Seven years ago, as Stephen Brunt drove his family back from a wedding in Chicago, he realized he was near the home of his childhood hero. And Brunt had heard it was possible to just drop in on Muhammad Ali. “What the heck?” he thought. “It’s just off the road.” He stopped at a store in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and asked for directions to the ex-champ’s farm. Then he drove his car down a dead-end road where he came to a security intercom on a gate marked “M. Ali.” A tree-lined driveway led to a white frame house, where the Brunt family was met by Lonnie, the boxer’s fourth wife. For one unforgettable afternoon, they talked, laughed and reminisced with the man known the world over as The Greatest. Brunt’s son squealed with delight as a playful Ali chased him around and lifted him into the air.
As a sports columnist for The Globe and Mail, Brunt had met a bevy of great athletes. But this was different and, happy to just have met Ali, he initially chose not to write about the experience. “I don’t like writing overtly personal stuff. You reveal yourself through it,” he says. “I let people try to figure me out through the stuff I write, rather than say, ‘Here I am.’ ” Brunt changed his mind, however. “I wanted to share that experience and let readers know that Ali’s okay.” The story, entitled “The Greatest,” earned him a National Newspaper Award nomination.
Brunt is the current torchbearer of the literary sportswriting tradition started over 40 years ago in Canada. Yet the reluctance to make himself the story, the traditionally meagre role of sports at the Globe and the changing role of newspaper sports coverage in the TV age have sentenced him to relative anonymity. With the revamping of the Globe‘s sports section last fall, Brunt now has a greater chance to shine. But even if his profile grows, he must avoid the burnout that has ruined many veteran sportswriters. “This is not a business that lets you age gracefully, but I would like that,” he says. Fans should hope Brunt’s desire endures because he is the rare writer who gives readers a sense of sports beyond the highlights.
Although a newspaper’s sports department is often dismissed, in the words of the late Dick Beddoes, as “the toy factory” of journalism, sportswriting a notch or two above beat reporting has a rich history in Canada. During the ’50s, when Maclean’s was a monthly general-interest magazine, editor Ralph Allen embraced a higher level of sportswriting. In the ’60s and ’70s, sportswriting became a staple of the weekly rotogravures,The Canadian,Star Weekly and Weekend Magazine.The Canadian‘s writing staff during the ’70s, for example, included three masters of the form: Earl McRae, who regularly profiled athletes; Roy MacGregor, a reporter who covered politics and had a flair for writing about hockey; and Tom Alderman, a staff writer who later joined CBC’s The Journal, But if the tradition had one home, it was in the sports section of The Globe and Mail. In 1958, Scott Young became the first of the great Globe sports columnists. He was followed by the flamboyant and often outrageous Dick Beddoes. Then Allen Abel held the post for six years before Trent Frayne, a veteran sportswriter, took over.
These writers saw past statistics into the deeper, and sometimes darker, aspects of sport. They offered more than inflated box-score stories or the PR-generated fluff that beat reporters regularly churned out. “The beat writer was not nearly as candid, cutting and forthright about the athlete and the situation because the beat writer always had to come back into that dressing room the next day and face that athlete,” says Don Obe, editor of The Canadian from 1973 to 1977. Many reporters were unwilling to criticize team owners or players, fearing, in some cases, physical assault or job loss. Some even hoped to befriend athletes. But literary sportswriters were removed from the game and prepared to dispel popular starry-eyed notions and dismantle the mythmaking machine. Many of these writers, however, refuse the “literary sportswriter” label. “That sounds so pretentious,” says Brunt. “I’m a newspaper guy. I don’t have any intentions of being anything else.” Still, it’s a genre deserving of survival and greater public attention.
Brunt had no idea he’d be any kind of sportswriter when he left his home in Hamilton for the University of Western Ontario in London. He wanted to study music and even knew how to play the trombone. But, afraid of ending up a music teacher, he transferred to the English program and maintained his love of music by writing about it for The Gazette, the university paper, and The London Free Press. In his final year he decided on journalism as a career and enrolled in Western’s graduate program. He landed an internship in the Globe‘s arts section in 1982. Within a year and a half, he nabbed a position as a general news reporter, where among other things he covered the 1984 federal election. A year later Brunt joined the sports department as a features writer.
When Frayne retired as the Globe sports columnist in 1989, Brunt inherited the coveted position. Brunt openly admits he struggled in his early days and his inexperience showed. “He tended to overwrite, to be a little opaque,” says Earl McRae, now a general columnist for The Ottawa Sun. “He tended to use his writing talent to compensate for his lack of competency.”
As if living up to the standards set by Young, Beddoes, Abel and Frayne wasn’t daunting enough, Brunt faced unhappy colleagues in the tight-knit sports department. Al Strachan, former sportswriter for the Globe, for example, had hoped James Christie would take Frayne’s place. “Brunt’s a fine writer,” says Strachan, who now writes for The Toronto Sun. “But I don’t think he’s a good columnist.” He believes Brunt should stick to feature writing. Today, newsroom tensions still remain, especially between Brunt and Gare Joyce, a hockey writer who joined the department in 1994. “They can barely be in the same room together,” says one writer. And the relationship between Marty York, a sportswriter at the Globe since 1974, and Brunt is no better. “TheGlobe is a den of misery,” says a writer. “Somebody doesn’t like somebody all the time. It’s a miserable place, in terms of rivalries and endless politics.” But Brunt refuses to let personality conflicts bother him. “It may sound ‘cliché-ic,’ but you write what you believe to be right,” he says, “and write it in your own way.”
Rivalries aside, he is highly regarded in the industry. “He has a tremendous use of the language and a really nice, detached perspective,” says Steve Simmons, an outspoken Toronto Sun sports columnist. As the line separating reporter and cheerleader increasingly blurs, Brunt injects much-needed insight and originality into the industry. “Here’s a guy who brings some literacy, which you don’t often see in sports,” says McRae. “You do need the ‘Dick-and-Jane’ stuff, but I don’t think you have to play to the lowest common denominator all the time.” He adds, “It’s fair to say Brunt stands out in that there aren’t a lot of people who do what he’s doing.”
That was clear the morning after the seventh game of the 1997 World Series, when The Toronto Sun offered this unimaginative account: “In the most dramatic swing of the bat since Joe Carter’s World Series winning homer for Toronto off Philadelphia’s Mitch Williams four years ago, [Edgar] Renteria’s bases-loaded single delivered the shot heard round south Florida last night to give his club a thrilling 3-2, 11-inning victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7.” And The Vancouver Sun presented this bone-dry coverage: “Edgar Renteria ended one of the most thrilling game sevens ever, singling home the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the…Marlins their first World Series championship with a 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians on Sunday night.”
Brunt, in contrast, didn’t even mention the final score. His column, written in just nine minutes, supplies Globereaders with some context, lyrical writing, analysis and something to think about. “Baseball for all of its problems, for all of its flaws, for the way it can so often be its own worst enemy, proved once again last night that it can still deliver. A 19th century game can still provide thrills near the dawn of the 21st century, no matter how badly it is managed. It can because at its heart is a simple, complex, occasionally perfect game that is beyond corruption.”
Rather than serve up banal statistics, mechanical locker-room quotes and trite post-game speeches by players and coaches, Brunt takes a different approach to sports coverage. “I’m more of an outsider looking in, rather than an insider looking out,” he says. “At least you can talk to people and synthesize the information a little bit, write it in a way that is entertaining. You can give people something else.” And he gives that something extra while covering just about every sport-from baseball to rodeos. But no sport means as much to Brunt as boxing. He is one of the few writers in Canada professionally and personally devoted to covering it. Though many loathe the sport, Brunt has always found powerful ways of piquing reader interest. “There are times, at his best, when I think he’s comparable to A. J. Liebling,” says journalist and long-time friend Ian Brown, likening Brunt to the former New Yorker writer who once called boxing the “sweet science.”
Friends and colleagues cite his touching story about visiting Muhammad Ali as one of his best. “That piece, as an example of good sportswriting, stood by itself,” says Andrew MacFarlane, his father-in-law and a journalism professor emeritus at Western. “A lot of pieces were written after it. None of them were as good as his.” The piece captures the duality of Ali and painfully shows the one-time champion as mere flesh and blood: “It’s difficult at first to see beyond the mask, beyond a 49-year-old who seems older, a physical shell once so elegant so beautiful, made rigid and clumsy and mortal.
“But his eyes can still dance the way they did, when he was young, when I was a boy. Sometimes they danced with genius, sometimes with cruelty, with courage, with a conman’s ego. He was poetry and energy and brutality and brilliance.”
Aside from the human aspect of sports, Brunt also has a keen interest in the financial and political dynamics that loom over games. “He’s always interested in the narrative line of the event, the human side of the story and the broader implications that go beyond the playing field,” says Douglas Bell, a freelance writer and good friend. A 1997 Report on Business Magazine story on Murray Frum’s bid to buy the Toronto Blue Jays showed Brunt’s uncanny ability to fuse sports and business: “Interbrew wanted to sell. Frum and company wanted to buy. But in between was this funny thing called baseball. It is a game played without a time clock, a business that sets its own rules for its own reasons.”
At the same time, Brunt shows no fear of making enemies. “He used a lot of people,” says Clyde Gray. “He wrote things that weren’t too accurate and for his own gain.” Gray, a former welterweight boxer and one-time Ontario Athletic Commissioner, was the subject of a series of articles in 1988, detailing the negligent and corrupt handling of Ontario boxers. The series prompted a provincial review of boxing regulations, which resulted in Gray losing his job, while Brunt picked up a Michener award, Canada’s highest award for public service journalism. Many in Canadian boxing still hold a grudge. Brunt remains unrepentant. “It was straight-up reporting,” he says. “It’s an incredibly detailed record of the guy not doing his job. Clyde has been trying to spin a tale that makes this into my vendetta against him.”
Far greater animosity for Brunt exists in the Canadian Football League. In a 1991 series of columns, Brunt exposed private letters belonging to Larry Smith, then league commissioner. These letters outlined Smith’s pursuit of financial compensation if U.S. expansion failed, which it did. Meanwhile, Smith was publicly harping that the league was healthy, declaring expansion a success, which wasn’t the case at all. Another figure he’s enraged is John Bitove Jr., the former owner of the Toronto Raptors. “I’ve slipped a knife in between Bitove’s ribs a few times, Larry Smith too,” says Brunt. “That’s the power of the column.”
Unfortunately, the column has not enjoyed the prominence it deserves. Despite earning several nominations for internal Globe writing awards and National Newspaper Awards, Brunt has yet to win (he has another chance this year, having again received an NNA nomination for sportswriting). Two years ago, a baffled Kirk Makin, a Globe reporter and a close friend for many years, wrote a memo to the paper’s awards committee. “I think it’s a terrible injustice that he has never won,” he says. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though. For years, the Globe‘s sports department had been a training ground for A-section editors and writers. Yet, in 1989, the paper reduced the section to near-pamphlet proportions, a move that fueled fears it would be killed altogether, especially since former publisher Roy Megarry believed readers would rather follow their stocks than their favourite teams.
It turned out to be a huge mistake. “The sports coverage was terrible for the last seven years,” says Frayne, who sympathized with executive sports editor David Langford. “It wasn’t poor Langford’s fault. They gave him about a page and a half to try to cover the whole world of sports. Now they’re doing a terrific job.” As early as 1992, there was talk of revamping the sports section. But it took five years-and the threat of Conrad Black’s new national paper-before discussion gave way to execution and sports was relevant again. Brunt welcomes the change. “The first day the new sports section came out, I felt reenergized. I do feel the responsibility of writing for a bigger section, but it’s a good feeling. It’s not like ‘Holy shit! I have to write better.’ It’s more like being energized because you are now part of something new.”
But Brunt never had a problem staying motivated. He has written over 2,000 stories on everything from the Super Bowl to the Olympics, penned three successful books (Mean Business: The Rise and Fall of Shawn O’Sullivan,Second to None: The Roberto Alomar Story and Diamond Dreams: 20 Years of Blue Jays Baseball) and numerous features for Report on Business Magazine and Toronto Life. He has also done regular stints on TSN, TVO’s Studio 2 and Fan 590 sports radio. And he still maintains a loving relationship with his three children and “eternally patient” wife, while finding time to grow tomatoes in his backyard in Hamilton. Of his driven nature, Brunt says, “My wife and I would have a debate as to why that is. I’d say to make a little extra dough. She’d say that even if I had a million bucks in the bank, I’d still do it. She’s probably right.” It’s his love of sports that keeps him working so hard. Not even his failure to win awards can crush his enthusiasm. Although he wishes he’d won an NNA for the Clyde Gray pieces, Brunt is hardly bitter. “This is a great job,” he says, adding that he owes all his success to his column. He entertains no thoughts of abandoning it for more financially lucrative broadcasting or writing projects, well aware of the short life span many sportswriters enjoy.
Sportswriting has a nasty habit of destroying writers-literary or otherwise. Many break under years of covering endless regular seasons, play-offs and championships. It becomes painfully repetitive and writers lose their inspiration or become sickened by the selfishness of the sports world. Dick Beddoes left sports, was caught plagiarizing while writing a city column and faded into obscurity. Scott Young now writes mystery fiction at home near Peterborough, Ontario. While covering baseball’s spring training circuit one year, Allen Abel was convinced that there were far better things a person could do. He now works as a reporter for CBC Television. And Roy MacGregor has decided this is his last season covering hockey for the Ottawa Citizen.“I’ve really enjoyed sports, it’s a lot of fun. But it’s not the real world.”
So far Brunt’s been able to remain immune to both the boredom and the burn-out. Damien Cox, a Toronto Star sports columnist, notes: “The thing about Stephen is that he’s been able to maintain a real healthy enthusiasm and interest on subjects he covers.” The standard Brunt aspires to is the 60-year stint Milt Dunnell had at The Toronto Star. “I just hope I know enough to recognize when it’s over and walk away.” Does he expect to run out of material? “I don’t anticipate that happening.”
If he’s right, sports fans will continue to enjoy a greater understanding of the sports they love. In an era when newspapers face fierce competition from more immediate sources such as television, radio and the Internet, Brunt’s role becomes even more valuable. By the time papers come off the printing press, everyone knows the final score and readers need more than a regurgitation of who won and who lost. The literary sportswriter can do that. “They can provide well-crafted and well-written profiles, colour pieces, human nature pieces and investigative pieces,” says McRae. So instead of a short recap beside a large colour photo, Brunt provides deeper insight. “I don’t know if any of it is important,” he says. “But it adds something to the picture people don’t get anywhere else, something to the mix that people can’t find watching TSN, ESPN or CNN.” It’s what readers could find when they read about Brunt’s afternoon with Muhammad Ali.