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John Feinstein: Death Is A Tragedy; Losing Isn't

John Feinstein, who began his career as a cops and courts reporter, has seen tragedy on the job – but never in a postgame locker room

March 16, 2019 - 4:15 pm

I received a note last week that came through my website from someone who said she had been reading me for years and was surprised to find my byline on a story from almost 40 years ago about a horrific crash in Crofton, Maryland, that killed ten teenagers.

All sorts of memories came flooding back. I was a cops and courts reporter at The Washington Post when the crash happened, and I was one of two reporters sent to knock on doors in the neighborhood where the crash took place to try to talk to family members, friends, and neighbors—in addition to the police.

On this story, even talking to the cops was tough: they were in shock, too.

I covered a number of tragic stories during my days on the Metro staff at The Post—none worse than this one—but many just as terrible to cover. The moment I realized I was in the wrong job came on a Friday night when a train derailed outside of Baltimore and two of us were sent to the site to cover the story.

We were in an old-fashioned radio car and about halfway there we got a call from the city desk. “We’re being told there are no fatalities,” Bill Elsen, the night city editor at the time, told us. “Lots of injuries, but as far as they know, no one’s dead.”

I was driving, so my partner answered: “Oh well, too bad. We’ll see if we can find some kind of a story when we get there.”


To this day, I can still hear those words in my head clear as can be.

The note on the Crofton crash made me think back to those days. Tragedy was—and is—always big news. Even the train crash, with no deaths, made it to A-1 because the eyewitness accounts and the terror people felt made for riveting reading.

That wasn’t what I wanted to do for a living. Ultimately, I didn’t want to cover politics either because even though I found it fascinating at times, it could also be quite dreary and mind-numbingly repetitive—although covering Maryland state politics in Annapolis WAS great for my social life.

Ultimately, though, I went back to sports, in part because I’ve always loved competition—whether as a wanna-be athlete or as a fan or, finally, as a reporter.

What I realized after my experiences covering REAL tragedy, is that competition is never tragic. In fact, it’s never really all that sad.

The first time I covered a Duke basketball game as a college sophomore, the Blue Devils lost a close game at Virginia. I remember Bill Foster, who was in his first year as the coach of what was then a bad team, standing in the hallway outside the locker room, his voice barely a whisper talking about the plays his team had failed to make in the final few minutes. He looked sick.

A moment or two later, Tom Mickle, the Duke sports information director said to the small handful of us standing there, “Locker room’s open, fellas.”

I hesitated. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go in there and ask the players to talk about such a crushing defeat. Al Featherston, who was then a young reporter for the Durham Sun, read my body language.

“If you want to do this,” he said, “you better get used to going in losing locker rooms. It’s part of the job.”

I swallowed hard and followed Featherston inside.

I can tell you now with absolute certainty that going in a losing locker room was never difficult again after my experiences covering cops and courts.

It isn’t that I don’t feel sympathy for players or coaches after a difficult loss; it’s just that I know—quite literally—that NOBODY DIED. It is just a game or a tennis match or a golf tournament.

My friend, Brandel Chamblee, who I think is as good as it gets when it comes talking about golf on TV, has a habit of referring to players who hit a ball in the water at a crucial time or three-putt from inside ten-feet as having suffered, “a tragedy.”

I’ve discussed this with him—he’s certainly not the only one who does it, just someone who is really good at his job who does it—and tried to explain that I’ve covered real tragedy and have yet to see it take place on a golf course.

The only time I’ve seen tragedy in person at a sports event was at a Masters swim meet about 10 years ago. A friend of mine got up from where he was sitting next to me to go swim the 200 freestyle. I still remember what he said walking away: “See you in a few minutes—if I survive this.”

He didn’t.

As he touched the wall at the end of the race, his head never came out of the water. One of the other swimmers, a doctor, saw what was happening and immediately shouted for help to get him out of the water.

“He was dead before we even got him out,” he told me later.

The rest of the meet was called off. None of us felt much like swimming after that.

THAT was tragic.

There is nothing wrong with being passionate about sports. I revel in seeing good people succeed and, being honest, seeing bad people fail. I love great competition—regardless of outcome. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover events where I sat down to write still so pumped up I could barely type.

I still love that feeling.

A few weeks ago, I covered a Navy-Memphis football game. The Midshipmen were down 21-9 early in the fourth quarter and, because I was facing a tight deadline, I began to write my column lamenting the scheduling that had Navy opening AT Hawaii and then flying home for a crucial conference game five days after their plane from Honolulu finally landed.

Then, Navy scored a touchdown. Then it scored another to lead, 22-21. The Tigers quickly drove to the Navy 34 with plenty of time left, but the Mids stopped them there and won the game.

I have nothing against Memphis. But I’ve been around Navy since my early days at The Post and I wrote a book, “A Civil War,” on the Army-Navy rivalry 22 years ago—still the book I think I’m most proud of writing. I did color on the Navy radio network for 14 years.

I have equally close ties to Army and now work regularly on its radio network.

So, when Navy pulled the game out, I was pumped for the players, for Coach Ken Niumatalolo (one of my favorite people in sports) and for being able to lose the 500 words I’d written lamenting their loss.

I raced downstairs for postgame interviews, concerned about my deadline. I came upstairs and started writing. Thirty minutes later, figuring I’d written about 500 words, I hit the word count. I was at 987. I made the deadline with five minutes to spare.

Pure adrenaline.

That’s why I love sports—for moments like that. For guys like Niumatalolo and Rory McIlroy and Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo and Paul Goydos and Mary Carillo and all sorts of people you’ve never heard of—unless perhaps you’ve read one of my books.

And, I love it because almost never does someone die. I wish people who lose their minds over sports would understand that. I wish fans who threaten a referee because they think he cost their team a game would understand that.

Sure, the loss hurts and it is okay to criticize officials. I do it all the time. But death threats? Trying to damage their business? Get over it.

I still remember vividly how Red Sox fans made Bill Buckner into a pariah after the 1986 World Series. Many—most?—completely forgot that the game was already tied when he booted Mookie Wilson’s ground ball in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6.

They also forget that the Red Sox led 3-0 in Game 7 but still lost.

My agent-for-life, Esther Newberg, is one of those Red Sox fans. Years ago, as I often do with people, I asked her what the score was when the ball went through Buckner’s legs.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Were we up 6-5 or 5-4?”

“The score was tied,” I said. “It’s unfair for you to say Buckner LOST the World Series.”

She looked at me with genuine hatred in her eyes. “I don’t care,” she said. “I still hate him.”

Right now, Esther’s very happy. She loves ALL the Red Sox and will continue to do so—until and unless they fail to win the World Series.

I get that. But, if they don’t win, I’ll remind her—again—that nobody died. And, in sports, there is always next year.

John Feinstein’s latest book is, “The Prodigy,” a novel about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters and all he has to overcome on and off the golf course. His next work of non-fiction is, “Quarterback,”—on the ups and downs of playing the position in the NFL. It will be published November 13th. His website is: