How about tuesday nite in miami? Wright Thompson texted me. I immediately booked a flight.
I was there a few days later, walking along Calle Ocho, a sea of accents, class contrast and biting humidity. Occasional mild breezes stir the palms and swirl through the thronging masses, fleeting zephyrs offering brief respites from the oppressive heat.
I catch my breath and orient myself on the bustling street in Little Havana, spotting Ball & Chain’s sign. I stroll inside, lively Latin music greeting my ears. It looks like something out of a 1930’s movie set, with black and white photographs lining the dark green painted walls, the whole place under an amber glow.
And there, inside this iconic bar, sits ESPN senior writer and Mississippi native Wright Thompson, daiquiri in hand.
Dallas meets Oxford in Miami.
Wright gets up from the wooden booth to greet me with a wide smile. He is unbelievably happy and shakes my hand. It feels like I’m catching up with an old friend as we sit down and he excitedly fills me in of his latest interview – Pat Riley.
I caught him at a good time.
As Wright grins and recounts stories of his times with Riley, even a naïve, 24-year-old grad student could see why ESPN hired him. Heck, it seemed obvious just reading his longform pieces of world renowned athletes, coaches and such.
But meeting Wright face-to-face revealed a much deeper, personal picture of one of America’s best sportswriters. One which caused me to wonder: What drives this man and how did he get here? I hadn’t yet fully realized the struggles, sacrifices and many disappointments Wright faced to get and stay at ESPN.
A month later, back in Texas, I heard of the ESPN layoffs:
Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value, and as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent — anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play — necessary to meet those demands. – ESPN President John Skipper
I scanned through the long list of notable sports writers, anchors and analysts who had just been axed, hoping I would not find his name. No sign of him. A sigh of relief and a quick text to Wright confirms it. He’s safe.
Did he know about the upcoming layoffs when we met? In retrospect, I wondered how he survived the deep cuts in ESPN’s talent pool.
Back in Little Havana, someone walks up to the booth and snaps a photograph of Wright, or of the booth – I’m unsure. I straighten my posture, remembering the cachet of the writer in front of me.
Wright is honest and upfront, albeit a tad distracted. His witty sense of humor makes up for his locker-room vocabulary. America’s storied sportswriter swears like a sailor.
His dark brown eyes light up when he discusses something he deeply cares about. In this moment, in Little Havana, that care is Pat Riley. Wright fixates on the story currently materializing. Nothing else matters. Perhaps it’s this all consuming focus that would keep him safe through ESPN’s purge. Or maybe it’s his likeable personality and work ethic that ESPN will continue to depend on to write stories of sport’s most difficult and elusive subjects, like Riley.
Wright is a grinder. A successful one at that.
“I’m really motivated by not letting people down. There’s nothing in the world more terrifying than proving yourself unworthy of someone’s trust. I’ve always been a people pleaser, the barking seal — look at me, look at me, look at me.”
Wright keeps his cell on the table. The same cell phone that holds a tight flight schedule, Bruce Springsteen songs, old family photos and a heartfelt letter from his late father.
Wright tells me to keep going as he texts Riley back. He’s nearing the end of his Riley story and tonight he celebrates. He orders another daiquiri and asks the waiter that it not be as sweet this time. The waiter apologizes, explaining he has a new bartender. Wright’s response is laid back and carefree. He’s not rattled. In fact, he’s reflective.
This isn't normal, he confesses in his low, authoritative, southern drawl. He doesn’t balance life and work well. Nor does he sit well between stories – he becomes restless. The story itself and the joy of doing it well is his motivator. A costly one at that.
“If I’m focused on something, I’m unbelievably selfish. I’ll get a text message from a person I actually care about and won’t write ’em back. Like when I’m in the thing, I’m in the thing, at the expense of lots of other stuff. And that’s a stupid, terrible way to be.”
Taken aback by his blunt honesty, I ask if he is actively doing anything to change.
“No. I mean, I should. These aren’t conscious decisions, it’s just reactive, in the moment. The only thing in the world that matters is the story. It’s like G.I. Joe, ‘knowing is half the battle’. Self-awareness does not absolve being an asshole.”
As the evening progresses and the music grows louder, I nervously rattle off questions and check the recorder every few minutes to ensure it is still on – clearly paranoid about losing the interview before I get it. Wright graciously tells me to take my time and gives me writing tips as we go.
“I’ll sit here and answer these all night.”
As we chat about his previous interviews with Michael Jordan, Johnny Manziel, Dan Gable and many others, I realize there’s more to him than just “grinding.” No one is great without an incredible work ethic — true, but Wright has something more and it’s starting to show.
He doesn’t care if Pat Riley likes his story. Or if anyone else likes the story he writes. He cares about getting the story right and talking about real things. He doesn’t work out, but he works. Hard. He is the most productive in the morning, and is typically exhausted well before the sun goes down. He both stress-eats and forgets to eat. He is as nervous about the Pat Riley story as he was about the first story he wrote.
We find our way to El Rey de las Fritas, the Cuban diner Wright has been raving about, a spot he frequents whenever he is in Miami.
“There’s only one thing to get; you want frita. It’s a Cuban hamburger. The kids get them with cheese, but the old men think that’s f----ing blasphemy. So, I get one of each.”
“Dos fritas y con queso. Y two cervezas presidentes. Should’ve let you order since you’re from Texas. Since everyone from Texas speaks Spanish.” I can’t help but smile. His humor is always on. A Spanish soap opera plays in the background and he tells me what is happening. My paltry Texas Spanish education is showing.
Between bites of frita, Wright asks me what I want to do for my career, listening with genuine interest and offering career advice. The conversation changes to the time he and Sonia, his wife, went to Paris for a European soccer tournament, how his favorite drink is bourbon, how he speaks to Riley in the same manner he would talk to his late father (“yes sir, no sir”), places I have to visit when I go to Rome this summer and how he is very superstitious — about everything.
The last story he wrote in his old house was "Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building." “The first story I wrote in my new house was maybe Dan Gable. But I was really relieved when it was good, because I thought, ‘Okay, I broke the seal.’”
Amidst texts from his mom telling him that she got home safe and facts about his family, Wright mentions that he and Sonia have been trying to have a child for about four years now and in the next 21 days will do IVF. If he has a son, his name will be Walter Wright Thompson III.
“We’ve been trying. It’s quite the thing.”
He had yet to utter a word about his father, a man who I’d read was a big presence in Wright’s life. I wonder why he doesn’t mention him. But the conversation turns to school.
Wright attended the University of Missouri, where everyone thought they would be the next big thing. Wright doesn’t say it, but he has become the next big thing. It wasn’t an easy road.’
“I wouldn’t want my undergrad self to know what it takes, ’cause I’m not sure I’d be willing to do it again. You have to continue to believe in yourself despite all evidence that you shouldn’t. I think there’s a reason we’re arrogant when we’re young. It’s because you have to be.
“You have to believe that if people tell you no, that you’re right and they’re wrong.”
“There was an English class — ‘Place as a Character in 19th Century American Literature.’ That’s basically my career. That was worth all that money my parents gave the University of Missouri.” Place is king in Wright’s writing. Every article he writes explains setting almost religiously until the reader feels, tastes and sees where the story unfolds. It was a long process of doing the same length of story over and over and over, and mastering form and word count, before Wright ever wrote a story for ESPN.
As we munch on fritas and sip cold presidentes on red swiveling barstools, I muster the courage to ask the question I’ve wanted to ask more than anything these past two hours. I want to know who his father was to him: Walter Wright Thompson Sr. A good father-son relationship can make a man. It can shape his desires and provide the encouragement needed to chase big dreams. The man that motivated Wright to be the person he is today. But, Walter Wright Thompson Sr. passed away from pancreatic cancer at just 58 years old. So I tread lightly.
“What about him?” he asks me. Oh gosh, I don’t know how to respond, immediately regretting asking it. Fortunately, Wright continues. “We were very, very close and I still struggle very, very much.”
Much of his grief comes from unanswered questions. When he gets real drunk, about twice a year, he wonders if his father would be proud of him. “So that remains a thing.” Wright’s father never had the chance to see his son become an immense success at ESPN and fulfill his writing dreams. He missed Wright’s wedding and he will never meet his future grandchildren. Disappointments which still affect Wright.
“It’s funny, because it’s something everyone goes through. So any self-pity or sort of problem dealing with it is f---ing pathetic. Every single person you ever see will deal with it, unless they die first. But, I struggle with it.”
It’s been 13 years, but Wright hasn’t fully healed. His emotional fortitude seems to waver. I ask Wright how he deals with the loss.
“Just keep going. The cosmic injustice of it all. 58, pancreatic cancer, which is bad news. I sort of relied on him for a lot. Just like advice. My mom found this folder.” He tells me to hang on and grabs his cell.
Then he reads me the letter.
Momma told me you did not get the responses you wanted to hear about summer 2000’s internships. Don’t worry or fret too much. They had quotas to fill/political obligations/etc. The main thing is that one day, they will have wished they could have gotten to know you personally — to witness your talents, your drive, your personality. Hang in there.
“Ah,” Wright pauses, then finishes his daddy’s letter.
God has been good to you.
Wright’s father made and kept copies of every letter he ever wrote Wright. It’s a good thing too, because “when you’re in college you don’t keep letters from your dad, you throw them away,” Wright tells me.
Walter Wright Thompson Sr. sent this letter to Wright after hearing of his crushing disappointment. Every single internship in America rejected him. Wright tells me that he applied literally everywhere after his sophomore year at Mizzou. None. No one wanted him. His father’s timeless words, decades later, ring true. But his father isn’t here to see them come to fruition.
This might be one of the things that grounds the man amongst the pressures and disappointments of his life: his father’s legacy and now his letters. My eyes fill with tears at the tender words. He nailed Wright. This is what I have been searching for in our time together and in my research of Wright’s previous works. Amongst the fascinating stories of trips to Rome, Tiger Woods’ issue with the spotlight and Johnny Manziel’s history in bars – this is Wright. There’s a reverence in the air when Wright mentions his father. I ask if not having his affirmation affects his writing.
“No, those things are totally separate. I know how to do my job. No, it’s just more like he’s never going to know his grandson or like life stuff. The job thing is just the job thing. I know how to do that.”
“We were very, very close.”
After his junior year, Wright landed an internship at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Most of the other interns partied, but Wright knew this might be his only shot and resolved not to blow it.
Wright described his next boss, Mike Fannin, as unrelenting. “He expected more of me than I thought I was capable of giving and it made me go do it. He and I were crazy in the same way, where it was all we cared about, and so to find someone who you're in a series of one-upmanship — that was perfect for me at the time.”
Wright’s voice turns serious and contemplative as he recounts a flight to Cuba for a story for Kansas City Star. He listened to a lot of AC/DC while thinking of how this moment, this trip, this story, was a test.
“I was very well aware that the life that I had always wanted and said that I was capable of doing was going to do stories like that Cuba trip, which is essentially all my job is now. I was very well aware of the fact that that story was either going to be the thing that showed I could do it or the thing that exposed me as a fraud. If I can’t go down there and do this story then I’m not the real thing that I’ve always insisted that I am, even if I couldn’t convince other people.”
“And so the stakes in my own personal motivation and awareness of them could not have been higher to me. Maybe that’s silly in hindsight.”
Wright became a senior writer for ESPN about seven years later.
Wright moved to Oxford, Mississippi to live near his mom after his father’s death. His friend Eric Neel calls him the glue of his friendships, showing up across the country for the funeral of a woman he’s never met to be there for a mourning friend. But yet, friends and family must understand his line of work to stay close. Anyone who does not recognize that his work causes him to miss major events — like birthdays, parties, etc. — gets cut off. Storytelling is his life. It’s not an occasional freelance story; it is so consuming that he might ghost a friend for six months. With each story he feels he must prove himself anew, and the pressure weighs on him. Past success buys him nothing.
“I can’t have friends who don’t get it. And I can’t have friends who are keeping score. Why weren’t you at this? Why didn’t you get back? I can’t do it if you don’t get it. I can’t do the thing that needs to be maintained. “
And there’s Sonia. Every time Wright leaves and comes back home for a story, it’s an adjustment for he and his wife. “The struggle is that I come back. Re-entry is hard. Like you’re gone, and then she gets used to it, and then I come back in and just leave my s--- everywhere. You come in and just leave your f---ing suitcase by the door. It’s hard. So, just when she gets used to me not being there, I arrive and then just when she gets used to me being there, I leave.
“So I mean that’s real. And I’m gone a lot. And I mean these stories that we’re doing are essentially — they don’t matter, but they matter a lot to me. So, I spent a lot of psychic energy, sometimes at the expense of everything else.”
I ask about his family’s religion — maybe some sort of faith pushes him. Death has a way of bringing eternity and life beyond the present to the mind.
“My parents are both very religious. They’re both Episcopalian.”
Wright tells me his mom really worries about him.
“I struggle. I’m wearing a St. Christopher medal. It’s the Catholic patron saint of travelers. And the buffalo is this thing I got on an Indian reservation, on a road trip a couple months ago. It’s my fertility good luck charm. I’ll take it off when that thing plays itself out. But I don’t know. I go back and forth. I mean I definitely … ” he pauses for a long moment, “I believe there is a God.”
His lack of certainty about God’s existence seems to shake him. It’s the first time during the whole interview that Wright looks uncomfortable. He turns his face away and tugs on his blue shirt, pulling it away from his neck. An uncomfortable, brief silence hits and I wait.
“I struggle with it. With the idea of God and a just God.”
A just God. I wonder if this struggle comes from his father’s untimely death. Wright continues, interrupting my thoughts, snapping me back to the conversation.
“No, I don’t know. I sort of think I might. I’ve been to Catholic mass, in different cities, a couple times. I like the Catholic mass. I don’t think churches should have f---ing people who smile and play the guitar. Like I hate that s---. Like “Jesus is great” [he sings]. Oh f--- you. Like I want like solemn and some organ. So, I like that a lot. Dude, I could totally end up being Catholic. I’m not really sure. I don’t know.”
I ask about Sonia.
“She is half-Jewish, but really is a devout congregate of the house of gin ... gin and cheese is serious business.”
A light joke in the midst of our serious conversation. Wright does this often.
We climb into the nicest, high-dollar Uber ride I’ve ever been in. Wright gazes out the window. He is weary from his Riley story. It’s all he’s done the past two months. As we pass a barbershop, he tells me he got a beard trim the other day in case I described his face.
“Didn’t want to look like a Unabomber.”
We pass Domino Park, where the old men play dominos in Little Havana. He tells me he knew Mike Mooney before he looked like Jesus. Then in the midst of our laughter and jokes, a deep revelation is shared in a soft, hushed voice as he stares out the window, while the Miami nightlife rushes by.
“All I ever really wanted was the adventure of it. To see the world and in other people learn something about yourself. That’s the rush of it for me. Is getting to go places and so I want to make sure I’m in a place when I’m there.”
We pass a motorcycle and the deep moment passes as quickly as it came.
“Sonia won’t let me have a motorcycle. It seems fun.” He crashed a bike in front of her once. It’s no wonder she says no. He says that she puts up with a lot of his shenanigans.
“She’s really remarkable. I’m sort of a much different, better version of myself after having known her. It sort of unlocked something, I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. I’m just much calmer and I’m much more sort of comfortable in my own skin and secure and confident.”
I ask how he improved her life and he jokes, “Oh, just totally ruined her life.”