THE DARK DAY FILES: The Importance of Student Journalism, and Those That Don’t Recognize It

Before becoming The Pink Sheet’s in-house handicapper, I was a multimedia sports journalist for a year and a half with The Saratogian, the main paper that produces it. It was actually my first full-time job following two years interning at Siena College’s athletic communications office, and it provided me with one heck of an entry point to the real world of journalism (and media production as a whole).

I got to do a lot of cool things, and not just at Saratoga Race Course (though using the press box as an office for seven weeks during the summer definitely topped the list of perks the job offered). I interviewed professional athletes like Jimmer Fredette and Kyle Busch, but primarily, I got knee-deep in high school and college sports, where I built relationships with coaches, student-athletes, parents, and administrators. Those are the moments I remember the most, from improvising a press box in my car when lacrosse was played in sub-freezing temperatures to having to get said car towed out of a makeshift parking lot when it sunk into mud during a baseball doubleheader.

Most of the time, my interactions with members of the community were cordial, even pleasant. However, there were times where it was necessary to take hard looks at certain situations. The men’s soccer program at the local Division III college had a hazing scandal that led to 24 players being disciplined and its spring season being cancelled. The main local high school in town had an incident with its boys basketball coach, and loudly took exception when one of our writers covered a baseball game where a player made four errors (you can read about that story here; it’s as absurd as it sounds). Additionally, racing fans may appreciate that I once fielded a few angry calls from a steeplechase trainer and his top assistant when I mistakenly reported a horse had been vanned off due to an error in the official chart that was corrected after my article went to press (if Richard Valentine and Laird George happen to be reading this, sorry again).

My point is simple: Journalism isn’t public relations. It’s about fulfilling responsibilities to communities that depend on your outlet for information as to what’s going on, good or bad. It’s not a responsibility to take lightly, nor one that should be burdened by people who are easily bent to the wills of the people or organizations they’re tasked to write about.

At this point, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this in what’s supposed to be a racing column. That’s a very fair question. I was fully prepared to write about Justify, Accelerate, and the race for this year’s Eclipse Awards. However, when I looked at Twitter after spending my day off in San Francisco eating a strawberry crepe and garlic fries (possibly the first time in the history of humanity that this combination has been ordered), I was horrified to see news out of Liberty University, an institution that, per Teddy Amenabar of The Washington Post, has taken drastic steps to shape their student-run newspaper.

First, the obvious disclaimers: Liberty University is a private institution that is well within its rights to do this. There are no constitutional or legal issues in play here, so do not fall into the trap of saying such measures violate the First Amendment.

Having said that, discouraging aspiring journalists from undertaking actual journalism is entirely the wrong course of action to take. What the school’s dean of communications is saying is that the school intends to use its newspaper as a public relations device. PR is not journalism, and it will never be journalism.

Journalism covers the things people deserve to know about, not what those in power necessarily want us to see or hear. In a perfect world, serious journalists hold everyone accountable. It’s not a profession undertaken by the meek. Journalists work long hours, wear many hats, and are often ridiculously underpaid for the work they do. They don’t do the job because they’re beholden to people or groups they cover. They do it because serious journalism is worth saving, even in an age when newspapers and other outlets are struggling mightily.

The young men and women that want to be journalists have already shown toughness by choosing that career path. They don’t want to create puff pieces that are easily digestible. They want to go the extra mile, do the dirty work, and tell the stories that need to be told. That these stories don’t line up with the ones Liberty University wants publicized is unfortunate for those in power, and any attempts to get students to conform to the desires of higher-ups are scary, at best.

Perhaps what’s weirdest about this is that the dean of communications doesn’t realize that quality student journalism is, in fact, the best form of public relations his institution could ever receive. I went to Ithaca College, whose student-run newspaper (The Ithacan) was often very critical of the school’s administration. It wins awards on an annual basis, and it’s trumpeted as an example of the Park School of Communications’ devotion to training young professionals who exit ready to make an impact in their chosen professions. Those in power don’t try to suppress the voices of its student journalists. They give those students platforms to find their voices, and that stance is a large part of why I’m proud to be an Ithaca College alumnus.

If you’ve read this far, chances are this story has hit you in a similar way it hit me. This is where I need your help. If you’re a communications professional, share what’s happening. If you’re a faculty or staff member at an institution of higher learning, and your administration is holding students back from doing what they want to do, say or do something about it. Your students want to be better journalists. Do everything you can to give them that opportunity.

Liberty isn’t the first school to do this, and chances are they won’t be the last. There are students out there whose voices are being suppressed for no good reason, and I want to do something about it. I’ll always be a journalist regardless of anything else I’m fortunate enough to do, and I feel a responsibility to make sure the field is as strong as it can be in the years to come.

If what’s happening at Liberty is common, I want to fight it. I want to give the suppressed students a chance to work around restrictions that should not exist. I don’t know what this would take, how this would work, or even what this would look like. All I know is that this is the right thing to do, one that I’d hope someone would do for me if I had wound up in a place not as receptive to the idea of a free press.

If you’re out there, and this speaks to you in some way, tell me. Click this link to use the contact feature available at this website to reach me. I read every single piece of correspondence that comes in, and I want to know how I can best help out some people that need it.

WAR STORIES: The Failure Files

There’s an old saying that talks about how experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. That’s never what one wants to hear in the heat of the moment, and in fact, there are times where, upon hearing such advice, the recipient of it may wish he or she had H. G. Wells’s time machine on hand to travel back in time and punch out whoever said it first. Trust me. I’ve been there.

Over time, though, I’ve found that that saying rings true time and time again. We’re supposed to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and learn from our failures. I’d like to think I’ve done a reasonable job of that, and, in some situations, enough time has passed to where I can comfortably discuss certain things that have happened. In a few cases, I can even look back and laugh, and that’s the purpose of the latest installment in my series of “War Stories.”

I’m not entirely sure how this will be received. If it helps someone out there get through something, though, whatever that may be, I’ve accomplished my goal. If nothing else, this’ll be pretty entertaining. Let’s get to it!

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THE WORST SUMMER I’VE EVER HAD

In the summer of 2009, I thought I was in a pretty cushy spot. I had just received word that I’d landed a prime broadcasting gig at Ithaca College that fall, when I would enter my senior year (more on that in just a bit). That summer, though, I had gone out and earned an internship at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, doing what they deemed as “marketing, promotions, and operations.”

I figured this was a chance for me to branch out and beef up my resume. Even then, I knew that not everyone who goes to college for one thing winds up doing that particular thing as a professional, so I prided myself on being as versatile as possible (a trait I still value today). They threw a lot at me when I walked in the door, and I had my hand in just about every part of the internal operations…and then, things got strange.

Two weeks into what was supposed to be an eight-week internship, I got called into the office of Shane Williams-Ness, who was then the director of marketing and development at SPAC. She somberly explained to me that due to the downturn in the economy (and, by extension, SPAC’s bleaker-than-usual financial forecast), I was being let go. The company was very apologetic about the whole thing, and to their credit, in addition to being paid for the two weeks I worked, I received another check for two additional weeks’ worth of pay, which wasn’t something they had to do.

I now had to figure out something else to do to make money before going back to school. Out of necessity, I applied for a job at the local Target store in Kingston, New York, and wound up working to unload trucks five days a week from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. It was NOT a glamorous job, but I vowed to push through it, get the bonus for working odd hours, and wind up better for it in the long run.

Right off the bat, it was not a good fit. The environment was toxic, with several bosses treating employees like the fate of the world rested upon our abilities to unpack and stack one box per minute while most of the neighborhood was still asleep. Additionally, while I put an honest effort in and worked hard to do the best job I could, manual labor and I have never really gotten along (there’s a reason I’m a writer, folks!), so I was pretty miserable.

Far in advance, they knew when my last day had to be (in order for me to get back to college). Two days before that date, my supervisor calls me into the office. For the second time that summer, I was let go for, in her words, “working hard, but not improving.” That’s a thing? And for unloading and unpacking boxes, of all things?

Ultimately, it only robbed me of two days’ worth of work, so I wasn’t too bummed out. They had said that my last check would be mailed to me. However, it wasn’t, and a week later, I called. As it turned out, it was sitting right there on someone’s desk, which I found fishy because payroll checks have a defined expiration date. I ran in, picked it up, and did not spend a dime at that Target location from that day until I moved to the west coast.

Two funny postscripts: The week after I was let go from SPAC, Coldplay cancelled on them due to a band member being sick. The phones did not stop ringing, and it would have been my job to answer them and calm down angry people who wanted refunds, so I dodged a bullet. Additionally, a few months after my tenure at Target ended, I was at college when my phone rang. I picked it up, and it was a bubbly manager from Target in Kingston, asking me if I could work the next day. I quickly hung up, and to this day, I marvel at the nerve it took to make that call.

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BOMBERS FOOTBALL: TWO WEIRD ROAD TRIPS

Remember that prime broadcasting gig I mentioned way back when? Well, in 2009, I was part of a two-man radio booth that handled broadcasting Ithaca College football games on the campus’s award-winning radio station, WICB. The other half of said booth was my friend Josh Getzoff, who has since become one of the top young broadcasters in the National Hockey League while working for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s got enough Stanley Cup rings to fill a sock drawer at this point. I’ve got an invisible title belt from being the winningest public handicapper at Saratoga this past summer. Sounds pretty even, right?

Anyway, that year was a blast. Ithaca went 7-3 that season and capped off the season with a win over Cortland State in the annual Cortaca Jug game (the Bombers haven’t won one since; President Collado, if you want to bring me back to the booth for good mojo Saturday, call me!). However, what I remember most about that year were two road trips, ones that did not exactly go as planned.

The first was the longest trip of the year. Being a Division III program, Ithaca didn’t travel out of the northeast much, but they did head down to the Mid-Atlantic area for a showdown with Frostburg State, located in western Maryland. It was my turn to drive, so we threw our radio equipment in my legendary 1994 Chrysler LeBaron (immortalized in a pair of wedding speeches last fall) and made our way south.

Game day rolled around, and we traversed to the press box. The first traumatic realization we made was that there was no free food. One of the lessons I learned very early (from ESPN reporter and early-career mentor Sal Paolantonio, in fact) was this: If it’s not catered, it’s not journalism. As it turned out, Frostburg’s contract with their food vendor prohibited basic functions such as bringing food to a press box for the working press. As such, it was going to be a long day.

The second realization we made, though, was much worse. We attempted to plug our “blue box” (the equipment that transmits audio back to a radio station) into all three phone lines available in the booth…and all three phone lines failed. Frostburg’s poor sports information director apologized left and right as we freaked out, and as we freaked out, WICB sports director Nate March and engineer Nick Karski were freaking out even harder in the control room back in Ithaca.

Eventually, Josh pulled out his cell phone and called the studio. We were patched in through the board, and rather than calling the game on professional headsets, we called it via speakerphone over one of the first “smart phones” ever invented while poor Phil Stafford twiddled his thumbs on the sideline (since we couldn’t throw to him). Josh and I bobbed our heads up and down for three hours, and that we didn’t headbutt one another at all that afternoon was a minor miracle in and of itself. Somehow, we got through the broadcast, and thankfully, that’s an issue Josh shouldn’t have to deal with anymore given his current job!

The second road trip was a few weeks later. Ithaca traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, for a matchup with Springfield College. It was my turn to do play-by-play, and I was as nervous as I’d ever been before a broadcast. Springfield ran a triple-option offense, one where it was very difficult to see who had the ball at any given time. While I did an acceptable job on play-by-play (during a game that included me snapping at Karski during at least one commercial break), that offense ran roughshod over Ithaca, essentially ending IC’s chances at the Division III playoffs.

As disappointing as the game was, the day would only get worse. Josh Getzoff was off that weekend, and fellow distinguished Ithaca graduate Josh Canu (who now has a darned cool job with NBC Sports) filled in. He picked up the task of driving us to and from Springfield, and his car died on him about 30 miles from Ithaca, in the small, rural town of Whitney Point, pretty late at night. We had to call one of our friends, who dropped everything, drove the 40 minutes to Whitney Point, and picked our sorry selves up from a gas station that may as well have been the set of a third-rate horror movie (thanks, Lauren!).

In some ways, I didn’t have a traditional college experience. I didn’t take a single math or science course at Ithaca, but I gained as much real-world experience in my chosen field as I could, and I was done with my traditional coursework (which included a major and double-minor) in 3 ½ years. That experience, including the sometimes-comedic onslaught of pitfalls that came with my extracurricular activities, prepared me immeasurably more for the real world than any sort of traditional core curriculum ever could.

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THE BEST JOB INTERVIEW I’VE EVER HAD

Here’s a fun fact about me. I’ve interviewed well for every job I’ve been fortunate enough to hold, but the best job interview I’ve ever had in my life was for a job I lost out on in pretty gut-wrenching fashion.

Anyone who graduated college in the spring of 2010 can recall how hard it was for new-to-the-workforce twenty-somethings to find a job. The economy was in a horrible place, and lots of good people were struggling. I had sent out my resume and demo reel to hundreds of prospective employers, and while I’d gotten a couple of bites, nothing had quite panned out.

However, in June, I got a call from a group that ran several radio stations in Duluth, Minnesota. They were looking for a sports director and liked what they heard, so we lined up a time to talk. When we did, it was one of the best professional conversations I’ve had with anyone, at all, ever. For 45 minutes, we went back and forth about my experiences and qualifications, as well as what the employer was looking for. It wasn’t a grilling, but an honest conversation, one that I knew I was holding up my end of as it was happening.

The phone call ended, and a few days later, I got another call from the land of 10,000 lakes. I was incredibly excited as I picked up the phone, but that excitement quickly waned. As it turned out, they talked to 15 or 20 people about the job, and had planned to fly a small group of finalists in for in-person interviews. I was informed that I had made that cut, but that the person they originally approached with the job, whose refusal had sparked a nationwide search for a sports director in a decent-sized city…changed his mind. With that about-face, they no longer needed someone.

I was crushed, and in hindsight, it’s easy to see why. When you do all the right things, and you put the best face forward that you possibly can, only for fate to step in like that, it hurts. It would’ve been one thing if I did my best and it wasn’t good enough, but in this case, it absolutely WAS good enough to advance me to the final stage of the hiring process. I say with absolute sincerity that, to this day, I have never had a better conversation with a prospective employer, and that includes talks I’ve had with eventual bosses at Siena College, The Saratogian, HRTV, TVG, and The Daily Racing Form.

Having said that, things work in mysterious ways sometimes. I’ve set forth on a career that I’m proud of, and I have no regrets about the way things have shaken out for me. I’m proud to be one of the top digital media professionals in my field, as well as one of the most respected handicappers around, and who knows? If I’d wound up with that job, I probably don’t wind up where I am now, with a job I absolutely love doing.

One footnote: That call came midday on a weekday. I was home alone at my mom’s house at the time, and while I was still annoyed by the time she got home, I wasn’t necessarily devastated. When she asked how my day was, I explained the situation. Without any emotion, this was her response.

“Oh. That stinks. Nothing you can do about it. I didn’t want you working there anyway.”

THANKS FOR THE SUPPORT, MOM!!!!!

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“BUT I GUESS YOU DON’T CARE”

OK, kids, here comes the deep water. In the summer of 2013, I was going through a divorce, and my defense mechanism was to drown myself in work while on-site at Saratoga Race Course. When I say that nobody knew what I was going through, I mean it. I kept my personal situation to myself, and for a few weeks, things were going okay (due in no small part to the overtime checks that started coming from The Saratogian!).

One afternoon’s main event was the honoring of Ramon Dominguez, a future Hall of Fame inductee who was recovering from a major brain injury sustained in a fall earlier that year. This was to be his first public appearance since the accident, and it was a pretty big event.

Ramon had done an interview earlier that summer with then-NYRA broadcaster Richard Migliore (who I’m now incredibly privileged and grateful to call a friend). It was an in-depth back-and-forth, and an incredible look into some of what Ramon was going through at the time. If you have the time to spare, look it up on YouTube. If you want to watch it now, it’s okay. I’ll wait.

OK, good now? Alright. Here’s where the nonsense comes into play. Ramon and his wife issued a statement through the NYRA press office, and in typical Ramon fashion, it was incredibly classy. Long story short, it said that the family was extremely grateful for the well-wishes it had received from the press, but that they would not be answering questions, as they felt anything worth saying was in the interview conducted earlier that summer.

That day, I got to my post in the Saratoga press box and opened up my email. In it was a note from a fellow employee at The Saratogian asking what we were doing for the ceremony. I alerted this person of the note all reporters received, and that there wasn’t much we’d be able to do other than cover the ceremony straight. This…did NOT sit well with the recipient of that email, who then insisted I contact Ramon’s wife. Trying very hard to keep my composure, I responded that the note specified Mrs. Dominguez would not be talking, either.

I don’t remember much of the third email I received from this person (by now, I hope you’ve seen that I’m hiding identities to protect the guilty). What I do remember is a phrase that’s burned in my mind permanently, and one that, to be frank, has probably played a bigger role in motivating me to be the best I can be than almost anything else.

“But I guess you don’t care.”

Let me explain just how ridiculously insulting this was to me. I was going through a divorce nobody knew about at the time, and thus internalizing a lot as I attempted to do the best job I possibly could. I was doing the work of multiple people at the track every day, putting forth efforts that would ultimately earn statewide and nationwide recognition long after I left The Saratogian later that year. Of all the things I could ever be logically accused of, not caring about my job was not on the list.

I did something I had never done before and have only done once since. I hastily wrote an email to the paper’s then-managing editor, with the correspondence attached, and essentially, the gist was something like this: “I work WITH this person, not FOR this person, and I will not tolerate anyone, let alone a co-worker, telling me I do not care about my job. Fix this.”

To the managing editor’s everlasting credit, the problem was fixed. I received an apology from the co-worker in question the next day via email, and for the next two months (until I left for a new job), I barely heard a peep from that person. Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself at the workplace, and don’t take any undeserved nonsense from someone you don’t report to.

THE DARK DAY FILES: War Stories

The idea for this installment of “The Dark Day Files,” admittedly, came partially from the world of professional wrestling. Often, when a wrestler of considerable renown isn’t contracted to a particular company, he or she will do what’s known as a “shoot interview” and provide some background on his or her experiences, as well as tell stories and shed some light on stuff fans and followers may not be aware of.

It first occurred to me Sunday that I had enough material to start telling stories. I was working from The Daily Racing Form’s newest temporary bureau, a Starbucks in Santa Monica, ahead of an attempt at the Los Angeles trivia championships, where the winning team splits $1,000 (spoiler alert: we didn’t win, but we led at the halfway point and finished a respectable 11th of 32 finalists). In and of itself, this coffee shop just off the beach could provide the setting for the 2017 answer to Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” given the eclectic mix of people coming and going (the great Hunter S. Thompson would have had a field day psychoanalyzing some of these people!).

However, my epiphany came when an older woman asked if she could sit down at my table so as to plug her laptop in to charge. I obliged, and we started talking. She asked what company I worked for, I answered honestly…and it turned out that this woman, who I had never met or heard of before, had freelanced for my current employer many years prior.

I was floored. What are the odds of such a chance encounter happening in a random coffee shop 3,000 miles away from the company’s headquarters? Seriously, if there’s a mathematician out there that has nothing better to do, I’d love for someone to try to calculate it.

Ultimately, I realized that I’ve been lucky enough to do way more cool stuff that can be claimed as “work” than any person should be allowed to experience. Of course, spending multiple summers at Saratoga is near the top of that list, but I was on-site at the 2010 Winter Olympics in what doubled as my first taste of post-college employment. I did a radio broadcast of an NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament game at the Carrier Dome, one of the best venues for the sport anywhere in the world. I shared a press box with fellow Ithaca College alum Karl Ravech during regional play of the 2010 Little League World Series. I’ve gotten to meet world-renowned members of the sports world like Warren Moon and Jim Boeheim, as well as a lot of athletes you’ve never heard of, but would do well to know.

This column tells a few fun stories that I think you’ll like. If the reaction is there, I’d be happy to try to do it again in a few weeks. Got a question? Got something you think I should tackle? Write it in. I see everything that comes in, and if I can make this stuff more enjoyable for you to read, that’s a win for me.

With that said, here we go!

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ERROR-GATE

Back in the spring of 2013, a colleague of mine at The Saratogian went to cover a high school baseball game featuring the paper’s hometown team. The Saratoga Springs Blue Streaks’ best player was Alex Chandler, who went on to play for four years at St. Rose, a Division II college, following his graduation. This particular game, though, was not Alex’s finest hour. He committed four errors, and my colleague did his job by writing about it in a truthful, honest fashion. The writer didn’t go out of his way to humiliate the kid, but he did note the facts, since these misplays were pivotal points in the game.

When the athletic department at the school saw the story, certain officials went ballistic. They claimed that the story should have said the team made four errors, not one particular player. Everyone at the paper thought that rationale was ridiculous, as it’s the job of a sportswriter to accurately tell the story of a game’s events. Eventually, all parties involved got over it, or, more accurately, got tired of screaming at one another and agreed to stop. The truce put an end to that matter…or so I thought.

A few months later, I covered a summer league game featuring the Saratoga Stampede, a local American Legion team that featured many of the same kids that were on the Saratoga Springs High School team. Their coach that year was Eric Thompson, an assistant at Skidmore College that I had a great relationship with thanks to many basketball games spent with him working the table and me not being willing or able to shut up (shout out to Skidmore SID Bill Jones, who will gladly verify that fact if asked!).

I got to the field, shook Eric’s hand, and talked with him for several minutes, all the while noticing several teenagers giving me the dreaded stink-eye (important note: Alex Chandler was not in attendance that night). I thought it was curious, but I hadn’t done anything to those kids. After all, I was the lacrosse writer that spring and didn’t cover a single inning of high school baseball. For that reason, I didn’t sweat it as I walked to the visitor’s dugout to get their lineup.

As I walked back the other way to my seat in the bleachers, though, I heard Eric lay into several of his players, and I will never forget what he said or how he said it.

“IF DEREK JETER COMMITTED FOUR ERRORS IN A GAME, DO YOU REALLY THINK THE NEW YORK POST WOULD SAY THE YANKEES COMMITTED FOUR ERRORS?!?!?!”

It was all I could do to not burst out laughing as the kids stood there, positively shell-shocked by what they were hearing. I don’t even know if Eric knew how much delight I took in hearing that, but he certainly knows now. Eric: Find some way to get Skidmore a West Coast swing!

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THE BEST HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL GAME I’VE EVER SEEN, AND THE BEST DEADLINE-DRIVEN WRITING I’VE EVER DONE

Two very small towns between the New York State Northway and the New York-Vermont border each house high school football teams that were competitive at a state-wide level when I wrote for The Saratogian. In 2012, they came together for a night I’ll never forget.

Cambridge was one of the top-ranked Class D football teams in the state. They were experienced, had tons of athleticism for a school that small, and had an aggressive coach that didn’t hesitate to use said athleticism against overmatched foes. Their rival, Greenwich, didn’t necessarily have the speed or quickness to contend with them, but what they did have was running back John Barnes.

You know the old football adage about certain coaches having three plays: Run left, run right, run up the middle? This game was that mantra, come to life. John Barnes carried the football 46 times for 377 yards that night, an average of more than eight yards per carry (as if that wasn’t enough, he also added one catch for 30 yards). However, Cambridge, which played from behind for most of the night, tied the game in the fourth quarter, stuffed Barnes at the goal line on the last play of regulation, and won in overtime on the fourth touchdown run of the contest by that team’s own star running back, Matt Parmenter. Side note: Only later did I find out that Barnes had lost his grandmother shortly before the game, which added to the stream of tears he talked to me through. To his everlasting credit, when an assistant coach saw him crying and tried to end the interview early, Barnes waved him off and finished talking to me.

The game started at 7 p.m., and it was over at around 10. By the time I had gotten my interviews and moved to a place where I could write the recap, it was shortly after 10:30. The Saratogian’s hard deadline was 11, and the closest thing I had to an office was the front seat of my 2007 Chevy Impala.

I wrote like a madman, trying to convey the emotions of what had happened along with the enormity of the performance John Barnes put together in the loss and how this one game sent both programs on opposite paths for the rest of the season. Twenty minutes later (at about 10:53), I wound up with what I still consider to be the best piece of deadline-driven journalism I’ve ever written. If you’re so inclined, you can read it here.

Oh, and if any of you know John Barnes, thank him for me, would you?

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BREAKING UP A ROAD TRIP LIKE A DEGENERATE

Back in 2010, I, like every other college student who graduated that year, was beating the pavement looking for work relevant to the field I was in. The economy was a mess, and amidst many stories I could tell about my time looking for a job (there’s no shortage of them, and they’ll pop up whenever I write this stuff), I’ll focus on one a lot of you will get a kick out of.

I had secured an in-person interview for a news reporter position at a radio station in Charleston, West Virginia. This may not be tops on your list of vacation destinations, but for a recently-graduated Television-Radio major at Ithaca College, this was a big deal. According to recent Nielsen data, it’s the 70th-biggest media market in the United States, and it’s not often that a new college graduate breaks in, on the air, in a top-100 market.

I packed a bag, drove my car for the better part of 12 hours (it should’ve only taken 10 from New York’s Hudson Valley, but traffic was heavy through Pennsylvania), and arrived at a Best Western down the road from the station. My interview the next day went well (or so I thought), and after stopping at another motel near the West Virginia-Maryland border, I set about driving the rest of the way home.

You know the feeling you can get when you’ve been in a car for 18 hours over a three-day period? If it could be described in words, it would say, “I don’t care where I stop, BUT I NEED TO GET OUT OF THIS CAR!!!” That’s how I felt going through central Pennsylvania with no company but the car radio, so I started looking for a spot to pull over. All I was looking for was a rest stop with a picnic table and a vending machine, just a place where I could park the car for 20 minutes or so, breathe in some fresh air, stretch my legs, and clear my head.

Imagine my shock when I started seeing signs for Penn National.

I had never been to Penn National, and given that the day I rolled through was a dark day, I would not be seeing any racing there. What I did take in, in vivid detail, were the bright lights, loud sounds, and pretty colors that could only be associated with one thing: A casino.

I strolled in and found a $15 blackjack table, which at the time was the lowest-limit game they spread on the casino floor. To this day, I don’t understand why I sat down and bought $100 in chips. Even now, when I go to Vegas, I usually play $5 blackjack. I will occasionally play $10 blackjack if the structure is agreeable or I find a good “blackjack switch” game (you play two hands and can switch the top cards, and in return, blackjacks pay even-money and all dealer 22’s are pushes; at this point, my father is probably shaking his head just reading my description). That said, even in a comfortable financial state, I don’t touch $15 blackjack.

You probably think this is setting up for me to get killed, but in a plot twist, the gambling gods were kind to me. I played just one shoe, killed the 20 minutes I wanted to kill, and walked away with enough of a profit to fill my gas tank a few hours later in the middle of nowhere. Plenty of eye-rolling ensued when I told my parents about the unplanned pit stop later that night!

And no, I didn’t get the job. They were nice people, and it makes for a heck of a “what-if,” but ultimately, I firmly believe that I got to where I’m supposed to be…which seems like as good a spot as any to end this week’s column.