Tuesday, November 28, 2017

After 18 years at The Dallas Morning News, a thank you and fond farewell

When I was offered a job at The Dallas Morning News in the summer of 1999, I knew that I was done moving around. I had somehow projected enough competence to get my foot in the door, and if I didn’t get thrown out, I planned to be there a long time.

A long time turned out to be more than 18 years.

As I finish my last week of work at the DMN, I’m thankful for all the people who have helped me along the way. It’s a long list of writers, editors, photographers, designers, readers, coaches, players, parents and a bunch of others I don't mean to leave out. There were also the occasional heroes who helped in unusual ways, such as helping me find an unlocked door or gate at a dark stadium.

One time after a high school playoff game, I thought I might end up sleeping at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys’ old home, because I got stuck on a level where the elevator door wouldn’t open. It was on a level with stained gray carpet in the hallway, which I think described almost every level of Texas Stadium circa 2008. (I still loved that stadium, though).

To the security officer who led me to an exit that night, a big thank you. And to everyone who led me in the right direction over the years, thanks for everything.

I could end things right there, but I’ll go on … after offering you a parachute so you can bail out now. Because when a writer’s life takes a turn after more than two decades in journalism, he or she is going to write about it. And without the deadline and space constraints of the thousands of stories I’ve written over the years, I’m confident that I can make a short story a long one.

* * *


The Dallas Morning News: My work home for 18 years.
So I’m leaving The Dallas Morning News, which still feels weird to say after a few weeks of knowing it would happen. I got a job offer that I can’t refuse, although there was no Godfather involved, and I’ll be working for the Frisco ISD in a role that's part reporter, part sports information director, part whatever comes next.

That’s the best way I can describe it at this point. My wife is a teacher in the district, my three kids attend FISD schools, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to work for a great district (total kiss-up). The best part is that I get to continue writing about high school athletes, which I’ve enjoyed in a journalism career that unfolded in the opposite way of many other sports writers.

A lot of writers start out covering high schools with the hope of moving on to the colleges and pros. But when I was young – I’m going to say “ridiculously young” to make myself feel better – I got a taste of covering college football and the NBA.

One moment that stands out was the famous Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals when Michael Jordan played despite suffering from the flu, or as some people believe, food poisoning. I was there in Salt Lake City at the Delta Center, now atrociously named Vivint Smart Home Arena, about five or six rows from the court. Back then they gave really good seats to the home media, even if the media member was ridiculously young and might use valuable cell-phone minutes to tell his friend, “I was just in the buffet line next to Newman from Seinfeld.”

There were some great opportunities like that early in my career, and I would later help cover the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four, NCAA Football Championship and other memorable events. But the DMN is lucky to have a lot of talented people to cover colleges and pros, and I always knew that I wanted to write about other things. When sports editor Dave Smith made me the sports columnist for the new Collin County edition in 2002, a position that a couple years later would morph into the high school columnist position, I had my chance.

It was an amazing opportunity. I got to write about all the things that make high school sports great – stars and benchwarmers, dramatic achievements, character-building disappointments, all that good stuff. I experienced Texas high school football, a phenomenon that is difficult to explain to my friends from other states.

Last year, I got to write about the football team at Gainesville State School, the juvenile-corrections facility that allows its kids to play on the football team if they follow strict behavioral guidelines. One of the players I talked with, who survived a terrible home life, described being incarcerated in an 8-foot-4 by 7-foot-7 cell most of the day as “a blessing.” It gave him a chance to become the person he knows he can be, he said, and his goal was to be a nurse so he could help people.

What writer wouldn’t feel lucky to tell that young man’s story?

It was fun to see dozens of high school athletes’ professional and Olympic dreams come true, and the DMN let me do all kinds of other things. I wrote a story on professional bull riders from Brazil, covered a youth golf championship where a kid named Jordan Spieth seemed pretty good and hung out at a minor-league baseball game with Ethan Hawke.

We talked about two things he loves, sports and acting, and I asked why he hadn't done a sports movie.

"You have to try to pick your movies based on whether they are going to be a good movie," he said, "not by whether you get to take batting practice."

Good point. And I think I can relate it to my start at The Dallas Morning News.

I decided that I was tired of bouncing around small newspapers as I tried to take big-league swings at writing. So I put the bat down, sought out the best sports section I could find, and got hired as a page designer and copy editor for DMN's SportsDay. I decided to do my best at that.

And then I started writing again. I had written humor columns for my previous newspapers, so I started pestering the DMN lifestyles department with new ones. The editors, in a moment of brilliance/weakness, ran one, and I ended up writing a bunch more. They ran weekly in the paper for a while, and despite all the sports topics I hit on over the years, my most-read column was the "Humor Me" one that described how my 4-year-old son fainted when he saw his mom after her knee surgery. Nathan saw an adhesive electrode sticker on his mom's side and thought she'd been turned into a robot.

Yes, that really happened.

Now it’s hard to believe what is about to happen. I’ve been working for newspapers since I was a paperboy at age 12, when I rode a wobbly bike and threw papers at front porches with a frightening lack of accuracy. You know when you’re bowling, and your ball hooks right into the sweet spot and you get that explosive pin action? Well, the same thing can happen when the evening edition of The Phoenix Gazette gets sidearm-whipped into a plastic Nativity scene. The feeling that follows, however, is quite different.

The feeling now is strange. I’m leaving The Dallas Morning News to start a new job, hoping to succeed with my same approach from 18 years ago – “don’t get thrown out.”

So a final thank you to everyone.

For all the readers, thank you for your ideas, help and feedback, even when you told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. For all the coaches, thank you for your ideas, help and feedback, as well as the times you spared my feelings by simply telling another coach, “I don’t think Matt knows what he’s talking about.”

And to all of my colleagues over the years, thanks for your friendship, support and everything else that made my time at The Dallas Morning News so rewarding. It wasn’t always perfect, but it definitely had its batting-practice moments.

I was lucky to get so many swings.

////

*Final note: I’ve completed a novel, with the future of high school football as the story’s backdrop, and it's currently on submission to publishers. So if you’re a publisher who would like to read it, or know a publisher who would like to read it, or maybe just have a good copier and some really strong staples, please get in touch with me.
 
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