Tim Layden's Storied Sports Writing Career Began in Lasell Gym

Tim Layden's Storied Sports Writing Career Began in Lasell Gym

The question most frequently asked is some form of this one: How did you become a sports journalist? The answer is both complex and simple and a variation on Hemingway: Accidentally at first, and then on purpose. But let's start here: In January of 1975, my freshman year at Williams, I went to the office of the Williams Record Advocate (The ReAd, for short, later changed to the Record) in the basement of Baxter Hall, on the spot where the Paresky Center now stands, and asked sports editor Dan Daly '76 if I could try writing a story for the paper. I had gotten to know Dan while playing together on a Sunday League basketball team; we're friends to this day. I can't say with certainty why I did this. I loved sports and loved reading about sports. My own athletic career was sputtering to its conclusion – a year later I made the varsity basketball team, but I was cut the next season. Also, it was Winter Study and drinking beer every night at The Log was tempting but ill-advised.

Dan assigned me a game story on the Williams-Dartmouth wrestling match on a Saturday afternoon in Lasell Gym. Pretty straightforward gig. Seemingly. The match came down to the final bout, between two heavyweights, one of whom was Dartmouth football linebacker Reggie Williams, a 6-1, 228-pound ball of muscle who would later play 14 years in the NFL. The other was my Mission Park suite-mate, a slender, 6-3, 215-pound future doctor who was earnest and strong as far as that goes, but hopelessly overmatched. After briefly measuring my buddy, Reggie hoisted him into the air, drove him into the mat and mercifully pinned him in less than 30 seconds.

As if my ostensibly soft first assignment had not been sufficiently complicated by this outcome, in the first post-game interview of my life, Williams coach Joe Dailey offered a harsh analysis of my roomie's performance. (Dailey, in his capacity as an assistant football coach, had also recruited me to Williams a year earlier – there's nothing quite like the entanglements you get covering college sports on your own campus). This combination of events – the defeat, my roommate's loss, the coach's quotes, all created what we like to call ``narrative tension,'' a quality that writers customarily welcome, but which only frightened me at the time. It's all much funnier now than it was at the time.

It was, however, a terrific introduction to the world of sports journalism and, as close as I can get to answering the question at the start of this essay. As awkward as this entire event was, the hook was set.

More college ensued. During my final two years at Williams, I served as sports editor of the Record, wrote for the North Adams Transcript and the Berkshire Eagle, and spent two summers writing for the Schenectady Gazette. Also, after my playing days ended, I spent two winters coaching the junior varsity basketball team at Mount Greylock High School. Hence, in the spring of my senior year at Williams, 1978, I had two job offers: One for a full-time position at the Gazette and one to become a graduate assistant basketball coach at Springfield College. The Gazette offered $125 per week and the Springfield job was for a small stipend, a room and free classes. Neither was a path to vast wealth. I took the newspaper job. Why? Probably because I was hooked. But also: Who knows why we do anything at age 22?

I spent nearly eight years in Schenectady, covering high school sports and small college sports and writing a column. I was mediocre at all of it, but prolific. I learned to write fast and in volume, valuable skills. From there I moved to the Albany Times Union, a career move so unspectacular that I stayed in the same house. But the TU gave me a chance to write major events, long feature stories and to cover the rise of Mike Tyson. It was a terrific break, and make no mistake, breaks are everything. After less than three years at the TU, I was hired to work at New York Newsday, a major league newspaper. I was 32 years old. The sports editor told me, ``You're late, but not too late.''

In the fall of 1993, I covered a big college football game between Notre Dame and Florida State, which was won by Notre Dame in an upset. I begged my editors to allow me to return to South Bend a week later for the Notre Dame-Boston College, and sweetened the pot by finding a cheap flight, cheap hotel room and cheap rental car. Boston College scored a big upset and the managing editor of Sports Illustrated read the story on his train commute to the office on Sunday morning. Two months later, I was hired.

I spent 25 years at SI before leaving last July to take a job with NBC Sports. In those 25 years I covered 12 Olympics, eight college football championships, six Final Fours, three Super Bowls and wrote long features on everyone from Peyton Manning to Pat Tillman to Tommie Smith and John Carlos to former Williams linebacker Mike Reily, ``The Forgotten Hero.'' I'm thankful for every word published and never unaware that the entire ride started, almost accidentally, on a Winter Study Saturday in Lasell Gym.

Tim Layden '78, lives in Connecticut with his wife, Janet. Their daughter, Kristen '10, is a television writer in Los Angeles; and son, Kevin (Rochester '13) works for Apple, Inc in Cupertino, Cal. Tim's story "The Forgotten Hero" in Sports Illustrated is a MUST READ for Eph fans.

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