Every now and again, someone will ask how I choose what to write for Sports Illustrated. It's not an easy process to explain. It's rarely a linear thing. Stories tend to come out of good conversations with editors and openings in the magazine's space and sudden turns and good pitches and interesting twists of thought and a lot of passion. It's kind of a magical thing, or at least it still feels that way to me. I have a list of story ideas in my computer that probably takes up more memory than Microsoft Word. And I know that 95% of them will become blog posts or will disappear into the ether. A few will somehow become magazine stories.
Saturday, Jan. 8 was my 44th birthday. I celebrated it by taking both girls to their basketball games and then, in early afternoon, flying to Phoenix for the BCS Championship Game. It was during my layover in Minneapolis that I heard something about a shooting in Tucson. The details were fuzzy, but it seemed that a congresswoman had been shot, some were reporting that she had died, some others had been shot too. Before anything had been cleared up, it was time to board a plane.
When we landed in Phoenix, it was dark, and I got lost on the way to the hotel -- an event that happens with such regularity that I now incorporate it into my itinerary. I read something about the Arizona shooting when I got to the hotel, saw that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was alive but others had died. And I went to sleep.
All of that is to say that I did not see or hear the name Christina Taylor Green until I woke up early Sunday morning. I wake up early at hotels because my body refuses to accept the basic fact that my young daughters are not there to wake me up. It was still dark in Phoenix when I started to read about Christina. I didn't know anything about her background then -- that she was the daughter of Dodgers scout John Green or the granddaughter of Dallas Green. No, the thing I noticed, the thing that made me keep reading and keep reading was this: Christina was born in 9/11.
Our oldest daughter Elizabeth was born on 8/30 -- 12 days before 9/11.
There were many, many people who lost a piece of themselves on 9/11. Beyond that, everyone in America has some connection. Mine was having a tiny baby girl sleeping in my arms as I watched the television, as we watched the towers crash to the ground. We were first time parents, and we were emotional anyway, and we were exhausted, and we were hopeful, and we were scared ... and now we were watching everything go to hell. The clash of the promise of a little girl and the smoke at Ground Zero, it was too much for us to understand. When I saw when Christina was born, I thought of Elizabeth and I could not stop thinking of the two of them, the same age, liking many of the same things, being so much alike. And then I read how Christina had asked the neighbors to take her to meet Giffords because Christina had been elected to her school council and wanted to learn more about politics.
That's about when I started crying. I don't cry. I don't say that proudly or with any shame, it just is, I am not an outwardly emotional person. But there, alone in a Phoenix hotel room, staring at a computer screen, I sobbed. I knew I wasn't alone.
And not long after that I learned that John Green was her father and Dallas Green was her grandfather.
I didn't go to Tucson knowing that I would write about this awful thing. I just needed to go. At Christina's school, I saw a memorial made by children -- teddy bears, ballet shoes, posters, billboards, photographs, ribbons, roses, all sorts of bright colors, the sort of thing you might expect to find in nine-year-old heaven. Behind the Safeway, where the shooting had taken place, I saw a parking lot surrounded by police tape, and I saw a father standing there with three well-dressed children. The two girls were wearing matching dresses. The boy was wearing a little jacket and a tie. I saw the father stand the three children against the police rope, with the crime scene in the background, and I saw him step back a few paces, pull out a camera and take their picture.
How do we make sense of this kind of madness? Six died here because of the loose wiring in the head of a lost soul. A woman was clinging to life in a hospital bed. Around the nation people argued about what it all meant -- some arguing for gun control, some arguing for watching the mentally ill with more vigilance, some arguing for less vitriol, some arguing for less political opportunism, some arguing because there is always more time to fill. And a man took his family photograph in front of the police tape in a bloody parking lot.
I decided to write about John Green because I was overwhelmed by the strength he showed. He and his wife Roxanna, the way the handled themselves, the words they spoke -- these seemed the one real thing to cling to in the swirling madness. Where does that strength come from? How do we keep going? I talked with some of John's friends, his fellow baseball scouts, to ask them if the John Green that we were all seeing on television was the John Green they had known. It turned out he was. "A John Wayne character," his friend Logan White said.
Sportswriters -- we deal with losses that aren't real losses. That's part of what's fun about the job. News reporters deal with tragedy all the time. They interview people who have lost everything. They talk with loved ones who are unsure how they will go on. They try to bring some kind of reason to madness. There is the old newspaper line -- if it bleeds, it lead -- and I suppose that cynicism will always be a big part of the way we digest the world around us. But, maybe it isn't that people want to read or hear about tragedy. Maybe we want to read or hear about strength in the face of tragedy. Maybe we just want to believe, through it all, that people somehow go on.
My story on John and Christina Green is here and on the back page of Sports Illustrated this week.
My conversation with colleague Richard Deitsch about the story is here and in this week's SI iPad app.