Bill Simmons, also known as "The Sports Guy," writes three columns a week for ESPN.com's Page 2. After last week's terrorist devastation in New York and Washington, nothing new appeared un-der his byline for three days. His readers deluged him with e-mail, asking if everything was OK.
It turns out that Simmons, who lives in Boston, was fine. He had just taken a couple of days off, figuring the last thing the world needed was his populist observations about the sports world. But his readers convinced him they needed to hear from him and by Friday he had a new column posted, dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Simmons, 31, writes in a breezy style that makes some of his columns read like an e-mail written by a guy hunkered over his keyboard with a favorite beverage, while the TV blares in the background. And that's a fair description of his Boston apartment, where he does his writing. His style might seem too irreverent for writing about last week's troubles, but his honest and unaffected voice allowed him to pull it off.
He opened the column (available in the Simmons archive on ESPN.com's Page 2) with a description of his morning routine, which includes several hours of television. "Usually, I watch SportsCenter until 10, followed by "Beverly Hills 90210,' "The White Shadow,' or the BCMA (Best Cheesy Movie Available)."
He went on to describe the jarring effects of the terrorist attacks, interweaving excerpts from reader e-mails, some written by witnesses to large atrocities and small acts of heroism as the World Trade Center collapsed.
A friend of Simmons named Dan McLaughlin worked in the Trade Center's North Tower, on the 57th floor. There were several anxious hours of waiting to find out if McLaughlin was safe.
"Around 4:30 we heard from him," Simmons wrote. "He sent out a group e-mail explaining that he was late to work because he had stopped to vote in the New York primary. Needless to say, he never made it to the office and he was safe and sound. Still, opening my e-mail box and seeing his name in the subject heading, that might have been my most exciting e-mail moment of all time."
Simmons wrote a column called "Ramblings" for the student newspaper at Holy Cross, from which he graduated in 1992. He earned a master's degree in journalism at Boston University, then covered high school sports for the Boston Herald. After three years he turned to freelancing, eventually launching his own Web site called Bostonsportsguy.com, which in its four years of existence became a must-read for Boston sports fans. It also attracted the attention of ESPN.com, which brought him on board in June after the demise of Boston Sports Guy (BSG). Simmons talked about his career ascent in an e-mail Q&A:
Q: Your columns have such a real quality to them, like whole-grain flour instead of the over-processed writing we're served in many mainstream publications. When you are writing, do you sort of envision yourself composing an e-mail to your friends?
A: Depends on the column. When I'm doing a Ramblings or one of the goofier columns, I absolutely pretend that I'm sending an e-mail to friends. The more serious columns are a little different - since those are essays, I don't pretend they're e-mails, obviously.
Q: How many reader e-mails would you guess you've gotten on the topic of last week's terrorism and the fallout?
A: A ton. Probably like 700-800 over the past week. I actually thought I would get more than I did . . . back in the BSG site's heyday, I used to get 300 e-mails a day. Now it's tougher to e-mail me - you have to go through ESPN and fill out a form, so that's probably not as much fun for the readers. Better than nothing, though.
Q: Did anything surprise you in those reader e-mails or letters?
A: Yeah . . . I was surprised how many people urged me to get back on the horse and start writing columns again (because I had taken most of last week off during the attack and post-attack). People were adamant about it - I think they needed their life to start getting back to normal, and maybe reading me three times a week was a (very small) part of that.
Q: And how many copies of Gordon Sinclair's essay "The Americans" or the Nostradamus predictions were you forwarded?
A: Dozens. I delete every forward I get. I hate forwards.
Q: You wrote that you didn't file any columns for a few days last week because you didn't want to write a trite essay about how tragedies really put sports into perspective. Why do so many columnists recycle that cliche?
A: I have no idea - I've always hated those columns. In case you haven't noticed, sports columnists aren't the most creative lot. I really didn't think that last week was a time for sports columnists - 99 percent of them should have been removed from the entire coverage. I would have written something if I knew somebody involved in the attack or something but that's it. But by Thursday, I had received enough "Are you OK? Where are you?' e-mails that I needed to post something. And I had received enough absorbing e-mails about last week that I really wanted to incorporate them somehow in the column.
Q: Do you have any idea how many readers your column on ESPN.com reaches, and how that compares with the number of visitors to your Boston Sports Guy Web site?
A: According to my bosses, about 100,000-150,000 people read my columns every week. The BSG site had about 10,000-12,000 readers in its heyday.
Q: How has your life changed since ESPN hired you to write columns?
A: The pressure has increased . . . it's been more difficult than doing the BSG site. I don't have the crutch of the Boston sports scene (especially all the inside Boston jokes) and I had to tone down my material a little bit (since ESPN is Disney and all). Basically it was like going from "R' to "PG-13.' Much more of a challenge. When you think about it, how many successful national sports columnists are there?
Obviously I have an easier time getting press box credentials . . . that's one of the main reasons I made the ESPN move, for the "instant credibility' factor. Down the road I'll probably start attending certain events - hopefully the Super Bowl and Rahman-Lewis (fight) over the next few months.
Q: Do you watch sports primarily from press boxes or from your living room couch?
A: I avoid the press box at all costs. I hate the press box - any place where you can't cheer and you can't act like a fan isn't for me. . . . I want to be considered a sports fan who can write and makes sports a little more fun to follow. That's it. Going into clubhouses and press boxes would invariably jade me and make me approach sports from a different angle - I never want to end up grizzled and anti-sports like some of these guys.
Q: You mentioned in last week's column that your morning routine includes reading about 10 different sports sections online. What are your favorites?
A: Sports on the Web has really slipped over the past year. Almost every quality indie site has bit the dust. It's too bad. I read all the major sports sections - Boston, N.Y., Chicago, L.A., Denver, Philly, etc. - and I read ESPN.com, CNNSI and Sporting News. And I check Sportspages.com every day, obviously.
I'm enjoying the "Everything is free on the Internet' Era while it lasts - within 12-18 months, I think every newspaper site will be subscription only and Sportspages.com will be gone too.
Q: Your column on fantasy football drafting a few weeks ago was an instant classic among the fantasy leaguers at my office. As our country tries to return to so-called normalcy this week, will you be able to get your enthusiasm back for fantasy sports?
A: Absolutely. It's already back. . . . I used about eight trades on my Smallworld.com football team Sunday night. I think we're all looking for stupid distractions that take our mind off what happened last week. And if my column fits into that whole thing . . . well, I'm honored."