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A Guitar-Playing Sportswriter From Alaska: an Interview with ESPN's Seth Wickersham

If you’ve never met someone from Alaska, today’s your lucky day: this is Seth Wickersham a features writer at ESPN the Magazine, who also does a blog over at the .com. In our first interview with anyone from ESPN since Dan LeBatard back in December, we asked Wick (cool nickname, though we have no idea if anyone actually calls him this) about the blogger backlash against ESPN, détente with writers from Sports Illustrated, and what Alaska’s like.

Q: There’s a feeling that ESPN gets handed everything because … well, it’s ESPN, the most dominant sports brand in the history of the world. Have you run into any subjects who wouldn’t talk to you because you were at ESPN? What was that like? Or just run into any subjects who were overly difficult in general?

Of course being from ESPN helps. No question. Most athletes and coaches I’ve dealt with are pretty forgiving and are able to block it out if, say, one of their embarrassing moments gets a lot of airtime on SportsCenter. In 2003, for instance, Bill Belichick was upset with Tom Jackson, but he always set aside time for other ESPN reporters when we were in town. So I appreciated that.

Q: You leave Missouri and land at ESPN the Magazine. Nicely done. How does one pull that off? Did you have connections? Google told us you interned at The Sporting News and the Washington Post … is that what did the trick?

It was college. I was lucky to be at Missouri during those years. I worked at the Columbia Missourian with an incredibly talented group of writers: Wright Thompson, now a senior writer at The Magazine and ESPN.com; Justin Heckert, who won City and Regional Magazine writer of the year at Atlanta Magazine and now works for The Magazine as well; and Steve Walentik, who covers college basketball for the Columbia Tribune and freelances for some national mags. All of us were ambitious and crazy, and our editor, Greg Mellen, encouraged us to be ambitious and crazy. We tried to tell stories in unconventional ways and pushed each other in a friendly way.

I benefited greatly from Wright’s audacity. I mean, he was able to finagle four Super Bowl credentials out of the NFL when the Rams made it to Atlanta in ’00 – for a 5,000 circulation paper, no less — so the four of us took a week off from school and covered the event. As geeky as it sounds, that week was more fun than any spring break I ever took, and better than any Super Bowl I’ve attended since. Atlanta was an ice storm that week, so most of the media partied in the hotel bar. We tried to schmooze. The night before the game, we stayed up until 6 a.m. playing guitar and singing Charley Pride songs with Rick Telander. He later told us that he wife never believed that a bunch of college kids would want to spend that much time with him. Sadly, we did!

While in Atlanta, I introduced myself to John Papanek, who at the time was the EIC of ESPN The Magazine, and he told me how to apply. When I mailed off my resume and clips, most of the stories I sent weren’t from The Sporting News or the Washington Post; they were from the Missourian. Having those types of chances in college is so rare. That’s why I was so lucky to be at Mizzou when I was.

Q: What’s the deal with ESPN taking so much heat from bloggers? Assuming you’ve seen some of it, is some/any of their criticism warranted?

ESPN reaches millions and millions of people every month. Some of them aren’t going to like everything we do, and many of those who have gripes have a blog as an outlet. A lot of columnists, not just bloggers, critique ESPN, including our own ombudsman. I do believe the bosses try to hear what fans have to say, good and bad.

Q: How can one sum up Alaska in a couple sentences to someone who has never been? How does it go over when you tell women you’re from Alaska? Are they intrigued?

Growing up there was unique to say the least. Not many of my college friends had to prepare for avoiding moose to get their driver’s license. Or had to sidestep bear s— during touch football games. In Anchorage, buying a girl a North Face jacket is as meaningful as proposing. Maybe more so.

I didn’t appreciate it then as much as I do now. As a kid, I’d just grouse about getting movies and magazines weeks later than the “Lower 48,” not to mention watching Monday Night Football on tape delay. But when I left for school I really missed Alaska. You know, the skiing just isn’t quite the same in Missouri. I’d love to be based there, but it would be tough with the travel my job requires.

I’m getting married this summer, but when I was single, hell yeah I dropped the Alaska line. Went nowhere.

Q: We tend to think there are two glorious gigs in sportswriting: columnist and features writer. Ultimately, do you want to stay a features writer? Jump on a beat? Columnist?

I love writing features, I really do, and I have a lot of room to improve at writing them. You get time to report and space to write. That’s all you can hope for.

Q: You can have one more feature interview before the world ends (we love us some doomsday junk). Who is the subject and why?

If it’s a pure sports story, I’d love to get with Peyton Manning again for more insight on how his brain processes so much football between when he takes the snap and throws. With his presnap jostling, he’s created a brand of football at the toughest position in professional sports that’s his and his alone. I did a Magazine feature a few years ago on his audibles, but I’d love to revisit it.

That’s probably a shallow answer for if the world was ending, but hey, I’m a sportswriter.

Q: What’s the magazine competition with Sports Illustrated like? Is there one? Do you read the competition?

Of course I read SI. And they read us. Between the writers that I know over there, I think there’s a friendly competitiveness. But in six years of covering the NFL not once have I been working on the same story at the same time as an SI writer. There just isn’t much overlap issue-to-issue. For instance, two years ago I was at the Rams facility. SI’s Mike Silver was also there. We were working on totally different stories. Mike was doing one of his patented inside-scoop-on-why-this-team-sucks features, the ones that give the beat writers indigestion. I was working on a Leonard Little story. His brother had just been murdered, and Leonard believed that death was God’s way of payback for Susan Gutweiler’s death years earlier. I’d hope that Joe Rams Fan would want to read both stories. There’s room for both magazines.

Q: Just a few years ago you were a college journalist plotting a journalism career. Remembering the advice that was given to you … would you give the same to the current college crop, or perhaps tweak that advice seeing how the internet (blogs, podcasts, etc) has grown in recent years?

Go to college with Wright. No, there are more opportunities than ever to prove you can write. You don’t need to write a snappy cover letter anymore, you just need to know how to HTML code. The most important thing is to define your place in the sports-media world. What do you bring to the conversation that readers can’t get anywhere else? The successful bloggers — and successful journalists as well — have solved that.

Q: Favorite sports team growing up? Denver Broncos.
Q: Favorite city to visit? San Francisco.
Q: Most prized possession? My first Fender acoustic.
Q: Starbucks drink of choice? Usually I just order black coffee. Unless my fiancée is there. She’s got me into lattes. (No, she’s not Peter King.)

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