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“To do justice to Bailey’s story, I had to enter his life”

Senior writer Tim Keown provides insight into his ESPN The Magazine's feature that tackles "football, guilt, responsibility and, ultimately, hope"

Keown On The Brain’s Many Mysteries

“There’s so much we don’t know about the brain. The one story that his family always comes back to, especially when Bailey is in a bad mood, is this: When Bailey regained consciousness, he looked around the hospital room and said, ‘I’m drying meat to sell.’ It’s the one story guaranteed to make him laugh.”

In Tim Keown’s latest piece, “The Fearless Bailey Foley,” the senior writer for ESPN The Magazine goes inside the incredible story of a California high school football star’s recovery from a terrifying brain injury and how it changed the way he and his family, friends, and coaches see the sport. Keown sheds some light on his in-depth reporting on this emotional story below.

How did you first hear about Bailey Foley?
The day after Bailey was injured, I ran across a newspaper story that made a brief mention of an injury that was serious enough to stop a game between Fortuna and Cardinal Newman [located 270 miles north of San Francisco]. Since I’m local, I made a mental note to keep checking for updates on Bailey to see if there might be a bigger story there … then in April, I saw a note that he had returned to school. I called his high school coach, Mike Benbow, and discovered I’d almost missed out on a remarkable story. I still remember what Mike told me before we hung up: “We’re working on a Disney movie up here and nobody knows about it.”

“We’re working on a Disney movie up here and nobody knows about it.”

- Tim Keown recalling what football coach Mike Benbow told him regarding Bailey Foley's recovery

Did you have to take a different approach to report this story in comparison to others?

To do justice to Bailey’s story, I had to enter his life. It can be tricky because his family and his teammates and his coaches are still dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy, and you can’t accomplish anything as a reporter without compassion and empathy.

It was a slow build; it took a lot of patience and observation, and it required a level of trust that is different from a story about a professional athlete who is accustomed to the attention. The Foleys and Mike Benbow had never experienced this type of immersive reporting, and the story wouldn’t have been possible without them welcoming me into their homes and trusting me to tell their stories.

On a more mechanical level, it took a while to see where the story was going to take me. I knew there was a poignant tale to tell, but I wasn’t sure where the focus would lie. Once I saw Benbow sit down at the kitchen table and help Bailey get through a few pages of a history assignment, I knew the story had to hinge on the relationship between the two of them, and what it said about football, guilt, responsibility and, ultimately, hope.

The story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Aug. 20 College Football Preview issue, on newsstands now. Keown talks about this story on ESPN Podcasts.

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