By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (April 15, 2019) — Zak Keefer covers the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts for The Indianapolis Star. He’s also a sports enterprise reporter for the Indy paper and USA Today.
He provided a revealing introduction to his ambitious work on his LinkedIn Page:
For example, he wrote this: “I’ve written about an ambitious kid from Plum, Pennsylvania, who lied to his parents, took $100 to a basement poker game and turned that night into an NFL career. His name is Pat McAfee.”
And this: “I spent 18 consecutive hours with the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during race week for a peek inside the most hectic job in motor sports.”
Plus this: “I told the story of Clarence Walker, John Wooden’s most courageous player, a young man who stared vicious racism down with nothing but his resolve.
And this: “I went back to the beginning – to 1892 – when a new game landed in Crawfordsville, Indiana. It was called Basket Ball. …”
While the world of sports may be Keefer’s primary focus, he delves into other subject matters from time to time.
Via social media and word of mouth, feedback on one of Keefer’s recent articles has been traveling in cyberspace and among journalists at the speed of light in recent weeks.
Keefer examined the father-son relationship between mobster John “Sonny” Franzese Jr., a longtime member of the Colombo crime family, and his son, John Jr.
A June 2010 column by Michael Daly of the New York Daily News (“It’s the ultimate in Mafia betrayals as John (Sonny) Franzese is ratted out by son”) chronicles their relationship, providing a dramatic intro to what Keefer wrote nearly nine years later.
In March, Keefer’s in-depth article on Mat Pazzarelli, previously known as John Franzese Jr., appeared in The Indianapolis Star. It’s a compelling piece of human drama, filled with remarkable details and gripping narrative
Keefer’s article carried this headline: “The mobster in our midst.”
This text appeared just below the headline: “John Franzese Jr. helped send his father, notorious Colombo family mobster Sonny Franzese, to prison. Then he turned up in Indianapolis.”
To clarify the unique aspects of this project, the article included this Editor’s Note: “IndyStar became aware of Mat Pazzarelli – formerly John Franzese Jr., a New York City mob figure – from freelance writer Elizabeth Flynn, whose first-person account is also being published by IndyStar as a companion piece. Flynn, IndyStar reporter Zak Keefer and photojournalist Mykal McEldowney reported this story while spending countless hours with Pazzarelli, who, despite any potential danger, voluntarily left the witness protection program. He told IndyStar he felt it was important his story be shared.”
In an accompanying piece to “The mobster in our midst,” Keefer also delivered some insightful background into Franzese’s unique biography:
“The youngest son of Sonny Franzese, John Franzese entered the family business as a teenager after his older brother, Michael, sat him down at a Chinese restaurant in Long Island and introduced him to their way of life,” Keefer wrote.
“John Franzese Jr. would spend the next 15 years in the mob, but eventually saw his life fall apart due to alcohol and addiction. He spent the 1990s slumming the streets of New York City, begging for hits off crack pipes, sleeping in subway tunnels, and HIV-positive from a dirty needle he’d jabbed into his arm.
“He got sober on October 9, 2001, and in his quest to clean up his life, eventually became an FBI informant, testifying against his father in federal court in 2010. He entered witness protection and has lived in Indianapolis as Mat Pazzarelli the last 11 years.”
Here’s one tweet that grabbed my attention after discovering the article online: “Fantastic story of self-discovery, recovery, and personal redemption. Thank you, @zkeefer and @indystar, for bringing this story to us. Thank you most of all to Mat Pazzarelli for telling your story.”
After reading Keefer’s article, I sent him an email, seeking to learn more about his approach to this one-of-a-kind project, his career background, favorite journalists and more. He agreed to do an interview.
The Q&A follows.
What prompted the original idea for the story on John Franzese Jr.? Can you piece it together in how it began and came to fruition?
I can’t take credit for uncovering the story – it was a woman in Indianapolis named Elizabeth Flynn. She met John at the Panera Bread he frequents, and she ended up writing a first-person story about how their relationship grew. I was asked to write his full, staggering story. Over the course of the next few months, we sat down several times a week – at Panera, at his house, you name it – working through his life, his relationship with his father, and everything he’s learned about himself and others. I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes, transcriptions and court documents that I’m not really sure what to do with at the moment.
Was the paper fired up about the topic right away? Were any of the editors reluctant about the concept?
The editor I worked with on the project, Alvie Lindsay, was terrific throughout. Supportive, encouraging, measured. Gave me the freedom to tell the story I thought we should tell. And our two top editors, Ronnie Ramos and Ginger Rough, were great in the days leading to and after publication.
How long were you working on it?
I spent about six weeks reporting the story out, then another three writing and revising.
What was most challenging about it?
Keeping it narrow. With John’s story, it felt like a movie. I turned in 6,000 words and I felt like I had 20,000 worth of reporting. But the major development that occurred during the reporting process – John visiting his father in New York – really helped me shape my focus. That was what I wanted to keep the entire narrative built around. I didn’t want it to read like a biography.
What was the most difficult question you had to ask John?
I asked him very early on if he’d ever killed anyone.
Did you trail John for days at a time? Watch him from up close? Was much of the narrative re-created from those interviews or observed up close?
I did everything I could from Indy, but did not travel with him to New York. Despite the allure of amazing access – the scene with his father – that’s something he needed to do himself. Plus there were obvious dangers involved, and he truly didn’t know how Sonny would react. We spent hours and hours talking about what happened when he returned.
On this topic, I have to give the photographer I worked with, Mykal McEldowney, a ton of credit. He spent days and weeks and months with John – at recovery meetings, medication meetings, at church, at Panera, inside the halfway house and inside his home. His visuals elevated the entire package.
What was, if you’ve found out, his reaction to the piece after it was published? His father’s reaction?
John loved the story. I got a strong sense from him throughout the entire reporting process that he felt it was time his story was told. I have not heard if Sonny has read the story, or what his reaction was.
In your experiences with this, what are some keys in studying and preparing to write about the mob?
I read a lot, a ton of old articles in Newsday and Esquire and the tabloids in New York City, hoping to immerse myself in their world. And yes, I re-watched “Goodfellas,” and took notes this time.
What was most interesting, satisfying and revealing about this massive project? What feedback from it do you most appreciate and cherish?
The feedback from journalists I respect and admire across the country blew me away. Wow. That was all incredible to hear.
But, more than anything, John was one of the first people to text me after the story came out. Despite his wishes, I wouldn’t let him read a word of it before it was published. He said I got it all right, the depths of his addiction, the emotions behind testifying against his father, the peace he’s found in Indianapolis. That meant the most. No one knows the story like he does.
Do you consider this piece one of – or the top – project you’ve completed as a journalist? And what are a few other reporting assignments that have been especially challenging that would rank among the top ones you’ve ever done?
Without question, I’ve never worked on anything like this. Nothing close. My day job is covering the Indianapolis Colts – covering games and injuries, and for the last few years, Andrew Luck’s shoulder. This was a massive challenge, and an exciting one. The scope of this project was overwhelming at times: I felt like I had too much great reporting, and writing it felt impossible. How could I leave this out? Or that? But I tried to keep if focused on the narrative I’d decided on, and not stray too far away from that.
Regarding journalism heroes/mentors, who are the top ones you can cite? Why do you revere them?
Too many. Dan Barry at The New York Times might be favorite to read at the moment. J.R. Moehringer is an all-time favorite. Lee Jenkins before he left SI for the Clippers. S.L. Price, Liz Merrill, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Tim Keown, Jack McCallum, Gary Smith, Wright Thompson, Rick Reilly in the old days, anything Seth Wickersham writes, the list could go on forever. It’s not necessarily because their stories are fantastic. It’s because of how they do them. They surprise you. They reveal something you didn’t see coming.
A mentor of mine that’s become a good friend, a trusty editor and much-needed sounding board is Chris Korman, whom I worked for in college in Bloomington. He’s currently working as an editor at For the Win and was kind enough to not tell me to get lost after I turned in some pretty awful copy back then.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given by a fellow journalist or a journalism professor over the years about the business?
I’m not sure exactly where I picked this up, but it was surely from someone along the way: Do what no one else is doing. It sounds simple, but anymore these days you see reporter after reporting writing the same exact story with the same exact quotes. I always tell myself to go find the one that’s different.
Covering the NFL in the era of social media as opposed to Vince Lombardi’s glory days, how do you manage the never-ending news cycle, wanting to break stories, but realizing you won’t have the scoop on 100 percent of the stories related to the Colts?
That’s an unending challenge. It can certainly be difficult at times – can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to leave dinner with my wife to open up my phone and computer – but you have to play both roles. I try and strike a balance, with my long-term focus on always finding the niche angles that can be developed into compelling, unique feature stories. News comes. News goes. The stories that stick are the ones you dig into.
As a sports media market, how would you compare Indianapolis with other cities of comparable size around the U.S.?
Having only worked in Indy, it’d be hard to compare to the rest. But we’ve got a good group, and lots of talent. There’s lots of good work coming out of Indy.
Was it a dream early in life to become a journalist? If so, what piqued your interest? Or what led to his career path later on?
To be honest, I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I was the oddball in elementary school who actually liked it when the teacher handed out a research paper. With an obvious affinity for sports, it was an easy call. I love the drama sports create, the characters you meet and the stories you uncover.
As a consumer of news, who are a few of your favorite journalists today? Why? Can you pinpoint a half-dozen or so you read religiously?
As I mentioned earlier, Dan Barry’s the one byline I look forward to reading the most. The stories he’s penned in recent years, from “Fight” to “The Lost Children of Tuam” to “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail” — I’d be impressed if you could find a writer anywhere who’s written three better pieces back-to-back-to-back.
Anything Moehringer writes. Chris Ballard and S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated, where I still miss reading Lee Jenkins. Tim Keown, Mina Kimes, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Seth Wickersham, Liz Merrill and of course Wright Thompson in ESPN The Magazine. Kent Baab, Adam Kilgore, Chuck Culpepper and my friend Candace Buckner in The Washington Post. Brian Burnsed, who’s had some incredibly gripping pieces in Sports Illustrated over the last two years. Pat Forde and Dan Wetzel at Yahoo!. Robert Klemko and Conor Orr and Jenny Vrentas on MMQB.
Follow Zak Keefer on Twitter: @zkeefer