Pay wall blues: This inspirational SI cover gets religion

Pay wall blues: This inspirational SI cover gets religion July 13, 2013

Are there any working journalists in this day and age who do not have a love-hate relationship with paywalls, those digital fortresses erected by many publications to force readers to pay for their best online content?

I understand why they make sense. I am sure that they save some jobs. Personally, I favor some kind of micro-payment option that allows readers to pay for individual articles, if they so choose.

This, however, is a topic for another day. I have been waiting to see when the folks at Sports Illustrated would post a complete version of their June 19th cover story on an American hero named Frank Hall, who put his life on the line to help save students at Chardon (Ohio) High School. I still cannot find the text online.

Yes, this story ran in a sports publication, but it is more than a sports story. I want to call it to the attention of GetReligion readers, even the 99 percent who are not interested in the world of sports, because it is one of the best features I have come across in some time, especially if you are interested in journalism that blends faith content into the narrative in an appropriate manner.

I didn’t think that at first. I suspected that there was a faith element in this story early on, but, rather cynically, I also suspected that the SI team would avoid it. Here is a key moment early on that sets the stage for the drama in this national news story:

His eyes swept the room, his pen checking off the study-hall attendance list as the morning announcements ended. The three football players always at his elbow at 7:37 — fullback John Connic, who used Frank’s file drawers as his personal locker, and the Izar twins, defensive end Tom and linebacker Quinn — were all missing that day, John off taking a test and the Izards, thank God, late for school. Besides the cafeteria staff, Frank was now the only adult in the room.

Two loud pops jerked his head to the right. His hearing had always been bad.

Firecrackers, he thought. Then came another pop and another as he rose and took in the whirl of one boy slumped over a table, two others crumpled to the floor, two staggering away with bullet wounds, and a mad scramble of screaming children everywhere in the room.

Here it was, the question lodged in the recesses of all the educators’ brains in America, the one that their minds race to and away from without ever resolving, the one to which the rest of us seem to have unconsciously agreed to condemn them all: What will I do if a kid in my school pulls out a gun and starts shooting?

Here’s what Frank never could’ve guessed, all the years his mind had darted to and from that question: His anger trumped everything; it trampled thought and even fear. It sent his legs barging right through his brown table and straight at the gunman, sent his hand flying up, sent his voice booming, “Stop! Stop!”

Yes, anger is part of the picture — but not the most crucial part.

The story of how Hall ended up in that room at that time is quite complex and includes a long list of sad chapters in which he struggled to achieve the sports-related dreams that pushed him as a young man. There were health, injury and educational issues. Like I said, sports plays a role in this tale, but not the key role. In the end, courage and an overwhelming sense of duty rise to the top in this feature story. Marriage and family are in there, too.

But from Hall’s perspective, this story is ultimately about questions of faith. Why was he a hall monitor in that room when the shots were fired? Why was he able to save many young lives, but not all of them? What could he have done better?

The context is clear, sort of, in this Cleveland Plain Dealer piece about the SI cover:

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Whenever Frank Hall speaks in front of churches and school groups, the crowd braces itself for his reflections on the day he saved lives during the shooting at Chardon High last year.

Hall speaks in churches all the time because that’s the setting in which he can best deal with the lessons he has learned in his life and in this tragic event.

Yes, SI reporter Gary Smith spends quite a bit of ink on gun-related issues. That’s a valid part of the story. But so is faith and, in the end, Smith lets Hall talk and also takes readers inside the counseling sessions with the coach’s pastor as they wrestle with his sense of guilt and loss.

I wish I could show all of that to readers, but the pay wall is still up. It’s worth seeking out the story on paper, in a library or somewhere else. I will keep looking for an SI URL.

One more note: Hall and his wife have, through the years, adopted four children whose lives and struggles are a story unto themselves. In this final slice of the piece, note the name of one of the sons:

Smith’s eight-page story details the shooting from Hall’s point of view, interweaving Hall’s personal story that was inspirational before the shooting. Hall was a much loved fixture among students and football players at Chardon and this spring made the difficult decision to leave Chardon for Ashtabula Lakeside, to coach in his hometown and rebuild a football team that has been among Ohio’s least successful in recent years.

“He’s one of the those people you meet and 10 seconds later you can tell they’re really a solid person and great guy. He’s a very honest person,” Smith said.

Beyond the Sports Illustrated story, Hall was eager to share more good news Monday. He and his wife, Ashley, are in the early stages of adopting a fifth child. They have four adopted sons who have had troubled backgrounds or physical disabilities.

“My wife has a knack of finding kids who need our help and can benefit from what we have to offer,” he said. “This [Sports Illustrated] story isn’t going to change my life. I’m pretty busy right now. I have football going on. We have varsity football minicamp and weight lifting on top of that. My son, Christian, just made the Little League All-Stars. I don’t have the time to be famous or anything.”

Like I said, I sure wish GetReligion readers could read it all.

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  • Rob

    Those with an iPad can download the free Sports Illustrated app and buy issues one at a time using an Itunes account. It’s a little steeper, $4.99, than it seems it should be but better than a whole subscription for one story. I believe generally offers the same deal through its Kindle magazine offers.

  • kmbold

    I liked reading this story.