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Amy Donaldson: One last love letter to high school sports

Every day I found myself wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake.

While feeling out-of-place was nothing new for me, my first year as a sports writer I felt like a rudderless boat. I was adrift in waters that seemed hostile and barren, almost specifically to me.

The passion and purpose I’d felt in my first eight years as a journalist were gone.

Instead, I was talking myself into caring about the game stories I was assigned to, while struggling to feel anything like the journalist I once was.

I spent a lot of time coming up with schemes that would convince my editors to give me back my old night police job. I was seriously considering asking for a transfer to cover anything on the news desk, when I got the card that became my rudder.

It was a thank-you card from a teenage softball player. Her team had made a run in the playoffs and I wrote about her and her teammates. It wasn’t anything spectacular — the card or my story.

It was simply the fact that I’d paid attention to them.

“Thank you for caring about high school girls sports. I know not everyone does. But sports have made my life bearable. ... Your articles meant the world to me. Thank you.”

She included a few details about her childhood, and why athletics had so profoundly changed the course of her life. Hers was a story that I related to, and that I’ve heard from other teenage athletes in cities large and small, in sports from football to golf, from standouts to benchwarmers.

The games gave a self-conscious teenager confidence.

Participating helped them make friends, gave them the opportunity to learn new and challenging things and helped them realize that a comfortable life isn’t always the best life.

The games gave them real joy.

And so for nearly two decades, I sat in stands next to parents and grandparents and revelled in the imperfect beauty of high school sports.

I laughed at their cheers, donated to their fundraisers and admired their commitment and courage and generosity and talent.

Every day was a gift.

I never woke up without purpose again.

In fact, I’ve often described my job as “my church” because the people I’ve met have inspired me to be a better person in too many ways to count.

I watched other writers move on to cover more high-profile athletes and sports, but never with envy. I refused transfers, avoided change, and felt immense gratitude that a couple of years into covering high school sports, James Edward agreed to become the Deseret News’ preps editor.

Under his leadership, the paper became the single best source for all things prep sports. He was the perfect collaborative partner, allowing me to flourish at the things I do best and picking up the slack on those things I willfully ignore.

If you wonder how or why the Deseret News is so committed to comprehensively covering prep sports, now you know. It’s because James Edward is the most meticulous, creative, hard-working and amiable journalist anywhere. Oh, and he’s as competitive as they come — and I mean that as the highest compliment.

But as much as I have loved every second of my time covering prep sports, I have felt for the last couple of years like I needed to makes some changes in my professional life. Interestingly, that decision is much harder to make when you are happy than when you’re miserable.

I’m going to change beats, something that’s been brewing for a couple of years. I’m heading back to the newsroom to try my hand at project reporting. We’re still working out the details, but I don’t think I’m completely done with sports-related issues.

But I am done with daily sports coverage.

I will miss, more than I can say, getting to know coaches, players, parents and even some grandparents. I will miss watching coaches take a group of strangers and create a cohesive, familial unit that relies on trust and affection to do things as a team they could never accomplish on their own.

I will miss watching teenagers starting out as shy, inarticulate freshman grow into confident, capable leaders. I remember one year a coach making a pitch for a player to be the MVP of her class, and after some back-and-forth, I said something like, “I appreciate that you think your player is special, that she is resilient and hard-working and an extraordinary talent. Now, I’d like you to consider that is how I feel about all of the girls in the state. They’re all mine. And they’re all extraordinary.”

And that’s how I’ve felt, whether it was a state championship or a preseason contest. Whether it was a story about a single athlete’s triumph over challenge — on or off the court — or an investigative piece into a deeper issue, for me it’s always been about my kids.

So it’s my turn to thank all of the teenagers I’ve ever covered — and their families.

Thank you for giving me a home.

Sports journalism isn’t always welcoming to women. But prep athletes gave me a place where, finally, I felt comfortable. I felt like I belonged, and that I mattered to the coaches, the teams and the communities.

I have felt your love, and I hope you have felt that I cared about you, regardless of what brought me to your gymnasium. I cannot think of a better way to spend two decades of my life than chronicling the challenges, heartbreaks and triumphs of student-athletes who represent the best of us.

I am so lucky.

I was lucky my parents loved to play games, lucky that I found my place in athletics, lucky that someone gave me the chance to do something professionally that I’d never done.

And I am lucky that I listened to the lessons you all have offered me. Growth doesn’t happen when we’re comfortable. It happens when we struggle, when we’re afraid, when we dive into something that we can’t possibly do.

That’s where I’m headed, in search of a new rudder, hopefully one that will be as reliable as the last. I hope to get opportunities to write about prep sports in new, maybe more significant ways. But I will miss the gift of being in your orbit so often we take each other for granted.

My dad used to say, “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

And thank goodness, I’m lucky.

Lone Peak defeated Davis 34-6 in the 6A quarterfinals Friday, Nov. 2, 2018 in Highland.
Lone Peak defeated Davis 34-6 in the 6A quarterfinals Friday, Nov. 2, 2018 in Highland.