How Sports Illustrated reporter captured the athlete in ‘The Book of Tebow’

Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated writer Thomas Lake embarked on a challenging project: to profile Tim Tebow, an athlete who’s been covered as thoroughly as any in America and who didn’t want Lake to write about him.

With limited access to his subject, what Lake produced was a robust, seven-part, 15,000-word story. It explores oft-analyzed Tebow topics – his successes and failures, his inability to get a job, his faith – but in a much deeper way. It’s a story powered by the author’s voice and transparency.

In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Lake told us how he did it.

How did the idea for the story come about and what was the initial vision?

This all started last spring, around the time Tebow left the Jets. The editors and I wanted to understand how and why a quarterback could lead his team to the playoffs, win a game in overtime against the league’s top-ranked defense, and then find himself unwanted by all 32 teams in the NFL.

Around mid-July, I was ready to give up. Tebow had become too famous for his own good, and he was trying to stay out of the spotlight. Not only was he not cooperating, he was making sure his close friends and relatives didn’t return my calls. I had some material in my notebook from watching him speak in Dothan, Ala., so I filed 2,000 words on that event and prepared to move on.

Then I heard back from Chris Stone, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated. He liked those 2,000 words. He said that was one chapter. Now write six more.

It was quite a bold vision: Do a story twice as long as anything you’ve ever done, and do it with little or no access to the main subject or his close friends. Stone believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And I’m thankful for that. Because we came up with a story that I’d thought was impossible.

Access seemed like a major challenge – you even acknowledge in the first section that Tebow and his advisors wished the story would have never been written. So how did the lack of access change your approach?

That lack of access meant I had to do two things:

1. Study all the Tebow material from the public domain. Meaning his autobiography, a couple of other books about him, several documentary films, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, many hours of game footage, and so on. In that material I wanted to connect some dots that might not have been connected before.

2. Track down and interview people who had known Tebow in the past but didn’t currently know him well enough to ask his permission to give an interview. I printed out the rosters from his Florida Gators teams and just went down the list. Dozens of calls and e-mails and Facebook messages. Probably the most important discovery was Tony Joiner, his former roommate, because Joiner knew a lot about Tebow and the program but had essentially fallen off the map. After many dead ends, I tracked him down in Fort Myers, Fla., where he was working for a bail-bonds company. Joiner gave me a long, candid and deeply insightful interview that laid the foundation for the second and third sections of the story. Then I interviewed many other Gators who confirmed what Joiner said.

How did you ultimately convince Tebow, or his people, to grant you an interview?

New England Patriots spokesman Stacey James arranged my first interview with Tebow. That took weeks of negotiations. Once I met Tebow face-to-face, other doors began to open. He authorized a visit to his foundation headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla. His older brother Robby talked to me. But after Tebow left the Patriots, it was very hard to get that follow-up interview in Los Angeles. Five months of effort led to only six minutes on the record.

You know how it works, though. We take what we get and we make the best of it. Six minutes are better than zero.

Were you ever apprehensive about profiling someone who had been covered so aggressively by so many reporters for so long?

Of course. I find it easier to write about people who have never been famous, or people who left the spotlight a long time ago. There’s so much more undiscovered material. But even with Tim Tebow, there was plenty left to discover. And even more to explain.

How many people did you interview, and how long did the process take from when the reporting first began to the day the story published?

I wanted to interview 100 people, but it was astonishing how many former teammates declined to talk about him. In the end it was probably 30. That’s just a guess. About seven months passed from the day I got the initial assignment to the day the story went live. (I was working on other stories during that time as well.)

The story ran at 15,000 words. How long was the first draft, and was anything cut that you wish had survived?

Very little was cut from this story. The assignment came with a prescribed length, and I turned it in very close to that length. Gary Smith, my mentor at Sports Illustrated, gave it a read and a fine-toothed edit before I sent it to the bosses in New York. (I also sent it to my writer friends Chris Goffard and John Timpe, as I do with many stories, and they were helpful, as always.)

It’s funny, though: Gary has won more National Magazine Awards than anyone else, and discussions about him often center on empathy and diligent reporting and having a heart and all that. Which they should. But you know what else gets Gary fired up? Grammar. Shortening a nine-word sentence to seven words. The correct placement of a comma.

Gary is obsessive about those small things. Listen up, young writers. Spell everything right. Double-check all names and facts. Study the work of Roy Peter Clark and William Zinsser. Become a skilled technician of the English language. The small things make a huge difference.

I think Chris Jones from Esquire said it best on Gangrey.com: Your story is brave. To me, that’s due in large part because of how open you were with your faith. Why did you decide to be so honest, and what did your editors say about that choice?

If I ever have to fight my way out of a dark alley, I hope Jones is there to lead the charge. Come to think of it, Tebow would do pretty well there, too. The guy is fearless.

I write stories for a living, and a few years ago I came to this conclusion: The story of Jesus Christ really is the greatest story ever told. Tim Tebow believes that, too. In a story like this one, that connection is a powerful thing. We can pretend to be “objective” or “unbiased” all we want, but we all believe in something. Atheism is just another kind of belief.

All that aside, the facts are the facts. I’m a reporter, and I want to be judged on the quality of my reporting. Which is why I didn’t shy away from Tebow’s shortcomings as a quarterback. Likewise, when I wrote “The Boy Who Died of Football,” I didn’t give the coach a pass. The fact that he was a Christian didn’t change the fact that he had behaved irresponsibly on the day one of his players literally ran himself to death in practice.

As for the editors, I guess they said all they needed to say by publishing the Tebow story the way I wrote it.

At times, you seem to let the reader know that you like Tebow, even quoting yourself after an interview with him: “ ‘Kinda gets you all fired up,’ the reporter said on the way down the tunnel.” Why did you reveal that?

Tebow was as likable as anyone I’ve met in my career, and there was no sense in pretending otherwise. I wanted the reader to know that explicitly.

The story sparked lots of discussion, including some criticism, particularly from Deadspin. Their review alleged, among other things, that your story offered little new information about Tebow. How do you respond to that (or any of the other criticisms)?

I’ll respond with a question of my own. At your funeral, what do you want people to say about you? Do you want them to say “the guy was great at cutting people down.” Or “he sure knew how to dish out ridicule and scorn.” Or “he proved his brilliance through relentless cruelty.” The smartest people I know are also the kindest. And that’s no coincidence.

How did you expect readers to react to the story?

I was pretty sure some people would like it, some would hate it, and some wouldn’t bother to read it. It’s very long.

How have they reacted?

The response has been 95 percent positive. A few criticisms here and there, but mostly people liked the story. The most pleasant surprise came from the frontman of a well-known indie-rock band, who followed me on Twitter and then responded to my direct message to say he enjoyed the story. I told him how much I enjoy his songwriting.

What was the hardest part about reporting the story?

All the rejection, I guess — all the dozens of calls and emails and letters that went unreturned. Sometimes it felt like punching a stone wall.

What’s your least favorite thing about the story?

I wish it had been an inside look at Tebow’s life — a piece about what it’s actually like to be him. I had to settle for “Tebow, From a Distance.”

What’s your favorite thing about the story?

The seventh section is the best one. But you have to read an awful lot of words to get there.

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