There are times as a journalist that you know you’ve got a great story. They can practically write themselves; all you have to do as a writer is not screw it up. But a decent writer can make it something special. It was 2005, and I was at the height of my career. I earned the right to brag a little bit on this one. I think I nailed it. And as good as the article was, the story behind it and afterward may be even better.
When I started at the Herald-Press, Huntington North High School was a part of the Olympic Athletic Conference. The OAC ranked only behind the legendary North Central Conference in terms of success. But several circumstances were threatening to tear the conference apart, including consolidation, travel, and economics. I did a ton of interviews for this one. Here’s how the story came about, and what happened after.
There were a handful of times in my newspaper career when an event I was covering just had more meaning than it normally would. It was a special moment in time, and I was going to have to find the words that would match the moment. Huntington North and Marion were meeting in a boys basketball sectional semifinal on a Thursday night in March, 1999. It was clear long before the game started that this one had a different feel.
In the summer of 1990, the sports editor at the Herald-Press left, and I made the move from photographer to writer and took the position. I loved photography, and while I wasn’t giving it up entirely, it was definitely a step away. I had no idea whether I could be a decent writer, but something told me it was the right move.
I don’t think the group had an official name, but they were a unique club. They all coached high school baseball in Indiana and were certainly cut from the same cloth. In other sports there would occasionally be a colorful character who gave you terrific quotes from time to time. But none of them matched these baseball coaches, and I was lucky enough to get to talk with Huntington North’s Don Sherman every spring.
I was with writer Duane Schuman at the Big Ten men’s basketball preseason media day in Chicago. Bob Knight arrived and I snapped a few shots as he was walking in. There was a guy walking next to him, and the two were chatting away. I asked who the other guy was, and was informed that it was Bob Hammel.
Huntington North has won two girls basketball championships, and those two teams are obviously beloved by the community. But the next-most celebrated team is the 1964 Huntington High School state runner-up boys basketball team. They were coached by Bob Straight, who was probably the most revered person in Huntington.
Huntington North High School has produced some outstanding athletes. They have had individual state champions in golf and wrestling, produced an Indiana Miss Basketball, Indiana All-Stars in boys basketball, and had numerous all-state performers. But the Vikings arguably never had an athlete as dominant in their sport as Katie Hackney was in softball during her time at HNHS.
This one, you almost had to be there to believe it. I was there, saw it happen, and maybe still don’t believe it. But it was my job to tell the story. Nick Johnson was a cross country runner for Huntington North, was the school record-holder and had won eight of nine races he had competed in during the year. This is the story of what would be his final high school victory.
Sometimes a story I wrote went beyond the sports arena. Athletics might be a part of the story, but the narrative is much larger. For a story I did on the Hunckler family, I have to give credit to my friend Nick Altman. Nick did some stringer work for me while he was in high school, then later came back and joined our staff. He had high school friends who were twins, Jason and Samson Hunckler.
Some of the most rewarding stories I’ve written have been where athletes have overcome the odds to succeed.
I’ve seen young people deal with devastating injuries, the deaths of family or friends, and defy expectation or circumstance. They are inspirations, and I’m humbled as I do the best I can to tell their stories and try to convey the feelings or emotions of the situation.
In 2006, Rex Grossman was quarterbacking the Chicago Bears to an appearance in the Super Bowl. He was well-known in Indiana for his record-setting careers at Bloomington South High School and the University of Florida. But the Grossman name had a well-known football connection in Huntington dating back 60 years earlier.
When you are the sports editor of a small-town newspaper covering just one high school, it can be difficult at times. You get to know the coaches and administrators well, and while you’re not a booster, those relationships give you a certain level of access. You have to remain objective, but you know you are writing for an audience primarily interested in that one school.
I had two connections with Chris Schenkel. I went to Wawasee High School, where one of my classmates was John Schenkel, Chris’ son. Of course, we knew John had a famous father, with the distinctive baritone voice from all the many sporting events on television. But at the house, he was just John’s dad.
This is a photo that means a lot to me. It represents 70 years of Huntington journalism. George Frye and Bob Hammel were both Herald-Press sports editors and two of the best ever. I started at the Herald-Press in 1987, and was there until 2008. For me, it's a humbling photo to be in such great company.