Best of Longform: SB Nation’s finest features from 2014
From getting to know one of the most iconic voices in sports history, to uncovering the disgusting crimes of a former NFL star, to documenting the love of soccer in Brazil’s worst places, these are our favorite pieces of SB Nation longform writing this year. They were selected by our editors and pool of longform contributors. After looking through them, we encourage you to browse our full collection of in-depth journalism and find your own favorites.
‘We’ve been friends long enough you’ll understand’
Vin Scully, baseball’s longest-tenured and most eloquent broadcaster, is still looking to make a connection.
Vin Scully is still looking to make a connection
The sunsets over Dodger Stadium and Chavez Ravine are breathtakingly colorful. They’re beautiful, but not always easy to describe.
“It’s a cotton candy sky with a canopy of blue. It looks good enough to eat.”
Well, I guess it’s easier for some of us.
On a typical night at Dodger Stadium, Vin Scully sits in the booth that’s named after him, perched on the chair he calls home for approximately 81 games a season.
A night without end
Seeking closure after basketball player Kimani Ffriend hit and killed a young woman in Serbia.
Seeking closure after basketball player Kimani Ffriend hit and killed a young woman in Serbia
Kimani Ffriend, tall and lean, idled the gray Skoda Fabia car that struggled to contain his 6’11 frame and leaned out of the window toward Johny, his closest Serbian friend.
“Where should I park?” Kimani asked from the driver’s seat, his booming Jamaican accent sugarcoating each word.
It was 10:45 p.m. on a Friday and Ffriend was looking forward to a night out, to mark the end of a difficult period of his life with a celebration.
Here there be alligators
In the rivers and swamps of Mississippi, something huge lurks below the surface.
In the rivers and swamps of Mississippi, something huge lurks below the surface
In September, a man named Lee Turner caught something very big in Bayou Pierre, near the Mississippi River. He and three others were in a boat when they spotted it moving slowly across the top of the water. One of them was close enough to toss a treble hook over its back and pull. The hook was seven inches long and attached to a deep-sea fishing line. One of its steel points pierced hard, leathery skin. The moment it did, an alligator vanished into the depths.
Alligators are best hunted at night, when they are most active, and for a while Turner’s hunting party sat in darkness, shining a spotlight along the water, waiting. When it resurfaced, “it sounded like a whale,” Turner said. They turned and saw it, as wide as an office desk, behind the boat.
Heroes for sale
Teófilo Stevenson, Yasiel Puig and the agony of the Cuban athlete.
Teófilo Stevenson, Yasiel Puig and the Agony of the Cuban Athlete
“What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million people?” -Cuban boxer Teófilo Stevenson
That was how Stevenson, the second most famous Cuban after you-know-who, replied to offers to abandon his island and become a professional to fight Muhammad Ali. At the time, Stevenson was perhaps the only man on the planet who was not only Ali’s equal in the ring, but could surpass him in what the poet Federico Garcia Lorca referred to as duende, that ephemeral quality that separates the immortals from the rest of us, that causes women to cry and men to swoon. Stevenson was someone authentic, a man whose pride and principle bowed to no one.
13 ways of looking at Greg Maddux
A World Series requiem.
A World Series Requiem
The joke, said Braves broadcaster Skip Caray, is that if half the people who claimed to be at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium during the Bad Times (1985 to 1990) had actually been there, no seat would’ve been available. Jason and I were there — wandering, hounding autographs, chasing foul balls across acres of empty seats. We smoked our first cigarette in the solitary shade of the orange upper deck in left centerfield. Once, with no crowd noise to compete with our pubescent jeers, Padres slugger Jack Clark turned and flipped us a bird.
The stadium organ waltz of another Braves lost season was the soundtrack of our summers.
Blueprint for a rebuild
Six head coaches on how to restore a college football program.
Six head coaches on how to restore a college football program
The more you talk to coaches, the more you realize theirs is a profession like many others.
The hours are ridiculous, and so is the money, but at its heart, coaching depends on the same things that guide you from middle-management to management in any other career: organization, people skills, talent evaluation, decision-making, and strategic acumen. But those who succeed at the highest level of coaching are probably in the 95th percentile in at least a couple of those.
A beautiful corpse
The fast life and quick death of the XFL.
The fast life and quick death of the XFL
The XFL jumped off the top turnbuckle in 2001 and landed with a blow equal parts short-lived and long lasting. A merging of the schlocky promotions of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation and the passion and violence of football, the league died after one season, its demise hastened more by a failure of an ill-advised and ultimately doomed business arrangement than a repudiation of the product on the field.
The XFL’s brief life has relegated it to a footnote in American sports history. Yet McMahon’s sound-and-fury vision for football echoes in today’s NFL, from super huge screens in every stadium to sleeker uniforms to the way networks broadcast the games on TV, with cameras zooming overhead and microphones creeping into every corner.
Meet the Bag Man
How to buy college football players, in the words of a man who delivers the money.
How to buy college football players, in the words of a man who delivers the money
The Bag Man excuses himself to make a call outside, on his “other phone,” to arrange delivery of $500 in cash to a visiting recruit. The player is rated No. 1 at his position nationally and on his way into town. We’re sitting in a popular restaurant near campus almost a week before National Signing Day, talking about how to arrange cash payments for amateur athletes.
“Nah, there’s no way we’re landing him, but you still have to do it,” he says. “It looks good. It’s good for down the road. Same reason my wife reads Yelp. These kids talk to each other. It’s a waste of money, but they’re doing the same thing to our guys right now in [rival school's town]. Cost of business.”
The Istanbul Derby
Soccer, fire and a game at the world’s crossroads.
Soccer, fire and a game at the world’s crossroads
Come up the steps of this hotel, there’s something you should see while we explain this setup to you. First, there is this soccer game. It takes place in Istanbul, a city of 18 million people founded around two thousand years ago, a city so old it has Viking graffiti in its Muslim mosque which was once a Catholic church built for an emperor. Nothing can happen here that has not already happened, and yet people are very, very excited about a soccer game between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, Istanbul’s two oldest and bitterest rivals.
The sordid end of Dave Meggett
He was an All-Pro running back. He became a serial rapist.
He was an All-Pro running back. He became a serial rapist.
Jeanine Loveland was 26 and needed out of Ocean City. She had moved to the Maryland beach town from her Pennsylvania home the moment she turned 18 to operate games at a carnival, working the midway, but she had become bored with the scene. The partying and the drugs, once liberating, had trapped her.
A small-boned girl with strawberry blond hair and fair skin, her eyes were big, blue and searching. She was adventurous and aimless. One day in June of 2001, she said, “I just closed my eyes on a map and landed on Charleston.”
The many crimes of Mel Hall
He was a flamboyant player, a charismatic coach, and a sexual predator.
He was a flamboyant player, a charismatic coach, and a sexual predator
June 11, 1989. Spring fever for 15-year-old Jennifer Diaz* and her friends. Freshman year was winding down. It was Andrea’s* birthday, and Andrea’s father had driven Jennifer, his daughter and a group of girls down from Connecticut to a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. A brilliant June day, right field line seats, front row.
It’s a bad view of the game, but it put them on top of the field, especially close to the Yankees’ 28-year-old right fielder, Mel Hall. Each time he jogged out to his position between innings to warm up, the girls would ask him to toss them a ball. Hall would fake as if he would, but then he wouldn’t, and then he’d smile at them. This went on, inning after inning. Typical Hall: He was playful and mischievous, lacking the aloofness of most ballplayers, somehow more accessible and fun loving.
Every year, women come from all over North America to prove themselves in Alaska’s wildest competition.
Every year, women come from all over to prove themselves in Alaska’s wildest competition
I’m not sure why the film crew picked me out of the crowd. It could have been because I was the first contestant to sign up, walking into the dim bar at 11 a.m. sharp and putting down my $5, signing my life away in a waiver form and strapping on bib No. 27. Or it could have been because I was visibly sober, unlike some of the other women who signed up after me.
Whatever the reason, they pulled me aside as I waited at the start line, mic’d me up and pointed their camera, and asked me who I was, where I was from, what I was doing there. I was from Canada, I told them, from the Yukon Territory. I had driven 14 hours to be here, in Talkeetna, Alaska, to compete.
The Right Thing To Do vs. The State of Florida
Thirteen years after Devaughn Darling’s death at FSU, a family still waits.
Thirteen years after Devaughn Darling’s death at FSU, a family still waits
The Tallahassee medical examiner unzipped the body bag. Here was an 18-year-old, muscular, black male. Here was an 18-year-old, muscular, black male with white sneakers and gray boxers and gold Florida State shorts. Here was an 18-year-old, muscular, black male with white sneakers and gray boxers and gold Florida State shorts and a tube up his nose and a tube down his throat and IV needles in his arm and his neck and automated external defibrillator pads still stuck to his chest. Here, cinched to his left wrist, was an emergency room bracelet. Here, on his left upper arm, was his only tattoo, a cross and three words: THE BLESSED ONE.
Here was Devaughn Darling.
Silence in the favela
Love and soccer in Brazil’s best worst place.
Love and soccer in Brazil’s best worst place
As part of its cleanup for the World Cup, in 2008 the Brazilian government began a police crackdown to sweep criminals out of the urban slums known as “favelas.” The government has boasted of its success in bringing down crime, but the patrolling squads have made life in the favelas’ crowded corridors feel like an armed occupation, with a sense of security seemingly more fit for international headlines than peace of mind.
For one week, I lived with the Costa family in Bangu, one of the larger slums in Brazil, part of Rio de Janeiro. They wanted me to experience daily life in the favela, a jumble of community, poverty, friendship, and a simple life united around their love — for each other, for God, and for soccer.
The Hargrave Four
They were all destined for NFL stardom, until everything fell apart.
They were all destined for NFL stardom, until everything fell apart
Four black helmets gleam in a neat row as four young men dig in their cleats and claw at the grass. If there is one sure thing in all of football, it is their talent and potential. Muscles twitch with each motion, forearms bulging, thighs rippling under the black uniform of Hargrave Military Academy. Each is too fast for his size, too strong to move with such agility. They say the game is won or lost in the trenches, and on this Tuesday evening in October 2005, it rings true. Nobody can stop what might be the strongest, fastest, angriest defensive line ever to play outside the National Football League.
Learning to pitch
Remembering a summer with Bob Welch.
Remembering a summer with Bob Welch
We met in the Clark Fork. That’s the Clark Fork of the Columbia River. I had gone back to school for a graduate degree, was training hard for a 50-mile trail race, and was wearing only tiny shorts and a running bra. I’d just finished a long run and had gone down to the river to soak my middle-aged legs in the rush and gurgle of nippy water. I kicked off my running shoes and picked my way gingerly through the rocks that lined the shore, yelping at the cold, my arms helicoptering to keep from falling. The air was hot, the sun soaked my skin, and soon enough my legs were comfortably numb. A trio of fisherman stood in the water up river. This is not unusual, even in the middle of town. Missoula, Montana is a town where people do things like run 50-mile races and stand in rivers in deep summer.