💪Books & Biceps Issue 196
Your 5-Minute Brain & Body Flex don't miss today's interview
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I typically recommend books or share behind-the-book Q&As in this section of the newsletter but I’m doing something a little different this week. I’m sharing a behind-the-cover story Q&A with Sports Illustrated writer Brandon Sneed. Last year I recommended Sneed’s book, Sooner, but I spoke to him yesterday about his long form story that came out this week:
From Heisman Hopeful to the Dark Side: Colt Brennan’s excruciating struggle to break his endless cycle of addiction.
For those who don’t know, Colt Brennan was a star quarterback at Hawaii. He was a 2x Heisman Trophy Finalist who threw for an absurd 14,000+ yards and 131 touchdowns in three years. He was drafted in the 6th round by the Washington Redskins, got hurt, and then bounced around several leagues and teams while dealing with his inner demons.
Sneed’s piece reminded me of a classic, sprawling, important Gary Smith story. If it was in an old school issue of SI, it would probably be 8 spreads with photos and then another 4 pages of just copy at the back of the magazine.
I strongly encourage you to read the piece right here. It is tremendously written and heartbreaking and powerful and is one of the very best examples of what dogged reporting, deep research, relationships with sources and strong storytelling can accomplish. It’s one of those heavy pieces you read that stays with you for a few while when you’re done. At least, it stayed with me and I decided to reach out to Sneed to see if he’d be interested in giving us a peak behind the scenes at this story that clearly took months and months to write. Thankfully, he agreed. You should definitely read the piece before diving into our interview… but if not, this candid, extensive conversation will certainly make you want to read it. Please enjoy this behind-the-cover story Q&A with author/writer Brandon Sneed.
FINKEL: Most college football fans remember first hearing about Colt Brennan as the cool Hawaii QB who threw for a million yards. When did he first show up on your radar and what do you remember most about his college career?
SNEED: I saw some highlights of him on SportsCenter back then. I was in college too, and I just loved watching him play. The word I kept using to describe him while talking with people for this story was “fun.” Watching him play quarterback there was just fun.
When writing a deep, thorough piece like this, you have to start off with a point of fascination and then pull and pull on the story to get to the bottom of it. At what point in your personally hearing about Brennan's tragedy did you decide that you wanted to write a feature to find out what happened?
I’ve been curious about him for years. Back when I was writing for B/R Mag at Bleacher Report, my editor talked about sending me to Hawaii to try to find him, because we felt like he’d just sort of vanished. I didn’t know about his struggle with addiction back then, though, and we never ended up pursuing it.
When I saw the news of his passing in May, I knew I’d love to figure out what happened. It was important to me, though, to make sure his family was comfortable with that, because I knew they had to be suffering and grieving in the wake of all this. Thankfully, they trusted me with it.
This is such a heartbreaking story that goes way beyond sports. It speaks to family, addiction, parenting and so much more. As you were writing the piece, did you have any one interview or discussion with someone that changed the way you thought the angle of the story might go?
Yeah, it was heavy. And dark. I learned a lot from all of them that helped me not just with the story but also my own life. It made me a better human.
As far as interviews — there were a lot of significant conversations, as you can probably imagine, but what probably surprised me the most, and most affected the story I ended up writing, was the interviews that happened with the Tree House guys.
I didn’t think I was going to talk to any of them. They are super, super private, and for good reason. Colt’s family told me that the Tree House folks preferred not to even be mentioned in the story, so I didn’t feel comfortable pushing any of the Brennans to connect me with them. I figured if I had any chance to talk to anyone at Tree House, I’d have to make the request in person — but I didn’t even know where the Tree House facility was. It’s not at the address listed on their website. And by the time I finished with the Brennans, I’d been reporting all over Southern California for a few days and I felt exhausted.
I almost didn’t even go looking for Tree House. I’d found everywhere else, including the Sandpiper Motel, where I’d tried to talk to some folks who, for obvious reasons, wanted nothing to do with a journalist and made that crystal clear. So I was worn out, physically and emotionally.
But I wanted to at least try to lay eyes on Tree House. It’s important to me to see as many places as I can that play a part in a story I’m writing. I love seeing where people have been and feeling the ways they compare to the places where they end up.
So I just sort of drove around the area I thought it might be. A total Hail Mary.
Finally I just parked and walked up to — I don’t want to get too specific here because they asked me not to describe the place in a way that would reveal its location, but it was not the type of place you’d expect. There were a few guys just talking, and I just asked something like, “Hey, any chance y’all know anything about Tree House?”
They gave me a look that told me I was onto something, and asked who I was and why I was asking, so I just told them I’d spent a few days with the Brennans for a story about Colt, and I was leaving in the morning but thought it’d be good to see the place that almost helped Colt save his own life. One of the guys told me to come in and sit down and tell them about myself, so we talked for awhile.
Long story short, I’d stumbled right onto the Tree House building, and the next morning, they unlocked the front door for me. I watched clients work out, talked with people who worked there, and met with Colt’s roommate and friends from his time there, and then I went and got coffee with another guy who’d graduated from the program right when Colt was supposed to. Later they connected me with a guy from the program who was back in Hawaii.
That all transformed the story. They showed me Colt’s life in the program, and all of the things that had helped him nearly heal — things that had helped so many others like him heal from addiction, too.
Lastly, I think it's important for young writers to understand the time, research and level of trust and interviews it takes to produce a piece like this. When did you first pitch it? How long did it take to write and how did you go about earning the trust of his family?
I pitched it not long after reading the news about Colt in May, got the assignment approved in June, and reached out to Colt’s sister, Chanel, soon after that. I think it was on Instagram. I don’t remember exactly. But we ended up on the phone, had a long conversation, she talked to her parents and sister about it, then they called me, and we all talked some more, and then they invited me out to Southern California for a few days.
I flew out there, spent a few days at their house and riding around town with them. We talked for hours. They let me go with them to where Colt’s ashes are buried, and sit in with them as they selected the marker for his grave. I think I cried every night I got back to my hotel.
After that, it took a couple weeks to get a draft where I was happy with it, and then I sent that to my editor, and it wasn’t quite working. So I rewrote pretty much the whole thing and then we were in good shape. We worked on revisions here and there as SI decided when they wanted to run it.
The last week or two before the story ran, we had a couple more thorough editing sessions, and polished it up for good a couple days before it came out.
We had some detailed conversations about how to handle certain sections of the story, making sure we were truthful and fair without being gratuitous with any of the darker parts of the story.
In that last week before the story came out, I called all the family and some of the Tree House guys to talk through the story with them on the phone, to make sure that I’d presented everything accurately and quoted them correctly, and so that they had a chance to prepare themselves emotionally for the harder parts that would be in the story.
There were a few things I think helped earn their trust.
The main one, I think, was that I emphasized that I didn’t really have some sort of preconceived narrative or story I was going to tell. I told them I just saw Colt as a human being clearly struggling with some hard stuff, and I wanted to understand him and how he ended up where he did. They realized I wasn’t looking to exploit any of the sordid details of his life, but just wanted to tell a true story that unpacked his experience, and theirs as his family — the good and the bad, the beauty and the flaws.
I also checked in a lot about how comfortable they were feeling and made sure to clarify why I was asking certain questions and things like that.
And then, if it’s OK to get a little vulnerable here — I told them about myself a little. I told them I’d had drinking and addiction problems myself a few years ago. Told the same to the Tree House guys, too. Not in too much detail, but enough for them to know — I get it. I know what addiction’s like and what it takes to manage it.
Beyond all that, I think the thing that might have mattered most to everyone was that I approached this from a perspective of not judgmental or expecting anything in particular. I was just curious.
Way back in the day I used to do sets of 21s at the end of every one of my workouts. If you don’t know what they are, they’re sets of biceps curls with a barbell where you do 7 reps raising the bar halfway up, then 7 reps raising the bar just from the midpoint of the curl to the top, then 7 reps doing a full curl with the bar.
I hadn’t done them in a while and decided to start doing them at the end of my workouts again this week. They’re simple, awesome and effective. Also, you know, they give you gainz with your gunz, bro.
I did put a twist on them, though. I did one set with a narrow grip, followed by one set with a wide grip. After each double set, I added 5 pounds to each side of the bar. When I got to ten pounds on each end, my arms were toast.
My son and I ran in a charity 5k last weekend and I could not have been prouder of the little guy. The whole thing was his idea and we got up at 5:40 in the morning to get to the race registration on time. He ran for a majority of the race and we finished in 40 minutes or so. We even got medals! Check out the hardware here.
I also shared this super old photo of when I got my start writing for the Ridgewood News as a local journalist… Good times! Back then I’d write piece on a high school bench-a-thon, landscapers and a town reservoir and they’d all be front page stories.
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