Mark Kram, Jr., who writes about sports as his day job, has a new book, his first. It’s called Like Any Normal Day. It’s nonfiction, a story he first reported for his newspaper, and though sports provide the context it’s really about the cruel twist of fate. It’s a story so rife with moments of heartbreak you want to take a knee.
Kram is a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. That fact alone—it doesn’t take much these days—gets those of us who trade or once traded in the world of print to flash darkly on the misery. The bad news has been going on forever, but the troubles travel at warp speed now, and it remains especially painful for those of us who just assumed there’d always be reporters and photographers and investigative teams to look into scams and grifts; and especially that there’d always be room at newspapers for those looking to pursue higher literary ground. Those voices, the higher literary ground types, were long ago buried in the rubble—a pity, too, since it’s those voices many of us miss most.
To achieve literary status in newsprint, you had to report really well, be a storyteller, be able to write—really write—and you had to do it all on deadline. For decades, the Daily News led the league in literary talent. Writers angled to get hired at the Daily News because it offered respectful editing, the space to be expansive and enough promotional branding to soothe the most difficult egos.
The Daily News had a rep in the industry as a writers’ paper, an envious designation, a point of particular pride among the rank and file, and no small thing for a tabloid not based in New York or L.A. or Chicago, where readers expect writers to be big goddamn deals. This was Philadelphia, home to perennial losers and weekend murder sprees. Yet for a good long while, thanks in large part to the Daily News, it was the best place to be a scribe.
The most talented writers at the Daily News, with a few notable exceptions, were in the sports department. No fools, these guys. A player, a game, a season, a botched play, almost anything, could provide big, fat, whack-it-out-of-the-park metaphors, a daily hook to wax poetic, not just about that called third strike or that fumbled punt return, but about the ethos of the city and the broken hearts that our losing teams left strewn along the sides of the Expressway and the Boulevard.
Over time the talent came and went. There was Gary Smith and Mark Whicker and John Schulian and, yes, Bill Conlin—and others too, too many to be inclusive. The latitude they were given to strut their writing prowess was as wide and sweeping as their imaginations would allow. It was a time of healthy budgets, big page counts and lots of readers, a time when the promise of literary flame still shone bright in the world of daily print journalism.
All of which takes us back to Mark Kram, Jr., the keeper of the flame at the Daily News.
Kram’s father was a sportswriter, a literary legend at Sports Illustrated and a cult figure among admirers of what was once called New Journalism. Mark wrote about his father once, and you should read it to see the power that comes in cold truth and good writing.
Kram’s book is about a kid from the Philadelphia suburbs named Buddy Miley, a star quarterback who had it all, then had his vertebrae shattered in a high school football game in 1973. The injury makes Miley a quadriplegic, unable to move anything but his head. Time passes, but the pain doesn’t, and in 1997, with the help of his younger brother, he dies at the hands of Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
It’s an upsetting story, and in the hands of a pedestrian reporter, it might prove a story too depressing to pick up. But then you’d miss out on what Mark Kram does best, which is to take the time to listen closely, to discover the power in nuance, to tell the story within the story—old Daily News values, mostly gone now, but not forgotten.