State Stories

09

Deadspin Founder Will Leitch Reflects On Time At Mattoon High School

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Before he went on to found Deadspin, which has grown into one of the most influential sports websites in the world, Will Leitch (right then & now) earned nine letters in baseball (4), scholastic bowl (4) and football (1) at Mattoon High School. Will is currently a senior writer at Sports On Earth, contributing editor at New York Magazine and is the author of four books, including the most recent "Are We Winning?"

As high schools around the country celebrate NFHS National High School Activities Month in October, Leitch talked with IHSA State about his high school experience as a participant in both athletics and activities:

Q: Were there any high school teachers or coaches at Mattoon who made an indelible impact on your future?
A:
There were three. Del Willison was the most inspiring senior year honors English teacher any wannabe writer could reasonably hope to imagine. Tim Black was my scholastic bowl coach who also loved football and Meat Loaf. And Michele Sinclair, now the principal at my high school, was one of the first teachers -- no, adults -- who was an actual person to me, not just some older authority figure. She was relatable while still in charge, which is about all you can ask from a teacher.

Q: Did participating in sports (baseball) and activities (scholastic bowl) help you later in life in terms of being able to deal with more diverse groups of people?
A:
Definitely. To the baseball guys I was the smart kid, and to the scholastic bowl kids I was the cocky jock-type. I was of course neither of those things, but going back and forth like that -- while granting that my closer friends were those on the scholastic bowl team -- taught me that in many ways, you ARE how people perceive you. It helped me realize that you have to meet people more than halfway, that if they think you are something you are not, it's up to you to correct them. And getting along with different types of people like that, I think, has allowed me to drift in and out of different cultures and subcultures as I've grown older, and become more comfortable with the changes that *I* personally go through during that time as well.

Q: The IHSA will conduct its 10th Journalism State Final this spring, what advice would you give to the young people participating in it?
A
: Find out if you want to do this. If you're not sure, find out for sure. The minute you start to sense that maybe it's not your thing, don't feel embarrassed about moving on. Because to do this, you have to -- you MUST -- love it, be addicted to it, not be able to imagine doing anything else. It will require that sort of self-assurance and commitment. So find out for sure. Because if you want to do this, it will become all you want to do, and you will, through sheer force of will, be able to make it happen. So don't worry about what your parents tell you about jobs, or the future of media, or any of that. Parents had been telling kids to stay out of journalism for 20 years before I was born. Just find out if you want to do it. And if you: don't stop.

Q: Did you know in high school you wanted to be a writer?
A:
I knew I wanted to write: I wanted to be Roger Ebert (Sports turned out to be an accident).

Q: Would you have competed in the Journalism State Series had it existed then?
A:
I would have loved it. Either I would have won and felt great or, more likely, I would have lost and it would have driven me to prove everybody wrong. This is one of the great things about competitions.

Q: Deadspin took a lot of criticism in its formative years (and beyond). What was it like to be on the ground floor of the site and what does it mean now to see something you helped create achieve mainstream credibility?
A:
People were just scared because it was new, which is fine: If something isn't scary at first, it probably isn't all that new. I never minded, particularly because I trusted that once those who criticized without knowing what they were criticizing got to know me and what I was doing, they would at least understand where I was coming from. (This turned out to be only partly true!) Deadspin is a bigger site than I ever imagined it would become, and they're doing a higher quality of work than I could have ever dreamed. I'm proud of my early role with it, but I can't take as much credit for its continued success as people want me to. (And as much as I wish I could!) I'm just glad it's still running. I invested a large part of my life and energy into that site, so to see it thriving is its own reward.

Q: You mentioned your love of Roger Ebert above and now regularly review films on Deadspin. What classic movie do high school students in Illinois need to see?
A: I'd go with Hoop Dreams. The teenagers from the movie are nearly in their 40s now, but the movie's themes of family, class, race and hope are eternal. The movie knocks me over every time I watch it.


Q: What’s next for you?
A:
I'm just going to keep typing as fast as I can until someone tells me to stop. I'll probably keep doing it then too.