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What Makes This Piece Good, Vol. 12: Pure Heart by William Nack

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Oct 4, 2017.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Greetings. Emboldened by the enjoyable "First Person Stories" discussion, I thought I might revive an old favorite this week (WMTPG) on the anniversary of the day Secretariat died. Today marks 28 years since he passed. (If you're unfamiliar with this exercise, follow the links at the bottom of this post.)

    William Nack on the death of Secretariat, the greatest horse who ever lived.

    This story features a ton of first person, and is as much a story about Nack as it is Secretariat, yet is generally regarded as one of the best pieces Sports Illustrated has ever published.

    I have many thoughts about why this piece works, but I will save them for later, except to say: What details does Nack nail to create scenes? Great feature stories cannot be written without scenes, which is one of the easiest things to say, but hardest things to make a writer understand. Even good feature writers sometimes struggle to find the right details to build the right scenes that form a true narrative arc, but Nack is one of the best to ever do it. Was lucky enough to have a phone conversation with him once about writing, and he talked about how obsessive he was making certain his sentences had meter and cadence in them, like music.

    What makes this piece good (or great)?

    Previous links to entries in this series can be found here:

    1. Buster Olney on Mariano Rivera's cutter.
    2. Mike Bianchi on Dale Earnhardt's funeral.
    3. Sally Jenkins on Kwame's Brown's rookie year.
    4. Selena Roberts' Knicks/Heat playoff gamer
    5. Rick Reilly writing around Patrick Ewing
    6. Randall Patterson on the prodigy who wasn't.
    7. Brady Dennis on the power of a 300-word narrative.
    8. EM Swift on the story behind the 1980 US Hockey Team.
    9. Lisa Pollack on John Hirshbeck and Roberto Alomar
    10. Don Van Natta Jr. on Jerry Jones
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2017
  2. Riptide

    Riptide Well-Known Member

    "Pure Heart" is always my go-to example of best modern American sportswriting. I still read it at least twice a year.

    This passage is riveting for its imagery, and it's the one I return to most:

    I slept at the Newsday offices that night, and at 2 a.m. I drove to Belmont Park to begin my vigil at the barn. I circled around to the back of the shed, lay down against a tree and fell asleep. I awoke to the crowing of a cock and watched as the stable workers showed up. At 6:07, Hoeffner strode into the shed, looked at Secretariat and called out to Sweat: ''Get the big horse ready! Let's walk him about 15 minutes.''

    Sweat slipped into the stall, put the lead shank on Secretariat and handed ) it to Davis, who led the colt to the outdoor walking ring. In a small stable not 30 feet away, pony girl Robin Edelstein knocked a water bucket against the wall. Secretariat, normally a docile colt on a shank, rose up on his hind legs, pawing at the sky, and started walking in circles. Davis cowered below, as if beneath a thunderclap, snatching at the chain and begging the horse to come down. Secretariat floated back to earth. He danced around the ring as if on springs, his nostrils flared and snorting, his eyes rimmed in white.

    Unaware of the scene she was causing, Edelstein rattled the bucket again, and Secretariat spun in a circle, bucked and leaped in the air, kicking and spraying cinders along the walls of the pony barn. In a panic, Davis tugged at the shank, and the horse went up again, higher and higher, and Davis bent back yelling, ''Come on down! Come on down!''

    I stood in awe. I had never seen a horse so fit. The Derby and Preakness had wound him as tight as a watch, and he seemed about to burst out of his coat. I had no idea what to expect that day in the Belmont, with him going a mile and a half, but I sensed we would see more of him than we had ever seen before.

    Thanks again, Bill Nack!
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2017
  3. hondo

    hondo Well-Known Member

    Are turf writers allowed that much access to the stables these days? Or is it like college football, where we've lost all the practice and locker-room access?
  4. playthrough

    playthrough Moderator Staff Member

    Love to see this again, DD. Gave me a chance to re-read Bianchi's piece, one of my faves.
  5. swingline

    swingline Well-Known Member

    When I first read Nack's story in the magazine, I was struck by how he said Secretariat's death hit him as hard, or harder, than that of his father's. It's a great story that I've read several times over the years.

    The other SI story I've read several times is Gary Smith's "The Ripples From Little Lake Nellie" from 1993. As a young sportswriter at the time, I was dumbstruck at how much detail there was in that story, how much access he had to have had, how he crafted the story. And after reading that, my god, everything I wrote looked like a failure on the page compared to Smith's work. If I was framing a house, Smith was installing crown molding and building cabinets from scratch.
  6. hondo

    hondo Well-Known Member

    Check out Smith's story, if you can find it, on David Duval when he was at the top of his game (1999, after the 59 at Bob Hope and winning the Players). People in Jacksonville knew the back-story on Duval and how his older brother died when he was 9 years old. If anyone ever thought Duval was aloof, Gary Smith explained it as well as anyone could.
  7. swingline

    swingline Well-Known Member

  8. swingline

    swingline Well-Known Member

    And I'd forgotten how pitch perfect Bianchi's column on Earnhardt's funeral was. Damn, powerful writing.
  9. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member

    What makes this piece good?

    Let me count the ways:

    This story catches you from the very first sentence, about when Secretariat was being led into the van to be euthanized. Because, honestly, in your mind's eye, can you really see Secretariat ever doing anything haltingly?

    Even the title, "Pure Heart," run with that reversed photo of Secretariat while he raced -- captures and equates perfectly with the connection between the horse's physically large heart and the sentiment everyone had then, and still has now, about Secretariat. Stories/photos about animals are widely known to do well and be well-received in journalism circles, and among journalism readers. Secretariat, and this writing about him, personified this tenfold.

    The writing made the stallion barn at Claiborne Farm, and Bold Ruler/Secretariat's stall, in particular, sound and feel like a beloved family home that's been passed down from generation to generation.

    Nack's (accurate) description of himself as "the designated chronicler of Secretariat's career" was right on point, and adds weight and real emotional perspective to writing that is already great, anyway. His "daily front-row seat" to watch the colt and the year's greatest show in sports" really brought home the privilege that Nack had, and that he clearly appreciated.

    The graf after that that encapsulated both Secretariat's personality and his athletic power and prowess was so descriptive that it's easy to picture it all in your mind's eye, even if you never saw that Belmont race, or pictures or old film from it. And I could almost see a Nack family picture of pet "siblings" Secretariat and Muffin.

    It was destiny -- Secretariat winning the Triple Crown, Nack recording it, and then, almost unplanned (at least with regard to Secretariat) but so fittingly, the fact that the writer was there at Claiborne Farm and saw him, grazing, 48 hours before he died. It was like an appropriate, full-circle ending. As an aside, as I read, I couldn't help but picture a winner's circle. That's what I thought of, and that Lawrence Robinson was crafted and weaved into the story seemed to add to that sense.

    I also was almost moved by the statement about how Nack decided not to go round back to get closer to Secretariat upon his last visit because he had "never entered Claiborne Farm through the back door." To me that was a reminder of and a perfect metaphor for his deep, long-running relationships with the horse and the people surrounding him -- Nack's privileged, respectable, and respected, position within that circle. Again, it lent weight and perspective to everything written, and I'm not one who usually even likes the inclusion of first-person writing.

    After reading Clem Florio's prediction of Secretariat's Triple Crown a year before it happened, it brought to mind Joe Namath! I chuckled to myself as I thought about it.

    Even the little paragraph about how Secretariat wintered in Hialeah as Nack shoveled snow in Huntington, N.Y. hit home and was relatable to me because I was born in Huntington, and my parents occasionally went to races at different tracks around the state. We lived near Belmont for a time, and I know they liked to go to races there together when they were young. Like Secretariat himself, the writing and imagery of this piece is just so good, so engaging and relateable. It's probably a coincidence, but I think the next time the general public felt so connected to another race horse involved in a Triple Crown campaign was probably Seattle Slew, who, like Secretariat, also was ridden by Ron Turcotte.

    The little details included in the writing, like the snippets from Nack's reporter's notebook, and those equating Secretariat's weight and his worth, were, again, just so good, as were the smile-inducing stories and images of Secretariat stealing Nack's notebook, raking his stall, and brushing off the unrequited love of stable pony Billy Silver.

    The picture of Secretariat winning the Kentucky Derby, looking so powerful -- proving so powerful with his faster and faster quarter times throughout the race -- drove home the feeling that the race was a pulse-pounding prelude to something greater that was still to come. Appropriately, the writing felt like a race -- it had the pace and the rhythm of one, and that felt very intentional -- like it meant to mirror and relate to the subject. Nack's own revealed daily routine in the days leading up to the Belmont Stakes only added to and reflected that sense. Again, almost every detail in this story had a clearly visible purpose.

    The morning of the Belmont, when Secretariat reared up on his hind legs, danced around, snorting restlessly, drew vividly for me a picture of a prizefighter before entering the ring for the fight of his life.

    What Nack wrote about his own reaction to Secrtariat's 31-length Belmont victory might well have described the sentiments of practically everyone at that rocking, rolling, roaring track that historic day: "I bolted up the press box stairs with exultant shouts, and there, yielded a part of myself to that horse forever."

    Indeed, that connection was never broken, and this piece proved that. That's what makes it so good.
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2017
    Double Down and Dog8Cats like this.
  10. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member

    I did have one question regarding this story, right up top, that is more for my knowledge/understanding than anything, if anyone can shed any light.

    As the story was written, Secretariat collapsed and crashed down inside the van, presumably upon being injected with the drugs that euthanized him. That was surprising, and disturbed me a little bit.

    I got the opportunity to cover a little bit of horse racing when I was in newspapers. I liked it a lot, and would gladly have done it long-term as a regular beat had I been assigned. But I never saw or otherwise experienced a horse being put down.

    Wouldn't there have been a sling, or some such contraption, to hold the animal up that was akin to those used initially in the cases of injured horses like Ruffian and Barbaro, rather than allowing Secretariat to collapse down, as it read like, once the drugs began to take effect?
  11. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Finally filed the piece I was writing this month, so I have a chance to circle back to weigh in on this.

    To me, it's one of the great examples in journalism that shows it's ok to fall in love with your subject a little. Now, that might be a problem if your subject is Scarlett Johansson, but this story wouldn't be what it is if it hadn't moved Nack so deeply.

    This paragraph, which WriteThinking alluded to, has always stood out to me as an example of Nack's writing:

    I briefly considered slipping around Ogygian’s paddock and dropping down to visit, but I had never entered Claiborne through the backdoor, so I thought better of it. Instead, for a full half hour, I stood by the paddock waiting for Robinson and gazing at Secretariat. The gift of reverie is a blessing divine, and it is conferred most abundantly on those who lie in hammocks or drive alone in cars. Or lean on hillside fences in Kentucky. The mind swims, binding itself to whatever flotsam comes along, to old driftwood faces and voices of the past, to places and scenes once visited, to things not seen or done but only dreamed.

    That's fucking literature.

    I think what gives this story its power is the way it builds, and uses tension, even though we know what's going to happen. We know Secretariat won the Triple Crown, and we know he's going to be euthanized, right from the beginning. Even Sports Illustrated readers would have known those two things, reading this piece when it was released in 1980. But still, Nack builds the tension through each scene, from standing in the stables (with the pregnant cats!) and getting the feather plucked from Secretariat's whiskers, and watching him rise up on his legs to portray how would up he was before the Belmont. Another thing I've always loved about this piece is it gives you a glimpse at what I like to think of as the "in between moments." My favorite thing to do when covering an NFL game and trying to use it to write a feature about someone is follow them all the way to the team bus, through the tunnel. That's an "in between" time. A lot of reporters put down their notebooks as soon as an athlete says "Ok, we good?" after talking in a scrum, and yet there is so much rich scene still to come when they walk to the bus and think they're not being watched. Think about Wetzel following Brady to the bus. He was one of the only people who got Giselle coming up to him to console him, and then saying "My husband can't throw and catch the ball" after the Giants Super Bowl. And my favorite scene in that whole Wetzel piece is when Jim Gray SCREAMS at his producer because he's got Brady standing there, awkwardly, waiting to go on the air and they won't throw it to him. This whole secretariat story is a story about the "in between" moments, the stuff you wouldn't have been able to see if you just followed the Triple Crown races.

    I'm sure there are people who would say "Oh I don't need all that first person; who cares about how Nack felt?" but it's a story where Nack is serving as something of a stand-in for the people who were so captivated by Secretariat. We're all touched by the surreal at some point in our lives, the moments that you can't quite wrap your arms around because they seem to overwhelm your senses, and Nack not writing about that and just focusing on Secretariat would have cheated us from re-living that amazing spring through him would have been holding back. You run a risk giving yourself fully to a story, and a moment, but you also open up the possibility of something magical. Nack wasn't just mourning Secretariat at the end, he was mourning a time in his life when he felt like he was riding the wave of something beautiful, and as a result he never felt so alive.
    WriteThinking and Dog8Cats like this.
  12. Riptide

    Riptide Well-Known Member

    SI 60 Q&A: William Nack on what 'Pure Heart' and Secretariat mean to him

    NACK: It was a very truthful rendition of what happened. I can still remember leaning against that hotel room wall and sobbing. That horse had meant a lot to me and my family. I used to bring my four kids out to see him. He was like a part of the family. That book had been the first I ever wrote, and that horse had represented a part of my life with my wife and children that was very happy. I was a very contented person at that time. We were divorced by [the time of the story] and his death seemed to close a curtain on my life. He represented more than just being a horse, he represented something that was going on in my own life, having kids running around the house and being happily married.


    SI: What did Callahan and Mulvoy think?

    NACK: Callahan liked it. He said “Well you did it.” I said, “Yeah, thanks to you, ya bum." I told Mark he should have put it on the cover. He had some stupid baseball player instead.

    Last edited: Oct 20, 2017
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