A few months back on this blog, I wrote about what it was like to work at The Washington Post the night Osama bin Laden was killed. I wrote how exciting it was just to be in the vicinity of such a historic moment and the thrill of being in a newsroom on a big news night.
Six months later, it happened again. Only this time, I played a larger leadership role.
It was the night of November 9, 2011. Most sports fans will remember it as the night Penn State fired longtime coach Joe Paterno in the wake of the horrific child sex abuse scandal involving one of his former assistants. But I'll also remember it for what I called at the time one of the all-time curveballs in terms of breaking news: the kidnapping of Washington Nationals baseball player Wilson Ramos. And oh yeah, NBA officials and players were having intense labor negotiations, so a settlement of the league's lockout could have happened at any point.
Wednesdays are usually the end of my work week (I'm generally off on Thursdays and Fridays) and this particular night, I was slated to work as the night sports editor (our regular night sports editor, my direct boss, had taken a vacation day). By the time I arrived at work, Paterno had announced he would resign at the end of the season, adding rather arrogantly that the school's trustees shouldn't waste time on his fate. On its own, that was going to make for a busy night, with two columnists writing on Paterno and one reporter at Penn State writing the news story.
On his way out about 7:30 p.m., the Head Sports Editor stopped by my desk to go over the rest of the night in case things escalated with Paterno (the Penn State trustees had announced by then that they would have an emergency meeting) or the NBA lockout. Offhandedly, almost dismissively, he mentioned rumors of a kidnapping involving a Nationals player.
I'm listening and nodding as he went through the list. Paterno, right... NBA lockout, OK... wait, what??
After he left, I started looking around the Internet and sure enough, news was starting to trickle out about a baseball player getting kidnapped in Venezuela. A lot of the details online were in Spanish, and it was all frightening. Ramos, a promising player for the Nationals, was taken away from his family home at gunpoint and put in a vehicle and driven away.
For once, my language skills came in handy, and I was translating as much stuff as I could for our Nationals beat reporter as we tried to make sense of the story. By 8:30, we knew we had a story and we posted something short online. Our next deadline for the newspaper was 11:30.
Then the night news editor, who is in charge of what goes on the front page of the whole newspaper (A1), approached me about this story and was very enthusiastic about it. He wanted it for the front page. Considering we already had one front-page sports story (Paterno), I was surprised they wanted a second one. The sports section is somewhat derisively nicknamed "the toy department" and for sports to tread on the sacred ground of the front page of a newspaper rankles some journalists.
But this was quickly becoming far from a typical night at work.
I passed along the word to our Nationals reporter to piece a story together as quickly as he could. Meantime, our South American correspondent sprung into action and was trying to find out as much as he could about this kidnapping.
By this point, it was after 9 p.m. and rumors were starting to swirl that there would be a press conference at Penn State at 10 p.m. and that Paterno was likely going to be fired. Which for us, meant wholesale rewriting of the stories we already had published, including the one on the front page.
Remember, we had an 11:30 deadline to meet.
By 10 p.m., the Head Sports Editor had been in touch and was gracious enough to help me edit/update all the stories that were coming. At about 10:25, when I heard John Surma, the vice chair of the Penn State board of trustees, say "Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach, effective immediately," I was on the phone with the editors who run our Web site going over who would send out text and email alerts about Paterno's firing. And I was in touch over email with a couple other editors and our South American correspondent about the Ramos kidnapping story.
I was a little preoccupied at this moment.
The next hour was a blur, but as I've said before, I work with some of the best in the business when it comes to producing great journalism under immense deadline pressure. Our reporter at Penn State filed his report about 30 minutes after the press conference ended. Our Nationals beat reporter pieced together a good story, with a huge assist from our South American correspondent.
All while making deadline. I couldn't have been prouder of my sports department colleagues. And for the record, this and this were the fruits of our labor.
The nightcap came when the NBA officials and players stopped negotiating at 1 a.m. after more than 12 hours and came away with no deal. It was too late to get anything in the newspaper, but our reporter filed a story as quickly as she could that we would post on our Web site. Print deadlines may come and go, but the news cycle never stops online.
I finally walked out of the newsroom at about 3 a.m. -- drained, exhilarated, proud. At the very top of John Wooden's "Pyramid of Success" is competitive greatness, the notion of being at your best when your best is required. That night certainly fit the bill, for me and the rest of those involved with putting it all together. Of course, in daily journalism, there is little time to savor it and soon enough, we would be back to more routine news.
But for one brief moment, it was an incredible feeling knowing what we could accomplish when the moment presented itself. I was fresh off a weekend in Indianapolis for this fellowship I'm taking part in, and leadership was a major theme that we covered.
I did not expect to be tested that soon. But I was so glad I was.