Rick Cleveland on sportswriting career
Rick Cleveland was recently named Mississippi sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. Cleveland, who has won the award a record 11 times, recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about his career and his love of all things sports. Cleveland is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Today, he is a syndicated columnist with columns appearing in newspapers all over the state, including the Northside Sun.
Congratulations on your award. How were you chosen?
“It’s voted on by sportswriters and sportscasters in Mississippi. The organization that runs it is the National Sports Media Association, which is based in North Carolina. That’s where they have the awards ceremony every year.”
So how long have you been writing?
“I started being paid as a sportswriter 53 years ago. I’m 66 now. The day I graduated from high school, I went full time at the Hattiesburg American and worked there full-time through college. It took me five years (to graduate) because I was working full time, and then I worked there until 1978. After that, I left and went to Monroe, La., where I was the sports editor for two papers there. The very next year, I came back to the Clarion-Ledger.
“It’s funny, the Hedermans owned the Hattiesburg American and the Jackson papers then. I left the Hedermans to go to Gannett, which owned the Monroe papers. I left Gannett to go back to work for the Hedermans, then Gannett bought the Ledger, the Hattiesburg American and the Jackson Daily News.”
How many sports events do you think you’ve covered?
“I have no idea, literally thousands and thousands. I’ve been doing it 50-something years, so even if I averaged 100 a year, it would be more than 5,000, but it’s certainly more than that. I guess it’s seven or 8,000 events easily, including 29 Super Bowls.”
What was the most memorable event you’ve covered?
“It’s hard to narrow it down to one. When the Saints won the Super Bowl in Miami, that was pretty memorable, because I never thought I’d see it. When State beat Alabama 6-3 in 1980, and Bear Bryant was a god in the South and ranked number one and had a 26-game win streak, that was pretty memorable. When I was a freshman at Southern covering Southern for the Hattiesburg American and they beat Archie Manning and Ole Miss, that was the biggest upset I’ve seen. Lots of the Masters tournaments have been memorable. The first year Tiger (Woods) won it was memorable.”
What is your favorite thing to cover?
“The state high school football championships – the small schools, the 1A and 2A schools. They have so much passion, the players care so much about it. So many of them have never talked to a sportswriter before. It’s always interesting to get down on the field and watch somebody like Puckett play Weir, which is no longer a school. But small-town football is really amazing to me. The whole towns get involved in it. I’ve always said the best time to be a burglar in small-town Mississippi is on a Friday night when the high school football team is playing in another town, because everyone’s gone, including the police.”
Tell me about the hardest part of your job.
“The hardest thing about what I’ve been doing for so long is writing about a game on an impossible deadline, particularly since night games started being televised and lasting for hours. Lots of times, my columns run 700 to 750 words. Sometimes, I’ve had to write them in five or 10 minutes, when the games run long. A lot of readers of the Sun probably remember when Eli (Manning) was at Ole Miss and that Arkansas game that went seven overtimes. I had, after I got back to the press box, maybe 10 minutes to write 750 words about a seven-overtime game. I don’t care who you are, that’s pretty hard.”
What’s the secret to writing a good sports column or story?
“The very first game I covered, when I was 13, I went to Lucedale to cover Brooklyn and Lucedale. Daddy had to drive me because I was 13 and didn’t have a license. I sat down at the kitchen table with a typewriter and rolled white paper and daddy left the room. Daddy came back about 30 minutes later and I hadn’t typed a word. He said, ‘why haven’t you written anything?’ And I said I didn’t know how to get started. He told me to write it like your telling somebody. I still use that advice every day. I try to be as conversational as I can. I try to not let my computer get in the way of what I’m trying to say. The more conversational you are, the better it reads most of the time.
“Willie Morris, the great Mississippi writer, said he not only did that, but tried to write it like he was telling a loved one, because it made you care more about what you were writing. The other thing is, the more complicated anything is you’re writing about, the more you need to break it down as simple as possible – write in short, concise sentences. A lot of time, what I’ve noticed is the more complicated the subject, the more complicated the sentences are, which makes it even harder.”
How does sports writing stay fresh for you?
“People ask me all the time if I get tired of going to games. Every game is a different story. You almost always see something new that happens. They mean different things to different people. The key to good writing and good sports writing is to remember that it’s about people, not the institutions or the X’s and O’s of the game.”
How do you stay unbiased?
“I learned pretty early when I was working for the Hattiesburg American and going to Southern and daddy was sports information director at Southern, he stressed that I was working for the readers and not for the school. You have to be impartial. I’ll admit it: there are games I go to and want one of the teams to win, but I hope it never comes through, because you’re writing for the readers. If you lose their trust – if they know you’re partisan – then why even read what you write?”
Your dad, (Ace Cleveland) was a sportswriter and a hall of fame inductee as well. How does your writing differ from his?
“So much has changed since when daddy was writing. The games weren’t televised. Since (they’re) on TV, people aren’t picking up the paper to find out who won. Most people have already watched the game or seen it on the news the night before. What’s changed in this era is that you need to tell readers the story behind the score – not only who won the game, but why and how it happened and the stuff they don’t know already from watching the game.”
Who are the most inspiring athletes to you?
“The most cooperative and best interview I ever had was the many times I’ve talked to Archie Manning. He was terrific, always a gentleman, always trying to help. He knew what news people were looking for. The most inspiring, which would surprise some, was Ruthie Bolton, who was from McLain, Ms., and was the 19th of 20 children in her family. (I covered) her in the 1996 Olympic games when she was point guard for the USA team that won the gold medal, and (learned) what it meant for her to be in the spotlight, coming from where she came from and how hard she played and how she inspired her teammates to do better. That was a fun thing to cover.”
Why do so many good athletes come from Mississippi?
“That’s the million-dollar question. If you look at the football part of it, you have Walter Payton, Brett Favre, Jerry Rice, Steve McNair, Archie Manning – five of the greatest players in football history, and they all came from towns of under 5,000 people. Archie thinks it’s because the games are so important here. In small towns in Mississippi, (sports) are the biggest thing in town other than church. He thinks the importance that sports have in small towns is what inspires kids to be so good, to work so hard. I think there might be something to that.”
What’s your advice to upcoming sportswriters?
“I give them the same advice my daddy told me – you don’t need to do this unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. If you’re smart enough to do it and do it right, you can make a whole lot more money doing something else. It’s the same advice I gave my son (Tyler), and I’ve had no more luck with him than (my daddy) had with me. You’ve got to really love it, and I do. I have no regrets for doing it. Heaven knows I could have made a lot more money doing something else. It’s hard work, you’re working nights and weekends and you’re away from your family a lot. I hear coaches and players say it all the time – they thank their families for their support because they’re gone so much. It’s the same for sportswriters.”