By Erin Barney
Everyone has a story worth telling. I don’t think I appreciated how true that was until coming to Medill. I find myself contemplating what that story could be for everyone I pass on the street or sit next to on the train. In my two quarters here, I’ve learned that a journalist’s most valuable asset is having an open mind to a story you didn’t necessarily set out to tell.
That’s how I found Bill Wood.
I decided on a winter Olympic beat for content lab second quarter, which allowed me to explore some pretty obscure sports, beginning with curling. In my research, I found very interesting commentary on the culture of the sport—when the match ends, opponents drop their competitive energy and form family-like bonds over drinks. Lots and lots of drinks.
I observed this for myself at the Chicago Curling Club in Northbrook during their 67th Annual International Bonspiel. The story was forming exactly as I’d hoped. Everyone was thrilled to gush about the sport and a culture they truly loved.
Well, everyone but Bill.
I could not figure out who he was. He wasn’t mingling, didn’t appear to be on any team and he was definitely the only one there with a laptop—which he checked incessantly. Of course I had to ask. When his answer to “What brings you to the Bonspiel?” was still going 20 minutes later, I momentarily regretted my curiosity.
Bill just wouldn’t. Stop. Talking. He out-babbled me, which trust me, is no easy feat. But each sentence became more fascinating than the next. When I started composing potential ledes in my head, I knew this was a story.
I had a massive responsibility to do his endearing character justice with my words. But I went back in time and walked through Bill’s life with him, so writing his personality came fairly easy. It felt like writing about someone I had known forever.
The trick was weaving in all the science. Bill has a unique, very technical, profession, and I was concerned trying to explain that would overwhelm his equally unique character. It took a lot of outside research to verify everything he told me about water droplets, ice temperature and compressors, but I couldn’t write about it if I didn’t understand.
Bill was so passionate about his work. He deserved to have our audience care just as much.
I was nervous to put my work on the chopping block. This was a person I had come to care about and a story I loved. I was protective.
I also started to feel the weight of the risk I took. This wasn’t a typical story about a sport’s hero or a phenomenal comeback. Would anyone care about the guy behind the scenes?
I was elated to hear my editor say he did.
There were cuts and alterations, as is true with any piece, but Bill’s essence remained intact. Everyone in the newsroom understood Bill and his importance like I did.
Bill Wood’s story pushed me way outside my comfort zone, but I’m a better journalist for going there. This story showed me a different side of sports journalism—one I never really saw myself indulging in.
During his first quarter visit with our sports cohort, Mike Wilbon told us that the game is rarely ever about the game. The best stories happen off the field or court. It’s our job as sports journalists to watch the sidelines while everyone else watches the ball drop through the net.