know if there was a beer. The paper had no idea at all what would become of him." Ebert went on to write 8,000 movie reviews and dozens of books, win a Pulitzer, and star in a hit television show. But he never forgot his time covering high school sports.
Ebert's recap of Urbana High's heartbreaking loss in October 1959 left a mark. It pissed off Urbana's coach (the "pumpkin," in Ebert’s metaphor) so much that he tried to ban the young reporter from all future games. The story, however, won first place in an Illinois Associated Press contest. At the time, Ebert's father had been recently diagnosed with lung cancer. "I took the framed certificate to him in the hospital, and he was proud of me," Ebert wrote in Life Itself. "I would never again win anything that meant more."
Many thanks to Linda Larson of the Champaign Public Library for tracking down a 54-year-old newspaper clip. Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc.