When I sit down to begin writing a story about someone, I often think to myself, “If I were writing a story about me, would that story be the truth about me by the time it went to print?” The answer, inevitably, is, “No.” Sure, the general story would be the same. My back story wouldn’t change, nor would the details of my life over the past 33 years. But I would have changed. We change every day. Our story changes every day. Something I think today, I might not think tomorrow. I might change my mind about an opinion I was certain I had yesterday. Something might happen in my life to alter its course, and my story, drastically. So no, no story is ever the full and complete truth. I don’t think writing such a story is possible.
So, knowing that, I sit down at my computer–after talking to as many people as I can and doing as much research I can–with hopes of honoring the person I am writing about by getting as close to his or her current truth, as seen through my eyes, as possible. And then I write the best story I possibly can.
This week, my story on Alabama running back Mark Ingram is in the magazine, as part of our 2010 college football preview issue. (The issue with the cute model baby on the cover. And no, no one punted him.) The story went to print last Wednesday. Two days before that, on Monday afternoon, I got word that Mark’s grandfather, Art Johnson (Grandpa Art to Mark), died of a heart attack over the weekend.
Grandpa Art was a huge part of Mark’s life, and of his story. When Mark’s dad went to prison, Grandpa Art was there. He was there for every middle and high school football and basketball practice, sitting in the stands or watching from the sidelines. He was there for every college game, and he was there, in NYC, when his grandson became the first player from the University of Alabama to win the Heisman. Grandpa Art was who Mark called when he needed advice or who he went to see when he wanted to escape from it all and when he wanted to hear a good story. Mark visited him at home in Flint, Michigan, the day before he died. He was a huge part of Mark’s life. But he was only a small part of my story.
And that needed to change.
So, on Monday night, I re-wrote my story. Mark’s story changed, so mine needed to change, too. When I met Mark, I was overwhelmed by the importance family plays in his life and in protecting him from the pressures he faces on a daily basis. Family is a huge character in the stories of a lot of the guys I’ve written about, but with Ingram, it felt even more central. Because of that, the thread was already there. I just needed to spend more time weaving it around the loom. When I was in Tuscaloosa this summer, I asked Mark to talk about his grandfather and he did, at length, so I had great material to pull from. I also had the privilege of speaking with Grandpa Art and Grandma Barbara this summer, so I had lots of material from them, as well.
On the day the story closed, Mark’s aunt Monica and mom, Shonda, returned my calls and provided me with wonderful detail and thoughts about their dad. Those calls started out tough. I was encroaching on a very personal time. But each call ended with both of us laughing at a funny story about their dad. I was so looking forward to meeting Grandpa Art at a game this year. He sure sounded like a real character and a wonderful man. I am sure it will be hard for Mark and his family to look into the stands and not see him sitting in his seat this year.
Although it’s a small thing, I hope I (and my editors) was able to honor Grandpa Art, and Mark’s story, by staying up a few hours, making a few tough calls and re-writing a story that is now hopefully more honest and closer to Mark Ingram’s truth, this week.