In 1949, Joseph Campbell published The Hero With A Thousand Faces. In the book, Campbell tracked the mythology of a variety of civilizations, and noted common threads in the storytelling of each. In civilizations across the world, that had no contact with each other, their mythologies were characterized by a 12 step process known as “the Hero’s Journey,” which is helpfully outlined in the video created by Dutch designer Iskander Krayenbosch, seen below.
Does “the hero’s journey” seem familiar? Well, it should. Not only does it have its roots in mythology, it continues to shape modern fictional storytelling, as the video shows with references to films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, and The Dark Knight.
Sports journalists don’t have the same luxury to craft stories that wholly follow “the hero’s journey,” as they have to write and report on our modern day, real-world “heroes,” not fictional ones. But, many of the best stories often contains some of the elements that Campbell identified as common storytelling tenets across humanity, including the hero’s humble beginnings and their triumphant return, as well as their ability to overcome adversity.
As evidenced by “the Hero’s Journey,” we are fascinated by stories that show where the hero came from, and how their roots shaped who they are. Often, the most fascinating subjects are the ones who came from the humblest beginnings. One of the best examples of this is Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Brady McCollough’s profile of Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin. Stalin. Steel. A Cold War-esque escape. My story on Evgeni Malkin, the embodiment of Magnitogorsk's new hope: http://t.co/dNlVKIFjPd
— Brady McCollough (@BradyMcCollough) February 9, 2014
In the piece, McCollough beautifully captures the cold realities of Evgeni Malkin’s “ordinary world.” In this case, it’s his upbringing in Magnitogorsk, as Russia was transitioning into a post-Cold War world, with dreams of hockey stardom on his mind. But, McCollough also describes Malkin’s return trips home as a conquering hero by juxtaposing it with his start. He describes how Malkin desperately wanted a puppy growing up, and now as he returns home as “a Stanley Cup champion and one of the best hockey players in the world…he can’t help but notice: His full-grown puppy has no idea who he is.” The last two stages of “the hero’s journey” show that, while the conquering hero is able to return home, they do so as almost a new person, as this anecdote succinctly demonstrates.
Another common thread Campbell found in humanity’s storytelling was the overcoming of obstacles. Without conflict, there really is no story, and it’s hard to tell relatable stories. While this is familiar ground for sports journalists, it’s crucial to telling a good story. A great example of such a story is Chris Jones’ ESPN profile piece on minor league baseball coach Mike Jirschele.
Happy Opening Day to Mike Jirschele. I'm told the clan had quite the time in Milwaukee this weekend: http://t.co/A8PWycuM1X
— Chris Jones (@MySecondEmpire) March 31, 2014
Jones tells the story of how Jirschele spent 36 years in the minor leagues as a player and a coach, waiting for his chance to coach in the big leagues. As Jones describes, Jirschele was on the precipice of making the majors as a player in the 80s, but never quite made it. Jirschele spent 26 years in the Royals organization as a player and coach, paying his dues until October 2013 when Royals manager Ned Yost called him with news that he’d join the Royals as coach. Towards the end of the piece, Jones describes a moment with Jirschele’s father that encapsulates the younger Jirschele’s 36-year battle to get to the majors.
“But a little later he pulls out his daybook, a thick black book with a calendar and notes scribbled inside of it, because he wants to remember a name or a date or some other forgotten order of things. And there, inside the front cover, he has stashed a small, secret bundle of newspaper clippings, and now they spill out, one after another, each headline announcing some variation of the same news: Mike Jirschele is a big leaguer.”
Chris Jones, “A Long Journey to Spring,” ESPN the Magazine, 3/19/2014
While not every story’s focus will have 36 years of adversity for a sports journalist to describe, chronicling trials and tribulations, and how the “hero” is able to overcome them, are essential to telling a compelling story. Jones does this well by focusing on Jirschele’s long road to the big leagues, as well as how he was able to keep it in perspective as other family members dealt with their own trials and tribulations. But, it’s those trials that make the eventual triumph that much more rewarding.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, screenwriters and novelists have been able to incorporate the hero’s journey into their stories for years. Sports journalists don’t have the same kind of wiggle room, but it’s important that they recognize Joseph Campbell’s insights into common storytelling tenets. In particular, sports journalists can tell great stories by focusing on their “hero,” or subject’s roots and eventual return to their roots, as well as their conquest of the trials and tribulations they face.