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Jeff Benedict



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This blog post is about my chance meeting with a guy named Tommy Flynn. But also be sure and check out my Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times about domestic violence in the NFL. You can read it here.


September 9, 2014

(WILLIMANTIC, Ct) Over the summer my alma mater Eastern Connecticut State University hired me to teach a writing class with just one student. Classes were to be held on Saturdays at 8:30 a.m.

The campus is ten hours from my Virginia home. The distance required me to drive up on Fridays and spend the night in a home furnished by the college. I wondered if it was worth the trouble for one student.

On June 28th I arrived early for the first class and waited in a third-floor classroom in an empty building on the deserted campus. At 8:31 I wondered if my student was a no-show. Then the door opened and in walked a young man in cargo shorts, a t-shirt and a baseball cap. He had some facial scruff to go along with a coffee cup in one hand and a notebook in the other. He introduced himself as Tommy Flynn.

“Sorry, I’m late,” he said. “It took longer than I expected to get out of New York.”

“You drove here from New York?”

“Yeah, I live on Long Island. I got up at 4:30 to get here on time.”

Curious, I spent the next hour interviewing him. Here’s some of what I learned.

Tommy Flynn, 24, grew up on Long Island, where he played lacrosse in high school. The opportunity to play lacrosse in college drew him to Eastern. And it’s the only thing that kept him there. In that respect he was like a lot of college athletes I’ve met.

After four years of college he still needed a few classes to graduate. But he left Eastern in 2012 to pursue an opportunity to play lacrosse in Australia. While living in Australia he also went snowboarding in New Zeeland and traveled to Southeast Asia. Eventually, he ended up back in New York, working as a bartender in midtown at a pub called The Australian. It caters to Australians.


“Why did you take this class?” I asked.

“I like to write and I heard you write for Sports Illustrated.”

“What have you written?”

“I kept a journal of my travels. I have a video journal, too.”

“What kinds of things have you videoed?”

“Stuff like me landing on a beach in Thailand. That was a trip.”

“Why did you keep a journal?”

“I figured ten years down the road it would be good to look back.”

I reached into my bag and removed a chapter I’d just finished writing for Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young. I told Tommy that a while back Young had hired me to help him write his life history.


Then I explained that about six years ago I started helping individuals write their life histories. It’s like creating a journal where none exists. For example, my last book – MY NAME USED TO BE MUHAMMAD – is a memoir I wrote for Tito Momen, an Islamic fundamentalist who was imprisoned after converting to Christianity in the Middle East.


But whether writing for a famous retired football player or for someone persecuted for his religion, the biggest challenge is faulty memory. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Schacter has written a fascinating book called The Seven Sins of Memory. It makes clear that even a healthy memory is an unreliable aid for autobiography.

With the Steve Young chapter in hand, I faced Tommy. “I’m going to read you something no one else has seen.”

He leaned forward, propping his chin on his hands.

As I read I’d stop and explain writing techniques, the use of dialogue, and how I gathered certain pieces of information to compensate for faulty memory.

Tommy loved the chapter. “I felt like I was in the huddle with him,” he said.

Then I told Tommy I wanted him to make me feel like I was behind the bar with him at The Australian. His assignment for the class was to produce a series of journal entries about his experience as a bartender in New York City.

I asked him if he had served anybody famous. He told me that a couple weeks earlier he had served Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox.


And he said a week after that The Australian hosted an NBA Draft after party for Donte Exum, who was selected fifth overall by the Utah Jazz.


I told him that a good bartender has to possess some of the same qualities as a good journalist, such as the ability to listen, keep confidences, and resist judgment.
Five days later Tommy emailed me journal entries about Murdoch and Exum. I edited them and sent them back with a bunch of queries. For our next class I told Tommy it didn’t make sense for both of us to drive all the way to the northeast corner of Connecticut. Instead, we met at the New York Public Library. Then I had him show me The Australian. Then we held class in Bryant Park. On a warm, muggy Saturday morning we sat at a small circular table amidst dozens of people sipping coffee, texting, and reading the paper.


One of the things I wanted to teach Tommy was something most people struggle with when it comes to writing – the concept of show-don’t-tell. As I discussed this with him a woman passed by. I asked Tommy to describe her. “Gorgeous,” he said.

But that doesn’t tell a reader anything. Describe her. Like this – wavy, dirty blond hair; dark black sunglasses; a gold bracelet on her wrist; long, tanned legs elevated by three-inch sued pumps. Her hips sway with each stride.

Then I pointed to the homeless man near us and told Tommy to try again. This time he said – Large black man, sitting on two black garbage bags stuffed with clothing, his head stooped forward, his eyes shut. Cracked fingers. Bags under his eyes. He has on a thick sweatshirt.

That’s what I’m talking about. You have to write that way. Be visual.

For the rest of the summer Tommy rewrote his journal entries each week and send them to me. I’d edit, suggest revisions, and send them back. Then we’d meet in different locations and discuss the various elements of writing.


Here are cut-down versions of his entries on Murdoch and Exum:

June 13, 2014. The World Cup is underway and today Australia faced Chile in the opening round. Australia had no chance. But that didn’t stop the Aussies in New York from partying as if their home country was on the verge of winning the cup. Even before the match started over two hundred people jammed the bar, downing meat pies, sausage rolls and James Boag’s Premium Lager, a popular beer from the little island of Tasmania.

Most of the crowd was under forty. Patrons painted their bodies green. Blow-up kangaroos were everywhere. But one man looked out of place. He wore a long-sleeve blue Polo over a collared, white button-down shirt. He took a seat opposite me and I immediately noticed the reflection on his shiny gold watch. I’d never seen such a fancy wristwatch.

I wanted to spark up a conversation. But he was reserved and his eyes were on the flat screen television. He sat opposite me for the entire game, rooting on Australia. After the match he handed me his black Amex card. It bore a corporate name. As I closed his tab and swiped his card, my boss Annie approached and whispered in my ear: “Do you know who that man is?”


“Rupert Murdoch.”

I was speechless. Rupert Murdoch as in the guy who owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and all that? Yeah, that Rupert Murdoch. I’d been serving him for two hours and had no idea.

He flashed a polite smile when I returned the card. In my mind I replayed the previous two hours. He was so polite, so unassuming. He was the best-dressed guy in the joint. But he was at home amongst his countrymen. He didn’t act rich or important.
I thought about the World Cup. Not many other events can bring together people from all walks of life just because they are from the same country.

June 26, 2014. I arrived at work expecting an ordinary Thursday night – a busy happy hour and a handful of parties in one of our designated areas. But in the briefing – the meeting we hold before each shift – the manager pointed out that the NBA Draft was taking place in the city and we were hosting an after party sponsored by Red Bull for Donte Exum, the only Australian player entering the league.

All I knew about Exum was that he was an 18-year-old, 6’6” guard who could shoot the lights out. A few hours into the shift he was selected fifth overall by the Utah Jazz. I fully expected to see him arrive with an entourage of guys and provocatively dressed women. Boy, was I wrong. Exum showed up with his parents and extended family. The only women in his party were immediate family and relatives. His “entourage” consisted of children, including his 6-year old cousin, who stole the night by dancing and singing along to every song the DJ played.

Exum never touched alcohol, even though he was offered by a number of people. He was only interested in celebrating with his family in a friendly environment. I left stunned at how mature and impressive he was. He made a fan out of me. The Utah Jazz got a good kid.

Needless to say, I’m grateful to ESCU for giving me the opportunity to teach one student. Tommy Flynn is set to graduate and he has a story to tell.



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Spetember 9, 2014

Yesterday the Baltimore Ravens cut running back Ray Rice and the NFL indefinitely suspended him after TMZ released a video of him knocking out his former fiancee who is now his wife with a punch to the face in an elevator inside an Atlantic City hotel.



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August 20, 2014

PALO ALTO, Ca. A week ago Monday my son walked into the living room and announced that Robin Williams had been found dead inside his San Francisco home. It was suicide. He was 63. The news was all over the Internet.



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August 12, 2014

DARIEN, Ct – There’s no greater turn-on than being married to a daring woman. I’m talking about a wife who is unafraid to step into the dark; try new things; go against conventional wisdom; figure stuff out; fall down and get up and try again.

Earlier this year Lydia decided to start her own business. That’s pretty daring considering she’s running a family farm and raising four children, three of whom she’s home-schooling. Plus, she has no business experience, no MBA and no financial backing.

But she had a pretty good idea – selling all-natural ice cream from a mobile cart — and a lot of moxie.

First, she researched the health code and licensing requirements. Then she worked with a company in Texas to manufacture a very hip cart with cold plate technology, meaning it can maintain a sub-freezing temperature for up to 24 hours without electricity. Next she purchased two storage freezers, a portable generator, and a trailer for towing her cart. Her total investment was under $7,000.

At the end of June her first shipment of ice cream arrived.

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Lydia inventories her first shipment of ice cream with deliveryman Chris Downs

The supplier is Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, PA, where the cows are strictly grass fed and the dairy uses no artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners. No genetically modified sugar, either. Put simply, this ice cream tastes so good it’s sinful.

As soon as her custom cart arrived on a tractor-trailer truck, Lydia took it to a local graphic designer to have logos applied.

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Lydia talks with graphic designer.

Then on the Fourth of July she did her first event – an all day festival at Virginia Military Institute. By the time the fireworks ended she had sold almost $1,000 worth of ice cream. Salted caramel was her top seller, followed by cookie dough, coffee and mint chip.


All summer she’s been hitching her trailer to the back of our family pick up truck, strapping down the cart, and hauling it to county fairs, farmer’s markets, and street festivals. At one carnival she even stopped to go on the rides – barefoot, no less – with Clara Belle.


This weekend she’ll be at a men’s softball tournament that draws teams from all over southern Virginia. Our children will be working, too. They fill orders, handle money, and interact with customers. And they see their mother running a business.

Who knows where this will lead? But Thomas Edison said, "We often miss opportunity because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." This summer I’ve fallen deeper in love with a woman who isn't afraid of hard work.

Speaking of hard work, I have spent my summer writing the final chapters in the life story of perhaps the hardest-working player in the history of the NFL. Usually at this stage I am done researching. But NFL Films recently agreed to let me have access to their film and audio archive. So in July I made two trips to Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, where I spent hours and hours watching tape.


Studying film of NFL games from the ‘80s and ‘90s is not the most obvious environment to get a man thinking about mortality and what matters most in life. But I was allowed to do my work in the office of Steve Sabol, the former president and co-founder of NFL Films.


Steve was a legendary filmmaker and a master storyteller who won more Emmys than I can count. In 2012 he died at age 69, succumbing to an 18-month battle with brain cancer.

He worked right until the end. His private office is exactly how he left it. His handwritten notes and inspiring sayings are still on his desktop. His toothbrush and cologne remain in his private bathroom. In an inspiring sense I felt his presence. I also felt unworthy to sit in his chair and use his viewing machine to watch tape.


But while I worked I was reminded that we have a very finite amount of time on earth. The combination of sitting in Steve Sabol’s chair and writing the life history of a former NFL great got me thinking about my own life.

I’m 48. Time is not my friend. As soon as I returned home from NFL Films I gathered up my three youngest children and set out on our annual summer vacation to the Connecticut shoreline – the place that has most shaped my life.

Many of our family's best memories were formed on Long Island Sound. Every summer we go back in hopes of making new ones.

In Niantic I took my kids to the town’s annual street festival, where we bumped into our old neighbors...


…hung out with friends I grew up with …


…watched the fireworks from a blanket on the beach ...


…and tasted the offerings from the crowded street vendors that were set up a few blocks from our old home. The next day we ended up on the front page of the newspaper in a photograph of the fair.


One day we took the train into New York City to see a Broadway play.


My daughter Maggie turns 12 later this month and all she’s been asking for is to see the musical NEWSIES before its final show in two weeks.


After the show Maggie got autographs from almost all of the boys in the cast.


In Greenwich we visited friends who own a fairytale-like property on the water.


The best part of the vacation was the simple things – playing whiffle ball in the afternoon sun; sucking on popsicles; collecting seashells and hermit crabs; taking outdoor showers; and cooking fresh-caught fish and garden vegetables for dinner each night.


Right now I’m sitting at a picnic table in a park in Darien, listening to Bruce Springsteen on an iPhone while the kids play on the swings and I work on this blog. An American flag flutters in the breeze. The grass is green. Parents are wearing shorts and flip-flops. The sun is setting. Summer is winding down.




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This post is about nostalgia and family bonds. But first – a postscript about my last blog entitled MAYBE I’LL MEET A GIRL:

I never expected a simple story about my friendship with a gay Mormon who performs in the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon to strike such a chord. But the moment the piece went live on June 23rd I was inundated. Over 200,000 people read it on my website. Over 35,000 readers Liked it on Facebook. An even greater number shared it on Facebook and tweeted it on Twitter. The comment page on my website got so overloaded we had to disable it.



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This post is about same sex attraction, loneliness, faith, despair, and unconditional love.

Clark Johnsen is a 37-year-old Broadway actor. Back in 2010 he heard about a new musical coming to Broadway called The Book of Mormon. The satirical script tells the story of 19-year-old Mormon missionaries sent to Africa to convert villagers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.



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This post is about frustration, love, stress, longing and tapestry.

Two years ago I was commissioned to write a man’s life story. It’s not the first time I’ve been hired to write for someone. But this one’s different. After two years on the project I’ve developed deep affection – love, really – for the man I’m writing for. Good enough just isn’t good enough. I want his narrative to be the best thing I’ve ever written.

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Jeff Benedict is a special features writer for Sports Illustrated and a bestselling author of twelve books, including My Name Used to Be Muhammad and The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football. The System is being made into a television drama.

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