Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine is sports writing’s zenith. Its glossy pages are filled with the glorious tales of athletes at the pinnacles of their careers, and its flashy covers boast breaking news from every league, beckoning to the sports-obsessed with an irresistible allure. But for one College alumnus, SI is something more: Tim Layden ’78 considers SI the climax of an illustrious career as a sports writer.
Layden, a former varsity basketball player at the College, is currently in his eighth year as a columnist for the magazine, where he reports on sports ranging from professional football to NCAA basketball.
Even before claiming a job at SI, Layden’s life revolved around athletics. “I played three sports in high school, and when I wasn’t playing sports, I was watching sports, and when I wasn’t playing or watching sports, I was thinking about sports,” he said. “Getting to Williams and being able to play a couple sports was the extension of what I had been doing.”
At Williams, Layden has fond memories of playing freshman football and cracking the varsity hoops team his sophomore year. “Freshmen on the football team played for Renzie Lamb,” Layden remembered, “and he gave the entire enterprise a great irreverent level of fun. We were getting beat up by the varsity every day because our job was to get the varsity team ready to play on Saturday, and we did that, but Renzie made it fun. I have guys I played freshman football who I stay in touch with today.”
Layden also harbors great memories of his time in Lasell Gymnasium, where the varsity basketball team held practices. “We practiced in Lasell Gym every day,” Layden recounted. “It’s an old rattletrap of a gym, but I have a lot of good memories playing there. When I go back, Lasell still smells exactly the same as it did [when I played]. It’s a life experience that just stays with you.”
For Layden, sports journalism started first with his love of sports. “I had a lifelong love of sports, which morphed into a love of journalism,” he said. The metamorphosis that carried Layden to SI started with a wrestling article for the Record: “The first story I ever wrote for the Record was covering a Williams versus Dartmouth wrestling match,” Layden said. “The editor at the time was Dan Daly [’76], a columnist for The Washington Times now, and he assigned and edited the story. But the event ended with my roommate being pinned in the final match. It was interesting to write.”
Layden wrote periodically for the Record, becoming the sports editor in his sophomore year. After his tenure at the Record, Layden moved on to The Schenectady Gazette, working his way up to The Albany Times Union and then Newsday in Long Island, N.Y. “Newspaper work is the foundation for all journalism,” Layden said. “Before SI, I worked for small- and medium-sized and large newspapers. That [work] was the building blocks for a career in journalism.”
In February 2004, Layden got the call to join the big leagues as a columnist for SI, where he has since covered 10 Olympic games, five Super Bowls, numerous Final Fours, two World Series and countless NFL and NCAA football and basketball games. Despite tackling some of the biggest assignments in professional sports, Layden counts his story, a bonus piece for SI on Williams football player Mike Reily ’64 that appeared in the most recent issue, as his favorite piece. “I’ve always wanted to write about Williams,” Layden said, “and I’ve never been able to find a story big enough to satisfy SI. This one was big enough. I’m as proud of that story as I am of any story I’ve ever done. But again, it’s the most recent one. I’m not big on letting anything grow under my feet.”
Layden’s professional connection to Williams extends beyond his story on Reily. As a correspondent for the New England Patriots, Layden has spent a significant amount of time interviewing Patriots head coach and Wesleyan graduate Bill Belichick. Like every good Eph, Layden could not let the opportunity to rib a Cardinal pass by: “The first time I interviewed him in person I brought [the rivalry] up, and we had a laugh about it,” Layden said. “He played lacrosse and a little bit of football. I played mostly basketball, so we were never on the court together. He just said, ‘My memory of playing Williams is all bad, so more power to you guys.’”
While Layden has a wealth of quality and prominent pieces under his belt, he emphasized that sports writers are never quite content with their work. “You’re judged by your last story,” Layden said. “I think that certainly [writing] as long as I have and in as visible a way as I have, people know who I am and respect my work, but at the same time if I write five bad stories in a row, people will know that I wrote five bad stories in a row. Fear of falling back to a lesser level of production is a great motivator for me, and I try to use it every day.”
Layden impressed how fleeting success can be in a career as dynamic and evolving as sports journalism. “Every story is a new story,” Layden said. “There’s no carryover from what you did last week or what you did last month to what you’re sitting in front of the computer doing now. The screen is always blank, and what you did last week won’t help you fill that screen up with great journalism.”
Despite the agony that the “ugly monster” of a blank screen can impose, Layden’s advice for potential sportswriters is to continue sitting down to that blank screen and filling it, regardless of where the story will be read. “I came up through a conventional path,” Layden said. “I went from a big newspaper to a big magazine, but there are many more paths now for young writers to follow with digital opportunities and blogging opportunities … If you want to write, write and get it posted somewhere.”
Layden continues to push himself to improve, but he has achieved a lifelong goal. “SI was delivered to my home when I was nine years old,” he said, “and I’ve always wanted to get there. SI is the top of the business for sports writing.”