Stories' Stories: SI's Tommy Tomlinson On His Harvey Updyke Story "Something Went Very Wrong At Toomer's Corner"
This originally appeared at my other blog, HeyGoodCall.com.
Writer Tommy Tomlinson took way more time than he should have to answer the way too many questions I asked him about his recent story in Sports Illustrated about Harvey Updyke, the Alabama fan who poisoned the iconic oaks at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner.
I broke down the interview—and all of its 2,000-word entirety—as follows:
- The Happening — How he got the story, which was a freelance assignment and his first for Sports Illustrated, and why he chose this one
- The Significance — What this story meant to those who are living it
- The Villain — Tomlinson's takes on Harvey Updyke
- The Subject — How Tomlinson gained access and trust from Updyke and those who knew him
- The Process — How the story came together
- The Reaction — What folks have said to Tomlinson after reading the piece, both good and bad
Some people loved the story, some hated it.
I fall with the former lot. I felt like Tomlinson did a great job humanizing Updyke—not justifying what he did or saying it was okay, but showing us that Updyke is as human as the rest of us, with passions running deep and true. He just happened to let one of those passions boil over, and c’mon, who hasn’t been there before?
Tomlinson, who wrote the piece as a freelance assignment, is a columnist and, in his own words, “storytelling lab rat” for the Charlotte Observer. You can find him on Twitter at @tommytomlinson and on the Internet at ttomlinson.blogspot.com. He's a tremendous and passionate writer, and I actually remember studying some of his stories in some of my journalism classes in college.
And now, as we say around here, on with the goodness…
[ Blockquotes are from the August 2011 Sports Illustrated story “Something Went Very Wrong at Toomer’s Corner.” Italics are my words. Regular type Tomlinson’s. ]
On a February afternoon, they found out it was true. So many times they had filled up the place because the place filled them up. But now they went for a different reason.
Toomer's Oaks stand for Auburn, and they will live as long as memory. But they are also trees, and they can be killed. The dying had begun.
Toni Rich and her boy lingered in the crowd for three hours, staring at the poisoned oaks. Gabriel had many questions, but this one most of all:
Why would somebody do that?
The Happening: How Tomlinson Landed This Assignment, and Why He Chose This Story
So why did you want to write this story?
College football is the most interesting sport to me – partly because the atmosphere for big games is so amazing, but mostly because it’s so tied up with identity. People identify themselves with a team, and there’s so much that comes with that – not just geography, but culture, attitude, the way you see the world. That happens some in other sports – obviously, Yankees fans and Red Sox fans have their own baggage. But it happens in college football more than anywhere else. And it happens with Auburn and Alabama fans most of all.
When did you first think about writing it? Why?
I went down to spring training in March with some buddies who write, and we were sitting at breakfast one day throwing around ideas. I just started talking about it and didn’t stop for 15 minutes. When I’m that interested in something, I usually try to write about it.
How did you land this assignment? It's a hell of a story and you're a hell of a writer, but this is your first piece for SI. So how’d it all come together?
It took a long time. I’m very lucky to have a connection at SI – Joe Posnanski, who’s doing incredible stuff for them, is an old friend of mine from our early days at the Charlotte Observer. We worked in a bureau together more than 20 years ago. A couple of years ago I had some sports ideas that I wanted to write, so I asked Joe for a contact at SI. I was in Boston at the time on a fellowship, so I took the train to New York one day and met with an editor there. That was in the spring of ’09. I pitched some ideas – some they didn’t like, some they liked but one of their staff writers was doing them. Finally, with the Toomer’s Oaks idea, we worked something out. So from that first meeting to getting a story in the magazine took right at two years.
Who are your writing role models?
Wow. Everybody. Lee Child (the Jack Reacher novels) for how to plot a story. Chris Jones (Esquire) for understanding people. Michael Kruse (St. Petersburg Times) for brilliant story ideas. But there are a hundred others. I get something from everything I read.
The Significance: What This Story Means To Those Closest To It
I don’t know what this will say about me, but I’m not a huge SEC guy. I mean, I follow the league, like any decent sports fan, but this was the first time I’d heard of the Toomer’s Oaks. I mean, the very first. So for others like me, who are clueless about the gravity of the whole situation, would you mind briefly laying out why this was just so horrible, and why Updyke became the villain he did because of it?
The oaks are the symbol of the Auburn campus – like the Old Well at UNC, or the Arch at UGA… most campuses have that one signature thing that people think of as a touchstone. So it really strikes at the heart of the Auburn family – and in Auburn, they call it “the Auburn family.”
Plus, as I talk about in the story, Auburn-Alabama is the most intense rivalry in American sports. Nothing else comes close, I think. Two schools in the same small state, both football powers, no pro teams to dilute the interest… the fans grow up together, and they’re around one another all the time. It makes for a lot of craziness.
The Villain: Tomlinson's Takes on Harvey Updyke
Harvey Updyke didn't always hate Auburn, but for half a century he has loved Alabama. He was born in 1948 and grew up in Milton, Fla., in the panhandle near Pensacola. A drunk driver killed his dad when Harvey was three. When he was 10, he was watching a TV station out of Mobile one Sunday afternoon when The Bear Bryant Showcame on. Bryant had arrived in Tuscaloosa from Texas A&M. Here was a strong man with a deep voice who announced to the world, "I ain't nothing but a winner." Harvey latched on.
What did you originally think of the story when you first heard of what Updyke had done? How’d you feel about how it was covered and how Updyke was portrayed?
First of all, I thought “Good Lord, I can’t imagine what next year’s Iron Bowl is gonna be like.” Harvey, of course, was portrayed as a nut – that’s all most stories and blog posts have room and time for, is that surface judgment. I guess I thought that if he was a nut, I’d like to know exactly what kind, and why.
Going in, what was your approach, particularly in regard to Updyke? What I mean is, did you expect the piece to turn into something that sort of transforms Updyke from heinous villain into good-ol’-human-being-we-can-all-sort-of-empathize-with? Or did you not really know what to expect?
I try not to have too much of an approach when I start out… I just start talking to people and doing some research and seeing where that takes me. The main thing I worried about was that Harvey wouldn’t talk to me.
At what point in the process did you realize hey, this isn’t some maniac—this is just another rabid sports fan who just made one horrible decision? What was that moment like, and how did that impact your approach, research and writing-wise?
This isn’t an original thought, of course, but very few people are all good or all bad – most of us live somewhere in that gray middle. And having grown up an SEC football fan, and having gone to a lot of games, I know the emotions that boil up inside you after a big win – or especially after a big loss. And if it’s Alabama-Auburn, all that is intensified.
I wouldn’t say Harvey is “just another rabid sports fan.” He’s out there on the far edge. But that edge isn’t as far out as most of us would like to think.
The Subject: How Tomlinson Talked To Updyke
How much access did you have to the Updykes?
I was at one of Harvey’s court hearings in the spring, and he talked a little bit to a couple of us there. Later on, I reached him through Twitter and let him know I wanted to talk some more. It turned out that several members have access to his Twitter account, so it’s not always clear that it’s him posting on there, but I ended up with a phone number and talked to him that way. Then he gave me numbers for other family members, including Bear, who ended up in the story.
What did they say and how did they act when you approached them? How did you go about that?
Harvey was fine with talking to me once I got ahold of him – despite all the turmoil this has caused him and his family, I don’t think he minds the attention. All I said was that I was writing about Toomer’s Oaks, and Auburn-Alabama, and I wanted to learn as much as I could. Which was true. I listened to Harvey’s thoughts, and gave them the weight (or lack of weight) I thought they deserved. I guess Harvey ended up trusting me enough to vouch for me with Bear – I think I’m the only one (or at least the first) to get an interview with him. As a reporter, I think people just want to feel like you’re listening to them.
"Everybody searches for some kind of group identity," says Wayne Flynt, a professor emeritus in history at Auburn. "In a [state] like Alabama, which was so poor and so looked down upon for so long ... all year long you can put on the jersey and belong to something. And part of that identity is who you are not."
How was Updyke to talk to? Those who knew him? I’d imagine they’d be paranoid at first, suspicious, leery, given how eviscerated he was and how villainized he became. How did you win their trust?
I answered some of this in the question above… I think it’s all about a willingness to listen, and not come in with the story prewritten in your head. Wright Thompson had a great interview with Harvey back in May, I think, and the premise of his story was that there are two Harveys – the mild-mannered guy who’s polite and a little beaten-down, and the rabid Alabama fan who loves to stir crap. I think that’s right. I saw and heard both those guys when I was talking to him.
Since earning trust is about building a relationship, how did you make that happen? In other words, how did you manage to fit this story and all the complex work it must have taken into your schedule considering you work full-time in Charlotte, NC, while this happened states away?
I spent two vacation weeks in Auburn – one in April, another in June, so I could see how the trees had changed in that gap of time. I got nearly all the Auburn stuff I used in those two weeks, plus I got to attend one of Harvey’s court hearings then. The rest was a lot of phone calls and emails from home.
“Let me tell you what I did. The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama, 'cause I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer's trees. … They're not dead yet, but they definitely will die.”
The Process: How The Story Came Together
How long did the story take you?
I started reporting in April and turned in the story in June… probably 8-10 weeks. But those weren’t 40-hour weeks – I was still working my full-time job at the paper. [Like I said above] I took two weeks of vacation and went down to Auburn. Most of the rest of it I did on nights and weekends.
Spike 80DF blocks photosynthesis. When it gets into the leaves of a tree, the chlorophyll can't absorb the energy already in the leaves. The loose energy then destroys the leaves from the inside. They yellow around the edges and eventually fall off. The tree goes into survival mode. It puts out another set of leaves, then another—every three to five weeks—until the tree runs out of stored energy. Most times, once the poison is in deep, there's not much anyone can do. Eventually the tree gives up.
Who all did you talk to?
Probably 30-40 people in all… a friend who went to Auburn gave me the names of a few people there, and that led me to faculty members, staffers and students. I talked to several of the people trying to save the trees. I talked to Harvey, his attorney and some of his family. The one group I ended up not talking to was the football people – Nick Saban, Gene Chizik and those folks. They’d already been quoted on the issue. And I figured the regular people had more interesting things to say.
The tour guide talked about Toomer's Corner, rolling the oaks and the poison in the trees. "The trees are doing O.K., but we don't know if they're going to make it," she said. "Even if they don't, we'll continue the tradition."
"I'm not sure how."
What was your process? All research and interviewing and then writing?
I did a good bit of the reporting before I sat down to write, although I’m always jotting down phrases or sentences that pop up in my head and might go in the story. Toward the end it’s mostly writing, but I have do some re-interviewing to check things and understand people better.
What were some challenges you and your editors faced with the story? How did you deal with them?
The main challenge I had was structure, because there were three big elements of the story – what happened to the trees and can they be saved; a mini-profile of Harvey Updyke; and why the Auburn-Alabama rivalry means so much. It took awhile to unfold those things in a way that made sense.
What was the overall editing process once you had the thing written?
The major difference between the editing at our newspaper and editing at SI is that SI has a layer of fact-checkers between the line editor (who deals with big-picture stuff) and the copy editor (who does fine-tooth-comb editing). The fact-checker asked for the contact info for everybody I quoted in the story, and he went back and doublechecked everything. He had a LOT of questions, but it’s a good feeling when the story comes out, because you know it’s been thoroughly vetted.
I should say that we do the same sort of thing at the newspaper, but it’s usually up to the reporter and copy editor to fact-check.
The Reaction: How People Took Tomlinson's Story
What’s the overall response been so far?
I’m told I’ve been hammered a little on some Auburn and Alabama message boards – either for overstating the impact of what Harvey did, or for not putting his head on a stick. But those boards are like Wal-Mart at Christmas – I don’t wander in there unless I absolutely have to. I’ve heard a lot of good things via email, Twitter replies, that sort of thing. What’s been most gratifying is to hear from Alabama and Auburn people who felt like I understood the story and got the nuances right.
Updyke is not thrilled with the mental defect plea. He says Threatt and his other lawyer believe it's the best chance at keeping him out of prison. He's 62 years old, and his neurosurgeon says he needs neck surgery to fix his bulging disks and lower-back problems. He's worried that prison would kill him.
The Updykes say anything about the story yet?
I let them know when the story was coming out, and told them I hoped they’d let me know what they thought. I haven’t heard back.
What hurts Updyke most is that Alabama turned on him. Tide coach Nick Saban said whoever poisoned the trees "does not represent our institution, our program, or our fans in any way." Alabama fans raised $50,000 to help save the oaks. Auburn fans later raised money for April's tornado victims in Tuscaloosa. The feuding families have found a bit of common ground.
The Future: What's Next for Tomlinson
You have anything else in the works for Sports Illustrated we should know about?
Not right now… I did a piece for ESPN.com that’s 9/11 related – I think it’s supposed to go up Sept. 6 or thereabouts.
What other projects do you have cooking right now?
The main thing is a project I’m working on for the paper. It’s on women (and some men) who were sterilized by the thousands in North Carolina from the ‘30s through the ‘60s under the North Carolina Eugenics Board. The state thought they were doing it for good reasons. A lot of the victims think otherwise.
Anything else you think we should know? Good songs you’ve heard lately?
I am so jacked for the Ben Folds retrospective set coming out next month… including three new songs by Ben Folds Five. They’re North Carolina guys. I wrote about them just when they were starting to make it big. For a few years after that, I got Christmas cards from the drummer’s mama.
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The Thank-You, Good Sir
Again, thanks so much, Tommy, for doing this. And in gratitude we share your beautiful closing lines for the piece, for those who haven’t yet read it, and for those who just want to experience it again:
Trees die slowly. Auburn will allow people to roll the oaks this fall, but the TP will be removed by hand. The trees are surrounded by guardrails. You can't touch them.
Right now, in the midst of a green Southern summer, the trees are nearly as brown as November. The Magnolia Avenue tree leans to one side. The College Street tree bears an old wound from a drunk driver. The oaks look as if you could just about pull them out with your hands.
But it's a hard thing to take 130 years, and all that comes with it, and rip it from the ground.
The roots go down so deep.