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SI 60 Q&A: Thomas Lake on the power of forgiveness

In this SI 60 Q&A, Thomas Lake discusses his powerful 2012 Sports Illustrated story, "The Boy They Couldn't Kill."

Occasionally even some of the best Sports Illustrated stories languish for weeks or even months without a firm publication date. Such was the case with a bonus piece Thomas Lake wrote about the aftermath of one of the most heinous sports-related crimes of SI’s 60 years, the 1999 shooting of Cherica Adams, the pregnant girlfriend of former NFL wide receiver Rae Carruth. Adams died of her wounds, and though her child survived, he has cerebral palsy.

Thirteen years later, Lake began reporting on what had happened to the boy, Chancellor Lee Adams. After he wrote and filed his story, it sat in SI’s editorial system until Jon Wertheim, a longtime SI writer and newly appointed executive editor, found it. Wertheim called Lake and said, “We should probably publish this.” 

That story, “The Boy They Couldn’t Kill,” finally ran in the Sept. 17, 2012 issue. I spoke to Lake about the piece and the impact it had on him.

SI: This story had been out of the news for a long time. Where did you get the idea for it?

LAKE: When I started out at Sports Illustrated I had a list of big stories in sports that had happened a while ago that might be old enough now to revisit and to sort of tell the rest of the story, the aftermath and everything. Most of the time when there’s a big news event it gets the most coverage right when it happens. It’s this strange paradox: the most reporters and the most news organizations are trying to cover the story at a time when it’s the hardest to cover because people don’t feel as free to talk in the immediate aftermath; reports are locked up, it’s hard to get access, etc. What I’ve found time and time again is that after the story has some time to play out and people have time to consider what has happened, it becomes a great opportunity to go after and try to put it all together.

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On this list of ideas there was one about the boy who lived after this terrible event. It was something I thought about for a couple years. As I worked through that list I thought, Why don’t I just see if the grandmother is willing to talk. I took out an SI stationery, looked up her address, wrote a note and put it in the mail. Then I probably forgot about it.

I was pleasantly surprised when she called me and said, I got your note, thanks, and yes we can talk. It was at that point that I pitched the story idea to [assistant managing editor] Chris Hunt, saying, “Here is the rest of the Rae Carruth story. Here’s the boy who survived. What if we try to tell his story?” Chris loved it.

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SI: Why did you write her a note, and do you always do that with your potential interview subjects?

LAKE: I do it pretty regularly. I write to people because I find that all of us are bombarded with emails and text messages and Facebook messages and they’re easy to ignore and get lost in the shuffle. But if you actually get a letter in the mail, it’s different enough that you might actually stop and sit down and give it some thought and appreciate that the person took some time and effort to do that. So when I really want to get someone’s attention I’ll do that. Not every time -- I do use Facebook a lot to reach out to people -- but if it’s a special case.

SI: What was the reporting process like?

LAKE: I set up an appointment to visit Saundra Adams, the grandmother, but also began the process of getting the court records from this case. That to me was crucially important because there were many twists and turns in the story and I wanted to make sure I had those right.

There was a line of privacy she wanted to guard so I never was able to go to her home but at least I was able to ride around with them in the van and see them in those little moments.

SI: What did you expect that the boy, Chancellor Lee Adams, would be like when you met him?

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LAKE: There was a shorter feature story in the Charlotte Observer a few years earlier that had given me some idea what he was like. But the way Saundra talked on the phone it was all positive so it was important to see for myself what he was really like. He couldn’t quite walk and it was hard to understand what he was saying, and in that first moment one of the things that stood out to me was – and I don’t know another way to put this – he seemed really happy. I wasn’t prepared for that because of all the terrible things he had been through. I have to believe that if that’s true then a lot of the credit, or maybe all of it, has to go to his grandmother and the ways she’s made him the center of her life.

SI: And what did you think she would be like, given this responsibility and tragedy that she had suddenly been confronted with that changed her life?

LAKE: That’s an excellent question, and of course what I would have expected is that she would be having a very hard time. That was another surprising thing, she seemed happy and energetic and accepting of these circumstances, and beyond that, she had taken this approach of radical forgiveness to Rae Carruth. It was so far beyond what I thought would be possible given the circumstances that as I began thinking about it more I thought maybe this could be what the whole story is about. It got me thinking about what forgiveness is. It’s a very hard thing. I could apply it to my own life of forgiving people for small things, which is a hard thing to do, and I have no experience with anything like what she’s been through.

It’s a whole other thing when they don’t acknowledge what they’ve done. I just got this idea that there should be a whole other word for that. That’s where the idea for the opening section came. It’s almost like there’s no word in the English language that properly describes it. The way she’s been able to go of that anger and just love her grandson is something truly astonishing and appears to have made all the difference.

SI: This is such a horrible crime. What stood out to you about Rae Carruth while you were reporting it?

LAKE: He declined through prison officials to talk. What stood out to me is that his defense attorneys had a theory about why the murder happened and it kind of shifted responsibility away from Carruth and it was about drug dealers, but even under that theory Carruth should still have some of the blame for what happened because he still brought them into the situation with Cherica.

The challenge was: What can I write that might make you feel a little bit better about humanity? Because it’s all disturbing and horrifying, so what does the reader really get out of that? That’s been the challenge with a lot of stories I’ve done. Was there ever a moment when someone was at their best in the face of tragedy?

SI: You’ve certainly written a lot about tragedy. Why is that?

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LAKE: Before I came to SI I spent seven years writing for newspapers, and the thing about the daily news is that what very often gets into the newspaper is untimely death. It’s just something that happens all around us, and I can’t even tell you how many people I wrote about who died before their time. I was on the crime beat for a couple papers, most recently the St. Petersburg Times down in Florida, and I was drawn to those stories of sadness and tragedy. I’m not so sure why that is. There’s something powerful and resonant about it. I’m hoping when somebody reads this story, they’ll have some kind of vicarious emotional reaction.

SI: So in the end is this still a sad story, or is it an uplifting story?

LAKE: It’s a terribly sad story, but I guess so much of what happens in the world is what’s next after the sadness and catastrophe? What do we do next? How do we handle that? Is there a moment where we do something that wouldn’t have even been possible without that awful situation and pushed to our limits and succeeded? In this case, Miss Adams certainly found a way to keep going in a really beautiful way that I hoped people might step back and say, “If she can forgive something like that and be at her best what can I do?” It was inspiring to me and I hoped it would be to others.

SI: What was the reaction to the piece?

LAKE: From the sampling I got, I think readers liked this story as much as any I’ve ever done. I always wonder what the main character will think about their story. My No. 1 goal when I’m writing isn’t for the main character to like the story but I also do hope they like it because very often it’s about some things they did right. I hoped she’d like it but I don’t know.

My wife and I were at the hospital for the birth of our second child in September 2012, the day after our son had been born, and I got a call from Saundra Adams and she said she had finally read the story. I said, “What do you think?” She said, “Well, I don’t know if this will win any awards but it gets an award from me.”

SI: Have you kept in touch with her at all?

LAKE: Not as well as I should have. I’ve heard [legendary SI writer] Gary Smith is really good about staying in touch with subjects. I wish I were better at that. The one person I’ve stayed in a little better touch with is Pop Herring, the high school basketball coach who cut Michael Jordan. I recently got an email from his daughter, who he had been estranged from, and she said, “I’ve finally decided I’m going to help him.”

SI: It’s only been a couple years since this story ran, but what do you think of it today?

LAKE: I always admire other writers when they say they never go back and reread their work. That’s a great way to be but it’s not true for me. Sometimes I’ll think, Well, I thought it was pretty good then but let me go back and see how it stands the test of time. Inevitably I get depressed either way. Either I look at it and think it’s not as good as it was at the time or I think  it was pretty good why haven’t I written anything that good lately (laughs).

SI: So where does this one fall?

LAKE: I felt I probably could have done a better job on the opening section, just to hit it a little more squarely. Probably one more rewrite would have done it.