Trailing by three, Clemson was driving against Alabama late in a pulsating, nerve-racking College Football Playoff championship game. Deadline for The Washington Post’s Chuck Culpepper meant filing almost immediately after the game ended.
Culpepper looked at his computer, and only a couple of paragraphs stared back at him. Did he panic, knowing he had to generate an entire story on a close game in a matter of moments?
“I love that feeling when there’s nothing there on the screen,” Culpepper said. “That’s a bit whacked, right?”
Maybe it would be whacked for some sportswriters who would prefer a stress-free 31-0 blowout. Culpepper, though, relishes the adrenaline-pumping challenge of writing big-game, last-second outcome game stories on deadline. In fact, he is pulling for another series of buzz-beaters as he covers this year’s NCAA Tournament for The Post.
“I like to say I’ve gotten addicted to that feeling,” Culpepper said. “I’m rooting for the game where the lead is constantly changing hands (in the final minutes). It’s either you’ll be OK or you die.”
Culpepper hardly dies. Recent college title games have given him ample chance to show he is among the best deadline writers in the business. By the way, deadline for all sportswriters these days means filing as quickly as possible to post on various websites.
Here is an excerpt from Culpepper’s story on last year’s NCAA basketball final, when Kris Jenkins’ three-pointer at the buzz gave Villanova a thrilling 77-74 victory over North Carolina:
As a roaring basketball game in a roaring football stadium distilled to one final, soaring shot making its descent, 74,340 seemed almost to hush. The hush would not last. Kris Jenkins’s cocksure three-pointer from the right of the top of the key swished down through the net and into deathless fame, and all manner of noise broke out and threatened to stream through the years.
Villanova’s players surged into a pile. Villanova’s coaches hugged and hopped. Jaws dropped. Fans boomed. Streamers fell. North Carolina’s players walked off toward hard comprehension. The scoreboard suddenly read 77-74, and Villanova, a sturdy men’s basketball program with an eternal Monday night glittering from its distant past, had found another Monday night all witnesses will find impossible to forget.
Culpepper on Clemson’s 35-31 victory over Alabama; the winning touchdown was scored with one second remaining:
For days and years and decades to come in the town of Clemson, through swaths of South Carolina and in fervent Clemson pockets beyond, they’ll talk about the nerve-ravaging fourth quarter witnessed by droves of lucky ticket holders in waves of orange among 74,512 on Monday night. They’ll talk about how their Clemson football team, so accustomed to inconvenience through a tightroping season, finally caught unbeaten Alabama at the end, with one last, tantalizing second left on the clock.
They’ll talk about how a masterful college quarterback, Deshaun Watson, took possession twice in the last 6:33, facing three-point deficits both times, and how he moved Clemson 88 and 68 yards against Alabama’s defense of giants. They’ll recollect how, with six seconds left and still trailing by three, indomitable Clemson scored on Watson’s two-yard touchdown pass to the 5-foot-11, 180-pound wonder Hunter Renfrow for his 10th catch of the night, and the Clemson sideline went berserk.
They’ll talk and they’ll talk about this 35-31 win in the College Football Playoff national championship game in Raymond James Stadium. They might even rewatch the thing. When they do, they will see a program that had finished a bold climb and become all grown up, redefining itself in its eighth full season under Coach Dabo Swinney.
Now there is some fine writing. Love the line in the basketball story where Culpepper notes, “North Carolina players walked off toward hard comprehension.”
And to think, Culpepper wrote much of that 800-word Villanova story in 12 minutes for a print edition deadline and online. He then scrambled to the locker rooms to collect some quotes and worked on revising his first story, which he submitted within an hour.
“I actually sent in a different lead,” Culpepper said. “Then I contacted the editor and said, ‘Let’s keep the first one.’ He said, ‘I agree.’”
Culpepper said he seeks to “find an avenue where the whole story can be told.” For instance, he focused his football title game story on how that moment would be embedded in Clemson’s lore.
“What I’m hoping for is that some sort of theme or thought will come to me,” Culpepper said. “What I’m thinking for Clemson is that (the ending) will be remembered there forever. This is what they’ll be talking about. I’m trying to describe what happened in terms of a conversation.”
When in doubt on deadline, Culpepper says, “focus on the emotions.” They don’t run any higher than for a title game.
For all the debate about game stories in the shifting media universe, Culpepper’s work shows the value of having them when the stakes are at their highest.
“I think people like to relive what they’ve just seen, especially with great games that are so important,” Culpepper said. “They want to relive them in a way that’s meaningful. You try to add to what they already know.”
Culpepper will be thrilled if this year’s NCAA Final gives him the opportunity to write about another epic ending. He lives for the game tied with 10 seconds left, and history on the line.
For sportswriters who get anxious in those pressure deadline situations, Culpepper has a simple piece of advice: “Embrace the moment.”
“If you can reach the point where you absolutely love it, you’ll be fine,” Culpepper said.