Well before Brady McCollough appeared on CNN to discuss his interviews with former football players, he tackled subjects a little closer to home.
As an elementary school sports fanatic, McCollough was already hard at work — he made his own magazine with profiles of his favorite players and confronted his father, a mild sports fan, with tough interview questions on cross-country car trips.
Years later, he found his home writing about football for the campus newspaper at the University of Michigan. Fascinated by the atmosphere and field access, McCollough stepped outside of everyday game coverage to write about Michigan wide receiver Jason Avant.
He’d been writing feature stories and profiles, calling coaches and players’ families over the phone, but for the first time McCollough got to immerse himself in an athlete’s life. He travelled to the south side of Chicago to meet Avant’s grandmother, who raised him.
“[I got to] actually be around the people that shaped him and go and see the places he saw. It was important for me to get that sensation of really being an authority on a story,” McCollough said. “That was something I became sort of addicted to … feeling that I’m getting inside of a story.”
Now an award-winning sports features and enterprise reporter at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, McCollough still sidesteps sports coverage tropes.
His series, From 10 to Ben, profiles prolific Steelers players 10 to 40 years after they’ve left the field. The profiles ranged from 74-year-old former linebacker Andy Russell to special teams player Reggie Harrison, who went on to be a truck driver. But his story on former wide receiver Antwaan Randle El grabbed national headlines.
In McCollough’s story, Randle El, a Super Bowl-winning athlete whom McCollough describes as “electric [and] versatile enough to run a route on one play and throw a beautiful spiral on the next,” admits that he wished he’d played baseball instead, because of head injuries suffered from his football career.
The Pitt News’ Conner Blose talked with McCollough, who also teaches Sports Writing at Pitt, to discuss the interviews, his career and his advice.
The Pitt News: What sparked your interest in sports reporting?
Brady McCollough: I was a huge sports fan. At the University of Michigan, I was reading the student paper as a freshman, and my interest was really piqued by the student writers covering the football team. Then I went into the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, and it just grabbed me. I loved being able to be around the teams, players and coaches. I worked my way up through the Daily before covering the football team during my junior and senior years. I wondered how to pursue this for a living and then got a few internships at the Tampa Tribune, the San Antonio Express-News and the Dallas Morning News. My first job was at the Kansas City Star. At the time, the Kansas City Star was definitely one of the best sports writing sections in the country with some big names that are known nationally like Wright Thompson, Joe Posnanski, Jason Whitlock and Jeff Passan. I was surrounded by people who were passionate about telling stories in an interesting and creative way. It was just a great learning ground. I had some really good mentors, some big names … I was totally enamored by the long form feature writing. I covered the University of Kansas beat and then saw the job open up in Pittsburgh. It has been a really fun journey but a totally unexpected one.
TPN: Do you have a most memorable story?
BM: My first internship at the Tampa Tribune was the first time that I heard the word enterprise story. I never heard that word before, but I started learning how the business works and how to think about bigger topics than just covering a team. The one outside the box story that sticks out is about LeBron [James] coming out in the NBA Draft. It was still early for the idea of kids going pro out of high school and the issues around that. I ended up doing an issue piece on that based around LeBron, and they ran it as the sports centerpiece. My dad was in town visiting, and he was blown away by my story in a metro newspaper. I need to advance myself in this field by finding new angles that are deeper and look into an issue or the heart of a person’s story. That one jumps out to me, at 21 years old, that somehow there was my name next to a photo of LeBron James and me writing about that issue.
TPN: What gave you the idea to make the 10 to Ben news interactive so visual heavy?
BM: Before we even conceived of it in the paper, my editors were thinking of how they could design it and how they could present it on the web with an interactive display. It was a good example of how we’re evolving as editors and writers. We think about things not so much from the print perspective but from how do we do these in a way to draw web readers. I thought it was a great design to see from our interactive team, and I think the journalism of it was conceived by having two anniversaries this year, the 40th and 10th for two Steelers Super Bowls. What can we do to honor those anniversaries and tell a story? There is so much stuff going on right now with concussions and the different views of the NFL. I thought it was an opportunity to assess the retirement and post-football life for two generations. I’m so proud of the way the Post-Gazette told the story in such a vibrant and modern way on our website … we’re all learning at newspapers how to best present our content and grab readers. The reader must seek it out, scroll over and click certain pictures. The players’ stories are buried in the 15,000 word project. Next time I would try to highlight that aspect [Randle El] of it and I think this story is really going to grab people. After the Randle El story took off, we took the story and made a separate headline on our website so that people could get to it once it went viral.
TPN: Was it difficult to get former players to open up?
BM: The older players were more open to talking and wanting to be involved. The younger guys are still kinda close to their NFL careers and kinda wary to do media stuff because they’re so close to it. They just want to disappear for a while. I think it was harder to find the younger players from the 2005 team [and] to get their attention and to get them to talk. The older guys have some more time on their hands and love reminiscing on some of the defining moments of their lives, whereas the young guys are, a lot of them, dads with kids jumping all over them, trying to start their post-football careers, or just not interested in talking as much as they would be in maybe 20 or 30 years when they’re reminiscing. One thing that made it easier was that I presented my conversation in a way that asks about their Super Bowl team and how close you guys were as a way of getting into the conversation.
TPN: Athletes, sometimes even more so than politicians, are notoriously hard to get a hold of. Is there ever a point where you’re trying to get an intimate perspective on someone you feel might not be available … where you’re like, alright, it’s not going to happen?
BM: With professional athletes, and even college athletes … you’re dealing with a situation — it’s basically like celebrity journalism at a certain point. It’s like when the PG wants me to profile Andrew McCutchen, I need to do that because he’s the guy everybody wants to read about … but that’s the equivalent of, for Pittsburgh, GQ wants to profile Leonardo DiCaprio … Andrew McCutchen wasn’t that interested in talking to me when I went down to spring training to profile him and so I ended up having to work pretty hard to get 10 minutes with him. You try to think about trying to write a 3,000 word story with a 10-minute interview. But, my paper sent me down to do it … and I did it by just, kind of, doing the things that I’d always been taught and learned. You develop the instincts. I went to his hometown … I luckily spent time with his father and you know, his dad was really the thrust of that story … but certainly it wasn’t that easy … you just kind of got to think on your feet.
TPN: What was your initial reaction to the Randle El response?
BM: I was shocked when I heard it. I planned it that it would be the ending piece, the final whammy in the newspaper. I think I didn’t realize just how much that would cause a stir nationally. If I had, I would have played it up more in my overview story. For the Post-Gazette to invest so much time in this project, it’s a shame that we needed the Washington Post and some other outlets to blog our content for it to take off. I think it’s important for us to evaluate how the whole thing went and figure out how can we do better next time and find a way to get the juicy attention on our own.
TPN: What has been the public view since this story came out?
BM: It really took off last week. My Twitter and social media have never been so blown up by a story. I think it just shows that people are starting to pay attention to football and that it’s not all glory. There is an underbelly that people are seeing and having to pay attention to. I went on CNN, so that was kind of cool.
TPN: How was it being on CNN?
BM: It was terrifying, absolutely terrifying.
TPN: What’s it like working in an industry that’s facing some big setbacks, especially at a paper like the Post-Gazette, where a lot of its contemporaries are struggling?
BM: I was confronted with major layoffs at the Dallas Morning News — the first real big layoffs that paper faced back in 2004, you know that was jarring. Then I moved on to my first job at the Kansas City Star where probably within three years or so, there were layoffs. Then, by the time I left they’d lost more than half of the sports staff. Coming to the Post-Gazette, we actually haven’t had layoffs and so that’s been a great thing … the realities of what’s happening with the industry and the losses of circulation and advertising money, with the advent of the Internet, all of that has kind of constantly been peppering my experience in journalism. But I’m not at all daunted by it. I feel fortunate to have maintained my position throughout that period, extremely fortunate. I think all of us who are getting to do this job that we love so much every day are even more passionate about it than ever because we realize how lucky we are, you know, ‘cause we get to do this for a living — this really important job for our country, our democracy. We are passionate and devoted to figuring out how to make money in the future, how to become profitable so that we don’t go away down the line, so that the doomsday fears don’t come to fruition.
TPN: What’s your advice for young journalists?
BM: Really, really learn how to tell stories and focus on the craft. As much as it is important to be well-rounded and to understand how to use the new technologies that are out there for storytelling — maybe I’m just an old fart at heart — but I believe in the power of storytelling … From a sports context, we can write things for people in Pittsburgh that ESPN and Sports Illustrated and the New York Times can’t write … And certainly you become even more relevant when you can factor in alternate, new, fresh storytelling forms, when you can tell a story through video and web-interactives … but also just traditionally learning story structure, learning story arc, learning just the ways to report a story and learning it in a way that really brings a story to life … there’s an art for that and it takes a lot of work, but I think that really focusing in on how the best people in the business tell stories … I think that would be the thing. I still think that that ultimately is what’s going to keep us going.