The Power of Narratives: Here’s a Magazine That Knows How to Do It

By Jack Limpert

Sports journalism never gets the National Magazine Award recognition it deserves—after all, it’s about people playing games. But Sports Illustrated continues to be a very well-written, well-designed, well-edited magazine.

An example: The May 19 Sports Illustrated, appearing a week after the blockbuster issue featuring Jason Collins, has a great narrative piece, “Drinking, Driving and Dying,” by Thomas Lake.

Lake tells the story of Josh Brent, a nose tackle for the Dallas Cowboys, and Jerry Brown, a linebacker on the Cowboys’ practice squad, and the December car crash that killed Brown. After a night of heavy drinking, Brent was driving his Mercedes at high speed when it hit a curb, flipped, and skidded 300 yards before it caught fire. Brent survived but Brown, 25, was taken to a Dallas area hospital where he was pronounced dead.

What Lake does so effectively in the story is interrupt the Brent-Brown narrative with shorter descriptions of how other athletes mixed drinking and driving with fatal results. The addition of the stories of the other athletes, and the heartbreaking consequences of mixing fast cars with heavy drinking, creates a great magazine story, more powerful than a single narrative.

Lake’s story is behind the Sports Illustrated paywall, but here’s a sample to show how well he pulled it together.


By Thomas Lake

Jerry Jerome Brown Jr. comes along at a strange time in history: a time when humans willingly enter cages of glass and steel that move in such great numbers at such terrific speed that a subtle turn of the steering wheel can easily result in death.

Anyone with clear eyes and a steady hand can accidentally make this subtle turn in a single moment of inattention. And every night in every county in every state, probably on every road, someone tries to avoid this mistake while drunk. In 1987 on the roads of the U.S., 23,632 people will die in alcohol-related car crashes. If today is an average day, these crashes will kill 65 more people by midnight. If the deaths come at regular intervals, they will come every 22 minutes.

A thin crescent moon rises at 5:03 a.m. over the hospital in St. Louis where a 19-year-old factory worker named Stacey Irons waits for her son. He is two weeks past due. She has been here since yesterday morning. The labor-inducement drugs are not working. Fluid builds up. The pain is excruciating. That’s gonna be a good baby, says Stacey’s mother, Theresa Clark.’Cause he’s takin’ his time.

Two hours and 12 minutes pass between moonrise and sunrise. Six more dead. The boy’s father, Jerry Brown, stands at the bedside. He calls Stacey his first love. In eight months they’ll be married; in eight years, divorced. Twelve years after that a state trooper will find Jerry Sr. drunk in a Chevy Blazer on the side of an interstate with his seven-year-old daughter and an open bottle of beer.

Afternoon comes with a high of 55°. The doctors break Stacey’s bag of waters, hoping the boy will arrive before the Cardinals game. He does not. The Twins lead the World Series two games to none. John Tudor throws the first pitch of Game 3 at 7:30 p.m. in a stadium named for a king of beer.

Gone are the days when Mickey Mantle could get hammered at dinner and drive home at 60 mph and collide with a telephone pole and launch his wife through the windshield without being arrested or appearing in the news. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is seven years into its sobering campaign. It has more than 300 chapters, 600,000 volunteers, the approval of President Reagan. In public-opinion polls, MADD will soon be named the country’s favorite charity. On billboards, radio and television, the message is ubiquitous: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. But MADD has a long crusade ahead. Twenty years from now the Cardinals will ban alcohol from the clubhouse after manager Tony La Russa falls asleep at the wheel from too much wine and pitcher Josh Hancock dies from smashing drunk into a flatbed truck.

The doctor puts the game on the radio. The Twins take a 1-0 lead in the sixth, but the Cardinals score three in the seventh on a two-run double by Vince Coleman and an RBI single by Ozzie Smith. The game lasts two hours and 45 minutes. Seven more dead. The Cardinals will win 3-1. At 9:54 p.m., Jerry Jr. is born. He weighs less than six pounds. Stacey looks in amazement at the tiny creature who’s been kicking her in the ribs.

Elsewhere tonight, in bars across Missouri, the best baseball fans in America celebrate their victory with cold American beer. Then they get on the road.

October 20, 1988

For Jerry’s first birthday, Stacey buys him a motorized toy car large enough to ride on the sidewalk. He’s a happy little boy. A picture shows him grinning as if he’s just been told some wonderful secret. And he’s still very small. Stacey is afraid he’ll take after his great-uncle Jerry, who stands less than four feet tall.

Early this morning, 550 miles away, Lions defensive end Reggie Rogers loads up on beer and gin at Big Art’s Paradise Lounge in Pontiac, Mich. With a blood-alcohol level of about 0.15, well above the threshold for intoxication, he slams his red Jeep Cherokee broadside into a Plymouth Horizon that contains Kenneth Willett, 19; Kelly Ess, 18; and Dale Ess, 17. The crash breaks Rogers’s neck and nearly severs his right thumb. All three teenagers, who are also drunk, are killed. Rogers will be convicted of negligent homicide and serve 12½ months in prison.

December 24, 1988

The New York Times publishes a story about a new gadget designed to stop drunken driving. The ignition interlock requires would-be drivers to give a breath sample. The sample is analyzed for alcohol. If there’s too much, the interlock prevents the car from starting. Already 11 states have passed laws approving the device, and more than 200 judges have ordered convicted drunken drivers to use it. The article quotes Gregory Stevenson, a 28-year-old car salesman in Pennsylvania, who calls the device a “godsend” and says, “The interlock is giving me a year to get used to functioning without drinking and driving.”

April 8, 1991

Bill Shoemaker, perhaps the best jockey in history, drinks some beer after a round of golf and drives his Ford Bronco over a 50-foot embankment near San Dimas, Calif., breaking his neck and damaging his spinal cord. Authorities measure his blood-alcohol content at .13. A friend tells The Orange County Register, “I’ve seen him drink a lot more and drive.” Shoemaker, 59, will spend his final 12 years in a wheelchair.

March 20, 1993

Jerry Brown Jr. is five years old when his mother and father separate. Jerry Sr. will later accept the blame. He stayed out too long throwing darts, shooting pool, drinking. Jerry Jr. gets by with attention from his mother and grandmother. He still seems happy. Grandma, can I help you? he asks. Do you need anything? I can take this trash out.

March 22, 1993

At Little Lake Nellie in central Florida, three pitchers for the Indians take a boat ride in the dark. Two are sober; the third, Tim Crews, is drunk. He drives too fast and slams into a wooden pier at head level. Bob Ojeda survives, though part of his scalp is torn off. Steve Olin is killed. Crews dies from his injuries a few hours later. Each dead man leaves a wife and three children.

(Continued in the May 19 Sports Illustrated.)
As a magazine editor, I always found narratives—writing a story, showing not telling, about people facing and overcoming obstacles—to be the best read and most satisfying stories a journalist can do. Of the five National Magazine Awards won by The Washingtonian, three were narratives. “The Saving of the President,” by John Pekkanen, described what happened to President Reagan in 1981 after he was shot and then was saved on a hospital operating table. Another winner was a description of a train crash and the heroism, survival, and death that followed. The third was the story of Vivien Thomas, an African-American man who couldn’t afford to go to medical school but taught surgeons at Johns Hopkins how to do heart surgery. That story, by Katie McCabe, was made into the Emmy-winning HBO movie, “Like Something the Lord Made.”

I got one lesson about narratives from Scott Turow’s novel, Presumed Innocent, in 1987. It was one of those books that once you started it you couldn’t wait to get to the next chapter. When I finished it, I wondered, how did Turow do it? Reading it again as an editor, I realized that Turow had created a  double narrative, one the story of a marriage and an affair, the other the story of a killing, investigation, and trial. The reader wanted to follow both stories. Double the narrative and double the reading pleasure.



  1. Thank you for posting this, Jack. I’m honored.

    Interesting side note to your point in the first paragraph about the National Magazine Awards. I’ve never been a finalist, and neither have most writers in the long history of Sports Illustrated. But my colleague and mentor Gary Smith has won four National Magazine Awards in his career. As far as I know, no other magazine writer has won more than two.

    Thank you again.

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