On Sept. 5, Maisel posted a piece on ESPN.com on Stanford’s Kevin Hogan. The quarterback has been coping with grief after his father died last December.
Maisel writes in the story, “The calendar isn’t always what ages us. It can be what happens along the way.”
Maisel was writing about Hogan, but the line also applies to him.
The story was one of the first Maisel did after returning to work following the death of his 21-year-old son, Max, in February. The Hogan story had been on the long-time college football reporter’s radar since last winter prior to what occurred with his son.
“I didn’t do the story as a grief exercise,” Maisel said. “I did it because it was a good story.”
Maisel talked with Hogan’s mother, Donna, who broke down during a phone interview. After they hung up, she was concerned about revealing such private feelings and asked Maisel if she could see the story before it was published. He declined the request, citing the old-age journalist standard about not providing sources with a sneak peak.
Maisel replied with a text: “I told you that I had some sense of your loss, then turned around and told you my wife is taking our youngest to Stanford. No, I am not a widower. But we lost our 21-year-old son Max six months ago. I have learned that everyone grieves differently. But I didn’t hesitate to ask you about Jerry [Hogan’s late husband] because I now have a sense of what it means to ask, and to answer, and I am not afraid of the emotion in the answers. So I can promise you that I will treat what you said with respect.”
Donna Hogan sent back a text: “Oh my goodness, I didn’t know. You understand what grief is.”
After the story ran, Donna sent Maisel another text: “I’m sitting here in tears. You were right to tell me to trust you.”
“That was really gratifying to hear,” Maisel said.
Looking back, Maisel knows the impact of what happened to him affected how he reported the story. He says he was able to ask questions that “rounded off the edges.”
“My new-found sensitivity was a gift that I was able to plunk out the carnage of what Max left behind,” Maisel said. “The key for all of us is to hear the questions before we ask them. How will it sound to your subject’s ears so you can elicit the best responses? It took me way too long to figure that out.”
Maisel admits it hasn’t been easy for him to dive into the new college football season. He and his family’s world were turned upside down when they received word that Max, a third-year student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was missing and presumed drowned in Lake Ontario; his body was found two months later.
At a memorial service, Maisel talked about coming to terms with Max’s apparent suicide. However, the moving eulogy was more about celebrating his son’s life.
“We didn’t want him to be defined by how he died,” Maisel said. “We wanted him to be defined by how he lived.”
Maisel said he and his family were buoyed by the immense outpouring of support from the sports journalist community. He also heard from numerous college football coaches and administrators.
Six weeks after Max died, Maisel got a call from Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who was profusely apologizing.
“Ivan, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry,” Stoops said.
In June, Maisel was in Mark Helfrich’s office for an interview. As things were wrapping up, the Oregon coach turned to him and said, “I’ve got a question for you. How are you doing?”
“I fell apart,” Maisel said. “I wasn’t expecting that. We sat there for another 20-25 minutes. He lost his parents. We talked about loss and grief.”
The trip to Oregon was a brief interlude during an extended time away from work for Maisel. He said he heard twice from ESPN president John Skipper, who repeatedly asked, “Just tell us what you need.”
The break allowed Maisel “to focus on my grief and family.” The passage of time is helping, he said, to some extent.
“Part of me doesn’t want to let go of the sharp grief because that is a way to hold onto him,” Maisel said. “But that’s not feasible for the long haul.”
Eventually, though, the new season loomed, and Maisel returned to the grind. Last Saturday, he was at Syracuse for the LSU-Syracuse game before heading down to Baton Rouge Sunday to work on a feature.
Maisel, a native of Mobile who was weaned on Alabama and Paul “Bear” Bryant, usually thrives on the many pulses of college football. Understandably, he feels different this year.
“I admit it’s been difficult to focus on work and try to process the grief,” Maisel said.
However, much like Stanford’s Hogan, Maisel keeps pushing on. He says he doesn’t want to have Max’s death “be the reason why I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“It’s a new challenge,” Maisel said. “We’re in uncharted territory. We’re all just trying to do the best we can.”
Recommended reading on sports journalism:
Julie DiCaro, a reporter for a sports talk station in Chicago, writes in SI.com about the vile tweets she received after making comments about the Patrick Kane situation.
Sports Illustrated Greg Bishop tells Mark Selig at Back Story how he reported and organized a long story on Aaron Rodgers.