"THE TUESDAY PORTRAIT: FERNANDO TORRES," BRIAN PHILLIPS, THE RUN OF PLAY, 2008.04.09
My first favorite is a blog post.
I WASN’T SURE WHAT I wanted to do—for this, or just in that general, looming question-mark sense that stares you down when you start off in college. What do you want to do with your life, you 18-year-old, who is definitely prepared to answer that question?
Well, I wanted to be a sportswriter—or something. I liked reading Bill Simmons, like every kid in an all-boys Catholic high school, and I sort of liked writing. Or, I did, but I never really gave into it. Never wrote for the high school paper and never really did all that well with any of the paragraphs, papers, or sentences I wrote in high school. But I liked reading books, kind of, and I really liked sports. So, throw all that shit against the wall and maybe it drips down into something resembling “professional sportswriter.”
I also wanted to play soccer. Or, I was playing soccer in school, and that was the one definable thing in my life at that point. So, maybe I’d write about soccer as a sportswriter. Didn’t really matter that there was maybe one full-time American soccer writer in existence at that time because, again, I was 18 and nothing really mattered. It was more than enough to deflect conversation at graduation parties.
That’s also a long way of saying that I was embarrassed, now working for my second magazine, and not having a high-school favorite from the List of Great Magazine Stories That Were Printed on Paper.
THIS IS THE FIRST paragraph from a profile of a soccer player, written by Brian Phillips:
Malarial lowlands. Brown mountains rigid in the distance, like the bones of the corpse of the sky. Wind, like a disease, swelling on the fens: mixing the shadows, sifting the sedge, glimmering along the grassy pools. There is a moon in the bruise-colored air: so it must be twilight. It might have been any time at all. A sinister note takes root in the bassoons, grows and, softly, blossoms in the strings.
I read those words right around the publish date, somewhere close to the end of my second year in college. It was my first experience with The Run of Play.
You can read the whole thing, and unless you know more than what Fernando Torres looks like, you’ll have no idea. It’s beautiful, sure, but it’s about a boy, riding a horse toward a castle. There’s a damsel. There’s a dragon. There’s some thunder. And there’s uncertainty—the will-he-won’t-he and the clearly-he-can’t kinds. An innocent kid in a world of un-innocent things, seemingly destined to fail, but still pushing on, into somewhere he’s probably not welcome. A talented man-boy with a babyface, stepping into a hellscape of monsters and really bad weather.
Actually, in 2008, you now had every idea about Fernando Torres: a young, talented, especially-young-looking kid who’d left his boyhood club in Madrid for dreary and gray Liverpool, where he made the opposing defense look like, well, recently-slain and flailing dragons who’d never seen something flash and move like him before.
LATER THAT YEAR, I covered a friendly between the United States versus Argentina. It was wonderful and exhilarating in the way that being a freshman or sophomore and seeing your favorite players play, hearing them talk, and then putting it all together in a story—and it being called “work”—is always going to be.
At the time I was working—I didn’t get paid, but it was worth whatever “it” is—for American Soccer Daily, a now-defunct site concerned mostly with American soccer players playing overseas. Some purpose! Or: not totally. Covering these players was amazing, but I still tended toward wanting to write longform “thinkpieces” (I didn’t call them this at the time, thank God, because I was already enough of an asshole) about the future and the meaning of American soccer—rather than covering the games.
Still, I drifted through English classes, focused mainly on playing the sport I wrote about outside of school and then on getting as drunk as humanly possible on the weekends we had home games.
HOLY SHIT, THIS IS sooooo much better than anything I can write. But I want to try.
I’d never really had that reaction before. At least, reading that Fernando Torres profile, that was the first time I can remember it. Wait, you can write about soccer without really writing about soccer? If you can make soccer that much more fun by not even writing about it, then, like, you could do that with anything! Can, um, everything be interesting?
I emailed Brian, thinking he made a living off of the site, wondering how I could do it, too. He wrote back because he is the greatest. He told me that he just did it because he liked it, he had another job, and I managed to forget the rest.
BECAUSE I AM AN idiot, it still took another full semester to get things in order. I intermittently kept up with the site over the next few months, spark-noted my way through Bleak House—In my defense, WHAT THE HELL, Dickens?—and finally enrolled in my first non-fiction creative writing class in the spring of my junior year (read the first five words of this paragraph again).
Once I started writing and editing stories about everything in the creative writing class, I began to actually realize and, you know, finally consider: this writing and editing stuff, so long as there’s a tiny bit of freedom, is kind of great, no matter what you’re writing and reading about.
Around that time, I finally started obsessing over The Run of Play, reading every word on the site multiple times, becoming a devotee of Brian, Fredorarrci, Supriya, Dr. Chesapeake Marchpane, and all the other names that popped up. It’s all brilliant, and that guy who’s printing out the Internet should turn the collected works from The Run of Play into a collection of really tiny books. It’s the best thing the Web ever did.
Pele was/is a comedian. Brian tried to serialize a novel. The act of chipping a penalty was analyzed as thoroughly as any Eliot poem. Soccer was more than who won and who played well. It was why people played a certain way and what that meant. It wasn’t about winning; it was about how the importance of winning a game shaped whatever we were watching. And, if anything, it was about that. About enjoying the thing we all spent so much time with our eyes locked in on. While it’s definitely a cliché, it’s also definitely true: the site was about soccer but it also really wasn’t. The writing helped make everything just a tiny bit clearer.
TWO YEARS AFTER READING the Torres portrait—and two years after emailing Brian—I wrote something I thought was decent. It was my final semester in school, so I sent it over, re-introducing myself, and asking Brian to consider publishing it. He put it up the next day, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. The level of happiness I emitted after seeing my name up on the site has not been matched by any other professional achievement since.
No one really understood why I was so happy because I didn’t get paid and the site might as well have been carved in hieroglyphics into the moon as far as my parents were concerned. They knew I was happy and the word “cool” was dispensed pretty often because that’s what you say when you’re not really sure why your son is comparing a Dutch soccer player to a Biblical prophet. It’s hard to understand—and that’s fine.
After all, it was a blog post.