The news sent me to the boxes in my basement, where I store my newspaper life.
Surprisingly, the edition I was looking for was easy to find. What was even more surprising was the date — Sunday, May 28, 1995.
It was hard to believe that 24 years had evaporated since I interviewed Sports Illustrated writer and Whitehall native Tim Layden.
The family photo staring back at me from the sports section showed Tim, then 38, and his wife Janet, along with his 6-year-old daughter Kristen and 4-year-old son Kevin. The 6-year-old is now a writer in Hollywood for a television show. The 4-year-old works in Silicon Valley for Apple.
“I think everyone’s life is a blur like that,” Layden said.
What spurred my interest 24 years ago was Layden’s new job as a senior writer at Sports Illustrated — the pinnacle of the sports-writing profession — after earlier stints in the Capital District as a sportswriter at The Gazette and Times Union before moving to Newsday on Long Island.
This time it was because Tim was walking away. In a rather brief 100 or so words, Layden announced — almost apologetically — that he was leaving Sports Illustrated after 25 years. He emphasized that this was his decision and he was thankful for every minute he spent at the magazine.
When I spent a few hours with him at his home in northern New Jersey in 1995, he was just starting at SI, so when we talked last week, I wanted to know how it all turned out.
“It just exceeded my wildest expectations,” Layden said. “It was everything I could have dreamed of.”
Layden came to Sports Illustrated with a reputation as a great reporter with an incredible eye for detail. One of his first stories was a multi-series report on gambling on college campuses, but over the years there has been a clear evolution as a writer.
“Over those 24 years, you learn to report and be a better writer,” Layden said. “I think you learn through your life experiences. You get nicked up in life, you see people die and you begin to think more intelligently about things. I’m a totally different writer than I was 24 years ago. I’ve learned to do it better and more fully.”
Layden pointed out a recent story he did on Jon Peters, who 30 years ago was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school pitching phenom.
“His life was a real rocky road,” Layden said. “He dealt with depression and alcohol. Jon is now 48 and he had a long and tough life and came through it.”
The goal of a great writer is to not only tell a life story but to provide insights even the individual might not realize.
“It is the great paradox of Peters’s life that the one thing he loved best and excelled at most became the vehicle by which his demons found him,” Layden wrote in that story on Jon Peters.
“I would not have been ready to write that story at 35 or 45. I would have not understood about how life is so challenging. There is an advantage to life and experience.”
In a recent essay about the death of middle distance runner Gabrielle Grunewald, Layden revealed this little secret for all of us who like to write: “The best interviews are like hanging out with new friends of whom you can ask anything,” Layden wrote. “This was like that. Somehow.”
That is at the core of the great writing, and surely it still has value.
I asked the obligatory questions about the most memorable people he met, his best writing and the events he most remembered, but what seemed more important to him was the future.
Sadly, Sports Illustrated is not what it used to be. Like all magazines and the print medium in general, it has taken its lumps in recent years, with readers and advertisers abandoning the product.
There have been significant layoffs — including all of the magazine’s photographers — reduction from a weekly magazine to biweekly, and finally the sale of the company.
Somewhere along the line, I stopped subscribing as well. When I looked at the authors of some recent articles, I did not recognize the names.
Layden acknowledges he came on board the magazine when the digital challenge was just emerging.
“The advent of digital journalism was really the end of the career for a lot of people at SI,” Layden said. “I lost a lot of colleagues who chose not to write for the website. I loved the website. I loved that there was an outlet for me to write.
“I don’t know what the future will be like at SI,” Layden said. “I have such affection for SI, I just didn’t want to be there if something bad happened. It would have wounded me to have been laid off. It would have left a bad taste in my mouth.”
I wondered if there was a bigger issue for all of us in print; that there seemed to be less and less of a market, not only for the written word, but the attention of readers.
“I worry about the decline and death of newspapers,” Layden continued. “Of an entire generation of journalists who don’t know how to write short and fast. The things you do when you are young are terribly important.”
Layden recalled when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown at Belmont Park, and how it personally brought his career full circle from those first days covering the Saratoga meet for The Gazette.
Layden has been to 49 of 50 states — still hopes to get to North Dakota — and traveled the world to cover international sporting events and the Olympics. He estimates he has spent 2,000 nights in a hotel room away from his family and has over 2 million frequent flyer miles on one airline alone.
“That part of it was invigorating and challenging,” Layden said of those times when he spent 100 to 200 days a year on the road. “I’m tired of traveling.”
It also came with a price.
“I did miss some moments,” Layden said about the lost family time. He shared a story about the time his daughter was in high school and competing for the state rowing championship.
The event was scheduled for the day after the Preakness in 2006. Layden’s plan was to cover the second jewel of the Triple Crown, get his work done, then drive the five hours back to Connecticut the next morning.
“That was the race where Barbaro broke his leg,” Layden said. “The next day they took him to a hospital in Pennsylvania to be operated on. So, I had to miss my daughter’s race. And the next day her team won the state championship and I wasn’t there. She was great about it and she understood, but every once in a while it will come up and she will say, ‘We won the state championship in rowing, and you were at the hospital with a horse.’ “
Two years ago, Layden decided to go half-time at SI while taking on new television responsibilities at NBC.
“I do have plans,” Layden said about his own future, but it will be different.
While covering the Kentucky Derby this year, he tweeted out a photo of his laptop computer screen from the press box at Churchill Downs in Louisville. It showed three lines of type and a blank screen:
KENTUCKY DERBY 2019
Above the photo were these words, “Hoping to have a few more words on this file in 12 hours.”
“There is no feeling like sitting in a noisy press box after a big event with a deadline,” Layden explained. “It’s agony, but ecstasy. I love that feeling of beating that deadline and doing it artfully.”
Layden talked about interviewing Pat Tillman as a college football player at Arizona and asking him about all his accomplishments.
“Dude,” Layden said Tillman told him. “I can’t get wrapped up in all of that, because as soon as I do, I will be yesterday’s news.”
Layden has told the story about the future NFL star who was killed in Afghanistan more than once, but always with the emphasis on the “Dude” salutation. It’s as if he can still see Tillman there, and a reminder we all can learn something from the person sitting in front of us.
“I kind of like that,” Layden said of Tillman’s philosophy. “You embrace the good things you do and find a little corner to be proud of it.”
But then it is on to the next story.
There is always a next story, if you are a writer.
“I think quality journalism and storytelling will always find an audience,” Layden said. “I just don’t know how that audience is going to get that journalism.”
I look back at his recent story of Jon Peters and the ending.
It’s a writer in full throat:
“Back at Fireman’s Park, the sky grows darker and the wind gusts up from the west. Peters goes back again to that time and that night. ‘It should have been the time of my life,’ he says. He also appreciates better than most that life, happiness and sobriety are dispensed one day at a time, and no more. He is happy today, and with a vision. ‘Maybe when I’m gone, people will say, ‘Oh, he’s got that record,’ says Peters. ‘But maybe they’ll say, ‘That guy struggled, and he was real and helped people.’ The ballpark is empty, the grass pristine and the dirt smooth. Up on the hillside, a freight train clacks into view, blasts its whistle three times and then rolls toward a distant horizon.”
That’s a writer, a real writer, and we all owe him a tip of the cap because that’s real life condensed as poetry.