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.

GAME

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

FEATURE

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

 

COLUMNS

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

ENTERPRISE

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

 

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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

ESPN.com

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.”

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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.

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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

ESPN.com

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.”

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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.

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