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‘Carry On II’ – ESPN updates moving 2009 story of Cleveland friends

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Former ESPN feature producer Lisa Fenn is part of a story being updated on SportsCenter (10 a.m. ET, ESPN2) and Outside the Lines (9 a.m., ESPN2) on Sunday, July 7.

In 2009, ESPN featured two Cleveland high school wrestlers, one blind and one a double leg amputee, who found strength and friendship through their challenges. Fenn, who produced the original piece before leaving ESPN in 2010, became close friends with both young men, Leroy Sutton and Dartanyon Crockett, and has helped guide their lives ever since, as producer Jose Morales and reporter Tom Rinaldi detail in the 20-minute-plus update (one of the longest ever to air on ESPN’s flagship news and information program).

Fenn spoke with Front Row about “Carry On II”:

Was it difficult being the subject instead of the producer?
It was definitely new territory. Whenever I’m working with feature subjects, I’m pretty quick to tell them there’s no need to be nervous or uncomfortable or no need to worry about how they’ll be portrayed. But now that I’ve been on the other side of it, I can understand the concerns more vividly. Not that I don’t trust the people in Bristol but yeah, I felt a little naked just being in front of the camera. . . Also, it was a challenge to be natural when I knew kind of what answers the producers were looking for and what sound bites they needed to make the piece work because I’ve been on that side of it as well, so it took me a short time to just let go of my producer brain and allow myself to be natural within my own story. Once I did that I was more free to enjoy it.

What was it like working with a former colleague?
Jose and I sat across from each other in the office for at least five years so we know each other’s work very well, and we know each other as people fairly well. I did feel comfortable handing over my material and my story to Jose after working across from him for so many years, I know how talented he is and what manner of vision he has and also the delicacy with which he handles his own stories as well, so I knew that I was in good hands.

Did you ever feel that you were wrestling with the belief that journalists shouldn’t get involved in their stories?
A little bit but this story was completely different than any other I have ever produced. I’ve done stories about individuals, about moments, about events, but I had never done a story about a friendship, and what I came to learn is that in order for a friendship to appear natural on camera, I kind of had to become a part of it so that I could just be part of the ebb and flow. It’s impossible to say ‘OK, now be friends on three, roll cameras!. . . Now be funny. . . Now be warm.’ It’s impossible to intentionally capture all of the dynamics and moments that make a friendship work without being part of it. So as my relationship with Leroy and Dartanyon evolved and I got to know them better I was able to be part of their jokes and part of their language and that was a catalyst for how our relationship grew. And it was also the most effective means of making them comfortable on camera so their relationship could be natural on camera and viewers could feel like they were part of it as well.