Anyone who has ever been given an opportunity to do what they love knows how valuable that can be. Going to work knowing you're getting paid to do something you'd probably do for free is something we all strive for.
In the journalism world, that shot often never comes. It's a tough industry. You first have to have the desire to do this, and second, have what it takes. But it's also a very close-knit industry. It's tough to break into.
In 2007, I decided to take a chance. I was working a good-paying job but hated it. I'd gone to college to be a journalist and wanted to be a sportswriter. And even though I knew I could do it, I never knew how. Then I decided to call Jeff Gillespie, the sports editor at the Rockdale Citizen.
I called several times and after a few days, I received a call back from him and he asked me if I could cover the Salem-Thomson game. I was excited. Of course I wanted to. I had even told him I'd write for free. I just wanted a shot.
I covered a football game a week that fall for The Citizen and I'll never forget that first one. I was in Chicago all that week leading up to the game and wasn't sure if I was going to make it back in time. I returned to town at about 4:30 a.m. that Friday and was ready to go.
I didn't know what to expect. I thought I'd be given statistics and I'd just watch the game, maybe eat some free food and write about it afterward. Boy was I delusional. There were no stats. There wasn't any food. Just a concrete press box and a guy working the scoreboard.
Jeff didn't give me a lot of direction for that first assignment. As I'd come to learn later, that just wasn't him. We didn't talk much beforehand. He just told me he needed it by 11:30 p.m. - with a stat box.
The game went final about 10:15 p.m. or so and I had already written much of the story throughout the game. Off I went to find a Wi-Fi spot. That spot turned out to be a Krystal and my desk became the roof of my MINI.
I sent that story off at about 11:33 p.m. Late by my standards but in time. The stat box was a bear to do and Jeff would later ditch them because they took us so long to put together (only later to readopt them). It was trial by fire at its finest.
Four years later, I'm now a seasoned sports writer. And as you may know, we lost Jeff to cancer Friday. Not only did we lose a great man and a great sports journalist, I lost a mentor.
For the past couple of years, Jeff had been sick. But we stayed in touch. Sometimes our paths would cross and when they did, we always found time to share a few minutes. The last time I actually saw him was at an Eastside softball game two seasons ago. We covered the game together and sat on the aluminum bleachers in the cold. It was always like that. There's no glory in what we do. We do it because we love it. But I will always remember that game because I knew he was sick and feared time was not on his side.
We talked the whole game about all kinds of stuff. That's the way it was with Jeff. He was so smart, he'd know what you were referring to, no matter how obscure it was. It was this attention to detail that endeared him to the Rockdale and Newton County sports community.
What few people know was Jeff actually offered me a full-time job at The Citizen. Roughly a month before I took this position, Jeff asked me if I wanted to join his team. I had essentially filled in for the Newton Citizen's sports editor who left that November. But it turned out he couldn't hire me. At that time, The Citizen was downsizing and one of the positions corporate cut came from his department.
I was devastated. I haven't been that upset about anything before. I loved working for Jeff and with Manny Fils and at the time Brandon Evans. We made a good team. But as soon as I had my opportunity, it was snatched away.
I know that upset Jeff. He was a standup guy. He extended me an offer then was forced to take it back. I felt no ill will toward him. I understood. But I was devastated nonetheless.
Jeff was a great writer. I looked up to him as the example. The little bits of information he'd give me helped me immensely. In my short time working with him, I learned so much about the industry. From him, I brought deadline writing and breadth of coverage to The News.
Perhaps the most important thing Jeff taught me is that you can't please everyone.
All you could do is cover your assignment as well and with as much integrity as possible and hope the parents of those athletes you missed that day understood you would make your way out to one of their games when you could.
Sports writers are a special breed. We are storytellers. News reporters like to break stories. They like to investigate and catch a politician with a hand in a cookie jar. We're not wired like that. Sports guys are part of a fraternity. We like to read each other's stuff and aren't afraid to share.
When you're a sports writer, you're a member of a club. We put ourselves on display everyday with our words. People who we never meet come to know us. Some come to love us. Sometimes they hate us.
Jeff's passing quiets a voice that resonated so powerfully on paper. But it won't silence his legacy. He was good at what he did. Very good. He will forever be a member of our fraternity and I will always be thankful for what he did for me. I'll never forget it.