ESPN’s Ivan Maisel writes about grief while dealing with it himself

IvanMy latest column for Poynter is on Ivan Maisel, who lost his son last winter.

First a personal note: My relationship with Ivan Maisel goes back to 1988 when I met him on the national college football beat. We spent many times together in various press boxes and at several golf courses on Fridays before games. Ask him about “Sherman’s 5-wood,” and I’m sure he won’t stop laughing.

Our golf games still suck, but Ivan has gone on to become one of the best and certainly most respected college football writers on the beat. Trust me, you won’t find a better person anywhere.

Like everyone else in the business, I was crushed when I heard the news about Ivan’s son, Max. Unthinkable. As friends, we all felt his pain.

After Ivan returned to work, the journalist in me thought about reaching out to do a column. As he would say, “It’s a good story.”

But as a friend, I thought I might be intruding on his privacy. I didn’t want to put him in awkward position.

However, a mutual friend suggested I reach out to Ivan. When I asked if he was up for an interview, he said yes.

I’m glad he did.

Here’s an excerpt from the column:

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Ivan Maisel had done many stories through the years about a player or coach returning to action after suffering the loss of a loved one. But this was different.

On Sept. 5, Maisel posted a piece on ESPN.com on Stanford’s Kevin Hogan. The quarterback has been coping with grief after his father died last December.

Maisel writes in the story, “The calendar isn’t always what ages us. It can be what happens along the way.”

Maisel was writing about Hogan, but the line also applies to him.

The story was one of the first Maisel did after returning to work following the death of his 21-year-old son, Max, in February. Hogan had been on the long-time college football reporter’s radar since last winter prior to what occurred with his son.

“I didn’t do the story as a grief exercise,” Maisel said. “I did it because it was a good story.”

Maisel talked with Hogan’s mother, Donna, who broke down during a phone interview. After they hung up, she was concerned about revealing such private feelings and asked Maisel if she could see the story before it was published. He declined the request, citing the old-age journalist standard about not providing sources with a sneak peak.

Maisel replied with a text:  “I told you that I had some sense of your loss, then turned around and told you my wife is taking our youngest to Stanford. No, I am not a widower. But we lost our 21-year-old son Max six months ago. I have learned that everyone grieves differently. But I didn’t hesitate to ask you about Jerry [Hogan’s late husband] because I now have a sense of what it means to ask, and to answer, and I am not afraid of the emotion in the answers. So I can promise you that I will treat what you said with respect.”

Donna Hogan sent back a text: “Oh my goodness, I didn’t know. You understand what grief is.”

After the story ran, Donna sent Maisel another text: “I’m sitting here in tears. You were right to tell me to trust you.”

“That was really gratifying to hear,” Maisel said.

Looking back, Maisel knows the impact of what happened to him affected how he reported the story. He says he was able to ask questions that “rounded off the edges.”

“My new-found sensitivity was a gift that I was able to plunk out the carnage of what Max left behind,” Maisel said. “The key for all of us is to hear the questions before we ask them. How will it sound to your subject’s ears so you can elicit the best responses? It took me way too long to figure that out.”

 

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