By Ed Odeven
Tokyo (Nov. 14, 2013) — Peter Kerasotis, veteran journalist, author and broadcaster, is one of the most gifted storytellers in America.
To the average John Smith or Jane Doe, he may not be as well known as Stephen King or Mitch Albom, but his ability to consistently produce quality work is beyond impressive. In the past four decades, Kerasotis has collected an astonishing number of awards for his journalism work, a reminder of his commitment to excellence, work ethic and talent. (For a rundown, take a look at this list: http://www.heypeterk.com/awards/)
Kerasotis, who’s in his early 50s, resides in Florida and refuses to rest on his laurels. Instead, he’s always fired up about the next story and the next opportunity to conduct an interview.
I caught up with him recently via email to learn more about his carer (he’s written extensively for Florida Today, Dallas Times Herald, Los Angeles Daily News and The New York Times, among other publications), his approach to doing the job, his mentors and what, in general, have been memorable moments in his career.
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In your distinguished career as a newspaper and magazine journalist, can you pinpoint 3-4 stories that were your favorites to do as projects?
My favorite was what I thought was going to be an innocuous piece on the comic Darrell Hammond, who at the time was one of the cast members on “Saturday Night Live.” He’d been a very good high school and college baseball player who grew up with Bruce Bochy, current manager of the San Francisco Giants. I met Hammond at NBC’s NYC studios. What I got was a dark story about a kid raised by a WWII vet who was demanding and damaged by the war. It led to addiction problems for Darrell, horrific imprisonment in a Caribbean jail, and a feeling all these years later, even though he was a successful SNL comic, that he was a failure because he never made it as a baseball player. I wanted to write Darrell’s book, but he ended up writing it himself.
Another story was an exhaustive investigative piece on the University of Florida football program that led to Charley Pell’s firing at the school and some of the harshest NCAA sanctions ever handed down.
Another piece I wrote about was on a buddy who was one of the best weekend warrior athletes I ever knew, just a wonderful guy, who died young. He had an unexplained heart attack in his sleep. It was a very emotionally charged piece that I still get choked up if I read it. A local recreation complex put up a plaque for him and pulled a line from my story to put on it.
Again, another tragic story that I worked hard on and got some amazing anecdotes for was about an gifted high school running back named James McGriff, who had signed a letter-of-intent with the University of Florida. McGriff went to the beach on Senior Skip Day, got caught in a rip current, and drowned. They didn’t find his body until a day later, when a overnight hotel worker walking the beach early in the morning saw this body in the surf, on his back, hands over his chest, facing the rising sun. That story, because of the depth of its tragedy, still haunts me.
Once, when the Super Bowl was in Houston, I secured a prison interview with Dexter Manley that was a real get. Here he was, a former Super Bowl star, imprisoned just miles away from where the game was to be played. Another time, I tracked down Laveranues Coles, who was booted off Florida State’s football team, seemingly as a scapegoat. He was training at a high school field outside of New Orleans, trying to work his way into the NFL, even while his former college team was preparing for the Sugar Bowl. USA Today picked up that story and ran it on the front page of its sports section. Another time, when the Super Bowl was in Jacksonville, I found Bob Hayes’ daughter, and went to his simple grave with her, not far from where the game was to be played, and wrote about how forgotten he was, and how he deserved to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Another favorite is when I got Steve Spurrier to talk about his disdain for Florida State and his feeling that they were abject cheaters. He threw out the line to me that FSU stood for Free Shoes University. I told him that the story would be explosive, and if he wanted to retract what he said, I’d understand. But he not only trusted me with the story, he wanted me to be the one to tell it. I did, and it became a national furor.
Finally, when the University of Florida started a Wall of Fame at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for its football program, they did not make Wilber Marshall part of its inaugural class. I blasted them for it, and the following year they corrected that wrong and put Wilber up there. He asked me to walk onto the field with him for the ceremony, and it was an awesome, emotional experience. Wilber has become a good friend over the years. I’ve known him since high school.
Among your contemporaries, who do you consider among the most consistently strong, excellent columnists and all-around sports writers? And do you have a few favorites you’d like to single out that you read on a regular basis?
I know I’m always going to get a solid baseball analysis column from Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated) and Joel Sherman (New York Post). Since baseball is my favorite sport, I always look for them, as well as for Wallace Matthews’ work on ESPN.com. Verducci especially, is just a terrific and smart writer. For pure entertainment, few did it better than David Whitley, who is currently out of work. Gary Shelton from the Tampa Bay Times and Martin Fennelly from the Tampa Tribune are two guys I can almost always count on to wow me. I think Pat Dooley at the Gainesville Sun is one of the best college town-based columnists in the country. Although he isn’t the most likable guy, I used to like Jay Mariotti’s columns. Joe Posnanski’s writing caught my eye when he was a young guy at the Augusta Chronicle, and what an authentic talent he’s proved to be.
Same with Chuck Culpepper, who I remember reading when he was a prep writer at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. I thought he’d be really good, and he is. I just can’t keep track of him and where he’s working at next. I thought Sally Jenkins did a terrific job with Lance Armstrong’s two books. Too bad they’re now blemished – not by her; but by him. Jason Whitlock at FOXSports is consistently thought-provoking and brutally honest. I like Andy Staples’ college football work at Sports Illustrated. I knew him when he was just starting. Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports is another guy I knew from way back when who I look for. I enjoy Steve Rushin’s takes and S.L. Price’s and Gary Smith’s pieces in Sports Illustrated. Mike Bianchi and Brian Schmitz at the Orlando Sentinel and Steve Elling, formerly of the Orlando Sentinel and now with The National in the United Arab Emirates, are a few more bylines that always catch my attention. I like Dave George at the Palm Beach Post.
Those are just from a stream of consciousness. Karen Crouse at the New York Times is another top-drawer journalist; a really enjoyable person to read. I’m sure I’m leaving some talented folks out.
Is there a person, in sports or other walks of life, you’ve interviewed frequently over the years who never ceased to surprise you, amuse you, inform you, etc. with his/her responses, revealing new nuggets of information about themselves and/or simply saying things in a way that always gets your attention?
Steve Spurrier, the current head football coach at South Carolina, is always entertaining and refreshingly honest. I can always count on Cris Collinsworth for intelligent and insightful thoughts. For me, it doesn’t get much better than talking baseball with my buddy Bruce Bochy.
If you could summarize in 25 words or less – perhaps a few phrases or cliches, perhaps a random list of adjectives – what best sums up your body of work as a professional writer?
Write for readers, and not editors or other writers. Think outside the box score, without clichés, hackneyed phrases or overused adjectives and/or adverbs. If I’m on a beat, look for the heartbeat, and write about it. Never forget that what’s interesting to people is people. My other personal motto is: Report as if I can’t write, and write as if I can’t report.
There are some individuals within the sports journalism/PR fields who maintain that you would’ve been a terrific addition to the Sports Illustrated staff over the past few decades? Was this ever a goal or a consideration of yours? And did SI ever make an offer to you?
I’ve never had a conversation with Sports Illustrated. It’s humbling to think that people have that opinion of me. I’d have loved to have worked for SI. Is it too late? Who are those people who think I’d be a terrific addition?
What event(s) on deadline have been the most memorable of your career? Can you rank a few that are at the absolute top of that list?
Writing a deadline column from the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt was killed was an incredible rush of adrenaline. There are some Super Bowl deadline columns I’m particularly proud of. I also remember being in an awesome writing zone at the 1997 MLB postseason and World Series, following the then-Florida Marlins. Everything just flowed, and flowed fast. It’s an almost euphoric feeling when you get in that type of zone, and sustain it for more than a day or two. If I could bottle whatever was going on those two weeks, I’d never stop drinking from it.
In your days breaking into the business and developing your style as a writer/reporter, can you recall some of the mentors you had and how they helped shape your career? Is there a particular story you remember or are fond of that helps illustrate the importance of mentors in your career?
My greatest mentor, hands down, was the late Shelby Strother. He was a brilliant writer and generous with his help and advice. He loved to talk writing and the process of getting good stories. I learned so much from him and think of him often when I write. He died in 1991. My style is a poor imitation of his. I still miss him terribly. I had a great professor in college, Benton R. Patterson, who was also influential. A guy named Billy Cox, who left sports and went into features back in the late ’70s, was also an influence. I remember how they were all so generous, and I’ve always tried to be that way with young writers.
Of the numerous awards you’ve won during your career, is there one or perhaps a few of them that are most special to you?
I think the first first-place APSE award I won for feature writing, on umpire Steve Palermo, who was shot and permanently disabled, will always be a favorite.
I still get compliments on an Orlando Magazine story I wrote on Magic VP Pat Williams and his voracious reading habits. (http://www.orlandomagazine.com/Orlando-Magazine/June-2011/The-Reader/) It was challenging to take what might seem like a dry subject, a person’s reading habits, and bring it to life. It won a first-place award for magazine writing. The aforementioned Darrell Hammond story is another favorite that won awards.
In your long-form work writing for Orlando Magazine, can you take us through the normal, if that’s an appropriate description, work flow of a major piece. How much time generally goes into researching, interviewing, writing and rewriting until you feel you’ve got it all done?
I write and report out of the fear that I can’t write or report. It goes back to one of my mottos: Report as if I can’t write, and then write as if I haven’t reported. So I do a lot of research on the front end, talking to ancillary and associate people, researching on the Internet, reading clips. I like to meditate on that information a bit as I go about the days leading up to the interview, jotting down notes and thoughts. At some point, I write a sort of stream of consciousness list of thoughts and questions. I then take that list and put it in some type of manageable order. When I’m interviewing someone, I rarely use a recorder. I find that I listen better and am more tuned into that person if I feel like I’m operating without a net. The recorder also seems intrusive. I also find that some of the best quotes arrive when there’s some dead air because I’m jotting down something they’ve just said.
People like to fill that dead air, and often that’s when you get what they really want to say. I then think about some semblance of order as to how I want to piece the story together. I like to talk to my wife about it, because in talking to someone it reinforces in me what the story’s most important elements are. I then go through my notebook with a red pen, underlining and putting asterisks next to sections. I then try to write the story without looking much at my notes. I just let it flow – more in the direction that it decides to take me, rather than me trying to force it in a direction. That’s always the balancing act – figuring out when the story is the boss and when I’m the boss. Then I go through my notebook to see how good my memory was. Then I start massaging and tweaking; adding and subtracting. If I have a good editor, I enjoy working with them. I find that the best editors are other writers.
How has being recognized as one of the best in the business inspired you and helped you maintain that level of excellence over the years?
I’m humbled that there might be any people who might think I’m one of the best in the business. I’ve always tried to be the best that I can be. I’m also very competitive, so whenever I’m at an event with a lot of media, I want to get and write the best story. Then there’s the competition with myself. Just because I might’ve been good yesterday doesn’t guarantee I’m going to be any good today. So I’m constantly pushing myself to meet and exceed my standards. Finally, I do know that there are readers who look for my byline, and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to not let them down.
Do you view Twitter, Facebook, social media, blogs, etc., more as distractions or additional reporting resources for journalists nowadays?
I can’t say that I’ve ever read a tweet that did anything for me, and I don’t have a Twitter account. I have a business Facebook page and also a journal on my website. I get all that stuff and their place, but what I’ve always told editors is that when you load down writers with blogs and tweets and social media, there is going to be the law of diminishing returns, and that’s going to be the overall quality of work and writing. Writers in our business are spread way too thin, and I think the result of that is telling. The writing, from some very good writers, has sadly suffered. It’s just not as good as it was, or could be.