Tim Layden ’78, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and a native of upstate New York, began covering sports at the College. He worked for the Record and wrote about Williams athletics for local papers like The Berkshire Eagle and the now-discontinued Transcript of North Adams. According to him, reading for his English and History double major and the challenging intellectual conversations he participated in were also important elements of his education.
Record Sports Editor Dan Daly ’76 and reporter Nick Cristiano ’77 were two particularly important individuals for Layden. Both are now professional journalists.
“They made me bring my A game, and I wanted to live up to them,” Layden said. “The most valuable part of my Williams education was spending time and intellectual energy becoming a sports writer, rather than a top student, because I was more passionate about writing than classwork.”
Layden also made lifelong friends on the freshman football team. He revealed that he was “technically a football recruit, but ended up being a failure for the football staff,” as he did not play after his first year. Instead, he joined varsity basketball. Even though he was an athlete, covering sports remained his top priority.
After graduating from the College, he wrote for The Daily Gazette of Schenectady until 1986. He then spent two years with The Times Union in Albany and six at Newsday. In 1994, he was hired by Sports Illustrated and has been there ever since.
At Sports Illustrated, Layden covers the NFL, horse racing and the Olympic Games. He spent August in Rio de Janeiro, chronicling his 13th Olympics.
“I haven’t missed one since ’92,” Layden said. “And they are always invigorating, inspirational, exciting and challenging journalistically, intellectually and physically.”
Indeed, he had to endure long hours and little sleep to meet deadlines when writing about swimming, with a focus on Michael Phelps, and track and field, particularly Usain Bolt. He completed 24 stories in 21 days.
When interviewing Phelps and Bolt, Layden “gets down to business without an introduction or break-in period,” since he knows them and has written about them in the past. He inquires about topics that he thinks will be interesting — “both what they want to talk about and what they don’t want to discuss.”
Although he witnesses and speaks with some of the best athletes in the world, Layden acknowledged, “My job is less glamorous than people think. I was in the audience when Bolt won the 100-meter dash, but I took a 40-minute bus ride into a mountain ghetto to get there, spent several hours in the stadium before the meet began, wrote for three hours after the race ended, took the bus back to my motel at 3:30 a.m, and woke up and did it again.”
Layden is currently working on three to four feature stories, and he appreciates that his job involves a combination of making phone calls, conducting interviews and covering events.
“I like the freedom to be creative and passionate and chase whatever stories I want to chase,” Layden said.“It is never the same day to day. There really isn’t much I don’t like about it.”
One of his most celebrated features was his piece (Sports Illustrated, “The Forgotten Hero: Mike Reily’s legacy at Williams College,” Nov. 7, 2011) about Mike Reily ’64, whose No. 50 football jersey has never again been given out by Williams equipment managers, even though the College does not retire numbers. Layden described the courage the linebacker exhibited on the field and as he fought terminal Hodgkin’s disease. In 2014, the article was named one of Sports Illustrated’s 60 most iconic stories in 60 years.
“The credit for the article existing goes to Dick Quinn, the Williams sports information director. He repeatedly brought ideas for Williams-related stories to me, but I had to say that they weren’t big enough for Sports Illustrated. Finally, in the winter of 2010, he told me about Mike’s jersey, and I recognized it was a tremendous story with great potential for catching people’s attention and moving them. It also allowed me to combine my passion for Williams with my passion for writing. It was a great gift from — and hopefully to — the school.”
“Tim Layden is a pro’s pro when it comes to sports writing, so any time I thought I had a story that might interest Tim, I would contact him. I could not be happier that he wrote the Mike Reily story and that the story continues to reverberate,” Quinn said.
Layden offered some advice for those eager to pursue a career in journalism.
“Consume the media you want to be a part of, and become familiar with what you want to do,” he said.
For him, versatility is key. Journalism, especially online presence, can involve photography, social media and coding. But it is most important, Layden said, to “have a passion.”