In the Spring of 2000, I was winding down my senior year at the University of Montana. And though I couldn't put the feeling into words, each day, I wandered around my hometown of Missoula feeling directionless. I had no plans after graduation. I had been rejected by about 50 newspapers I had applied to, seeking a post-graduate summer internship. I did my laundry in my parents' basement. The house I shared with three equally directionless roommates was six blocks from my childhood bedroom.
I remember very little about my classes that year, except for an "Introduction to Shakespeare" class. My grandfather had occasionally quoted Shakespeare when I was growing up, reciting verse at the dinner table with the same casual grace with which he swung a tennis racquet, and I secretly longed to have that arrow in my quiver, figuring at the very least, I could one day use it to impress a girl at a bar. The class, unfortunately, bored me to tears, and being 22 years old, I didn't posses the maturity to give it my full attention.
There was a passage from Julius Caesar, however, that stayed with me for years. In Act IV of the play, Brutus is trying to convince Cassius to take up arms against Octavius and Antony, but he starts talking about fate and free will, and about the courage to do something you might fear, but deep down you know is worth the risk. These are some of my favorite lines in all of literature:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
I didn't fully understand what it meant. Like Sam Jackson's character quoting from the book of Ezekiel in Pulp Fiction, I just thought it might be a cool thing to memorize. A few months later, however, I walked into my college newspaper office and saw a big message written on our communal dry erase board: "KEVIN, CALL THE BALTIMORE SUN. THEY WANT TO OFFER YOU A JOB."
I had more or less forgotten that I'd even applied for a summer internship at the Sun in the Fall of 1999. I had filled out the application knowing essentially nothing about Baltimore, other than Cal Ripken played baseball there, in a stadium called Camden Yards, and for whatever reason, that gave me a vague sense it must be nice place to live.
A week later I was on a plane, and after a day of exhaustive interviews, I got a call in my hotel room from an editor telling me the Sun wanted to offer me a job. The path of my life had just forked, and I had chosen a direction knowing it was the right thing for my journalism career, but feeling uncertain if this was what I really wanted.
A few weeks after graduation, and a few days before I loaded up a car, I was sitting in a bar with my best friend, and we were contemplating the mysteries of life while drinking $1.25 pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He had just been accepted into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and we were both nervous about the uncharted waters ahead. Would it be such a bad thing, we wondered, if we just stayed in Missoula for the rest of our lives? Would there really be any shame in that? We sat there in silence as we contemplated the answer.
"I don't think either one of us wants to be sitting in this bar, 20 years from now, wondering how our lives might have turned out if we didn't go," my friend said.
That was enough to convince me I had no choice but to head east. I listened to Cormac McCarthy books on tape from a tiny stereo I bought at Target and hung from my rear view mirror with a coat hanger. I remember how surreal it felt to see signs that said: "Welcome to Chicago." I slept in my car in Ohio after 12 hours on the road because every hotel room for 100 miles was booked. When I eventually saw the purple lights of what was then PSI.net Stadium, a wave of calm washed over me. It didn't linger for very long, but in that moment, I thought: I can do this. I can do this.
As the next 11 years unfolded, I became mildly obsessed with the question of how our choices shape us in life. In every significant interview, I would ask that question to my subject: Do you ever wonder where you'd be, right now, if you'd gone left instead of right at some point? If you'd chosen to let the tide recede and stayed safely on the beach?
I asked because I could never get over how lucky I felt to have found Baltimore, this beautifully flawed city on the water.
When The Baltimore Sun decided to let me cover the Olympics at age 24, it gave me the self confidence I needed to ask out a gorgeous co-worker. Years later, I married that girl. The more I fell in love with her, the more I learned to love this city, and the more I began to think of it not just as a place where I worked and wrote about sports, but as my home.
Two years ago, when my daughter Molly was born at GBMC, this became crystallized in my head forever.
This is the place my daughter came into the world
, I kept thinking as I held her.
She's from Baltimore, just like her mom
I can't pretend The Baltimore Sun is a perfect newspaper. But for 11 years, it was the perfect place for me to grow and learn and succeed and fail, both personally and professionally. I believe storytelling is the bedrock of journalism, and I always will. I got to do that at The Sun, over and over again. A part of me wishes I could fill the pages of The Sun for years to come, because it truly helped make me the writer I am today, and I'll never be able to thank readers enough for welcoming me into their homes. Working at a newspaper is a daily conversation with the people in your community, and for me, sports are as much about our shared passions and our collective pride as they are about wins and losses. What are Five Things I Learned writing for this newspaper? I could name 500 Things, and it would still barely scratch the surface.
I used that passage from Julius Caesar this year in a column about Gary Williams when he retired, in part because I couldn't stop obsessing over the question I frequently applied to my own life: What if he'd never left Ohio State? What if he'd chosen safe and comfortable over the courage to chase a great unknown?
I realize now I was channeling my own story. Because no one knows better than I, there are times in life where you must take the current as it serves.
This is another of those moments for me.
This city shaped me as a writer, a husband, a father and a dreamer. I'm proud to call it my adopted home.
Thank you, Baltimore. I owe you a debt I could never possibly repay.
Kevin Van Valkenburg writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org