Best of Longform 2015

The Ghosts I Run With

The Poison Oasis

Unclimbable

Two Lanes to Accokeek

A Long Walk’s End

Myths Made Flesh

Can Boxing Trust USADA?

The Reckoning

Born That Way

Best of Longform 2015

These are stories. They happen to be some of our best. These are stories told by some of the best writers we have the pleasure of working with, and told in slightly long fashion not for their own sake, but because that’s how many words it took to show you the whole story. You can’t get up and down the Appalachian Trail with a fugitive in a few hundred words, or try to climb a mountain with Eva Holland, or take in the full grimy glitter of the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight in Las Vegas with Brin-Jonathan Butler. These are longer stories. Their form, if you so choose, could even be said to be long.

That’s never been the point of SB Nation Longform, though. When the stories are this good, you can call them whatever you like: longform, personal essay, mini-novella, investigative dossier, screenplay-masquerading-as-real-life story. The label matters less than what they do. What they do is stick with you long, long after you’re done reading them, whether it’s Matt Tullis trying to outrun the ghosts of his past, Michael Graff’s brutal account of a street racing accident, or Jeremy Collins’ long settling of accounts with football.

They are great stories at any length, and ones that demand to be read.

Spencer Hall, SB Nation Editorial Director

The Ghosts I Run With

by Matt Tullis Apr. 15

About a year and a half after Matt Tullis started running, they appeared. As a survivor of childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, Matt had more than his fair share of ghosts. Matt made it through, but plenty of his fellow fighters did not. Keeping the memories of old friends alive is part of the bargain for the survivors, and running became a way of strengthening those memories. And with the 2014 Akron Marathon, it became a way of honoring them as well.


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Memoirs pose a special problem for an editor. Before they are actually written, they are terribly difficult to assess. It’s like telling someone the idea for a painting before it is painted. Due to their personal nature, a fine idea might end up lost in the writer’s own personal history, either too private to resonate with readers or too trite and unspecific to stand out. They can be like talking about family genealogy – fascinating if it’s your family, eye-rolling if someone else’s.

In this case, I knew Matt’s work from other stories, and a touch of his personal history. Still, I asked him to write it on spec, meaning if it didn’t work we didn’t have to use it and he was free to take it elsewhere. When I first read it, I knew almost from the first word that had nailed it. Like all good memoir, his story, from the start, reminded me in some ways of my own very different personal history, which told me readers would have the same reaction.

And they did.

Glenn Stout

The Ghosts I Run With

by Matt Tullis Apr. 15

The Poison Oasis

by Brin-Jonathan Butler & Mickey Duzyj May 5

Mayweather vs. Pacquiao turned out to be about much more than boxing. The world fixed its gaze upon moth-ridden Las Vagas for a fight that had been years in the making. Ringside tickets went for $350k per pop. Private jets clogged up the airports. Both fighters would share, at minimum, $138,000 per second.

Brin-Jonathan Butler and Mickey Duzyj were on the scene in April, witness to a bloodless, soulless, third-rate blockbuster script played out in the ring as a riot of A-list stars looked on. Nobody told the story — the full story — of that romance-less fight in the desert any better.


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When I spoke with contributing writer Brin-Jonathan Butler before the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight, his take was immediate: if nothing else, it would be a big bloated mess, what they once called “a happening,” which is quite different from a sporting event in which something actually happens. He wanted to try to capture that largesse on a big canvas, akin to something like Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman once did for Rolling Stone, but clear-eyed and without the personal fiction. To my surprise and joy, SB Nation said go ahead. It was Brin, after all, who we’ve come to know and trust.

He and illustrator Mickey Duzyj spent two weeks on this, a week in LA with Pacquiao and then a week in Las Vegas. Before the fight, Brin had written about one-third of the story and vaguely game-planned the rest. Then, the moment after the fight ended, came almost 48 hours of non-stop work, Mickey drawing, Brin writing, files flying back and forth as I cut and slashed and added and subtracted. Sixty hours after the fight, we launched, the only story that came out of the fight that even began to capture the whole swollen distended story. We were exhausted at the end, but damn it was fun.

If only the fight would have been so good. Then again, for our readers, this story made up for that.

Glenn Stout

The Poison Oasis

by Brin-Jonathan Butler & Mickey Duzyj May 5

Unclimbable

by Eva Holland May 20

Canada’s Cirque of the Unclimbables is well named. Eva Holland visited this jumble of sheer granite walls — remote, spectacular and utterly implacable — encountering a team of young climbers who’d come to spread a friend’s ashes from the most imposing peak in the range. Lotus Flower Tower is the scene for a fierce, poignant story of love and endurance as well as the setting for some jaw-dropping photography.


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When Eva Holland told me about this story for the first time, of her encounter with three young women on a climbing expedition who were carrying the ashes of a friend and fellow climber, I think each of us thought the story would turn out different. But I tell all the writers I work with never to try to make a story into something it is not, to always go with “what is” rather than “what you wanted it to be,” and that the truth always tells the best story. If you write non-fiction, staple that phrase to your forehead.

That’s what Eva went after in this story, the truth of the experience, one that didn’t necessarily fit neatly into the box of what initially seemed to be a story that would follow a predictable arc. And as she wrote and wrote – and wrote, because I kept asking for more – she found something far better. “Unclimbable” became a story that is wholly unique about a special place and the people it brought together, a story where success was not measured by reaching the top, but by reaching inside, all rendered in clear observant and precise prose, as focused and well defined as the spectacular pictures by Gary Bremner that accompanied it.

Glenn Stout

Unclimbable

by Eva Holland May 20

Two Lanes to Accokeek

by Michael Graff June 4

Long, straight roads have drawn young men to race since the automobile was invented. In 2008, between Accokeek, Maryland and Washington D.C., that draw would prove fatal. When two teenagers — let’s say that they took Indian Head Highway up on its invitation — encountered the tail end of a late-night street race and its spectators, the grisly scene ended with eight deaths, nine serious injuries and two very different paths through life.


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I like asking writers “What’s the story you’ve always wanted to write that no one has ever let you write before?” On several earlier occasions, Michael Graff has responded with unforgettable work, and this time he did so again. I’m just happy no one else asks him that question.

His story gives an account of the circumstances and the aftermath of a street race in Maryland, near where Micheal grew up, about a place and a people he knows intimately. Somewhat incredibly, the story had never really been told in full. Local media had simply noted what happened, shaken its head, and then moved on to the next tragedy.

With impeccable reporting skills, Michael reminded us that there is always more to the story, that what initially might look cut and dry is rarely so neat. We want stories with pat endings, and firm conclusions, but the world is not always that way. He told us the rest of the story, and in so doing asked hard and uncomfortable questions about responsibility, and about justice.

Glenn Stout

Two Lanes to Accokeek

by Michael Graff June 4

A Long Walk’s End

by William Browning July 1

When the FBI caught on to his $8.7 million embezzlement scheme, James Hammes vanished. But instead of fleeing the country and turning up somewhere he could spend his ill-gotten gains securely, the usual path of the illicitly wealthy, Hammes stayed in the United States, evading detection for six full years before law enforcement finally caught up with him.

How? By hiding in plain sight. James Hammes — better known as ‘Bismarck’ — went hiking on the Appalachian Trail.


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I try to tap writers I have worked with on the shoulder every once in a while, just in case they’ve got something and to let them know I haven’t forgotten. William Browning told me he did have a story, but it was not a big story, and that I would not be interested in it but maybe I would know someone who might. See, he knew this guy, who knew this guy, who recognized a guy on a fugitive TV show who had been on the run for six years, who he had met on Appalachian Trail and turned in and got – WAIT A MINUTE! A fugitive goes on the run by taking a hike? Hiking is a sport, I told myself. Forget everybody else, forget everything, I have to have this because I want to know what happened.

A few weeks later, William gave me an update and said a well-known writer with a well-known publication had contacted him. He told William he was looking at the story and that every time he went to talk to someone, William already had spoken to them. Then he asked William if he was working on the story. “What should I tell him?” William asked. I said, “Tell him you are, and he’s too late.” The result is what I think is one of the best stories of the year in any genre, terrific reporting, told deftly and with sensitivity. Reading it is like taking a long walk, finding a surprise around every corner, until, at the end, you meet the man who went on the run by taking a hike.

Glenn Stout

A Long Walk’s End

by William Browning July 1

Myths Made Flesh

by Brin-Jonathan Butler Aug. 19

Bullfighting, says Brin-Jonathan Butler, is every bit as ghoulish and savage as its critics warn. But despite the brutal and barbaric spectacle, the aura of mystique that surrounds the toreros is very real, and the best of their age are artists of the highest caliber.

This is a trip through a Spain struggling to balance new and old. The gruesome, politicized romance of the ring is all here, and the dance of death is uncomfortably real.


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Brin-Jonathan Butler came up to Vermont one day last year to visit. I picked him up at the train and he was carrying a bag about the size of a laptop case. “Where’s your bag?” I asked. “This is it,” he said.

I think he went on vacation to Spain with just about as much luggage. That’s because with Brin, it sort of doesn’t matter where he goes. He embeds himself in place, no fixer or guide to hold his hand. In the “Poison Oasis,” he was the guy, among all the press, who ran with Pacquiao on his morning run. And in this story, he not only ran with the bulls but paid attention to the aftermath. In bullfights he saw past the pageantry and tragedy and gore to the whole history of Spain, painted in bold, brash colors, living at dying at the same time, like we all are. The only writer I know who writes on vacation, it’s nice of him to take us along.

Glenn Stout

Myths Made Flesh

by Brin-Jonathan Butler Aug. 19

Can Boxing Trust USADA?

by Thomas Hauser Sep. 9

Who watches the watchmen? As more and more money pours into the world of professional sports, the incentive to cheat becomes virtually irresistable. Anti-doping bodies are supposed to be the first line of defense in keeping athletes clean. But questions arise when cash — lots of cash — changes hands, and those questions don't always have spotless answers.

Thomas Hauser’s investigation of USADA’s troubling relationship with the fighters it monitors made waves when it was published in September, and it makes for just as troubling reading now.


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Many of the writers I work with here at SB Nation are younger, or less experienced, and that’s often of great benefit. But we also attract writers much more established.

When Thomas Hauser told me about the testing practices of USADA, the drug-testing agency that tests pro boxers and American Olympians, I at first found it hard to believe. Then Thomas started producing the evidence and the result is a story that others have known or inferred or suspected, but that no one had ever really put together before, one that only Hauser, with his vast contacts and knowledge of the sport, could provide. To no surprise, it swept through the industry, as those in the know all nodded their heads in agreement. Like every good investigation, he lifted the cloak on what many preferred stay hidden.

Glenn Stout

Can Boxing Trust USADA?

by Thomas Hauser Sep. 9

The Reckoning

by Jeremy Collins Sep. 23

On, September 24, 2013, Georgia Bulldogs legend and former NFL player Paul Oliver woke to a world he could no longer understand, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He had Stage 2 CTE.

The Oliver family were victims of an neurological disease which we’re only now beginning to understand. As neurologists gain more and more insight into what high speed collisions do to brain tissue, it’s becoming increasingly clear that CTE is endemic in football. So how do we balance our love of the game with the health of those who play?


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Jeremy Collins is a writer, by which I mean to say I know he’s not a sports writer but one who I want to read just about anything he ever writes. This was his third story for SB Nation Longform. The first, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux,” resonated as few others have. When he told me he wanted to look at one of his childhood heroes, and this time write about football, I knew he would go to a place few other writers can; that’s what he does, and that’s what I find so engaging in his work.

Georgia defensive back Paul Oliver was one of Jeremy’s favorite players before he committed suicide, likely because of concussions. Jeremy took that now well-worn story further, doing a deep dive into his own history to ask just how much those who love football so deeply and intently are culpable in what ends far too often in a horrible result. Readers did not just learn about Oliver and CTE, they learned about themselves and their relationship to the game. Some readers swore never to watch another game, others know they’ll never watch it quite the same way again, but all of them were changed.

Glenn Stout

The Reckoning

by Jeremy Collins Sep. 23

Born That Way

by Brendan Sneed Oct. 14

Visit Greenville, North Carolina for a few days and it’s likely you’ll be asked if you’ve met Marvin Jarman yet. He’s a local legend, a high school sports coach who’s been ever-present for generations, and anyone who’s ever encountered him will tell you they were better off for the experience. Brandon Sneed’s profile of a man who’s touched so many lives might seem too good to be true, but if you ever asked Marvin about it, he’d probably just tell you that he “just woh’n born wight.”


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Brandon Sneed is one of those younger writers who I’ve so enjoyed watching grow over the last few years. He wants to write stories that matter, stories that inspire, and when he told me about Marvin Jarman, I knew this was exactly his kind of story.

What I didn’t quite expect was just how much it was everyone else’s. When Brandon put out a query on Facebook asking people in his hometown for anecdotes about Marvin, I watched incredulously as the responses grew into the thousands. Then I got afraid that he would have too much and started to worry.

I didn’t need to. He knew exactly how to tell the story: just let Marvin be Marvin, the way he was born.

Glenn Stout

Born That Way

by Brendan Sneed Oct. 14

Notes

Glenn StoutSeries Editior

Every time I accept a story, I always write the author “Thanks for being a writer.” I don’t often have the same opportunity to address those who have honored our writers with your attention, your praise and even, at times, your criticism.

Still, I‘d like to say “Thanks for reading.” Here at SB Nation Longform, you let us do what we love.

Graham MacAreeProducer

I’m a newcomer to the SB Nation Longform program. Under Glenn and former producer Chris Mottram’s guidance, Longform had a specific identity, and when I inherited Chris’s work in February, my first goal was to not screw that up.

Designing around our best stories is not a privilege to be taken lightly. The overall package needs to resonate with the story’s tone. Art placement needs to complement text, not distract from it. The technical side of design can’t go ignored. Whether I’ve succeeded in maintaining the standards set before my arrival isn’t up to me to decide, but I’ve had a lot of fun in trying.