On Thomas Lake’s “The Boy Who Died of Football”–plus notes from Lake on his reporting

by Meagan Flynn

Sports Illustrated, December 2010

Synopsis: At a Kentucky high school, 15-year-old Max Gilpin died three days after collapsing of heat stroke from running sprints on a 94-degree day. His football coach, Jason Stinson, was blamed and put on trial. Following this post is an excerpt from Lake’s essay that appears in Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists, where he describes how he came to pursue this story and the type of reporting it required (included here courtesy of Lake and Sager).

In most sports stories, there is a bout of action—whether in a championship game, a practice, or a pickup game on the driveway—that defines the story. It may be the dramatic final seconds of a title match or the move that would cause a career-ending injury. Many times these may be the leads of stories or their climaxes.

In this story, it is the running that killed Max Gilpin by rule of his coach’s whistle. Forty minutes, 220-yard sprints. But this isn’t part of the lead, nor is it a climax of the story in which Lake tells it all at once. What’s interesting is how he tells it in small chunks, with entire sections separating the scene’s progression. This technique seems to mirror the “little gold coin technique.” He splits up the scenes so that we’ll have to wait to see what happens next or to understand the full picture. To tell the defining scene all at once would be exciting, sure, but it wouldn’t have the power this technique does. He also gives us many of the details about what happened during the practice through the testimonies in the trial, whether the witnesses’ details were true or not.

Intermixed throughout the story are a series of anecdotes, both from Max’s life and from Stinson’s. In this, Lake proves that what’s on the surface—Max’s death from heatstroke and Stinson’s order to keep running until someone quit—is important but is not the story, that it goes back much farther than one might suspect, has a much deeper reach. A gem in writing longform.

Upon reporting, Lake might have posed these two questions: What made Stinson into the coach he is? Why would Max push himself so hard to get to that point? These two questions are the bigger story.

The key to answering Stinson’s big-picture question dates so far back as 1954, straight down the line of the genealogy of football coaches. The answer lies in Stinson’s old coach’s coach—a coach who led his 1954 Texas A&M football players through a hell camp in the wilderness and mercilessly ran them to the ground, urging many to quit if they couldn’t do it. One of the players who survived and went on to share in the success of the program, letting his merciless coach’s style grow on him, would become Stinson’s coach. His style would become Stinson’s style—though of course less extreme. This football coach ancestry can explain what led to the very point Stinson ordered Max and the players on the line. You wanna talk about highly impressive reporting and research? There you have it.

The key to answering Max’s big-picture question is a compilation of stories that illustrate one common theme of the story: Max’s obedient nature. This is what belongs as the lead.

On the day Max Gilpin ran himself to death before nearly 140 witnesses, he did almost nothing but what he was told. He began complying an hour before dawn, when he stumbled out of bed at his father’s command, and he continued through the morning and afternoon behind the brick walls of his school as the August sun parched the valleys of Kentuckiana. After school he surrendered to the will of his football coach, a man he loved as he loved his father, and he hoped this surrender would be enough to please them both.

In fact, directly following, Lake goes right out and tells us, “This is a story about obedience.”

Lake highlights anecdotes that illustrate Max and his father’s relationship and Max’s consistent drive to make his dad proud. (Others paint his father as a bully.) There are anecdotes about the girl he’d always liked, whom he asked to be his girlfriend only after patiently waiting until it was appropriate—along the lines of obedience, even, in a different form. How he didn’t feel good on the morning of that practice, but went to school anyway because his dad said.

Like Stinson’s history, all of these anecdotes, whether recent or years old, will explain it all, up until the point when Max lets go. We see that, in the courtroom, they had the story wrong the whole time, that it isn’t as simple as a coach, portrayed by the persecutors as ruthless, holding a practice so ruthless it killed a boy. We understand that Stinson’s only crime is being part of a football culture that became part of his nature, too, and that Max only collapsed because it was part of his nature to obey and to keep going, until someone gave him the permission to stop.

That’s what’s great about stories like this: We understand what we otherwise never would have without Lake’s remarkable reporting.

Below, Lake describes what it takes to be a “story detective” and how he tracked down and approached an essential character in the story: Max’s girlfriend, Chelsea. Preceding this passage, Lake has explained the 5,000-plus pages of documents he studied, the 30 people he interviewed, and his difficulty finding Chelsea’s new address.

At the courthouse I dug through the file for the civil lawsuit. Bingo: She’d given a civil deposition too, more recent than her police statement, and that deposition contained a different address. I high-tailed it out there and knocked on the door. A friendly woman answered. I explained who I was, why I was there, how I wanted to write something nice about Max from the perspective of someone who really knew him. The woman was Chelsea’s mom. She seemed to get it. She said Chelsea had cheerleading practice now but I could meet her later at the fish-fry restaurant where the mom tended bar.

That first anecdote from the City Commission meeting may have made me seem utterly shameless. I am not. At least I wasn’t, before I got into this game. I was a shy kid who was afraid to ask personal questions. I minded my own business and let other people mind theirs. I’m sure that was part of my problem at first. Story detectives do not mind their own business.

So I sit down in the booth at the restaurant and there’s the cheerleader with her backpack and her three-ring binder. I’m a thirty-year-old married guy with a baby at home. And I forge ahead.

So, Chelsea, tell me about your boyfriend.

Oh? He kissed you that day?

It was your first kiss with Max.

Could you please describe this kiss? About how long, in seconds?

Did he seem to know what he was doing?

The story, the story, the story. It exists whether you find it or not. Find it. Get it. Get the cheerleader’s cell phone number before you leave the restaurant. Don’t be ashamed to call her after you’ve written the scene and you decide it needs more juice. Ask her:

Were you wearing perfume that day?

What brand was it?

Oh, Victoria’s Secret?

What kind of Victoria’s Secret perfume?

Thank you, Chelsea. Thank you for your understanding. I’m sorry if that was weird. But this is the big scene, the big moment for Max, the glory of his first kiss with his cheerleader girlfriend. And if Max were writing the movie of his own life you can bet he’d want you to get all the details right.

The other source I remember most is Max’s mother, who told me that Max wouldn’t even die until he had permission. A chill passed over me when I heard that. Immediately I knew it had to be the ending. For weeks thereafter, as I finished the reporting, I couldn’t wait to write that scene. It made me cry every time I thought about it. But that’s the feeling you’re after when you do this work. When you get up every morning to go looking for tragic beauty, for human triumph, for some silver thread of the inexpressible thing that makes us all alive. And it runs, and you chase it, and you find it, and now it is yours, found and captured, waiting for you in the back of your notebook.