This week marked a personal milestone, if not a miracle.
May 25 was the 20th anniversary of my hire date at The Frederick News-Post. Given many variables, it’s amazing that I’ve lasted so long in one place in this industry. And I’m not sure what that says about me.
I try not to think too deeply about it. I can’t. Even with so much on hold, our printing press is scheduled to roll on.
But at least for one day during this pause, allow me to press rewind. I’ve experienced a lot in 20 years here. As a celebration of surviving two decades in the pages of this newspaper, here are 20 things that have helped shape my time at the News-Post.
n In my first week on the job, I was dispatched to Camden Yards. There was a press conference in the warehouse for a well-known high school baseball all-star game. Once my credentials were verified, I entered the elevator with several others. Right before the doors closed, in stepped a familiar-looking older gentleman. He caught us off guard. And that’s when Brooks Robinson asked, “How’s everybody doing?”
We were great.
n It didn’t take me long to jump into the local sports scene. At one of my first volleyball matches, I saw a Patriots freshman named Erin Maldo, whose talent was undeniable. I was excited to tell people about her. I did my best to get her to talk, but this phenom didn’t quite know what to say. It was good for me to learn early that no matter how interesting someone is, that doesn’t mean they’re interested in being interviewed about themselves.
Especially unassuming kids.
n Later that season, I covered the Patriots’ state loss at Essex Community College. The media workspace was an unused, sweltering locker room. Pit-stains formed as my laptop’s battery drained, but there were no electrical outlets to be found. At about 10:30 p.m., I decided to hightail it to my grandmother’s house 20 minutes away. But as I went to leave the empty gym, all of the doors were locked — from the inside. And my cell phone was in my car because, well, people didn’t yet carry phones everywhere. I WAS TRAPPED.
The rest of the escapade doesn’t matter. What does matter is that, in the past 20 years, this isn’t the only story about an FNP reporter getting locked in a facility after an MPSSAA state event.
n Early on, I covered a girls soccer match. It was between Thomas Johnson, coached by the great Chuck Nichols, and Middletown, which had a player named Lainey Nichols. Yes, a father was coaching against his freshman daughter in a meeting of two terrific teams that had many close ties. These were the types of stories I always wanted to tell — and they are flush in Frederick County. That might’ve been the night I knew I had ended up in a special place.
n I was working one Saturday back when the News-Post employed security guards. This particular evening, a gentleman was allowed to come upstairs to confront me, rather closely, without warning, about a fact I’d written regarding his son in a football game story. It was a valuable lesson about how you have to be careful even when writing facts about people’s kids.
And also that security is a mirage.
n I was permitted to spend an evening in 2001 at Roxanne Bright’s Frederick home. It was NBA draft night, and Bright’s son, former TJ star Terence Morris, was likely to hear his name called during the two-round telecast. Depending on the prospect, covering a draft in this fashion can be uncomfortable. Tension, uncertainty and anticipation mix to create a palpable anxiety the type of which no game can produce. That night, the picks kept passing. The clock toward my deadline kept ticking. We were all on edge. But once Morris was selected (and quickly traded), I realized how fortunate I was to be there — the only reporter in an incredibly intimate, ultimately joyous gathering on one of the most unforgettable days of a young man’s life.
n Early the next year, I covered Morris’ game with the Rockets against the Wizards. I don’t remember much about my story, but I do recall staring at two people that day for two very different reasons. First, before the game, I talked to Morris’ coach, Rudy Tomjanovich. He was pleasant and authentic. But as this naive reporter looked at this champion coach, I couldn’t help but feel like his face looked ... fake? Mask-like? It seemed odd, but I didn’t think much about it afterward. A year later, though, a new John Feinstein book came out. It was about the punch that Kermit Washington had delivered to Tomjanovich during a 1977 NBA game — a blow that had nearly killed him and absolutely rearranged his face.
n After that Rockets-Wizards game, there was no need for me to go into the Wizards locker room. Morris had played sparingly, and Washington’s players couldn’t offer much on my subject. But I went in anyway. Because I wanted to be able to say I had been in the same room with Michael Jordan, whose famous competitiveness led him to migrate that season from the Wizards’ front office back to the court. After about 20 minutes, MJ entered through a side door, wearing a splendid suit and sparkling diamond earrings. Reporters swarmed him. Not me. I stood back, gazing at the guy whose likeness had appeared on my childhood bedroom wall and adorned the shirts I wore to school nearly every day for three years. Under the shirt I wore that afternoon, I had goosebumps.
n The luckiest stroke of my career came in 2002, when I covered Maryland’s national title run. I traveled with a colleague to Syracuse University for the Sweet 16. It was cool to be among the “Top Gun” of journos. During the media availability between rounds of the tournament, I decided to chat up Bonnie Bernstein of CBS at the refreshment table. As I approached and opened my mouth to speak, she pivoted and walked away. I dejectedly returned to my computer and a ribbing from my colleague. Later that week, just as I was about to transmit my work, a static-electric shock from my finger zapped my obsolete laptop. It shut down. I lost my whole story.
So that trip included a crash and a burn.
n Soon after that, I wrote about a local track and field athlete who had been gaining attention. Urbana’s Lauren Graff was the best high school female pole vaulter in Maryland. I did a story about her adventurous nature. That May, I covered her final state championship. I never would’ve guessed that, 18 years later, I’d still be writing about her exploits. She’s still adventurous. She’s a Ninja Warrior and stuntwoman. But now she’s known — almost worldwide — as Jessie Graff.
n I interviewed an Urbana kid at a cross-country meet that took place in torrential rain. I was attempting to balance holding an umbrella and a tape recorder while also jotting notes with a pencil in a notebook. All of this juggling caused me to poke the kid in his eye with my umbrella. But, come on: Not even Jessie Graff could’ve completed that physical challenge.
n I was tasked with picking the boys basketball all-county team in 2003-04 — the year that senior Joe Alexander broke out and led Linganore to the state tournament. He was raw, explosive and awesome. But I gave the top honor to Middletown point guard John Keimig, who’d wrapped up his stellar career as a four-year starter despite missing time with an injury that season. It was my team, so I made the pick and didn’t look back. Four years later, Alexander was taken No. 8 in the NBA draft. And, when I talked to his mother for a story before the draft, she couldn’t help but dig at me that her son would probably be the only lottery pick who hadn’t been named Player of the Year by his hometown newspaper.
n I got the chance to interview Joe Paterno in 2004 when he visited one of his recruits, Mike Lucian, at Linganore High. I started one of my questions to JoePa by saying, “Now that you’re near the end of your career ...” The 77-year-old Penn State football coach bristled. He said he didn’t think that was the case — and darned if he didn’t guide the Nittany Lions for seven more years. I never thought I’d get coached by Joe Paterno, but he provided a lesson that day: Never get ahead of yourself.
n I was on vacation in August 2012 during the London Olympics, when Frederick High grad Vikas Gowda was competing in the discus for his native India. I woke up when it was still dark out and used an iPad to “cover” the event via livestream by linking to the hotspot on my iPhone, which I later used to email my story. If cell phones had been this amazing back in 2000, I never would’ve left it in my car when I got trapped in Essex Community College’s gym.
n After many years away, I headed to the 2013 state cross-country meet. I found a good spot near the finish chute to watch the first session, right behind a seated meet official. I stood there for about two hours. After the intermission, I returned there for the late session. That’s when the official who’d been seated in front of me turned around. In an unwelcoming tone required of all MPSSAA officials, she said I was not permitted there. I told her, with similar kindness, that she hadn’t been very attentive. Then, I started to act like I was walking away. When she sat down and turned her back again, I went right back to that spot.
But when it was over, I got out of Dodge before they locked me in.
n Over the past several years, I’ve chronicled Frederick High legend Chuck Foreman’s quest for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I never saw him play when he was shredding NFL defenses in the 1970s, but for someone like me who grew up (oddly) a Minnesota Vikings fan in Maryland, it’s pretty neat to have the name of one of the franchise’s most beloved former players in my phone’s contacts.
n Meanwhile, an NFL figure I’ve never had in my contacts is Brian Billick, the Ravens’ former Super Bowl-winning coach. I submitted more than one request to interview him in 2014 before his speaking engagement in Frederick. He never responded. But like I said earlier, no matter how interesting someone is, that doesn’t mean they’re interested in being interviewed about themselves.
Even when they’re paid to be a windbag.
n After years of mostly editing, I was recently reminded about a certain part of being a reporter. That’s the part when you’re interviewing someone and you accidentally mention something small about yourself in conversation, and the subject clearly doesn’t care at all about anything having to do with your life.
n Speaking of my life, I’ve been fortunate to write a light-hearted parenting column in our Real Life section for the past six years. And that’s a pretty good run for a column about a lame guy who wasn’t worth the time of day to Bonnie Bernstein and Brian Billick.
n Recently, my job at the News-Post has taken a challenging turn due to circumstances brought on by the pandemic. I didn’t expect 20 years full of elevator rides with Brooks Robinson, but never did I think a health crisis would stop the sports world from spinning.
As for the next 20 years? Who knows. I’m just trying to get through today, because our press is gonna be running tonight.
And hopefully that doesn’t end anytime soon.
Follow Joshua R. Smith on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith