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A hazing story made me quit

A hard-hitting bill that enhances the penalty for certain types of "hazing" is working through the Utah House this week.

I hope it passes.

The bill brings to mind the long-ago saga of Brian Seamons of Sky View High School in Cache Valley.

In fact, for me, even when the weatherman says "haze," it brings him to mind.

I covered the Seamons story for People magazine.

It was the reason I quit.

Seamons, you may recall, was the high school football player who was taped naked to a locker room towel rack by his teammates.

It was a bad moment in hazing. And People magazine spun it as a version of a "passion play."

The football players were like the Roman soldiers.

The coach, who kept trying to control the damage, was Pontius Pilate.

Even Brian's girlfriend had a walk-on role as Mary Magdalene.

My editors in New York saw it as a cautionary tale — a story filled with "white hats" fighting the "black hats." One editor called the perpetrators "Neanderthals" and, between cuss words, told me to dig deeper.

But the deeper I dug, the more complicated everything became. Once I could see people's motives, the story shifted. It wasn't that the victims weren't victims. They were. But the Smithfield folks being roughed up by the national media were hardly monsters.

I remember my editor calling from New York at 11 p.m. to say I had to get a "confirm or deny" from the football coach about some detail. I phoned the coach's home. His wife answered.

"He's out walking the dogs," she said, crying. Then after a pause, she said, "Why are you doing this to us?"

I apologized, but said I needed to get the story. It was what professionals did.

I could almost hear her tears falling over the phone.

Looking back, I think that moment changed my world in a way.

In those days, People Magazine guaranteed reporters $1,000 for a story. The amount went up if your piece ran at "the front of the book." And I was determined to rake in some real dough. (I didn't know Lorena Bobbitt would come along, push my story to the "back of the book" and cost me hundreds of dollars.)

I worked hard to make the Seamons piece splashy and sassy, hoping for a cover.

But after speaking with the coach's wife, my brain seemed to pivot in my head.

I lost my edge.

The piece ran the next week, with me listed as a contributor. And I got my $1,000, which I used to buy a set of golf clubs.

But every time I looked down at those metal shafts, I saw Brian Seamons taped to them.

Some writers create interest by starting fights, by turning everything into a brawl that draws a crowd.

Others create interest by finding universal truths that resonate in everyone's life. After the Seamons story, I quit doing the first and tried doing more of the second.

It has been a good choice.

e-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com