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For nearly two decades, Ivan Maisel lived the dream of every up-and-coming sports reporter who fell asleep watching greats like the late Stuart Scott on TV: Work for ESPN.
From July to January, Maisel worked almost seven days a week covering everything from former Texas quarterback Vince Young’s “dancing in the backfield” to Alabama coach Nick Saban’s “efficient, powerful Tide.”
He spent the remaining months trying to do “as little as possible”: visiting his two daughters in San Francisco and golfing, researching for his next set of think pieces and writing the stories behind the players and programs they performed for.
Maisel thought his major role in ESPN’s multiplatform storytelling project highlighting the 150th anniversary of college football was job insurance. Amid years of layoffs, salary cuts and company adjustments to the cut-the-cord era, he had no reason to believe he would soon lose his job.
When the project ended at the onset of 2020, Maisel had to reintegrate himself into ESPN’s college football coverage, which the project had taken him from.
“Just because I wasn’t there didn’t mean we didn’t have people doing what I used to do. They just absorbed my duties. … I kind of feel like I never really figured out last year what to do,” he said.
Then, in October, Maisel had lunch with his friend and boss, Lauren Reynolds, current vice president and executive editor for ESPN Digital Media. The two spent 90 minutes talking about his next three-year contract, which he had been accustomed to signing throughout his ESPN career.
Two weeks later, he found out there wouldn’t be another one.
After earning his bachelor’s from Stanford University in 1981, Maisel spent years bouncing around newsrooms across the country, including the Orlando Sentinel, The Dallas Morning News and Sports Illustrated.
During the summer of 2002, while in his second stint at Sports Illustrated, Maisel ran into John Marvel, his old press box friend and then-head of ESPN.com, about a job opportunity.
“He approached me at the U.S. Open that year, which was in Bethpage on Long Island, and just said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of hiring a college football writer. Would you be interested?’” Maisel recalled.
At the time, people were still learning how to navigate the internet. Maisel was used to getting calls about job opportunities at different websites, some of which struggled to find the funding necessary for longevity.
But ESPN had it together, and he wasn’t happy at Sports Illustrated, which he felt lacked a collaborative work environment.
“I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know what’s gonna happen with the internet, but I know ESPN is not going anywhere. So, you know, this is worth taking a shot,’” he said.
Maisel would soon become the inaugural college football writer for ESPN.com, providing him access to people and events that he wouldn’t have otherwise gotten.
He attended a Michigan football team meeting to watch a music professor teach the players how to properly sing the university’s fight song. Former Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher named him an honorary coach for the team’s spring game. There isn’t much he’s asked Saban for that the seven-time national champion hasn’t agreed to do.
He also got a glimpse into the company’s inner workings.
About every 18 to 24 months, there was change. The company’s mission was shifting, technology was advancing and the way people consumed content was evolving.
Contrary to what Maisel expected when he first arrived at ESPN, there was soon an insistence that everyone “be more than a one-tool player.” He began podcasting and making television appearances — a stark contrast from the ESPN that once considered writers worthy in their own right.
Then tragedy struck.
On Feb. 23, 2015, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in Rochester, New York, alerted Maisel that his 21-year-old son, Max, who attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, was missing near the south shore of Lake Ontario in below-freezing temperatures.
Max’s car was found in a parking lot a mile east from a family member’s summer home — a location the family had traveled to for every summer of his life.
“Max was a photography major and had driven into Ontario to take some photos at some point, so they had a record of the car crossing the border — and they had a record of who was driving it, so they knew who Max was,” Maisel said.
“As he’s sort of asking me questions, I immediately put two and two together and just thought: ‘He’s dead.’”
There was every indication that Max had committed suicide, including someone who had watched him walk down the pier. The witness noticed he didn’t return.
There was every possibility that the body of Maisel’s middle child wouldn’t resurface until outside temperatures got warmer.
After failed searches and a eulogy from Maisel, Max’s body was discovered by a fisherman at the lake nearly two months after his disappearance, on April 17, 2015.
“After Max died, I was a lot more, and I think I’m a lot more cold-eyed and sort of looking at something and going, ‘OK, that’s the story. That’s what you need to write’ and writing it and moving on,” Maisel said. “I guess the empathy that I gained from having gone through this, for people and for what they go through, all made me a better writer, and a better portrayer of people.”
It took Maisel five years and a global pandemic to find the willpower to write about his late son.
The five years gave the veteran journalist enough time to provide perspective on what he and his family had endured. “And yet was still close enough that the memories were fresh enough to be able to discuss them and ruminate upon them,” he said.
He began to write over the course of several months until he had 90,000 words of material in his laptop. After sending a proposal to his book agent, she helped him refocus his writing and gave him six months to put it all together.
The book, “I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye: A Memoir of Loss, Grief, and Love,” is set to publish Oct. 26. Maisel’s goal with the book is for people to not remember Max by the way he died, but how he lived.
“People are so scared of death and grieving death,” Maisel said. “I thought if I can explain what happened to us … then maybe people wouldn’t be so scared of it.”
His contract at ESPN expired on Jan. 31. Though he was disappointed and hurt, he knew his departure had nothing to do with the quality of his work. In fact, the company he spent nearly two decades of his career at still holds a special place in his heart.
“ESPN was fantastic to me and to my family. … I keep coming back to the word ‘ethos.’ I mean, that’s a central tenet of how ESPN does its business,” Maisel said. “If you have personal issues, or there’s something that’s going on with your family, you have the freedom to deal with it.
“I’m disappointed in how things ended at ESPN, but … overall, my experience was positive,” he added.
Maisel began taking on some freelance work until he realized he wasn’t impressed with the pay. He recently found a new home at On3.com, a website set to launch in August focusing on college sports.
He wants On3 to become “a great success,” a place people go to for everything college football has to offer.
“My driveway to the parking lot of my golf course is four minutes; my wife and I like to travel; our daughters both got pandemic puppies; you know, there’s a lot of things to do around here and a lot of toys to throw; a lot of fetch to play,” Maisel said.
“But I just decided I wanted to still be relevant.”
Advancements in technology taught Maisel to adapt. His experiences — from losing his son to losing his job — taught him to accept what happens in life and “keep moving.”
“I think if you live long enough, something really painful is gonna happen to you. For some people, that happens early in their life,” he said. “I was 55. … I thought I was charmed. I was just gonna skate through without anything really bad happening.”
“I was wrong.”
This story is part of a series, Some Personal News, that shares experiences of people who were laid off from their journalism jobs or left the news during the pandemic. We know thousands of people lost their jobs last year, and want to capture the stories of journalists, printing plant employees, ad sales people, news researchers and anyone else whose employment by newsrooms ended or was altered because of the pandemic. You can tell us your story here.