Life With A Lanyard: One Shining Moment That Shook Me To My Core
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LARAMIE -- I have interviewed some fascinating figures in the sports world during my 14 years as a professional journalist.
Sidney Crosby, Jim Boeheim, Gregg Popovich, Gene Keady, Draymond Green, Jalen Hurts, John Rocker and many, many others. The guy in the photo above, though, is arguably the most famous of them all.
Tom Izzo has led the Michigan State basketball program to eight Final Four appearances since taking over in East Lansing back in 1995. His Spartans cut down the nets in 2000, knocking off Florida, 89-76.
He's known for his passion and fiery personality. He intimidated me on television.
In late 2016, I was offered a gig at the Lansing State Journal. The official title was "sports storyteller," a description I still love to this day. My job was to mainly write feature stories, pen interesting articles that the other countless sports scribes in the state weren't touching.
That was in my wheelhouse.
Grabbing a microphone and asking a question in a crowded press conference, on the other hand, was not.
That brings me back to Izzo.
After MSU topped Miami in the opening round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament in Tulsa, Okla., I had a decision to make -- keep being a wimp or get it over with. I chose the latter, and I don't mind telling you, I was a nervous wreck. Seriously. I was physically shaking, my heart literally making the left side of my shirt move.
I don't recall the exact stumbling, bumbling inquiry that came from my trembling lips that St. Patrick's Day, but it was pathetic. I know I asked about guard Josh Langford. It was a softball heaved at the Hall of Fame head coach. Something about giving me his thoughts on the senior's 13-point night against the Hurricanes.
Truth is, I didn't even write about Langford that night. He was the Spartans' third-leading scorer. My job was to get the reaction from the losing locker room. I was fine with that -- it was one-on-one and just a single reporter from South Florida was in attendance. The MSU beat consists of dozens.
I was always concerned with what my colleagues would think of my questions. I was even more worried about publicly ruffling the feathers of a man known to fire back at a journalist or two. Keep in mind, before that job I was a high school reporter in Worland, Douglas and suburban Houston.
It was a recipe for a full-on panic attack.
That's why the minute I handed that mic back to the shirt-tucker in attendance and texted just about everyone in my contacts about my triumph, I was ready to suck down every $8 Coors at the Marriott across the street.
I still needed to write, though. To make matters even worse, I was on deadline.
Much too embarrassed to tell my fellow LSJ coworker, Graham Couch, about the gorilla I just dispatched from my then 33-year-old back, I simply started to type. That's when Graham's phone rang.
It was short. He was obviously rushing the person on the other line, not seemingly interested in what they had to say. After all, he was on deadline, too. "OK, Tom. Thanks for calling. I have to get busy."
Yep, that was him.
It was at that moment I realized I still have a long way to go. Though Izzo and I had plenty of off-the-record solo conversations over the few months I had been in Michigan, I wasn't quite in the rush-him-off-the-phone category quite yet. That takes years -- and guts.
Quietly, I enjoyed my big moment. Very, very quietly.
Along with the other Gannett media guys on that trip, we crushed beers and snacked on fried chicken livers that night. For real. That group was seasoned. They were celebrating being done for the night. I was still high as a kite thanks to one ridiculous question.
It's all comical now.
That moment gave me the confidence to never look back. In fact, I was eager for the press conference the following day. So amped I actually started blabbing to Izzo, completely forgetting the moderator said to aim all questions at the players in attendance first before addressing the coach.
Izzo laughed. I cowered. Hey, I was excited.
Was I nervous when my next venture landed me in bustling Pittsburgh, smack dab in the middle of a crowded Penguins' locker room? You bet. Arguably the best player in the world was in the stall to my left. There's Evgeni Malkin, too. Kris Letang is over there. So is Phil Kessel. Yeah, that can be unnerving. Not to mention Alex Ovechkin was across the hall.
It's all a part of the ride, but for me, it started in that cramped interview room in the bowels of the BOK Center. I'm grateful for that day. That stupid question has done wonders.
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