Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel on Tom Brady: A close reading
With the Super Bowl dust settled, I want to take a close look at one of the best pieces of writing I saw during the big weekend.
It was this tick-tock of Tom Brady’s postgame moments by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports.
Wetzel is a fly on the wall as Brady broods at his locker, cleans up, talks to owner Robert Kraft and others, including his wife, Gisele Bundchen—who around the same time would launch a silly controversy with some muttered comments—then meets the press and boards the team bus.
Not quite an hour goes by, as Wetzel notes by making it a literal tick-tock, citing the time every few paragraphs. That reminded me a little bit of Vin Scully citing the time every few minutes during his brilliant call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965.
It can be an effective device. Use it sparingly. Scully did it in 1965 and probably hasn’t used it since.
Wetzel’s access to the Patriots locker room made the column possible, but that access would have meant nothing without his powers of observation and his writing ability. Read the column and note how many he things he had to notice—and imagine how many things he had to tune out or discard.
Note also how he uses words to convey emotion. The story begins at 10:04 p.m. with Brady sitting at his locker, head down, “staring at the space between his cleats.” It ends this way, with Brady on the bus:
He stared down between his feet.
It was 11 p.m.
That simple description packs a wallop because it connects to the beginning of the piece. Wetzel makes us aware that while 56 minutes have passed and much activity has taken place, Brady has not progressed an inch, and there’s nothing to indicate anything is going to change any time soon.
Early in the piece, Wetzel writes, “The minutes ticked by and Brady didn’t move.” He eventually did start moving, Wetzel describing him “tugging on some loose tape” and observing that “he unraveled slowly.”
Wetzel’s Yahoo stablemate Jeff Passan talked to this blog about the power of using the right verbs. Those weary, defeated verbs—tugged, unraveled—paint a picture of defeat. Players in the winning locker room don’t unravel, they don’t tug at their tape.
As far as we can see from the end of this story, Brady, head down on the bus, will be the defeated man brooding at his postgame locker for eternity.
Or at least for an eternity.
Unless you’re a rabid Patriots hater, or a rabid Brady hater, it’s hard not to feel for the man. But Wetzel’s ready for that crowd too.
He’s supposedly too cool, or that’s what rival fans say. He’s supposedly too much of a pretty boy, or that’s what they mock. Not here. The guy with everything looked empty.
This was a football player, a true football player, in among the worst moments the game can provide …
Brady is a competitor. He’s a worker. For all his fame and fortune now, he’s a self-made quarterback, no one’s glamour boy when this all started.
The haters will still hate, but Wetzel did something important there: He anticipated the criticism of what he was saying, and he made his best counter-argument in advance.
That’s especially important to do in an opinion piece. Your argument is stronger if you anticipate the arguments against it. But any piece with a point of view is an argument. Wetzel can’t read Brady’s mind, so he’s arguing here for his interpretation of Brady’s actions.
So that’s what I think makes this piece so strong: Wetzel’s observational skills, his editing of what he saw to know what to use and what to ignore, his organization of the piece to give the reader the impression of moving through the hour with Brady, his judicious use of quotes from Brady and others to convey the mood in the room, his thinking along with the reader to anticipate criticism, and his use of language to paint a vivid picture.
What’s a great piece of sportswriting you’ve seen lately? What does a close look at it reveal?
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A note of disclosure: Though Wetzel and I have never met and are not friends, we have exchanged occasional emails and spoken on the phone once or twice in the roughly 10 years we have virtually known each other professionally.