Recently-hired Tom Junod shares his perspective with Front Row on his first profile for ESPN The Magazine titled “Eugene Monroe Has A Football Problem” in the “Playing Through Pain” issue on newsstands today:
How does this piece compare to other profiles that you have worked on?
Well, my profile for Eugene Monroe will always be my first profile for ESPN. And so it was a little like learning a new language — at least, that’s how I thought of it, when I first started writing it. It wasn’t easy to get right; it took four complete drafts. I went through the Goldilocks process — the first draft was too stiff, the second too loose, the third too tight, the fourth just right. What I eventually learned was that the language I had to learn was the language I knew all along — my native tongue, which is magazine journalism. In other words, I just had to be myself.
What does it mean to you to be a journalist at ESPN?
When I first started working at ESPN, a lot of people I knew asked if I was going to be happy writing sports stories. After all, I had written about so many things for Esquire — everything from investigative stories to celebrity profiles, to a story about trying to save the life of a cancer patient. So when I first met Eugene, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. How would I feel about writing a story that was “just” a sport story?
I should have known that all profiles, whether they’re about a cancer patient or an NFL football player living in chronic pain, involve the same things — a subject giving a writer trust; a writer trying to take the story deeper than the subject necessarily wants to go. And that’s what happened with Eugene. We were a few days away from closing it, a few days away from completing the fourth and final draft, when his mother suffered a heroin overdose. It was a shock; but it was also a reminder that any time you’re entrusted with writing about a person’s life, it’s not an academic or journalistic exercise; it’s real life, to the subject and, if you’re doing it right, to you.
The story had suddenly changed, because that’s what real life does, and now our job was to somehow capture Eugene at a moment of simultaneous vulnerability and resolve. It comes down to this: There are no sports stories. There are just stories, and it’s a great privilege and honor to have the chance to tell them.
When I was at GQ and Esquire, I had worked with the same editor — the great David Granger — for nearly 25 years. It was a marriage, and like any marriage it had its struggles; but overall it was incredibly fruitful. So when I started writing for ESPN, I was entering an entirely unfamiliar situation — I had not only a new job; I had a new editor. Fortunately, my new editor turned out to be [The Mag’s] Eric Neel, who did amazing work not just with the story but with the psyche of his new writer; and fortunately, I never had anything less than full support from everyone I wound up working with. The profile of Eugene might have required four drafts, but it was the least painful four-draft story I’ve ever written! And so I’m pretty pleased to have a new editor I’ve immediately come to trust, and to be a part of a new team whose work I admire. I’m also looking forward to my next batch of stories, because that’s the other thing about writing “sports stories” for a company that takes them seriously — there are a lot of them, and it’s nearly impossible to run out of ideas.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Junod (pictured in the far left panel below) appeared on the Nov. 4 edition of Outside The Lines with former NFL linemen Shaun Smith (center panel) and Eben Britton. Host Bob Ley tweeted an excerpt of the interview.
— Bob Ley (@BobLeyESPN) November 4, 2016