The defining moment

Photo: Concussion Legacy Foundation

It was September of 1976, the week before the NFL season began, and Gary Fencik had just been cut by the Dolphins and signed by the Bears. On his first day of work, he borrowed his parents’ car and set out for Bears headquarters, then Ferry Hall in Lake Forest.

Then the car broke down on Route 60. Fencik was on the side of the road, in danger of being late for his first real day as a professional football player. He flagged down a passing car.

“Where are you going, kid?” the man with the blonde hair asked.

“Lake Forest,” Fencik replied.

“So am I, hop in.”

This was no coincidence that Fencik and Doug Plank would come together.

Writer Dan Pompei of The Athletic uses scene and dialogue to reconstruct this pivotal, unlikely moment that brought two great football players together for the first time. What a wonderful device to begin a story of how two of the most violent hitters in NFL history are now working, as the headline states, “to curb the concussion culture they helped create.”

Good reporters listen for the meaningful, defining anecdote … the moment that set the course for someone’s life. Then they ask questions, mining for detail. What road was Plank on when the car broke down? Whose car was it? (Though I wish he’d told us what make and model of car it was.) A single scene, including dialogue, can make an otherwise-routine story sing.

Nearly every person working in ministry anywhere in the world has an anecdote (or several) that changed the course of their life. The reporter who discovers it, mines it and makes it the centerpiece of a story will hit readers with a story they’ll remember for a long time.

You can read part of Pompei’s story here. The whole thing requires a subscription, a terrific investment if you like sports and good writing.

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