Until 12 weeks ago, my greatest accomplishment as a programmer was probably a Microsoft Excel file from the end of the last millennium. Somehow a swimmer from Massachusetts had been hired to cover Texas high school football as a fresh-out-of-college sports reporter at The Dallas Morning News.
(An aside: This is probably where you say, “Oh, I loved ‘Friday Night Lights,’ is it just like that?” And I explain that part of being a reporter — or, more likely, part of why I became a reporter — is an unending compulsion for accuracy. So compulsive that I get rankled by fictional accounts of a subject I know deeply if they inaccurately capture the particulars of it. So I never could bring myself to watch “Friday Night Lights.”)
Here’s the thing about covering high school football: Not only do you need to write the story recapping the game and interview the players and coaches, but you also need to keep stats for every snap and calculate the box score at the end. All on a suffocatingly tight deadline. (For college and pro sports, the PR staff provides the stats.) And by box score, I mean… The number of carries and rushing yards for each player who ran the ball. Receptions and yards for each player who caught a pass. Completions, attempts and interceptions for the quarterbacks. Offensive totals for each team. The numbers of penalties and the yards penalized. And a few other stats I’m probably now forgetting.
My training consisted of shadowing another reporter on the first Friday night of the season (or as it is called there, Zero Week, which I now realize must be a computer science reference to the first item in an array). I learned that the standard practice for compiling the box score consisted of a lot of feverish arithmetic and pounding on a calculator in what was often just a half-hour to also do interviews and finish the story.
The next week, I covered my first game, implemented that approach, and immediately concluded it was an awful idea both in terms of calculating accurate stats and efficiently using the time to write a coherent article. Fortunately I knew enough about that lovely confluence of rows and columns that is Excel to devise a solution. I built a spreadsheet that allowed me to punch in the yards gained on each play for the appropriate player, then Microsoft would do the rest, keeping a running total of the yardage for the players and the teams.
Soon enough, some of my colleagues in Dallas found out about my invention and started using it too. Then writers at other papers saw it and adopted it. By the time I was promoted to cover college football three years later, a handful of reporters all over the state were spreadsheet devotees as well.
(An aside: The reason I knew anything about Excel was an otherwise unhelpful computer class I took in 10th grade. And yet that’s probably one of the few things I learned in high school that I still remember. Other than that, well, um… About the only other thing that comes to mind is the fact that a history teacher always insisted that if we learn anything, it would be the definition of the word “hubris.” I never did ask, but I always assumed there was supposed to be some sort of deeper symbolism in that. And, indeed, I still remember the definition of hubris, and every now and then reflect on just how valuable it is not to forget that notion.)
I may have decided I’ve told all the stories I wanted to tell as a reporter, but I’m still fascinated by the way we often don’t know in the moment that a story is beginning. If memory serves (notwithstanding my earlier insistences about an unbending allegiance to accuracy), that first Texas high school football game I covered was Marshall at Ennis — which does kind of sound like the names of two fictional towns concocted by a screenwriter. Marshall won in a close, high-scoring matchup between two seemingly unremarkable teams. Yet as it turned out, it was the last game Ennis would lose for about two years, and I would make that same drive about 35 minutes south many times over the next three seasons.
And that Excel spreadsheet would prove to be the opening chapter of another story, though one that took far longer to unfold. After more than 16 years as a sports writer, when I realized I was ready for a new challenge, it turned out that challenge looked a bit like the spreadsheet that calculated those football stats. When we encounter problems in the world, we can keep making the same mistakes, or we can seek solutions. And technology makes problem-solving humans all the more powerful.