by John Walters
*My good friend Adam Duerson has no idea that I am writing this, and so if I know him as he knows me, I imagine that he’s reading this with more than a tinge of trepidation (“What is Walters going to say? I wish I could edit this first…”). But I will do my best up front to assuage all of his fears.
It was a snowy Sunday night in mid-March of 2004. Adam Duerson, Jamie Lowe and I were inside Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut. The NCAA tournaments—men’s and women’s—were only days from tipping off and UConn had decided, if memory serves me correctly, to make both of its highly-ranked teams available to the media in a mostly informal presser on the court (cktk with Mike Enright).
This was also the first day of a grand expedition. The three of were about to embark on a two-week, cross-country pilgrimage, charged with seeing as many NCAA (and NIT) tournament games as humanly possible from a fan’s perspective. Adam was an editor at a newly formed publication, SI On Campus, which had launched the previous September. I had been hired as its back-page columnist and write-as-much-else-as-you-are-able guy, and Jamie was a newly added hire that winter whom our top editor, Chris Stone, had taken to because her prose had a certain age.
On that chilly Sunday morning the three of us had piled into a modestly priced RV rented in Rockland County, N.Y., and then made our way across blustery central Connecticut until we reached Storrs. The journey was quite familiar to me. Three years earlier I had spent an entire year living near UConn’s campus, attending every practice and game I could, for a book I’d write on Geno Auriemma’s amazing program, The Same River Twice (it seems bizarre to write now, but that team had Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and lost before advancing to the championship game… in fact, neither was considered the team’s top player).
All of this is to lead to the exchange from that night that I’ll never forget. The UConn women were on the cusp of winning a third consecutive national championship, and fourth in five years. Someone in the press asked Auriemma how he had known that his three long-time assistants—Chris Dailey, Jamelle Elliott and Tonya Cardoza—would turn out to be such great coaches. “I didn’t know if they would be great coaches,” Auriemma answered. “I did know they were good people. I figured the rest would take care of itself.”
If there is a better epitaph for the SI career of my good friend Adam Duerson, whose tenure at the magazine ended earlier this week after a nearly 20-year run, I’d love to hear it. A Midwesterner through and through, Adam has proven a trusted confidante, friend, editor and mentor to countless staffers over the years. He may be the most ego-free person I’ve ever known at SI and unlike a few other people with whom I worked there, every word Adam tells you, you can take to the bank. He’s honest.
I remember the first day we met. SI On Campus had its first staff meeting, called by our managing editor, Chris Stone. This was exciting. SIOC was going to be this cool indie label of SI, and Chris had managed to cobble together more than a few of the cool teens (representationally) from the main mag: Maureen Grise (now Cavanagh) would be our photo editor; Mark Bechtel would also help when the editing bay became too full. I had just been hired back after being laid off by the mag two days earlier. We were all in our thirties.
Then there was Adam. Thrift store T-shirt, checkerboard Vans, scruff on the face. SI editors were known for making insider references to “Old Nassau” or out-Brooks Brothers’ing one another. And here was this hipster who was probably hiding a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his backpack. He was from Wisconsin; had attended school in Madison. To Chris’ credit, he saw something. And he was right.
Adam and I spent that first fall with out desks near one another and a slow, deep friendship blossomed. I was the prodigal son come back to the mag who was a pariah to some of the more entrenched SI editors. Adam was this maverick that did not meet the dress code. But we both got the job done, and I learned quickly that Adam was an incubator of outstanding ideas and that he saw them through, A to Z.
We’re about 12 years apart in age. Adam clued me in to the music of the present, from The White Stripes (he took me to my first Jack White show) to The Shins. He showed me that Radiohead had actually made albums since The Bends.
By the time Adam, Jamie and I piled into that RV on a cold and raw March morning, the kind northeasterners are far too familiar with, we had attended many SIOC staff meetings, exchanged too many knowing glances at things others had said (and Adam had rolled his eyes enough at my corny attempts at humor), to not be pretty decent friends. But two weeks together in a van? That would be the test.
The RV trip deserves its own long-form story. From Storrs to Bristol (a quick stop at ESPN) to Penn State to Columbus to South Bend to Carbondale to Kansas City to Denver to Missoula to Spokane to Reno to Las Vegas to Phoenix and finally, back to Las Vegas. In South Bend we woke up in a Wal-Mart parking lot on St. Patrick’s Day. None of us had showered or slept in a proper bed in three days and Adam had the inspired idea for us to have our “family portrait” taken at Wal-Mart (I wish I could show you the picture; we are hideous). That evening Adam and I staged a “Shamrock Shake-down” at a local McDonald’s: a 7-minute chugging contest of Shamrock shakes (the manager kindly asked us to leave as soon as it ended). At a bar in Missoula Adam and I realized that the locals might have thought we were a couple–they certainly realized we did not belong— and we headed out before matters deteriorated. At an eatery in Spokane, we gawked as recently retired NBA legend John Stockton walked in on a weekday afternoon to speak to his father (who owned the place). In Arizona we stopped at my parents’ home just long enough for my mom to do Adam’s and Jamie’s laundry and feed us a proper Italian meal.
That trip cemented the friendship. In the ensuing years, as many of my contemporaries got married, had kids and moved out of the city, Adam and his tight-knit group of friends informally adopted me. Adam’s apartment, which overlooked Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, became the epicenter of social activity. Adam was never the life of the party—though he could be—but more so the organizer. Weekly poker games. An annual trip to Belmont Park in which Adam and his friends rented a bus and dolled up as if they were high society (while still not being too posh to play flip-cup on the grounds of Belmont). A winter race across three boroughs and over two East River bridges in shopping carts that was dubbed, “Idiotarod.”
This Midwestern kid who was never easily pigeonholed—a Wisconsin native who openly roots for the Chicago Bears—brought a refreshing enthusiasm to living in New York City. Adam was always fun, but never loud or overbearing. In any social situation, he let the game come to him. And I don’t know if he’s ever seen “Auntie Mame,” but he lives the adage: “life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
(And even though Adam is now married with two small children, he still embraces that philosophy.)
It was Adam who organized a trip for about a dozen of us to visit South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. I’d have never done that on my own. It was Adam who turned innumerable game watches or other NYC happenings into communal events. Adam knew the name of every speakeasy and every soccer bar in Manhattan or Brooklyn. I cannot tell you how many games of all kinds I watched at various joints in those two boroughs where Adam welcomed me amidst his gaggle of friends, all of whom were at least 10 years younger.
I wouldn’t call Adam an extrovert, and yet he is never alone. He toils to create community in whatever he does, wherever he goes. And because he is so genuine and so honest, there are scores of present and former SI staffers who think of Adam as that one true friend they have at the magazine.
While there remain a few folks at SI today whose tenures predate Adam’s, no one was a more formidable bridge to the flush past at SI that people like myself lived and to the stark present. No one that I know cared more about the legacy of this wonderful enterprise, begun in 1954; was a more ardent student of the mag or a more passionate historian. If you point out a long-form story that ran in the 1960s that you recently unearthed to Adam, chances are either that 1) he’s already read it, 2) he’s spoken to the author about it or 3) he’ll read it next chance he gets.
Adam never wanted to be an SI writer (extremely rare for someone who enters SI at such a young age). He always wanted to be an SI editor. Didn’t want his name on the marquee, more content to produce and direct. And he has never, ever, ever taken that route as a power trip. He sincerely cares about the stories. He creates relationships with writers and implicitly understands all the suffering and anguish that went into it, as well as the excitement you have about it. Too many editors, particularly those who have never written, never develop those traits. They are inherent in Adam.
In January of 2020 Adam and I met at a bar in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn. I was working mostly as a waiter but my restaurant had just been sold. Covid was not yet on anyone’s mind. Adam had this idea for a story on the New York Press Softball League, a once-mighty staple of Wednesday summer afternoons in Central Park. Expectations for a “Where Are They Now” story on this were low, but Adam offered me a crack at it. I said sure. I literally had nothing else to do.
Over the course of six weeks in March and April, just as the pandemic was sweeping the country, I reported the story. A 90-minute phone conversation with a subject after which I put down the phone, my neck cramped, and just giggled at the anecdotes being tossed my way. Waking up at 3 a.m. after four hours of sleep to write (by then I’d taken a job at a supermarket). You reach a point, if you’re lucky, where you realize you’re working on the most wonderful story of your career. And, if you’re smart, you don’t share too many of the details with your editor (Adam), because you want the story to knock him off his feet. Never oversell your story before you file; it’s a lesson I try to pass on to every aspiring journalist I know.
And just to reiterate: no one but no one is letting this writer back in the pages of SI except Adam. There’s no political upside to doing so. Adam never cared about that.
Finally, I filed the story. Anxious for the response text or call I’d receive from Adam in a day or two (it was a 10,000-word piece). Went for a swim to try to return to the land of the living. About an hour after I’d filed, I’d finished swimming laps. I checked my phone, which I’d left within arm’s reach of my lane. There was a text waiting from Adam. It’s the kindest thing any editor ever wrote to me. Adam knew exactly what to say.
Adam’s not dead, of course, just unemployed as of earlier this week. Pardon the Interregnum, as this condition will not last long. It’s not just that he’s too talented to be out of work. It’s that too many people in this often thin-skinned and petty industry (guilty on both counts from time to time myself) admire him and trust him and respect him. Like working with him. Yes, he’s a fantastic editor, but before anyone knew that, they knew that Adam Duerson was a good person.
Adam was never content to allow SI to become soft on its past reputation. He was always about finding new peaks for SI to ascend. He never wanted SI to become Fat Elvis in Vegas, writing checks off its readers’ sense of nostalgia. He has always strived to make the current incarnation of SI live up to the high bar established the previous century. When established names such as Steve Rushin and Jeff Pearlman return to write for their alma mater, Adam has almost always (maybe exclusively always) been their editor. He seeks them out and they know he’s going to do his damnedest for their story.
I don’t feel sorry for Adam. I feel sorry for Sports Illustrated. And I don’t mean that vindictively. I always want to see them both thrive. I don’t know whether the excision of Adam and a dozen or so other editors will make SI more profitable in the short term. But I feel pretty confident that it will take SI further away from being the true bastion of sports journalism that it had been for decades.*
*Adam, I wrote this on the fly. Please have Bechtel give it a blue pencil and Meesha a strong copy read. Ask Schropp to find some photos of us on the March Madness trip. Please run any interference between Stone and I, as you’ve always been so deft at doing.
The amount of stories that you have from your time at SI are unbelievably detailed and fascinating. Again, I’ll reiterate a comment I made on a more recent post (I don’t always read in order, especially when I’m catching up), you ought to write a book (fiction or non-fiction, doesn’t matter).
Also – I’m curious about how you became a pariah at SI.