28th Annual FWAA Best Writing Contest Results

DALLAS — Frequent past winners Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com and Christopher Walsh of BamaCentral.com joined David Hale of ESPN.com and Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated in claiming first-place honors in the 28th Annual FWAA Best Writing Contest. Four writers claimed awards in two categories and one writer took awards in three categories.

Maisel’s winning entry in Column on the late, legendary writer Dan Jenkins drew this response from the judge: “Love everything about it (the column). It’s a tall order to memorialize a writing legend. You tend to overwrite to impress. This one had just the right tone.”

Walsh’s expansive story in Enterprise explained how current-day Tide Coach Nick Saban rates versus the top coaches in the history of the game. From the judge: “Exhaustive research piece on how Alabama’s Nick Saban stacks up against the all-time field of great coaches. Well-written, with excellent perspective on the intangibles that make Saban one of the best.”

In the Game Story Category, Dellenger completely captured the essence of LSU’s CFP semifinal victory over Oklahoma after a deadly game-day plane crash involving the daughter-in-law of LSU’s offensive coordinator. From the judge: “Writer depicts the emotions in LSU’s blistering of Oklahoma in a national semifinal that was tinged with tragedy. Great job of telling the story of the day and game that was like no other in LSU history.”

And Hale’s Feature Story on Arkansas State Coach Blake Anderson and his loss of wife Wendy to cancer prompted this from the judge: “Powerful. So detailed. After reading it, you want to go hug Blake Anderson, while wishing you’d known Wendy.”

Ryan McGee of ESPN.com picked up a second, third and an honorable mention in his trifecta. Dellenger, besides his first-place award, also picked up a second. Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports, David Ubben of The Athletic and Dave Wilson of ESPN.com each had two honorable mention awards.

First, second and third-place awards receive cash prizes as well as certificates. Honorable mentions receive certificates.

To read the first-place stories and a bio on the writers, click on their names below.


First Place — Ross Dellenger, Sports Illustrated

Second Place — Glenn Guilbeau, USA TODAY Network-Louisiana

Third Place — James Crepea, The Oregonian

Honorable Mention — John Bohnenkamp, HawkeyeMaven; Pete DiPrimio, IUhoosiers.com; David Ubben, The Athletic


First Place David Hale, ESPN.com

Second Place Ross Dellenger, Sports Illustrated

Third Place Nate Mink, Syracuse Post-Standard/Syracuse.com

Honorable Mention Ryan McGee, ESPN.com; Pete Thamel, Yahoo Sports; Dave Wilson, ESPN.com; Andrea Adelson, ESPN.com; Max Olson, The Athletic



First Place Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com

Second Place Ryan McGee, ESPN.com

Third Place — David Teel, Daily Press, Newport News, Va.

Honorable Mention Anthony Gimino, AllSportsTucson.com; Pete Thamel, Yahoo Sports; Kirk Bohls, Austin American-Statesman


First Place — Christopher Walsh, BamaCentral.com

Second Place — Stewart Mandel,The Athletic

Third Place – Ryan McGee, ESPN.com

Honorable Mention — Shehan Jeyarajah, Dave Campbell’s Texas Football; David Ubben, The Athletic; Dave Wilson, ESPN.com

2020 Best Feature: David Hale

Comment by the judge: Powerful. So detailed. After reading it, you want to go hug Blake Anderson, while wishing you’d known Wendy.

By David Hale


It was quiet inside the truck as Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson drove along Interstate 55. He wasn’t sure what to say. Usually he could count on his wife, Wendy, to fill any silence. She loves talking to people, and even the most mundane subject will spiral in a dozen different directions only vaguely related to the last. Blake calls it “spiderwebbing,” one thread thinly connected to another. He’s the face of the football program, but at events, Wendy is the star. A booster or fan will corner him, then he’ll introduce Wendy. She spiderwebs, and he sneaks away, leaving Wendy to charm even the dullest of companions.

Now, in early July, Wendy is in the seat next to him, frail and tired and sore from an hour bumping along the highway between Memphis, Tennessee, and Jonesboro in the passenger seat, silently deliberating the news they’d just gotten from her doctors.

A few weeks earlier, scans showed her latest round of chemotherapy was working. She’d first been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer in 2017, recovered, then got sick again. The initial prognosis was bleak, but she was a fighter, and until today, she thought she was winning. But she’d skipped her last dose of chemo, too tired and too sick to plug herself into another bag of poison. Her doctor ordered tests. The tests showed the tumors were growing again. They’d gone to meet with her oncologist in Memphis, and he offered no good options.

Wendy wasn’t prone to outbursts. Perhaps it was the voice, a Betty Boop approximation, she said, that always endeared her to kids and made Blake laugh when she’d get excited. She didn’t curse much, either. She’d say things like, “Cancer really kicked me in the fanny.” But after the doctor went over the test results, he’d left the room, closed the door, and Wendy screamed.


They didn’t talk much after that, just drove along in silence while Wendy’s mind raced. Why had she gotten her hopes up? Why did cancer keep pulling the rug out from under her? Why couldn’t these doctors see that all this bad news wasn’t helping? The more she thought, the angrier she got. Twisting in the passenger seat to face her husband, she erupted.

“I’m sick and tired of getting bad news,” she shouted. “Don’t give me any more bad news. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to see it. I’m going to beat this, and all these things they keep showing me be damned!”

Blake took her hand. She wasn’t mad at him. He knew that. It just needed to be said.

“I’ve never doubted you,” he said.


2020 Best Column: Ivan Maisel

Comment by the judge: When you’re writing the obituary of an iconic writer, the tendency is to over write and impress, rather than get out of the way and allow the story to tell itself. Loved all the anecdotes. It all worked. Dan Jenkins would be pleased. 

By Ivan Maisel


Dan Jenkins is gone, and everyone who loves college football, golf and the crisply struck one-liner will raise a glass. Preferably of J&B.

If you don’t know the work of Jenkins, who died Thursday night in his beloved Fort Worth, Texas, at age 90, you are in for a treat. He didn’t invent sportswriting, but with his combination of reporting and humor, perspective and confidence, he changed my business for the better. Much better.

In the pages of Sports Illustrated, Dan made human the legendary sports gods of his era. Figures such as Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Bear Bryant and Darrell Royal no longer loomed larger than life. And Dan did it with a sharp eye, a smartass grin and very fast typing. What he didn’t tell us in his reporting, he told us in barely disguised fiction in best-selling novels like “Semi-Tough.” My favorite had nothing to do with football. I bet I haven’t read “Baja Oklahoma” more than 10 times.

Sportswriters of my era have their go-to Jenkins lines, maybe like an earlier generation does with Noel Coward, or the way that Stephen Colbert goes viral today. For personal reasons, mine remains the lead of his story about the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot:

“Maybe Fuzzy Zoeller plays golf the way everybody should. Hit it, go find it, hit it again. Grin, have a smoke, take a sip, make a joke and every so often win a major championship.”

I spent that Open as Dan’s assistant, the fact-checker who helped him gather material for his story. I was 24 years old and barely could find the first tee without a map. I think the only actual assistance I provided Dan was driving him from Manhattan to Mamaroneck for the Monday playoff between Zoeller and Greg Norman.

Sports Illustrated issues closed on Monday, and 35 years ago, most copy had to be buttoned up by Sunday night. They held the magazine for the Open to conclude. Dan, having cut his teeth at the Fort Worth Press, always had been impervious to deadline pressure. At a magazine where writers were known for dripping out copy like an IV, Dan wrote as if he were late for a cocktail party.

In that lead, Dan captured Zoeller’s personality perfectly, in language that sounded like he leaned over the bar to say it. To witness that up close taught me more about journalism than any class I ever took.

In those days, Dan was known for not appearing on the golf course. He worked the locker room a little. Mostly he held court in the dining area of the club, swapping information and one-liners with agents, writers, golfers, you name it. Dan would walk out onto Augusta National on Sunday to watch the golfers play the short par-4 3rd, a nod to his reverence for the Masters, but otherwise he stayed indoors.

But Dan wanted to see a U.S. Open playoff. We walked out to the fifth green. As Norman prepared to putt, Zoeller, standing at the side of the green, glanced over and saw Dan standing there. Their eyes met, and Zoeller clutched his chest, feigning a heart attack. Make a joke, and every so often win a major.

Dan left Sports Illustrated a few weeks later, more a clash of personality than anything. The magazine editor decided Dan had lost his fastball. Maybe so; he only had another 35 years of relevant journalism left in him.

I first met Dan in the fall of 1978 in the office of The Stanford Daily. I was a sophomore, sitting in front of a Royal typewriter. Dan walked in looking for his daughter, Sally, a freshman who intended to join our staff. I’m pretty sure Dan was holding a cigarette. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t speak in his presence. Think of LeBron James walking into your gym, Beyoncé showing up at your corner bar for karaoke.

On that day, I entered his orbit, and I never left. We bonded because any friend of Sally was a friend of his. You could say the same about any friend of college football. Dan stopped covering football nearly 50 years ago, but his love for the sport never wavered.

It began as a 6-year-old, when he attended the battle of two undefeateds, TCU and SMU, at the end of the 1935 season. So did Grantland Rice. The Rose Bowl would invite the winner, and Dan’s beloved hometown TCU lost a heartbreaker. A few years ago, I visited Dan at his Fort Worth home, and on one wall of his office, he had blown up a photo of Amon Carter Stadium that day, with arrows pointing to where he sat, and where Granny Rice sat. Birth of a Sportswriter.

His coverage of college football for Sports Illustrated in the 1960s opened an entire world to the magazine’s readers, and especially to its Ivy League-bred editors. Dan brought college football to the national mainstream and shone a light on all of the color and pageantry of Saturday’s America, a phrase he gleefully stole for a book title from TCU coach Abe Martin, a tobacco-chewin’ rascal from the very old school.

Dan had the idea to spend a weekend in Dallas with two couples as they attended three college football games. He had the idea to chronicle an entire recruiting season in the home of a blue-chip quarterback, Oklahoma-bound Jack Mildren. He had the idea and the gall to take on all of Notre Dame Nation when he mocked Ara Parseghian, coach of the No. 1 Irish, for settling for a 10-10 tie against No. 2 Michigan State in 1966. The story began, “Old Notre Dame will tie over all,” a brilliant takedown of the Irish fight song.


Dan may have stopped writing about college football, but he continued to love it as if it were his fourth child. He faithfully attended TCU football games, his parking space underneath Amon Carter Stadium directly next to the one reserved for the university chancellor. TCU named its press box for Dan in May 2017, and of all the many honors he received in his long and glorious career, that one stayed close to his heart.

A few months later, I went to Arlington to cover the Florida-Michigan game on opening weekend. The day before the game, I met Dan for lunch at Colonial Country Club, home of the longtime PGA Tour stop. Dan held court there. He was physically frail, but his mind remained keen. We talked college football for 90 minutes, and he made sure to show me the encased display of memorabilia from his career on the wall next to the pro shop.

I dropped him an email now and again, and he always answered within minutes. It’s hard to swallow that I can’t do that again. Instead, I’ll swallow a J&B in his honor, and curl up with “Baja Oklahoma” for the 11th read.


Ivan Maisel


Age: 60

College: Stanford

Background: This is the eighth first-place finish in the FWAA Best Writing Contest for Maisel, who won the FWAA’s prestigious Bert McGrane Award in 2016. Maisel, the FWAA President in 1995, has covered college football since 1987 for The Dallas Morning News (1987-94), Newsday (1994-97) and Sports Illustrated (1997-2002). He is delighted to have been the first college football writer hired at ESPN.com, where he has been a senior writer since November 2002. Maisel served as editor-at-large of ESPN College Football 150, the company’s initiative to commemorate the sport’s 150th anniversary in 2019. In that role, he served as writer and host of the Down & Distance podcast, and as a producer on three series and two documentaries. Ivan and his wife, Meg Murray, live in Fairfield, Conn. They have two daughters, Sarah, 28, and Elizabeth, 23. Their son Max died in 2015 at age 21. Ivan is writing a book about Max and the nature of grief that will be published in 2021.

2020 Best Enterprise: Christopher Walsh

Comment by the judge: Exhaustive research piece on how Alabama’s Nick Saban stacks up against the all-time field of great coaches. Well-written, with excellent perspective on where he rates.

Christopher Walsh’s series ran in 26 parts between Aug. 27, 2019, and Dec. 31, 2019.

By Christopher Walsh


Like with so many other successful coaches, Nick Saban has numerous ways to get a point across, and anecdotes that get retold every few years to new and younger audiences.

“Grampa Nick” telling a story goes something like this:

“I’ll never forget fishing as an 11-year-old in West Virginia, and I’m fishing down by this lake where the hot water runs off from the coal mine because that hot water is where the catfish like to hang out. This guy is just sitting there pulling in huge catfish, but throwing them back, and then he’ll catch smaller ones and keep them.

“I’m not catching anything at all, but I’m like ‘Hey man, why do you keep those little ones and throw back those huge ones.’ His answer was ‘Because I’ve only got a 9-inch skillet.’

“See? You have to know who you are.”

So who is Nick Saban?

Just the coach who will eventually go down as being the most successful coach in college football history — the one who everyone is chasing and emulating.

Over the course of the 2019 season, and as part of the 150th anniversary celebration, BamaCentral.com has compared Saban’s numbers with 25 of the best coaches the sport has ever known (they are listed below).

This is for the big-picture comparison with many of the same categories.

  • Wins: Saban has a long way to go if he wants to try and catch Joe Paterno with 409, but he’ll move into the top 10 next season. Moreover, he’s the only coach during the modern era of college football to be averaging 10 wins a season.
  • National championships: Saban and “Bear” Bryant have both won six, although Bryant was involved in more split titles.

However, Saban came into this season averaging a national championship every 3.8 season he’s been a head coach (Toledo and Michigan State included). The next best averages in history are Frank Leahy and Knute Rockne tied at one every 4.3 seasons, and John McKay at 5.3. Note: Dabo Swinney will move into that group if Clemson knocks off LSU in New Orleans on Jan. 13.

  • Recruiting: There’s no one to compare Saban to as recruiting rankings are still a relatively new phenomenon. Still, it might be a long, long time before anyone else can claim to win seven straight recruiting titles.
  • Dynasty: With five titles between 2009 and 2017, the question isn’t if Alabama’s had the greatest dynasty but when it achieved that distinction.

Was it after Alabama won the 2011 national championship, giving it two titles in three years and four straight 10-win seasons?

Perhaps it was when the Crimson Tide scored 79 unanswered points over seven-plus BCS championship quarters, stemming from the fourth quarter against Texas and concluding during the second half of Alabama’s 42-14 dismantling of the Fighting Irish?

It caused ABC/ESPN announcer Brent Musburger to say in the spring of 2013: “Getting in the game is the first part of the challenge, and that in and of itself is not easy, so I have not seen a run like this.”



The closest comparisons can only be found in other sports:

The 1960s Green Bay Packers, who won five championships in seven years, including Super Bowls I and II.

The New York Yankees won nine World Series and 14 pennants from 1949-64.

The Boston Celtics captured eight straight NBA titles from 1959-1966, and 16 from 1956-86.

The Montreal Canadians won four straight Stanley Cups three times, 1955-60, 1964-69 and 1975-79.

John Wooden at UCLA won 10 NCAA championships from 1964-75.

  • All-Americans: In 2017, Saban didn’t just top, but blew past Paterno for the most consensus All-Americans in history. While the Penn State legend had 33, Saban came into the 2019 season with 41. His 1.78 average per season barely edged Leahy’s 1.77 and Switzer’s 1.75 for the best in college football history.
  • First-round draft picks: See if this sounds familiar, Saban has the all-tie lead with 34, ahead of Paterno (33) and Bobby Bowden (32). Saban is averaging 1.48 first-round draft picks every year, with Urban Meyer second (1.35), Leahy third (1.23) and McKay fourth (1.13).
  • Players in the NFL: When the NFL held its 2019 kickoff weekend, which is the only time it does an official roster breakdown because they’re otherwise always in flux, Alabama had 56 former players who were active. Ohio State was second with 44. The Crimson Tide had at least twice as many active players than all but six other programs.
  • Big wins: No one will probably top Leahy’s amazing 86.5 winning percentage against teams ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll, but Saban came into the 2019 season with an extremely impressive 82-40 record against ranked foes, and 42-21 versus top-10 teams (66.7). He was tied with Bowden for second all-time for most wins against ranked opponents (and passed him with the win at Texas A&M), and trailed just Paterno with 86. Bryant is fourth at 66.

Saban’s 3.57 average wins against ranked opponents and 1.82 against top-10 teams are the best in history.

  • Wins against teams ranked No. 1: Saban has the most with seven. No one else in history has more than four. That statistic is ever more remarkable when you factor in all the weeks Alabama has been ranked No. 1.

The Crimson Tide has been No. 1 at some point of every season since 2008. The previous longest streak was seven years by Miami (1986-92).

  • Wins against unranked opponents: The streak is up to 91 straight victories, the longest in Bowl Subdivision history. The previous record was 72 games, shared by Miami (Fla.) (1984-95) and Florida (1989- 2000). Under Saban, Alabama holds a 95-3 (.969) (91-3, .968 after vacations) mark against unranked opponents.
  • The stat that will likely never be matched: Since the 2008 season, Alabama has played in 141 of 144 regular season games that have had national championship implications.


2020 Best Game Story: Ross Dellenger

Comment of the judge: Writer captures the emotions in LSU’s blistering of Oklahoma in a national semifinal that was tinged with tragedy. Great job of telling the story of the day and game that was like no other in LSU history,

By Ross Dellenger

Sports Illustrated

ATLANTA, Ga. — Somewhere in a corner of LSU’s locker room here at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tigers offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger held the hardest phone call of his life. His daughter-in-law, Carley McCord, a 30-year-old TV journalist, had perished Saturday morning in a plane crash in Louisiana while en route to this very place. His son and namesake, Steven Jr., so shaken by the news that family members rushed him to the hospital, lay in a bed in a medicated state, on sedatives, in and out of reality—until dad called.

Just before he took the field for warmups, an hour before he would call plays in his alma mater’s biggest game in eight years, Steve Ensminger, for just a brief few minutes, pushed football aside for family. He called his son. He told him that everything would be O.K., that he’d make it through this dark hour. He told him that he loved him and to be strong and have faith.

He also made him a promise. As the call ended, dad told son what was coming next. “The team is behind you, these coaches are behind you,” Steven recalls his father saying, “and we are about to go beat Oklahoma’s ass for you.”

Hours later, with LSU in the midst of a deconstruction of the Sooners, Steven’s blood pressure dipped to more normal levels. He emerged from that cloudy state and maybe most importantly, the 30-year old got to watch his father’s offense roar in LSU’s 63-28 thumping of OU. Quarterback Joe Burrow carved through the Big 12 champs and its defense with such quick ferocity that it almost seemed unfathomable. The Tigers scored a touchdown on eight of their first nine drives, led 49-14 at halftime and finished with 692 yards of offense in one of the most dominant victories in the six-year history of the College Football Playoff.

They’re bound for a national championship bout on Jan. 13 in New Orleans with Clemson, a quasi-home game for a team on a magical 2019 run. They’re the top-ranked team in the land, have the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and haven’t lost a game since last November. For a second time in three weeks, LSU brought a Louisiana party to this place, celebrating a playoff win days after claiming the SEC championship here. Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge” blared through the stadium speakers, purple-clad LSU fans screamed from the stands and their team, high up on a platform, accepted the Peach Bowl trophy.

And then there was Steve Ensminger, the last assistant coach to arrive on the field for this celebration, having made his way from the press box.

He found wife Amy and then he found head coach Ed Orgeron, the man who had delivered to him the tragic news around lunchtime earlier Saturday. They all embraced in an emotional moment and peculiar scene—tears of sadness surrounded by a celebrating sea. Ensminger, 61, is not any other assistant here. He is a beloved figure, an LSU quarterback under famed coach Charlie McClendon, a country boy raised in the Baton Rouge area with a hilarious twang. He’s heralded as an unsung hero of LSU’s 2019 season, hidden in the darkness of the looming shadow of 30-year-old pass game coordinator Joe Brady, a former Saints assistant who helped overhaul the Tigers’ offense into a spread attack over the offseason.

Without Steve, none of this happens, Brady and others have said. During the first half, ESPN TV cameras flashed on screen Ensminger and Brady in the booth, and when the Tigers went up 42-7 in the second quarter, the two even shared a fist bump. Nothing changed about their normal, two-man play-calling system despite the tragedy, Brady says.

Meanwhile, more than 500 miles away, Steven Ensminger Jr. agreed to a text exchange interview with Sports Illustrated in the second quarter of LSU’s win, detailing one of the darkest days of his life and describing that pregame phone call from his father. “I had talked to my mom crying and couldn’t get out words and same with my cousin who was my best man in our wedding,” Steven says. “The one voice that got on the phone with me that was clear and strong and supportive and confident while I was laying in that bed was my dad right before he walked out for warm-ups. I could barely speak. I couldn’t hold myself together and he said, ‘Son, you will get through this, it’s what we do. We face the darkest times in our lives and it’s what we do, we get through it. And I will take care of you and I’ll be there for you to keep you strong. You’re my one and only son, and my namesake and I love you and I can promise you we will get through this.’”

McCord was one of six passengers on a small private aircraft that left Lafayette, La., around 9 a.m. CT bound for Atlanta. The only survivor, Stephen Wade Berzas, 37, was in critical condition as of Saturday evening. The eight-seat plane crashed in a parking lot about a mile from its take-off point, bursting into flames with such force that it blew out the windows of a nearby post office. Witnesses told a Lafayette TV station, KATC, that the plane hit a power line while presumably attempting to make an emergency landing through dense fog.

Gretchen Vincent, 51, offered a seat on the plane to McCord, who had no other route to Atlanta. Steven Ensminger had planned to drive McCord to Atlanta, but he couldn’t get off work. He’s a chemical operator at a nitrogen facility on the Mississippi River in a small town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. A company policy prohibiting employee vacations after Dec. 22 prevented him from getting time off.

In fact, he was at work without his phone when McCord texted and called him that morning before the flight. He missed both of them. “I don’t have my phone and she sends me a message saying she loved me,” Steven says. “I was in and out of a nightmare, not being able to tell what was real and what wasn’t. I can remember laying in the hospital bed repeating myself saying it wasn’t real and then one of the hardest things I’m dealing with is that I missed her text and I missed her call. It is by far the most pain, angst and terror and just darkest time of my life and I honestly don’t know how long it will last because I still don’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it.”

While eating lunch, Steven learned of McCord’s death from his aunt. Back in Atlanta, special assistant to the head coach Derek Ponamsky informed Orgeron of the news. It was Orgeron who broke the news to Ensminger. It trickled to assistants during staff meetings and a walk-through at the team hotel in downtown Atlanta. There was never a doubt that Ensminger would coach, living up to his reputation of toughness and grit, of hard work and focus. After all, Steve sometimes sleeps in a cot in his office during fall camp. He’s a journeyman of a coach, fired three times as a coordinator or assistant, humble enough to find ways to dodge media interviews, the focus of hard fan criticism upon his promotion to offensive coordinator in 2018.

Those close to him aren’t surprised by the strong will he showed Saturday. “Only Slinger,” says LSU receivers coach Mickey Joseph, using Steve’s nickname, one that dates back to his quarterbacking college days. “For Coach E to come out and call the plays he called… somebody was watching over him,” says running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Asked in the postgame celebration how her husband did it, Amy Ensminger’s eyes begin to swell with tears and she points up to the heavens, “God,” she whispers.

Many players only learned of the news by word of mouth, some before the game and others afterward. Blake Ferguson, a senior snapper, heard about it from an equipment manager during pregame warmups. “I immediately went over to coach, hugged him and told him I loved him,” Ferguson says. “He’s strong as hell for coaching in this game. We played for him and that family.”

McCord wasn’t just a daughter-in-law to an LSU assistant. Even before she married Steven Ensminger Jr. almost two years ago, she held a close connection to those around LSU. She turned into a familiar face on many televisions in the state as a Cox Sports and ESPN sideline reporter, known for her hard-charging reporting and bubbly persona. McCord held jobs few knew about, Steven says. She woke up each morning around 4 a.m. to teach online English classes to kids in China, and she worked some with New Orleans TV station WDSU. She also served as a travel agent and spent time covering some of her favorite programs, the New Orleans Pelicans and Saints. “She was a tough minded, caring, charismatic personality who would not take no for an answer,” says Jordy Culotta, a Baton Rouge sports radio host and cousin to McCord. “She was refreshing in our business. She was also my friend. A sad day.”

McCord and Steve Ensminger had a joking relationship, one full of jesting at one another’s expense. Before McCord and Steven’s wedding, Steve told her that he might not make the ceremony because he’s “got recruits in,” Steven says. McCord would poke at her father-in-law that demons were coming for him. “She’d always give my dad a hard time,” Steven says. “These words are the hardest words I’ve ever had to speak. She will always be part of my life. I’m torn and struggling but I knew she would tell me to be strong. I love her. I miss her so much it hurts. I wish she was here with me.”

After the game, Steve Ensminger left the coaches’ suite and briskly walked directly to his family, escorted by a team spokesman. Soon afterward, he’d call his son again to check up. It’s a call Steven was waiting for since they had last talked, one he thought about as the Tigers romped to a big win.

“To sit here and watch my dad with so many emotions and a heavy heart and his worry for me and watch him do what he said we would do, there’s no question that he is my rock, my idol, my mentor, my coach, my father,” Steven says. “I’m his namesake and I wouldn’t be able to make it through anything without him there to tell me to man up and get through it.”


Ross Dellenger

Sports Illustrated

Age: 36

College: Mississippi State, 2006

Background: A native of Biloxi, Mississippi, Ross drifted toward sports journalism as the son to a high school football coach. Not athletic enough to play, he started his career by filming high school games for recruiting sites and writing high school football game stories for various outlets. He joined Sports Illustrated in May of 2018 after more than a decade as a college sports beat writer, covering the likes of LSU, Missouri, Jackson State and Auburn.

He has mostly lived and worked in the Deep South, holding a passion and love for college football. However, in April of 2019, he moved with his wife to Washington, D.C., where Elizabeth works as a national political reporter covering Congress and the White House.



27th Annual FWAA Best Writing Contest Results

The four winners of the FWAA’s 27th Annual Best Writing Contest announced today range in age from 29 to 82.

One first-place recipient is a seven-time winner (Ivan Maisel, 59, ESPN.com). Another winner (retired Bob Hammel, 82, Bloomington Herald-Times) hadn’t entered the contest in 23 years. A third winner (Jake Trotter, 38, ESPN.com) wrote about a star running back who made his mark in 1988 when the writer was seven years old. And the final winner (Mike DeFabo, 29, Anderson Herald-Bulletin) captured first place writing about Purdue football, but now is covering an NHL team.

DeFabo, who now works for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covering the Penguins, collected a first in Game Story and also a second in Columns. Other writers who claimed double awards were Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports (two honorable mentions) and David Barron of the Houston Chronicle (two honorable mentions).

At the FWAA’s Annual Awards Breakfast on Jan. 13 in New Orleans at the CFP National Championship Game, first-place winners will receive footballs, certificates and cash prizes. Second and third-place finishers will receive certificates and cash prizes. Honorable mentions will receive certificates.

Click on the links below to read the first-place winning entries.


First Place — Mike DeFabo, Anderson Herald-Bulletin

Second Place — Michael Lev, Arizona Daily Star/Tucson.com

Third Place — David Teel, Daily Press

Honorable Mention — Alex Scarborough, ESPN.com; Bill Bender, Sporting News; Edward Aschoff, ESPN.com


First Place Bob Hammel, Bloomington Herald-Times (retired)

Second Place Ron Higgins, Times-Picayune/NOLA.com

Third Place— Paul Payne, The Montgomery Advertiser

Honorable Mention Pete Thamel, Yahoo Sports; Dave Wilson, ESPN.com; Glenn Guilbeau, USA Today Network; David Barron, Houston Chronicle



First Place Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com

Second Place Mike DeFabo, Anderson Herald-Bulletin

Third Place Harry Minium, odusports.com

Honorable Mention Dick Gabriel, WKYT/Big Blue Insider; Pete Thamel, Yahoo Sports; Mark Rea, Buckeye Sports Bulletin


First Place — Jake Trotter, ESPN.com

Second Place — Christopher Walsh, SEC Country

Third Place – Adam Rittenberg, Heather Dinich, Tom VanHaaren, ESPN.com

Honorable Mention — Kirk Bohls, Austin American-Statesman; Matt Fortuna, The Athletic; David Barron, Houston Chronicle


2019 Best Enterprise: Jake Trotter

Comment by the judge: Informative, anecdote-filled story on Barry Sanders’ magical 1988 season at Oklahoma State. Thirty years later, with a view from the insiders at Oklahoma State and Sanders himself, we get a lot of the reasons why that may be the greatest single season by a running back in college football history. From a Heisman Trophy nobody to a Heisman Trophy winner.

By Jake Trotter


The first time Barry Sanders touched the football in 1988, he scored a touchdown. Fittingly, the final time he carried it for Oklahoma State that season, he scored as well.

Both plays were equally spectacular and bookended the greatest individual season the college football world has ever seen, and 30 years later, Sanders’ ’88 season remains — like so many of his runs — untouchable.

“You can argue about a lot of different people, who’s the best ever in whatever sport,” said Mike Gundy, who before becoming OSU’s head coach was Sanders’ college quarterback. “LeBron James and Michael Jordan in the NBA. Jim Brown and whoever else in pro football. But college football? There’s nobody that can touch the guy. Just can’t.

“There’s nobody that compares to him.”

In ’88, Sanders didn’t rewrite the records books, he incinerated them. He rushed for 2,850 yards, scored 44 touchdowns and broke 34 NCAA records.

In the years since, offense has exploded in the college game, while the pace has quickened.

And yet, most of Sanders’ FBS records remain intact.

“If he were playing in today’s offenses, he very well could’ve rushed for 4,000 yards, easy,” Gundy said. “Look at the number of plays that we have on offense today compared to back then. We huddled up, we were slow. And the majority of the games very seldom was he ever touching the field in the fourth quarter because we were blowing teams out.”


2019 Best Game Story: Mike DeFabo

Comment by the judge: Heart touching story that was superbly written. Reading the story made you feel as if you were there, watching the game. Excellent quotes from Jeff Brohm and the Purdue players. Good background to remind everyone what a mammoth upset this was, mentioning that Purdue had lost its first three games. Also good info on three players who almost weren’t on this Purdue team, but played a big part in the victory.

By Mike DeFabo

Anderson Herald-Bulletin

WEST LAFAYETTE — Just getting to the game would have been a win in itself for Tyler Trent.

The Carmel native, fighting for every day he has left, went to sleep Friday night thinking he wouldn’t make it to Purdue’s game against No. 2 Ohio State at Ross-Ade Stadium. His terminal bone cancer sapped his energy. He vomited all day. Already the growing tumor on his spine metastasized to his kidneys, forcing him to leave the university and enter hospice care. If the game had been on Friday, his mother said he wouldn’t have been there.

But Saturday was a different day, and Tyler is a different breed.

We’re talking about the guy who earned super fan status last year by camping outside of Ross-Ade Stadium just hours after undergoing chemotherapy. He made it then. He was going to find a way to make it to this one, knowing it’s likely the last game he’ll see in person.

A family friend shaved a Purdue “P” into what’s left of his thinning hair and outlined it with paint, and Tyler slipped on his gold-and-black blazer. At kickoff, Tyler was there to hear the Boilermaker fans chant “Cancer Sucks,”altering their traditional chant by replacing their biggest rival, IU, with an even more hated one.

That was a win. Tyler won.

“Someone who is a Boilermaker through and through,” quarterback David Blough said. “We needed to show the courage and the toughness and the fight that he displays every single day. We love him. We’ve been playing for him. We’ve been praying for him.”

Then, what was supposed to be a special moment turned into something more.


2019 Best Column: Ivan Maisel

Comment by the judge: Suicide: Amazing story weaving the writer’s personal emotions and experience with that of the parents of the Washington State quarterback who committed suicide. “A club no parent ever wants to join” is an insightful empathy that only someone with intimate knowledge of the pain and heartache could put into words. Phenomenal.

By Ivan Maisel


IRVINE, Calif. — I came of age in the wake of Woodward and Bernstein, when young journalists were taught to be as neutral as the painted highway stripe. After nearly four decades as a sportswriter, I have learned to negotiate a middle ground between my training and my life experience. Some stories demand more of the latter.

I understood that the moment I read last January that Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski ended his life. He was a college junior, 21 years old, the second of three children, hundreds of miles away from home.

Almost three years earlier, my son Max ended his life. He was a college junior, the second of three children, 21 years old, hundreds of miles away from home.

Like a winemaker trying to create a structured red, how much of the skin you leave in the juice changes the color and character of the final product. I’ve got a lot of skin in this one.

There’s often an immediate intimacy among parents whose children have ended their lives. We get it. The loss of a child is an awful subject, so awful that it makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say. One of the many secrets of The Club No One Wants to Join is that we love to talk about the children we’ve lost. Talking about them keeps them present.

But people hesitate, sometimes under the guise of protecting the feelings of the bereaved. I would say, always with a smile to smooth the delivery of the sarcasm, “You know, if you hadn’t brought Max up, I wouldn’t have been thinking of him.”

When you live with the awful every moment of every day, the awful becomes everyday. It is no longer so daunting. When someone told me I was living “a parent’s worst nightmare,” I responded, “No, you wake up from nightmares.”

The first time I called Mark Hilinski, Tyler’s father, we spoke for 1 hour, 10 minutes. “I had never talked to anybody — in my spot,” Mark said later, with a mirthless laugh. “Got emails, got letters, got cards, read a ton. … But that was the first time I had talked to anybody that kinda sat over here, and I appreciated it.”


2019 Best Feature: Bob Hammel

Comment by the judge: Usually don’t care for first person stories, but this one was exceptional. The writer subtlely worked his way in as merely an observer of one of the most significant, yet often unknown, players in college football history.  Good writing and presentation.      

By Bob Hammel

Bloomington Herald-Times retired

For years, for a full generation after them, they looked out from an honored spot on the northeast wall of The Gables restaurant, a humming place then with its own hallowed role in IU history. It was a picture as iconic in Indiana University football history as the one of the Four Horsemen is at Notre Dame. A black-and-white picture given color, of the starters on the 1945 team that had given Indiana – still – its best season in history. Four feet-by-twelve feet, posted for the first time the week of the Purdue game in 1945. You can still see that picture today, on the third floor of Henke Hall in Memorial Stadium’s north end zone, and they still look heroic.

And today, the 75th anniversary of their season just a couple of horizons away, they are almost all gone. Quarterback Ben Raimondi is the last one standing after the death Monday of George Taliaferro – maybe not the best of them, but if not, close; maybe not the reason they went unbeaten, but a reason; definitely, no maybe about it, the legendmaker of them all.

IU lost a whole lot more than a former football player Monday. George ruffled his share of feathers along the way but made a great university greater. Football was his starting point, but not his limit. He was a champion of integration and racial equality, but that didn’t fully define him, either. He was the first to admit he married “up,” and he and wife Viola gave Bloomington a community conscience regarding responsibility and genuine care for kids, kids coming along without Rockwellian families, kids who are our future. Black kids, white kids, kids. The Taliaferros, long after the last football stadium cheer died out, influenced that future in ways that will live long after both.

But today my own mind sees George on a football field, George in No. 44, George in the flame of youth playing a game but changing a world.

As events as recently as last week remind us, Bloomington, IU, the Big Ten, college athletics have not always been equal-opportunity symbols. George came to IU from Gary Roosevelt High, one of those all-black schools intended in metropolitan areas to do just that: take in all of a community’s black kids so the rest of the city could stay all-white. Those schools – Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis, Lincoln in Evansville two of them – were public but denied full entry into the Indiana High School Athletic Association until 1943, when George was already in high school. At Roosevelt, his teams rarely played hometown opponents, commonly routed out of state – sometimes long distances – to find teams that would play them.