Opinion: Sports editor reflects on time as football beat writer, lessons learned

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Football crew at Rose Bowl

Sophomore visual editor Caitlyn Epes, junior football writer Abby Bitterman, senior sports editor Kelli Stacy and junior football writer George Stoia on the field at the Rose Bowl Jan. 1.

LOS ANGELES — Standing on the field Monday inside the Rose Bowl with the San Gabriel Mountains rising in the northeast in magnificent fashion, I took out my phone and called my parents on FaceTime. From over 1,500 miles away, we briefly basked in the glory that is one of the most historic stadiums in football and just how far I had come to get there.

A few hours later, 92,844 people — nearly 18 times the population of Hugo, Oklahoma, pop. 5,221 — filled the venue. Growing up, I would tell people in my Southeastern Oklahoma hometown I was going to OU, whose football team I was covering in California for the past week, and often get judgmental looks in return.

People from Hugo don’t normally go to OU. People from Hugo generally stay in Hugo. Those were the ideas that were constantly pushed on me, and while it’s fine for those who want to stay and make a life there, I wanted something else.

I got into OU, and then I worked harder than I have ever worked in my life. I’m graduating on time in May with a degree in journalism and a minor in English literature. I’m interning through the Sports Journalism Institute over the summer, which has produced great journalists such as ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Bachman and the New York Times’ James Wagner.

Now, I want to follow in their footsteps.

I made it this far because I didn’t listen to those who doubted me. I had faith that if I worked harder than everyone else, I would eventually end up where I wanted to be. At first, I thought my goals were big. But as I grew as a person and a journalist these past four years at OU, my dreams grew even bigger. Now, writing this in my hotel room in Los Angeles, preparing to come home to Norman and my last semester at OU, I am confident I can achieve them.

I’ve been trying to ignore the inevitable all week, but I can’t anymore. Being on the football beat at The Daily for the past two years has helped me become a happier, more confident person. It’s helped me become more of the person I aspire to be — a strong, smart, successful woman.

Now, a new phase of life awaits.

I have gone from hoping and dreaming I could be a sports journalist covering a top team to actually doing that exact thing. From being afraid I wasn’t worthy of my job to believing I belong here.

***

When the Sooners lost to the Bulldogs in the Rose Bowl Monday night in an instant classic, I was standing near the Georgia goalpost. Senior Bulldogs’ running back Sony Michel dashed into the end zone directly to the right of me. Confetti rained down as the entire Georgia team rushed toward me, jumping and yelling in excitement.

I’ll have those memories the rest of my life.

But I’ll also never forget when sophomore linebacker Caleb Kelly broke down in tears in front of the media after his mentor Tony Perry died. I had never experienced such an emotional situation with an athlete, and I was in shock.

Kelly’s tears reminded me that athletes are human, just like us. They feel things — joy, pain, anger. And as a journalist, it’s my job to help translate those emotions and dig deeper to be able to share their story at the most accurate and relatable level.

Going forward in my career, that’s something I always want to remember — that stories about people and their triumphs and trials are always what will resonate most. Those are the important stories.

But it was just 19 months before that former Daily sports editor Spenser Davis approached me about helping on spring football and the Red and White game. As someone who had covered only wrestling and men’s and women’s gymnastics, I was in shock.

Why me?

Apparently, I had done a decent enough job because the following fall I was brought on to the football beat full time and haven’t relinquished it until today. Now,with the end of Oklahoma’s season and Baker Mayfield’s career, comes the end of my time as an OU football beat writer. It also marks the end of my time as sports editor.

Spenser readied me to take over a job I never expected to have, helping me learn the ropes. He gave me the confidence to step into the role he so expertly executed.

So as I stood at the 50-yard line in Pasadena after my final game as sports editor, it was only fitting that Spenser, now writing for The Dallas Morning News, was there with me, sharing in the final moments of my OU football journey. Someone asked if we wanted a picture together.

“Stop, you’re going to make me cry,” I said as I grabbed Spenser and headed to the center of the rose.

***

Now, I’m moving into a new role at The Daily as editor-in-chief, hoping to do for others what Spenser did for me. In May I’ll graduate and go on to an internship at the Salt Lake Tribune. The most terrifying thing about this is that next fall when my soon-to-be former coworkers are ramping up for another season of Sooner football, I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be covering.

I’m excited about the next chapter of my life, though, and I’m extremely grateful because I know that without The Daily I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in. It’s a position some people never believed I would be in, whether because I am a woman or because of where I grew up.

The past three years have changed my life and helped me grow as a journalist and person. I have never worked so hard or had so much fun. My advisers and coworkers have challenged me every day, which has led to me getting to cover some of the biggest moments in Oklahoma football.

I was in Lubbock, Texas, for one of the most insane offensive games I have ever seen. I was in Columbus, Ohio, for Mayfield’s flag plant. I was at the Rose Bowl for a game that will go down in history.

I’ve covered games inside NRG Stadium, Mercedes-Benz Superdome and AT&T Stadium. I covered Bob Stoops’ retirement, Lincoln Riley’s ascent and a Heisman Trophy winner.

There hasn’t been a moment of the past two years when I haven’t been in awe of what I get to call my job. I am extremely grateful for all the memorable moments I’ve had and all the people I’ve met along the way. I know this is just the beginning of my career, but it’s the end of a really special chapter in my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

This is exactly what college is supposed to be about — discovering what you want and who you want to be and just how hard you’re willing to work to get there. It’s a time to pinpoint your dreams, then give everything you have until you reach them.

Lastly, I want to thank all of the people who helped me along the way because they are what has made the past two years on the football beat incredible. Spenser, for hiring me, encouraging me and guiding me. Jesse Pound, who was on the beat with me last year and has always challenged me to be my best. George Stoia, who covered the beat with me this year, for his passion for the job that has in turn only made mine grow. Abby Bitterman, who covered the beat with me this year, for her desire to constantly improve and her unfailing positivity. Seth Prince, my adviser, for always believing in me and pushing me to levels I never thought I would reach.

Late Monday, after filing all our coverage, I stopped to look around the field before leaving the Rose Bowl. Confetti and roses lay scattered on the plush green grass and my coworkers stood taking pictures at midfield. I couldn’t help but feel how bittersweet the moment was.

Mayfield said it best when asked about the emotions of leaving the college ranks for the last time and walking up that Rose Bowl tunnel to whatever awaits on the other side.

“Oh, I can’t believe it’s over. It’s been a wild ride.”

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