It may surprise you to learn the finest young sportswriter—perhaps the finest young writer period—in America is a Christian. It’s true: Thomas Lake, all of 31 years of age and currently a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, graduated from Gordon College in Massachusetts.
Lake has drawn major attention for his long-form journalism, which expertly mixes soaring set pieces and ground-level investigation. In most cases a journalist excels at either the craft of storytelling or the labor of research. Lake succeeds in both areas, and a third of far greater importance: writing with genuine moral vision borne of faith in a risen Christ. Readers new to Lake should start with the stunning “The Boy They Couldn’t Kill,” “2 on 5,” ”The Way It Should Be,” and “Bad Nights in the NFL.” Be prepared to shed tears as you read these stem-winding articles.
I recently conducted an appropriately long-form interview with this expert writer. Those who enjoy writing and examples of exceptional cultural engagement by Christians (recorded in books like Faith in the Halls of Power by Gordon College president D. Michael Lindsay) will profit from Lake’s commentary. During an exhilarating hour and a half, we covered many things: Lake’s winding background, what it’s like to work at the country’s premier sports magazine, and how pastors can best preach the ultimate story.
Tell us the basic details about yourself.
Grew up in metro Atlanta. My dad was the pastor of a charismatic church in Tucker, Georgia. The church met in a YWCA building, and there were about 100 members. It was a sort of old-fashioned conservative church. I was one of six kids, all home-schooled, and I couldn’t have predicted that I would wind up in a job that puts me in the mainstream this way. It’s been a gradual process, one small step by small step. It’s really such an exciting chance that I have to tell these stories that inspire and get the chance for so many people to read them.
When did you see yourself developing as a writer and a storyteller?
It must have started with all the reading I did as a kid. My mom, Elizabeth, always fostered the love of reading in her kids, so we would go to the library and come back with 50 or 60 books at a time. She basically let us read whatever we were interested in. Now with home-schooling programs getting more closely monitored and reporting getting tougher, I don’t know if we could get away with that. The only thing she had to do in the 1980s was fill out attendance reports. So as long as we were in attendance for 180 days of the year, it worked. We could follow our curiosity. So for me, as an 8-year-old boy, that meant World War II, sports, or even reading the encyclopedia with my brother. That sounds strange (laughs), but that was a good fit for us.
It fits today. Sometimes I see a kernel that makes me want to know more. I look into it, and it ends up meaning that I go out and talk to people and do a lot of reading. One thing I did have to work on was being more outgoing. The idea of knocking on peoples’ doors was terrifying.
When did you embrace the Christian faith?
Certainly growing up it was very easy in the sense that on Sunday we went to church, where my dad was preaching. It doesn’t really become a choice until you’re out on your own. It took quite a while for me to be serious. That meant for close to ten years after college I was really not going to church very much—one, two, three times a year. Some of that was because I always had to move to a new job. It really wasn’t until about a year ago that my wife and I said we’re going to start going to church again. It so happened that a new church opened in our area—Oakhurst Church. It’s a brand-new church, and it’s very welcoming, and we’re thrilled to be members there. It took a long time of wandering around and being uncertain to come to the place where I said, Okay, this is who I am, and this is what I believe now.
You frequently weave together both a narrative arc and a moral theme in your writing. How do you see story and truth, narrative and precept, interacting?
That’s the biggest challenge with every story. I do it in a low-tech way, with an 8.5-by-11 sheet of paper. I scribble on it, writing in all caps the one word I hope will carry the story. For this most recent one about Rae Carruth and his son, the one word was forgiveness. Once I knew the story was going to be about that, I wanted all the strands to relate to that theme. Usually I don’t state that explicitly at the beginning, but for some reason that felt important this time, because when I think of forgiveness there are two basic categories: the kind where you get serious satisfaction by coming together and getting it all washed away, and the other kind where the other person doesn’t believe it, and you’re left with nothing but your will to forgive.
I say this as a person who has never had a family member killed. So think about Saundra Adams (mother of the murdered Cherica Adams, grandmother of Carruth’s disabled son) and the choice she had to make. That became a way to organize the story: what were all the things she had to forgive, and what effect did that forgiveness have on her future? In the case of her grandson that was a profound thing.
Why is sportswriting—ostensibly about games and playing—such a fertile ground for philosophical pondering and ethical reflection?
Sports are sort of about life and sort of not. You can’t stretch the metaphor too far. Let’s be honest—this story that I just had, it was in a sports magazine because it had to do with an athlete, but it wasn’t. But others certainly are.
The first one I did for the magazine was “2 on 5,” where these two boys did this incredible comeback, something that has rarely been done anywhere, they came back in the game two-on-five, and you hope that this will set them up for success. But as it turned out, one of the guys, Robert—look at his circumstances. His father had been a cop-killer, his mother was very poor. It was going to be hard no matter what. He thought this game would change everything. He got recognized one time in a doctor’s office, but that was it. He got up and still needed to do everything he was supposed to do. The other guy, Chad Cobb, did better. But even he was shot in the leg by one of his teammates many years later.
There are limits to the effect of sport on life. At the same time, in those moments when you’re on the court, it’s all reduced to these bursts of energy, and you’re testing yourself and you can make some connections, and some beautiful things can happen inside those lines.
Another example is what happened out in Washington State, when the softball player hurt her knee and the girls decided to carry her (profiled in “The Way it Should Be“). That cost them a run, but people all around the world were inspired by such a simple act of decency. It was only a game, but in the moment, it was bigger than that, and when you find such moments, it can be really exciting to tell the whole story.
What do you make of football violence and the growing body of research about head injuries and concussions?
That’s one of the great moral issues of our time, because football is—we all know by now—terribly violent and in many cases damaging to people’s brains, can leave them with their lives ruined, even in some cases dead much too soon. Basically everyone in America knows this by now, but we keep watching. Why? Is the game too entertaining, we can’t tear ourselves away? I don’t know. It seems like a great national case of cognitive dissonance. I don’t really know what to do about it—do you?
Patrick Hruby wrote a great piece, “End Game,” saying he had stopped watching sports. I keep telling myself, One of these days I’m going to stop watching football, but I don’t. I’m afraid that there are too many other people like myself in the same place.
But here’s the thing: football is one of the last things in America that everyone still talks about. The mass culture has fragmented; everyone has their own niche. It’s hard to talk about things anymore. Everyone has their own TV show, music—but there’s still football. Turning away is unplugging from society.
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Come back tomorrow to read part two of Owen Strachan’s interview with Thomas Lake.