EARLY SUMMER IS A slow time for sports. Often, baseball is the only game in town. So in 2000 the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED staff came up with the idea for a themed double issue called WHERE ARE THEY NOW. As the 15th edition comes out, we take a look back at how it all started.
BILL COLSON,SI's managing editor at the time: We used to get these reader surveys after every issue and CATCHING UP WITH, a column in which we checked in with a former athlete, was one of the top things. So we thought, Why not a whole Catching Up issue?
LARRY BURKE,former SI senior editor: Generally for a big idea like this, you want something different and fresh that will skew young. WATN wasn't any of those things, but it kind of took on a life of its own. Maybe you just shouldn't overthink it.
JACK MCCALLUM,former SI senior writer, who wrote about Marvin Barnes for the issue: Nothing's more nostalgic than sports. It was sort of a no-brainer that readers would enjoy going back and visiting people.
BURKE: I remember thinking, Is there gonna be enough stuff? It's amazing how many good stories there are. Every year you'd come back and be like, Hey, what about this guy? I'm sure our reporters enjoyed being handed lists of people to find with no leads whatsoever.
No one remembers who came up with the idea of finding Refrigerator Perry, who had become a bricklayer in Aiken, S.C., but the story quickly took off.
AUSTIN MURPHY,senior writer, who wrote the cover story: He didn't want to reveal his weight. So I wrote: 'Pressed for a ballpark figure on his ballpark figure, he offers 355, which, to a casual observer, seems a conservative estimate indeed. Put it this way: His former self is a shadow of him.' [SI special contributor] Steve Rushin, who's the king of that kind of wordplay, sent me a note: "Two in two sentences! I'm impressed." I was pretty happy about that.
Once the photos came in, everyone knew that would be the cover story—everyone but the author, that is.
MURPHY: I don't ask about covers. It jinxes it. It shouldn't matter, but it does. It's like, Yeah, my parents are gonna be proud of me! I actually found out I had the cover story when it showed up in my mailbox.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW remains among the most popular SI issues, both with readers and with staffers.
BURKE: So much of the time there's that churn-and-burn cycle, chasing the news, and you wish you had more time for an issue. We got enough of a jump with WATN that we could really plan it out and do ambitious things.
MCCALLUM: It's good because it's only once a year.
BURKE: It's the sports magazine publishing equivalent of a summer blockbuster. I mean, it's not Transformers, but people like it.