The success we have in attaining our goals is often directly related to the company we keep. The people that we choose to leave behind represent our freedom from the tyranny of negativity and the weight of doubt, depression and ill will. The people we choose to associate with at present represent the strength found in a multitude of friends and smiling faces. Lastly, those that we place as role models and set their examples as those to emulate serve as the gasoline which powers our destiny flight.
D. Orlando Ledbetter fits squarely into the last category for me. The Atlanta Journal – Constitution Falcons beat writer is a wonderful example of what success in this business looks like.
Sit back and takes notes………..
I asked Mr. Ledbetter a series of questions ranging from the obvious (How did you get into Sports Journalism?) to the slightly controversial (Is Matt Ryan for real or are people down here just trying to get over Michael Vick?). I found this man to be insightful, funny, full of knowledge, and incredibly giving. It’s nice to see a lion that’s had his fill not intimidated by a young lion attempting to eat as well.
Jerold Wells Jr., The Starting Five: “When did you get into Sports Journalism and what made you want to be a sports writer?”
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Atlanta Journal – Constitution: “I first started writing at my Jr. High School student newspaper, I played on the basketball team, and we needed a story so I did a Q&A with one of my teammates and that was my first sports article. I didn’t know if I really wanted to do it but I stayed with it and kept writing at the student newspaper. Then I went to Howard University I majored in Journalism because I already knew a little about the field and I figured I could switch over at some point if need be.
I started writing for the student newspaper there and began to consider it as a career. I got an internship after my sophomore year at the Newport News Daily Press in Virginia. After that I got more newspapers that wanted to talk to me every year. I did another internship with a paper in Greensboro and finally another one in Cleveland after I graduated. Then the Charlotte Observer hired me for my first job after college. From writing in middle school and staying with through college that led me to a career in sports journalism.”
JW: “From your experience, what do you think makes a good sports journalist?”
DOL: “Professionalism is the first thing. Everybody is going to be able to write. Being able to be professional and elicit the stories from your subjects have to be your biggest strengths. Getting people to tell their innermost secrets, their strategic movements, why they do this or why they do that is the key. Why did you throw the curve ball in that situation? What were you thinking when you made that block? You have to get intimate with them but not in an unprofessional way. Your credibility and your professionalism are vital to your success. ”
What I’ve found is that people just want you to tell the truth, especially football guys. They don’t want you to write or tell them how great they are. They want to deal with what happens and why it happens. One instance of that was when I was in Milwaukee covering the Packers during Randy Moss rookie year, the Vikings played the Packers and Moss torched them during a Monday Night game. So after the game Tyrone Williams, the cornerback that got abused, is there and I just walked up to him and said ‘you had a pretty rough game out there’ and from there we just had a conversation. Of course then everybody else wants to come and talk to him as well and get in on that. You have to be able to deal with guys on their level. You have to be sensitive yet be real with them. Again football guys are different because, in my experience, they’re easier to approach and talk to. Baseball and basketball guys tend to hide in the clubhouse or avoid you when things are going bad. Then when they’re doing well they are available again.”
JW: “It’s funny you mention Randy Moss in his rookie year. I’m from Minnesota and am also a huge Vikings fan. I remember Randy in his rookie year and all of the praise he got during his tenure. I also remember the criticism. When I moved to Atlanta, I felt the exact same thing in relation to Michael Vick. People were amazed; they’d never seen anyone like him. I personally make the parallel between Moss and Vick in that people were so attracted to his prodigious talent that they wanted to make him into something that he wasn’t. I just don’t think the maturity was there early on to be a team leader or a role model with either player. Both paid the price for poor decisions; Moss by being banished to Oakland and wasting years there and Vick by being put in jail and humiliated.”
That being said, do you think Michael Vick will play again in the NFL?”
DOL: “Yes. He will get a chance to play again and redeem himself in the NFL. I think it’s just based on the history of all the players that have been suspended before him. This is going all the way back to Jim Taylor and Alex Karras, those guys got suspended in the 60’s. Gambling is considered a more egregious crime but nobody could have predicted dog fighting, you know? The league just started to suspend players for unlawful behavior and personal conduct, you know, guns/weapons charges and such. The Tank Johnsons and Pacman Jones type situations. The league put up with that for a long time. If you weren’t incarcerated then you were ok. If you think about it, he (Vick) has already been out for close to two years, it’s close to 24 months already. This has been longer than any of the other cases.”
JW: “Do you think it’s the gambling aspect of dog fighting that has people coming down so hard on him (Vick)? Is this another sports and gambling scenario?”
DOL: “No, it’s the humanitarian aspect. There are a lot of people who love dogs. I didn’t know that the Humane Society receives almost $20 million a year in donations, that’s a lot of money and this organization has been around since 1860’s. So the importance of animals and people’s love for them adds to the undercurrent of opposition for Michael Vick. I have a friend that teaches law in the city, single lady with two dogs, and she won’t even mention his name. The thing is really about the animals.”
JW: “What brought you to Atlanta and the AJC?”
DOL: “I was in Milwaukee with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and I took my wife up there with me when we got married. My wife accepted a marketing position with Suntrust Bank and with her also being career minded I didn’t want to stand in the way of that opportunity. I came down here and worked in the legal field, practicing employment law, and eventually the AJC had an opening. I covered the Olympics in Sydney and originally interviewed with the AJC in 2000 but the opportunity did not come through at the time. We stayed in touch and by 2003 I was brought on staff.”
JW: “Why do you cover football?”
DOL: “I’ve had a chance to cover everything. In Charlotte I did High School and small colleges. In Cincinnati I covered High Schools and Ohio State as well as college basketball with the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, that’s a big thing there. I also did some work on the Bengals. In Milwaukee they wanted me to take over the Marquette basketball team beat, with Kevin O’Neil kind of building the program back up. One of my buddies was already there covering the Packers and he asked me to add a little to his coverage. For those six years I was able to catch the Holmgren Era there and witness the success they had. I also did a column.
By the time I got here I kind of figured that I liked the pace of football more. The travel is not as invasive and I really do think that football players are easier to deal. Definitely more so than baseball players who will run and hide in the clubhouse. I’ve been a fortunate NBA guy. I was able to cover Michael Jordan and the Bulls. They were a good group. You get so much time with basketball players. You have the 45 minutes before the game, then interview time after and then your deadline so if you hustle and build up your relationships you can end up with pretty good stories. I made sure to be in with the best players and the players that were intelligent enough to share information with you. I had to fill in a little for Sekou (Smith, Atlanta Hawks beat writer, AJC) this year and he doesn’t really have a tough locker room. I guess Bibby can be somewhat of a diva, but otherwise that’s a good group. Half the battle is being there; going to shoot around and practice. Sekou is the only guy there everyday with those cats. I’m the only guy there for the Falcons so that helps.”
JW: “Who influenced you professionally? Who are the people that had an impact on your career?
DOL: “My dad, Albert Ledbetter Jr. and my uncle Gerald Ledbetter. There was just a passion for sports in our family. All of us played at some level. That carried over into my career. At Howard University that person was the head of the Journalism Department, Dr. Lawrence Kaggwa. He helped a lot of people at Howard and Norfolk State get into the Journalism field. Curtis Bunn, myself, Sean Powell, Darryl Richards are just a few of the people that learned under Dr. Kaggwa.
Professionally it’s been more of my contemporaries. Again, Sean Powell has always been there for me, Clifton Brown with The Sporting News, Mike Wilbon is a good friend. He was covering Georgetown when I was editor of the student paper at Howard, The Hilltopper. Mike came and spoke to my staff back then. He doesn’t remember it but I know that staff does. The best advice I ever got in this business was from Sam Lacy, the old black sports writer for the Baltimore African American. He said ‘Use a period.’ It was simple but true. Write short, tight, crisp sentences and don’t belabor your point. Sam is definitely a legend in the sports writing field dating back to his work covering Jackie Robinson helping to integrate baseball. ”
JW: “Now that we’ve done some of the background questions I’d like to transition into some other topics. The Atlanta Falcons have a history of being an up and down franchise. They’ve never had back to back winning seasons. Do you think this is the year that they break that curse? How good can the Falcons be in the ’09 – ’10 season?”
DOL: “The tradition is that the franchise has been around 44 years and they’ve never had consecutive winning seasons. I guess that tells you this year isn’t going to be a winning year. I mean last year some people picked them to win one game. I believe I picked them to win four. A lot of stuff can go your way in this league. Some teams are built to be powerhouses. Think of the Pittsburgh’s and Dallas’ in the 70’s. I believe that’s a thing of the past. You don’t really have the dynasty teams anymore. I think of the NFL like this. Everyone is 8-8. If two or three things go your way then there you are with 10 or 11 wins and a playoff berth. Some teams don’t manage their 8-8 correctly. They don’t take advantage of the parity that the commissioners have created. For one reason or the other they just don’t get there.
Now the Falcons do have a history of bizarre injuries and drama. Think about Jamal Anderson blowing his knee out after they went to the Super Bowl. Think about the team going 7-9 after an appearance in the NFC championship game and the coach saying he wants to be in Washington. After that your franchise quarterback is in jail and your coach leaves to coach in college. I don’t know what going to happen. One thing is certain, if it’s a smooth sailing type season, the coaching staff and new administration are really talented people. Even so, they can’t control everything that may happen. If they can get a clean run at it (in the upcoming season) good things can happen. Look at last year. There were no major injuries, well Sam Baker got hurt a little bit and John Abraham played hurt.
JW: “But he played, that’s huge for him.”
DOL: “Right. And he set the franchise single season record for sacks. If everything goes right they can be back in the hunt for the playoffs. They are going to be awfully young. To expect them to go to the playoffs may be a little premature. 8-8 may be about right.”
JW: “That was actually my follow up question. Talk a little about the maturation of this offense with a new, younger, and better offensive line. Talk some about the emergence of a top notch, Pro Bowl receiver. The ability of the quarterback and running back is there. How will this offense impact the Falcons chances next season?”
DOL: “Well, I think the offense will be there but the fact remains that the Falcons will be very young on defense. Five projected starters are new to the team. Only one of those guys can be considered a veteran (LB Mike Peterson). About 1/3 of the roster have been in the league 3 years or fewer. They got rid of a lot of veterans, so if they do come back from that and have a winning season it would add to overcoming the history of not winning in back to back seasons. It would definitely be unprecedented.”
JW: “You walked into my next question. With the turnover at linebacker, bringing Peterson in as well as Michael Boley and Keith Brooking leaving and considering the youth in the secondary how good can this defense be this year? I think the scheme is there, but is the personnel? Can this be a top 10 type defense in the NFL?”
DOL: “No. Not yet. They were ranked 24th last year with the veterans they had last year. Those guys just got old and they looked old in the playoff game. Now are these young guys going to come in and bump them up into the top 10? No. Now can they make it to 14? Maybe; if they can get into the top half of the league that’s progress. They have to progress in increments. Plus I don’t think the talent is there at cornerback. That goes back to D’Angelo Hall. Sure I personally like the guy but you don’t just trade a cornerback away in this league. I don’t care if you have problems with him or not. You need football players, this is a football game. You’re supposed to be trying to win games, not the humanitarian of the year award. The guy could play football. Now if you can’t communicate with a player that’s your fault. Get guys in there that can communicate with him and get through to him. If you don’t have that then you need better coaches, which I think they have in place now.”
JW: “How much do you think the Petrino year set this team back? That was really a lost year. I’m talking about the veterans that soured on the organization, the players that left, the horrible on field performance. How much did that hurt the Falcons? How much did it set the team back?”
DOL: “I originally thought it would have a lasting impact, but the new regime has done such a good job of changing the culture that the negative impact was minimal. One good thing that came out of that season was the emergence of Roddy White as a legitimate NFL threat. Warrick (Dunn) is gone, Michael (Boley) is gone. We still have Jamal (Anderson, DE) he’s hanging in there. That whole team is pretty much blown up. On the offensive line, McClure, Forney and Blalock are still there, but again, that’s a different type of unit. What the new administration has shown is that they’re not afraid to purge. Last year with Dunn and this year with cutting Keith Brooking loose they showed that. I think the Brooking move came a year too late.
JW: “Was his (Brooking) release a surprise?”
DOL: “Oh no. Not with what happened in the playoffs last year. You know, it’s 3rd and 17 and he blows coverage. Add to that he really hadn’t been covering anyone all year so, no, I’m not surprised.”
JW: “Is being the hometown guy what kept him around this long?”
DOL: “No. He was a good player. I didn’t think he made any impact plays last year. The organization had chances to part ways with him and just didn’t do it right away. When Dan Reeves left, Jim Mora chose to stick with him instead of moving him out. Petrino’s people moved him to the middle and finally Smith moved him back outside. He could actually be in the perfect situation now though playing inside in the 3-4. He should do well down there (in Dallas).
JW: “What type of impact to you think Tony Gonzales will have on this offense?”
DOL: “Huge, no question. Substantial impact. It’s pretty clear in watching him in OTA’s and minicamp that he still has plenty in the tank. Just look at last year. He had no established NFL quarterback, Tyler Thigpen got most of the snaps with Croyle and Huard hurt, and he still had a 1,000 yards with at least 80 catches. Consider this: this may be the best quarterback he’s ever played with. If you go back and look the quarterbacks Kansas City has had, with the exception of Montana of course, I think Matt Ryan will be the best he’s ever played with.”
JW: “With all the fanfare around Matt Ryan, I was skeptical. I didn’t know if people were praising Ryan for being a good young quarterback or if they were just trying to fill the void that a star like Michael Vick left. Is Matt Ryan the real deal?”
DOL: “Well he rewrote the book on what a rookie could do. I think he’s a top level quarterback. How he gets it done is different. He’s definitely more traditional. But what he did last year was come in and not lose the games for them. They were carried by a 1,700 yard back. That makes playing quarterback easier, a lot easier. I didn’t know this during the season but I was talked to a friend that is an offensive coach at the combine and I asked him the same question. He said yes, Ryan was for real, but that the Falcons were able to make the game very easy for him. Here’s how. When Ryan comes off of a play action fake all he has to do is read the safety and throw to the other side. There had to be eight in the box to stop Turner so that means there’s only one safety back. If he cheats over to Roddy then Jenkins is open. If he shades Jenkins then Roddy is open. Plus consider this; the opposing team’s safeties never had to worry about the tight end because that threat wasn’t there last year. That’s why it was so important to get a big time tight end because it will further simplify his reads. Plus, he’ll have another weapon to spread the ball around to. What Ryan did last year wasn’t all that complex but it was effective, it won them eleven games, got them in the playoffs and almost won them the division title. ”
JW: “You mentioned some things about your experience on a basketball beat. I was able to cover the Hawks first round series with the Miami Heat. I felt I witnessed the growth of a team. I saw the impact a few key signings and stability within an organization could have. You filled in some for Sekou and did some work with the Hawks. What do you think it will take for the Hawks to continue progressing and not fall back into irrelevance? What are they missing that separates them from the top level teams?”
DOL: “If you look at them and Denver, they basically have the same parts. What’s missing for the Hawks are those 6’9″, 6’10” board crashers. Birdman, Nene, Kenyon Martin, they go 3 deep at the 4/5 spot. Shoot you can add Carmelo in there, he’s rebounds like a power forward. You can never have enough tall guys to hit the boards and dunk. Never. Look at the Hawks, they weren’t in the Cleveland series rebounding wise. And that’s Cleveland; look at the trouble they’re in right now. Illgauskas is being exposed. We see how stationary he is. If he’s not hitting his jumper he’s a liability. He doesn’t fill that void. You used to be able to find that guy in the CBA or overseas. You don’t even have to score. All you need is a little five foot offensive game. Again, look at the Birdman. He’s making a living hitting the offensive glass. They just throw it up and he goes and gets it. LA is making him look like an All Star. If you’re not going to body a guy like him, he’s going to make a killing. He’s not an offensive threat so of course you help off of him then he hits the glass hard and gets a bunch of layups. It’s not hard but every team needs players like that.
What does Atlanta have? Horford is good. Zaza is limited, plus he’s only a 20 minute a game type guy. They need some 6’9″, 6’10” guys that can hit the boards and set screens for shooters and not let your team get pushed around. If you can stick a jumper fine. Think Ben Wallace in his prime. Also people in the business say they may be looking to make a move on Jarrett Jack to help them out in the back court.”
JW: “After the series with Cleveland ended there was some discussion on TNT about the Hawks and the direction they should go in the future. The discussion turned to the idea of whose team the Hawks should be, Joe Johnson or Josh Smith. The consensus before the season was that Joe Johnson is the man. In that discussion though, the physical ability, potential, and promise of Josh Smith sort of made an argument for him to be that guy. What do you think?”
DOL: “Wow. Both players are flawed. I don’t think Joe is a go to guy. I mean Michael Jordan would have never scored 13 points in a crucial playoff game. He’s a nice player. But if you’re a superstar you get your 25 -30 every night, regardless. Josh just isn’t basketball savvy enough to put a team on his shoulders. I mean he’s still shooting 20 foot jumpers and he doesn’t have a jump shot. He doesn’t know when to go inside and when to play outside. I remember a sequence in the Miami series where they fought like the dickens to force a turnover and he immediately tries to throw a full court pass. Stuff like that just doesn’t make the case for him. I think you stick with a team concept to take the Hawks to the next level. Look at Cleveland. They traded and traded until they found a formula that worked for them. There are some pieces on the Atlanta roster that could bring in value. I think that’s the way for them to go.”
JW: “How do you feel about the decline of newspapers as an entity and as a business?”
DOL: “It’s rather depressing. I don’t see newspapers just going away. I do see them changing the business model. We’ll still deliver news, just in a different form. The day may come when you only get an actual paper on Sunday and the rest of the week the paper is delivered digitally. Or the situation could get like the one in Detroit where the newspaper is available but it doesn’t come to your house. You have to go get it at the gas station or something like that. I see the operations becoming leaner, more aggressive and multi platformed with the paper being one part of that platform. I’m selfish in wanting a seven day paper to remain but that might not be a reality. The Sunday paper makes money so I don’t see them throwing that out. I’m not sure if the paper can remain profitable during the week. There will be a newspaper. There will still be news so it will still be delivered. I don’t think you can just be a newspaper person anymore. You may have to shoot video, edit it and post it to the website. It doesn’t take 475 people to run a paper anymore, we’re seeing that.”
JW: “To me that question is important because young people like myself coming into the business need to know what the climate is and what to be prepared for. That being said, if you were to talk with a young person that wants to get started in this business what would advice would you give them?”
DOL: “The buzz word is convergence, multi mediums. When I went to Howard we had a Journalism department print and broadcast as well as public relations. It was focused. Now you have to be able to do everything. Look at Michael Wilbon he’s doing his column and he has a show. Look at Tony Kornhieser being on Monday Night Football. On a smaller level, look at Jemele Hill. She does a great job writing and appearing on TV. She’s also excellent with her Twitter account and Facebook stuff, keeping you aware of her work and any new things she may have going on. You have to be able to work in depth as far as communication goes. You have to move in between the different mediums and converge your skills. Look at Mark Bradley (sports columnist with AJC) he tweeted, ‘would anyone care if the Thrashers left Atlanta? Tweet back with responses’ and got a whole column out of that. I just did ‘Sports Extra’ with Sam Crenshaw (local television personality). Maybe you have to go on ‘The Two Live Stews’ (local radio personalities) and chop it up with those guys some. I would make myself as open and diverse as possible so that I could succeed on multiple platforms. Again, the academic buzzword is media convergence. I taught a convergence as Clark Atlanta University just last month. We went out and shot some footage; we setup a blog and posted our story. We also did a podcast. In that we showed the ability to write, do video, and showcase the work properly. I think that’s the direction of the business.”