BEYOND THE BOOK BLOG

These Are the Stories Worth Telling

Published: February 1, 2021
Written by: Paul Tukey
Abby Wambach, with a gift for the future President at the White House after the World Cup victory in 2015 (©Brad Smith/ISI Photos)

All I ever wanted in my professional life, in my earliest memories, was to become a journalist. As soon as I could read and write, I copied articles from the sports pages and presented them to my mother as if they were my own. As soon as I got to college, I volunteered for the student newspaper and covered sporting events for free. By age 20, in 1981, I was getting paid, 25 bucks a game story, writing about high school or college basketball, baseball and football. These were, in those days, virtually all boys’ and men’s games. A 2019 study by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport revealed that only 4 percent of sports media coverage is dedicated to girls and women, but I can assure you it was even less than that when I began my career.

For more than nine years after graduation, I lived my childhood dream as a sportswriter and editor in Portland, Maine, often times traveling to Boston to cover the Celtics, and occasionally the Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins. I had some thrilling moments; when you’re that age and doing something for the first time, the sheer awe of it all sweeps you along from season to season. It also made me a popular guest at the keg parties whenever I dropped it into the conversation that I had interviewed Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or Roger Clemens.

At the ripe old age of 29, more than half my life ago, I quit. Friends were incredulous. “You had courtside seats to every game!” they noted. “How can you give that up?” This will be a gross generalization to state out loud, but the truth is it all became terribly mind numbing. I don’t know how many times I wrote or read, and you can fill in the blanks, “_______ scored 24 points, with 10 rebounds and led _____ to the victory.” You walked into the locker room and the enlightened coach would say some version of: “We took care of the ball and left it all on the court.” In the environment of men’s sports, at least back in the 1980s, I found myself yearning game after game, year after year, for someone to say something, anything, that was truly worth hearing.

Then, 20 years later, my youngest child was born. “This one’s going to be a soccer player,” the babysitter announced matter-of-factly one day after a visit to the park when Angie was 2. The still rare women’s soccer game on TV would stop her in her tracks and, eager to connect and learn, I watched, too, and started reading everything I could find about my daughter's heroes. I won’t ever forget the day my wife told me, red-faced with tears in her eyes, that if I loved my daughters I needed to stop everything I was doing at that moment and listen to Abby Wambach’s words to the graduating students of Barnard College in May of 2018. Soon afterward, I started reading Abby’s autobiography titled “Forward” — and found it to be so good, so revealing, so rivetingly authentic that I finished it that same night.

I will admit that, like many straight, white American males of a certain age, I could only pick one female soccer player out of a crowd prior to 2011. Mariel Margaret Hamm, an almost mononymous being who, like other icons of a bygone era — Cher or Madonna or Björk come to mind — only required one moniker for instant recognition. Recently, when I told a group of older male acquaintances at a socially distant bonfire that I was co-writing a book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions,” about life and parenting lessons from U.S. Women’s National Team, their first excited question was, “Did you meet Mia?” Yes, I did, I told them. Mia Hamm was terrific. “But, honestly, I think the most interesting interview so far has been with Abby.”

“Abby who?” one man asked.

“Abby Wambach,” I said. “She’s America’s leading all-time scorer, but she’s also a writer now, one of the most important voices of our time. Ask your daughter about her; she’ll know her.” Moments of silence followed. Then the next questions came in rapid succession, as if I were caught in an intervention from 40 years ago.

“Isn’t she gay?”

“Aren’t most female athletes gay?”

“You’re not going to write about being gay, are you?”

Joanna Lohman, with her friend, Abby Wambach

Instantly raging inside, I slowly nodded my head in the affirmative. “Actually, my co-author, Joanna Lohman, is gay, too,” I said. “And we plan to tackle the topics of gender, orientation and race head on in our book. No, most of the players are not gay. But we still think these are important elements of growing up that parents need to talk about with their children, whether they’re straight or gay, black or white, or somewhere in between.”

More silence followed, then the dinosaurs to my left and right offered a question and a statement:

“What does any of that have to do with playing sports?”

“Good luck with that. But I’m not going to let my daughter read it.”

Let’s just say I’ve never been back for another bonfire. I lived through 1981 once already. But in honor of this week’s 35th anniversary of the National Women and Girls in Sports Day, Joanna and I are so proud to be officially launching this web site, blog and soon our book. They’re the stories I wish I had been telling all along.

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2 comments on “These Are the Stories Worth Telling”

  1. Paul,
    You are a gifted and talented writer, it has always been your passion, and I’m so thrilled to read and feel the spark reignited in your soul!
    I can’t wait to read the book and engage in meaningful dialogue with Kourtney, who coaches female athletes at the collegiate level.
    Great content at the perfect time; and knowing your writing brilliance and creative prowess, I know the read will be great!

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