Astory that garners wide acclaim, gets multiple plays across ESPN and draws tweets from Reese Witherspoon is not your everyday deadline fare. For most writers, it will never happen. But Sarah Spain experienced all of that with her first long-form narrative piece.
“Runs in the Family” was produced as a piece for the ESPN documentary program E:60 and a 5,000-word narrative published in September 2018 on ESPN.com. It centers on NFL running backs coach, Deland McCullough, who grew up as an adopted son in a tough neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio. McCullough never knew who his father was or had much fatherly influence in his life until, in his senior year of high school, he met a college football recruiter named Sherman Smith. The story weaves McCullough’s longing with the stories of his biological mother, a teenager who gave up her baby to adoption without telling the father she was pregnant; McCullough’s adoptive mother, who struggled with men and money but always supported her sons; and Smith, who becomes McCullough’s mentor for more than two decades, through college and into a coaching career. Smith becomes the father figure McCullough never had without either knowing … well, read the story and let Spain tell you.
“We got crazy, crazy interest from some people,” she said. “Reese Witherspoon tweeted about it, Will Smith, Lee Daniels, 20th Century Fox, Channing Tatum’s production company – the best of the best are interested.
“That’s a long road though, and we’ll see what comes next. But there is a lot more to the story that wasn’t in this piece because of time and space constraints. It would be a fantastic movie.”
While Spain writes opinion pieces and other essays for ESPN, most of her time at the network is spent working on her national radio show, Spain and Fritz, and the podcast That’s What She Said. Narrative writing was not part of her portfolio. In fact, her original career goal was to make it in improv and work on Saturday Night Live. A graduate of Cornell University, where she was a heptathlete, she followed that dream after college.
“I moved to L.A. and I did that for a bit,” she said. “I found that I had a knack for sports reporting and I moved back to Chicago to cover my own teams, the teams I grew up watching, and I’ve just been here ever since.”
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