Monday, April 23, 2012

Well... I have an announcement

I've written somewhere around 1,700 columns for the
Charlotte Observer. This is the hardest one.

I'm leaving the paper and taking a new job.

I'll be writing about sports for a new website. It's part of a
joint venture between The USA Today Sports Media Group and
Major League Baseball Advanced Media. I'll be writing about
all sports -- in particular, I think, college football. More details
are coming next month, and the site should launch sometime
this summer.

I'll be here at the Observer two more weeks.

Let me stop for a second and try to breathe.

This is hard. I still love the Observer, and always will. My wife, Alix Felsing, will still be working
for the paper. We’re staying in Charlotte. I'm not running away from the Observer. I'm running  toward this new thing, with the hope that one day it'll make me as proud as I've been to work 23 years for this great newspaper.

Y’all – meaning everyone who has taken the time to read
something of mine over the years – have been such a
pleasure to write for, and talk to, and figure out the world
with. We've shared some of our most profound thoughts,
and some of the deepest places in our hearts. As long as I’m
alive, you’ll be a part of me.

All of you know that things have been tough for newspapers
the past few years. Some days haven’t been much fun. But
most days still are, because we still have the biggest and
best news operation in the Carolinas, and we still have gifted
journalists who work their tails off to get you the news every

I'll miss a lot of things, but maybe what I'll miss the most is those days when a big story happens and all the brainpower and hustle in this newsroom focuses on doing the story right. Nobody can beat us on those days. Nobody.

The Observer will be here long after all of us are gone. And it's still the best deal in town.

So the fair question is, why am I leaving all this?

Part of it is that lately I've felt a pull toward writing sports. I've dabbled in it for the paper, but I've wondered what it would be like to write sports full-time. There's a built-in joy to sports -- at the end of every game at least half the fans are happy, and that's more than you can say about a lot of things in life. More than that, sports gives a writer access to all the big issues -- love, loss, the desire to connect with other people, the longing for something larger than yourself.

My bosses at the Observer, as we were talking all this out, offered me a chance to write a lot about sports. But there was something more in my head.

Let me try to describe it.

Sometimes, when you’re going down the highway, you can
look over and see another road running beside the one
you’re on. I’ve spent a lot of time on the highway, and I've often wondered
about those people on the other road, how the world might
look from over there, how our journeys might be
different even though the direction is the same.

The thing is, you can’t know unless you take the other road.

This road I’ve been on with the Observer, and with you, has
been the trip of a lifetime.

This paper gave me a chance at the greatest job I've ever had. And it only worked out because so many of you gave me a chance and let me into your lives, a few hundred words at a time.

I'll have some more to say over these next couple of weeks. For now, let me say thank you. And let me also say that thank you isn't nearly enough.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Virginia Tech, five years later

Today is the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. I was at lunch uptown that day when my editor called. He said I probably needed to get up to Blacksburg. Why? I asked. All I'd heard at that point was that there'd been a shooting on campus, and one person had died.

There's more, he said. A lot more.

J. Freedom du Lac of the Washington Post has a great piece on the survivors (one in particular) and other people who lived that day up close. Make sure to look at the photos and video, too.

I wrote two columns from Blacksburg. Here are those pieces.


The cold wind blew in overnight, it brought snow to the Virginia Tech campus Monday morning, around the time the early risers heard the first shots.

The wind blew harder at midmorning, when the people on the upper floors of Norris Hall heard the guns firing again and again from down below.

It blew in the news that was impossible. Thirty-three dead. Another score wounded. A campus with its heart cut out.

Two students waited to get a table for supper at Shakey's, right across from campus, and pieced together the day.

"My dad called, " said senior Joe Lemanski, 24. "It woke me up. He said something was going on."

"I heard at work, " said senior Brian Snyder, 22. "The first report said there was one dead. We couldn't believe it. Then the next report, there were 20."

By the time the full reckoning was complete, it had become the worst mass shooting in American history. You could not imagine it anywhere. But especially not here, among these gorgeous stone buildings, across the flat green lawn of the Drillfield in the middle of campus.

You do notice one thing. No buds on the trees. Spring never got here.

Two died early from the shots fired at Ambler Johnston Hall, a dorm on the south side of campus. Then 31 more two hours later at Norris Hall, a classroom building on the northside.

So many questions and so few answers.

Some news report said the gunman was a nonstudent, possibly with a girlfriend on campus. Police did not name him but said he used his last bullet on himself.

No one released the names of those who died.

The morning was chaos. Cell phones couldn't get through because so many people were trying to call. Police locked down the campus. Students watched from buildings across the way as people inside Norris jumped from second-story windows to escape.

By evening, as the wind blew even harder, the campus felt empty. A few students ventured from their dorms, walking in silence. Up at the War Memorial Chapel, a solitary student waited with a camera until the sun sank to the top edge of Norris Hall. He stood up, took one picture, and left.

We will sit down and have a discussion soon about guns, about campus security, about what happened in those hours between the first group of shots and the second.

Not now.

For now, think about what it's like to be in college, walking the bridge between child and grown-up, wearing old sweatshirts and drinking cheap beer, and dreaming up schemes that would let you always live this way.

Just after the sun set, a student named Shannon Turner set out candles on the lawn next to Henderson Hall.

She picked that spot because that's where people gather on sunny days to walk their dogs and throw Frisbees and work their bare feet into the grass.

She puts the candles in a Mason jar, a jelly jar, a flower vase. Pretty soon, some friends stopped by. She pinched off the blooms from a store-bought bouquet and handed them out.

Somebody asked her what kind of place Blacksburg is.

"It's not the kind of place where something like this can happen, " she said.

But, of course, it did.

And so the kids hugged each other close and lit candles against the bitter wind.

That's the first column. You can find the second one over here at my website.

I still think about those two days a lot.