Pat Tillman – from 9/11 to Afghanistan by Gary Smith

Whenever I see a piece in SI authored by Gary Smith, I tear into the issue and find it and read it–the few times in the year that I don’t start from the back with Rick Reilly.

My job as an editor is to know great writing and when good writing has potential and when fair to poor writing needs to be rejected and the author encouraged to keep writing and not give up the effort to express something genuine with words.

So, hopeful writers, listen: read Gary Smith’s incredible work in Sports Illustrated. He’s widely considered the best sportswriter–if not one of the best writers period–in America. He usually writes four articles a year for SI. He’s a master. He has written about famous athletes and has famously written about the stories behind sports, which ultimately makes me interested in sports more than I’m interested in sports. It was a Smith article that inspired the movie, “Radio,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

Smith’s poignant article on Pat Tillman, as with all his articles, left me amazed, sad, awake tonight, wondering at the depth of Smith’s interaction and understanding of human nature and particular people and the lives of his subjects. Pat Tillman was not just an erstwhile NFL player who became an Army Ranger killed by friendly fire, but he was a complex young man looking for truth and to make a name for himself.

Here’s how Smith begins the piece:

One day, God willing, Russell Baer was going to tell his son this story. One day, after the boy’s heart and brain had healed, he was going to point to that picture on the kids’ bedroom shelf of the man doing a handstand on the roof of a house, take a deep breath and say, Mav, that’s a man who lived a life as pure and died a death as muddy as any many ever to walk this rock, and I was there for both . . .

The story continues through the perspective of Russell Baer, whose life Tillman’s death and spirit has forever changed.

Pat Tillman’s Road – from 9/11 to Afghanistan
by Gary Smith