At Heathrow, I faced a British customs agent, who inspected my passport. “What is your occupation?” he said.
“I’m a writer.”
“What brings you to London?” he said.
“My latest book is a finalist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.”
“What is your book about?”
He smiled. “That must have been very interesting to research.”
I smiled. “It was.”
“Come on through. Welcome to England.”
The next day, I sat on the front row of London’s BAFTA theater, looking at the handful of writers whose books were finalists for the Sports Book of the Year. One had written a compelling book about Nazi Germany during the ’36 Berlin Olympics. Another penned a chillingly violent biography of a boxer from Belfast. There was one about an improbable championship rugby team from Fiji, as well as a rich story about a boy who swam the English Channel at age 11.
As the theater filled with Champaign-sipping publishers, editors, and writers, a knot formed in my stomach. On the flight over I was satisfied to be a finalist. But now that I was in the room, I suddenly felt the way I used to when I was a young athlete sizing up the competition before the start of a contest. You tell yourself you’re stronger, faster, better than your opponent. In athletics, if you don’t think you can win you are already beaten.
But this was writing, not football. The other writers were colleagues, not opponents. Besides, the outcome had already been determined by seven judges. All that remained was for each author to make a few remarks. Then the announcement.
With my wife and the publishing team from Simon & Schuster’s UK division looking on, I took the stage when called upon and talked about Tiger Woods. “You can step off a plane on any continent and people know the name Tiger Woods,” I began. “And they care about him.”
I’ll be honest. Tiger’s story is so compelling – the rise, the run, the fall, the shame, the redemption – that when I sat down to await the announcement, I thought to myself – There’s no way this book doesn’t win.
But it didn’t.
And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. Since the William Hill Award’s inception, only three Americans had won the award – Laura Hillenbrand for Seabiscuit, John Feinstein for Long Walk Spoiled, and Lance Armstrong for It’s Not About the Bike. I wanted to join them.
Amidst all the cheering for the winner, I sent a four-word text to my partner Armen Keteyian back in the States: “We did not win.”
He texted a two-word response: “Well, shit.”
There is no one I would have rather worked with than Armen on the life story of the most compelling athlete of our time.
I immediately rose to my feet and cheered on the winner. There was actually a tie for the first time in the award’s history. The fact is that all of the titles were strong and I suspect all of the writers felt the same way about their work as we felt about ours.
The Simon & Schuster team was disappointed, too. They apologized to me. But I felt like I had let them down.
Then I hugged my wife. I told her that now I had a taste of what it was like to be nominated for Best Actor only to have someone else win the Oscar.
She had traveled to England with me so we could celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Standing in the crowded theater, I looked into her eyes and felt like declaring myself the ultimate winner.
I found Graham Sharpe, the co-founder of the literary award, and told him how grateful I was to be included amongst such great company. I congratulated the other writers.
As we were about to leave the ceremony, someone pulled me aside and whispered in my ear. “Let me tell you something,” the person said. “Regardless of who won, your book is by far the most commercial book in the bunch. There is no close second.”
The next day, Lydia and I visited Westminster Abbey. We were last in the Abbey 22 years ago, right before our first child, Tennyson, was born. We named him after the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Last year our son decided to trek through Europe on his own. One of his stops was Westminster. He wanted to see the burial place of his namesake.
A strange sensation overcame me when I reached Tennyson’s tombstone this time. Maybe it is the pride I feel as a father. Or the significance of naming a son after such an esteemed English poet. Or just the realization that I was standing on the spot where our son stood just a year earlier. I felt a powerful connection.
Westminster prohibits the taking of photographs inside the Abbey. There is one exception – decedents of the dead are permitted to photograph the tombstone of an ancestor. I approached one of the security personnel assigned to Poet’s Corner in hopes of talking her into making an exception to the exception. I told her I was from America and that my eldest son was named after Alfred Lord. “His name is Tennyson Benedict.”
She seemed touched. “Although you are not family, I will allow you to take a photograph in this instance,” she said. I took this image and texted it to Tennyson.
Exiting Poet’s Corner, I spotted a bust of Longfellow. He’s the only American writer in Westminster Abbey. “This bust was placed amongst the memorials of the poets of England by the English admirers of an American poet.”
I felt a deepened sense of appreciation for being the one American writer at the William Hill literary award.
A few days later my wife and I entered a bookstore right off the town square in Brugge, a small town of 20,000 people located about an hour from Brussels by train. Wearing a handmade wool sweater that I had just bought from a street merchant, I scanned the shelves, spotting only two books that I recognized from home – Michelle Obama’s new autobiography and Bob Woodward’s disturbing book on Trump – (Dutch word). I asked a clerk if the store had any copies of Tiger Woods.
“We don’t carry American sports titles,” she said.
In Brugge, people speak Dutch, German, French and English. Tiger Woods is published in each of those languages. I asked the clerk if she wouldn’t mind checking her computer. To her surprise, she found one copy in stock and brought it to me.
“You would like to buy it?” she said.
“Actually, I was thinking I would sign it,” I told her. “That’s my book.”
She gave me a puzzled look. I pointed to the names on the spine – Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. “I’m Jeff,” I said.
Thrilled, she retrieved a pen. With a bunch of people looking on, I signed the store’s only copy.