The time I tried writing a profile…

31 Oct

sullivan_jerryJerry Sullivan

As the senior sports columnist for the Buffalo News, Jerry Sullivan gets paid for something not many other people get paid for—his opinion. He gives it four or five times a week in his column, exclusively about the Buffalo Bills, and on his blog. He doesn’t have to interview, or go out reporting, really. He just has to say what he thinks, and frequently.

You wouldn’t notice this award-winning writer if you passed him in the grocery store. He looks like the average middle-aged guy whose hair is starting to go a little gray around the edges. When he shows up for the interview, he’s wearing a red and white striped button down shirt, khaki pants, blue coat, and a blue baseball cap with a baseball team’s logo swiped across the front.

His black glasses are about the only thing cool he’s wearing. They’re stylish, trendy even, the ones with the thick sides and no visible rims. He sits down at the desk. He doesn’t lean back in his chair, or lean forward. He just sits.

“I didn’t prepare anything, but I usually don’t,” he says, reaching for his Aquafina water bottle, taking a long swig.  

Students check their phones for the time. They text their friends from within purses. Some mutter they don’t know who this guy is. The only reason I know who he is, is because after every Bills game my dad asks my little brother (or vice versa) “So, what did Jerry say about it?” I may not be into sports writing, but I’ve gathered Sullivan’s column is a respected voice from within the community, a voice people pay attention to, and so I do too.

He talks for a bit about what he does, about what the life of a columnist is like and how his readership responds to his column.

“I get this a lot: ‘I feel like you’re my voice,’” he says. “You forget that readers aren’t writers.”

He said he gets about 200 emails a week from readers responding to his column.

None of it excites him much. He talks about it like anyone talks about a job they’ve been doing for twenty years. It’s work, and you feel it in his Rhode Island voice that pronounces the word golf, “g-a-lf.”

When it comes to print, Sullivan is all tradition. He dislikes technology—facebook, twitter, the whole lot of it—because it detracts from the purity of his true work, his column, and because it makes him do more work altogether.

“I’m the senior old-time guy that wants them to go away (facebook and twitter). I don’t even care to know what’s on there.”

He has no shame admitting this utter distaste for technology.

“Three years ago I just had my column. Now I have radio, blog, chat. It compromises my primary job as a writer. I never expected to work so hard for the same amount of money,” he says.

He pauses to clarify that blogging is in fact writing, but he doesn’t sound convinced. He says it like a man who realized he will never love another woman. For Sullivan, print will always be his priority, his passion, his first and only love. Anything taking him away from that printed column is nothing short of lechery.

“I threw three up today,” he says about his blog posts, as if they were a barely tolerable nuisance.

His column, on the other hand, is what keeps him up at night.

“What I really worry about is the column. I’m obsessed with it. I don’t lie awake at night thinking about my blog.”

Thought Sullivan writes almost exclusively about the Bills, he’s not affectionate towards them. He regards the team with indifference.

“I tend to be a sarcastic person, which lends itself well to writing about the Bills,” he says. “I’m not a fan. The root word for fan is fanatic. I’m a fan of language, of writing, of good stories.”

Sullivan is someone who will go anywhere and stand up to anyone, for his story.

When he started his career at 23-years-old as a sports writer at the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin, he wrote some things the local hockey team didn’t care to hear. Just to prove he wasn’t afraid to show his face to the team, he walked into their locker room one night after a practice.

It didn’t take long for one of the disgruntled players to notice the skinny writer. A six foot 4 inch defenseman backed Sullivan up against a locker until his feet were practically dangling off the floor. The brutish hockey player threatened him.

Sullivan responded, “I’ll be the first person you’ve hit all year.”

Phasing out of this fond recollection, he said, “I think Athletes and coaches will appreciate you if you show you’re not afraid of them.”

Sullivan was born in 1955 in Newport, Rhode Island. He had two siblings. When he was young, he wanted to be a sports announcer on the radio.

 “My earliest memories are listening to those little radio transmitters,” he said. “I was one of those sports geeks as a kid.”

When he went away to a college he never before visited, (a decision he says he can still hardly believe he made) the University of Missouri, he discovered newspapers.

He remembers what it felt like seeing his first article in print. He remembers being amazed at the process, at how all he had to do was go out, interview people, write about it, and then there was his name “Jerry Sullivan” in the paper.                                                                                     

“It gets in your blood,” he said about newspapers, “the process of a newspaper coming together, everyone thinking they’re cool because they’re a part of this paper.”

After graduating with a journalism degree, he got a job as a sports writer for the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin. After a few years at the Bulletin he left for Los Angelis in a “blaze of glory,” involving fistfights and lots of beer, to go find himself. When he finished finding himself in California, he went back to work in NY again at the Bulletin.

After a few years he left the Bulletin and went to work at the Syracuse Herald-Journal.

It was there that Sullivan wrote his first column. And it was the first time he wrote news instead of stories.

He loved it, the column and the news.

Sullivan also recalls liking the police beat. He told one story about writing an article about a homeless man who froze behind a building. He said he liked the feeling of writing about things that were more important than sports.

What he liked about news stories were the interviews.

“Having someone pour their heart out to you can be a very powerful thing,” he said of his news interviews “I wrote stories more compelling than about a quarterback.”

It was while he was at the Herald-Journal that he fell in love with column writing. Though, he wasn’t necessarily good at it—yet.

“I remember my city editor saying, ‘You’re doing great, except for your column.’ And I was like, ‘That’s the thing I care about most!”

Sullivan eventually left the Syracuse paper, went down to New York City to be with his future wife. While there, he got back into sports writing. Eventually he made his way to Buffalo where he began as a sports columnist. This time, he was good, very good.

Sullivan says that every little negative comment people send him about his column “hurts.” He may seem arrogant to some, but there in the chair he just seems sensitive. And, through talking to him, you get the sense he’s really done with sports. After all, he wanted to be a news columnist.

“I find it rewarding, but sometimes I wish I was writing about something else.”

Maybe he wishes he became a radio sports announcer, his earliest dream. Or, more likely than not, maybe he just wishes he was in a completely different realm than sports, even though it is one people try so desperately to get into. Maybe he just wishes he had been at home rather than on the road reporting when his daughter took her first step.

He’s relaxed now, and his hands are clasped behind his head as he leans back in his chair. He speaks like a writer who knows his English language. His is eloquent speech in a natural sort of way, and I find I’m putting, in my mind, little black quotation marks around much of what he says.

What keeps him going during long days posting multiple blog posts on top of the pressures of column writing and responding to hundreds of emails is the thought that some young kid who only reads the Buffalo News for the sports section will become more literate through reading good sports journalism. Yes, Sullivan writes about sports, but what defines him is not the team he writes four or five days a week about. Anyone can do that. What defines him is his love for the language.

I mean, what other sports columnist do you know who reads novels while pumping gas?

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