ESPN sportswriter Wright Thompson’s success rooted in work ethic and curiosity
Wright Thompson’s voice carries weight. It is deep and authoritative, colored by the Southern drawl of a man born, raised, and still living in Mississippi. Thompson, whose words travel 6,500 miles from Sao Paulo, Brazil to reach my ear in Palo Alto, is frank. He casually throws around obscenities and offers interviewing tips mid-interview.
“Hey,” Thompson interrupts as I abruptly switch topics. “Can I give you an interviewing tip? Ask the question you want to ask. You’re listening to your inner polite person. Don’t ever ever pull a punch.”
This is Wright Thompson, a brutally honest 37-year-old journalist who holds himself accountable for every question he asks and every story he writes. An Emmy-award-winning senior writer at ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, Thompson says, while standing on a hotel balcony in Sao Paulo, that working for the largest sports media empire was never the plan.
“You end up somewhere,” he said, “based on tiny little connections that add up in a way you never could have seen.”
Thompson’s journey to become one of the most respected sports journalists in the business is not a coincidence, but rather the product of a family-instilled work ethic and curiosity in the human condition that made all those tiny connections happen.
Growing up in Clarksdale, Miss., on a family farm, Thompson always wanted to be a writer. At eight he created a newspaper called the TNT Times, writing stories on Ole Miss football games. “My mom still has all the issues,” Thompson said. “In the same stack there is the TNT Times and ESPN the Magazine.”
Not only did Thompson write, but he loved to read, sitting in his home ‘library,’ which was wall-to-wall books. At 16, Thompson was held out of school due to illness, and read every book in the house. “It was the most educational three weeks I’ve ever had,” Thompson said.
One book, “North Toward Home,” a memoir by Mississippi writer Willie Morris, was about the coming of age of a Southern boy who experiences cultural and political change on his way to becoming editor of Harper’s Magazine. Thompson was inspired. Suddenly, being a writer felt reachable.
“It was the first time I could see a life with a narrative and a plan that was possible,” Thompson said.
Thompson pursued his dream at the University of Missouri. It was in this competitive environment as a beat reporter for the Missouri football team that the lessons his father, Walter Thompson, taught him, became a driving force in achieving his career aspirations.
“[My father] taught me diligent hard work,” Thompson said. “It was how he lived.”
Growing up, Thompson was sent by his father, a lawyer and head of the family farm, to work on different farms in the area. Walter didn’t want people treating his son differently because he was the boss’s kid. “[My father] worked very very hard to make sure that his success didn’t damage us,” he said.
As a reporter, Thompson relished the grind in a way few others did. But not everyone saw his drive as valuable.
In November 1999, Thompson’s junior year of college, most journalism students had secured summer internships. After applying to every newspaper in the country, Thompson didn’t receive a single offer. “I could not convince a single person in American journalism to give me a shot,” Thompson said. “No one.”
It was at Wildman’s, a bar in Missouri, where this disappointment and emotion spilled over.
“Wright didn’t have an internship yet,” recalled Seth Wickersham, Thompson’s friend and colleague from Missouri, who now also writes for ESPN. “He was distraught. He was almost crying because he was so upset. I remember him saying, ‘I can do this.’”
A few days later, Thompson was given that shot, as an intern at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. When he arrived in New Orleans his father’s lessons about hard work and determination immediately set him apart. “I went down there and decided I was going to outwork every other person who was around me for the rest of time,” Thompson said. Seven years later, Thompson was writing for ESPN.
Thompson is a sports fan, but never anticipated being a sports journalist. He is less drawn to sport as an event, and more as an arena from which to tell stories about the human condition.
“To a certain extent he doesn’t write about sports,” said Wickersham. “He likes finding ways to write about other things that are tangentially related to sports.”
When Lebron James left Cleveland, Thompson wrote a 7,500-word story about Cleveland for ESPN. He leveraged James’s decision to talk about what the city of Cleveland was experiencing and why James mattered. Thompson did not interview James. Instead, he hung out in Cleveland bars, spent a day with a local congressman, and told the story of the city.
“I really began to understand this difficult city, and understand the things that matter here and the things that don’t. [Clevelanders] didn’t love Ilgauskas only because he was a great player; they loved him because he appreciated where he came from. They loved LeBron James for the same reason.”
Thompson strives for his journalism to read like short stories. His favorite piece, “The Losses of Dan Gable,” published in 2013, stands apart from the rest to him, because, he said, “it reads like a piece of fiction.” Like fictional shorts, Thompson’s stories often don’t have conclusions. They are shaped like short stories, thematically centered around conflict and change.
“[Thompson] writes ‘quest’ stories,” said Jay Lovinger, Thompson’s editor and mentor. “What makes great art is when there is a discovery and then there is change. Wright tells these stories.”
The quests Thompson writes about are not journeys to a championship. They are about internal quests and personal journeys.
“All [storytelling] is figuring out the central complication of someone’s life and how on a daily basis they go about solving it,” said Thompson. “Every single story has a character that encounters an obstacle and is changed by it.”
Thompson’s stories are powerful because he uncovers the struggles, problems and complications in the lives of his subjects. He tells athletes’ stories not through how many points they score, but through their very real, vulnerable and human struggles, such as failure and personal loss.
“With Wright’s stories, he finds those moments that affect people, that bring them to tears,” Wickersham said. “The moments or questions in their own lives that they don’t have answers for yet.”
In his well-received profile of a 50-year-old Michael Jordan, published in ESPN The Magazine in February of 2013, Thompson exposed Jordan’s daily struggle with the passing of time. From the physical breakdown of his body, to the death of his father, to a pent-up competitive drive, Thompson revealed a fragile and empathetic side of Jordan.
“On the floor, leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung, is a framed print Jordan moved here from Chicago. It’s of an empty arena, dark and quiet, with a bright white light coming out of the open tunnel doors, beckoning. Really, it’s about dealing with losses: with aging, with retirement, with death. In it, Jordan is walking toward the light and there’s a ghost walking next to him, with a hand on his shoulder. It’s his dad.”
The Jordan story is not the only Thompson piece that explores the daily difficulty a son goes through after losing a father. Profiles on Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and golf’s Jack Nicklaus traced the obstacles they faced after losing their fathers.
“I write about things that are personal to me,” said Thompson, whose father died of pancreatic cancer at 58 in 2004. “Very often I try to profile people about whom I suspect they’re asking the same questions that I might be asking.”
Thompson searches for moments that allow him to write about his subject, and also himself. His stories have emotional depth because they delve into questions vital in his own life. This honest and sincere portrayal of emotion powers his stories.
“His dad was a huge presence in his life,” Wickersham said. “I think that he processes [Walter’s death] by asking his subjects, who are in similar circumstances, how they handle it. He looks for those moments when he is unconsciously writing about himself.”
Thompson admits he has a melancholy streak, and although he struggles with his father’s death less and less as time passes, Walter is always with him, whether pushing him to work harder than other journalists, or as a nostalgic reminder of the past.
As my conversation with Wright Thompson ends, a purple and pink evening sky washes over Palo Alto. Darkness falls over Sao Paulo. Thompson has a 3 a.m. flight to Uruguay to write a story about Uruguayan soccer star Luiz Suarez. As a final question, I turn Thompson’s own profiling question back on him.
“What are you struggling with every day?”
It is the first question of the interview where Thompson must pause and think. Silence.
“[My struggle] is figuring out how to slow down and enjoy some of the fruits of so many years of hard work,” he said, finally, “without betraying the college junior who sat in that bar with Seth and swore that nobody would ever outwork him.”
Homepage image screenshot via ESPN FC website and video, “A Portrait Of Luis Suarez.”