The reality of Wright Thompson

The role of family, specifically, that of the father, in the life of some of the greatest athletes in the world is at the heart of Wright Thompson’s newest book, “The Cost of These Dreams.”

The role of family, specifically, that of the father, in the life of some of the greatest athletes in the world is at the heart of Wright Thompson’s newest book, “The Cost of These Dreams.”

And the Clarksdale, Miss., native didn’t have to go far in searching for inspiration in telling the stories, as he counted on the life lessons he learned from his parents, Mary and Walter Thompson, and the community he grew up in.

“You talk about the things you get from your parents. The thing I got most of all was, for better or for worse, a complete, abiding belief that if I wanted to do it, I could do it,” Thompson said. “I kept believing despite severe evidence that suggested I should quit.”

“The Cost of These Dreams” is a collection of stories that he has written over the years for ESPN The Magazine. The main character in a lot of the stories is “place,” Thompson said during an appearance Friday at the Carnegie Public Library in downtown Clarksdale as part of its Community Book Talks Lecture Series.

And Clarksdale, he believes, is a “crash course in how to really dig into a place.”

Thompson grew up in Clarksdale on Court Street, where his mother, who is a retired teacher from Lee Academy, still lives. His father passed away in September 2004.

Wright believes the experience of growing up here plays a large part in how he writes and his interview process in his work as a senior writer for ESPN and as an executive producer of the television series “True South” on the SEC Network and “Backstory” on ESPN.

“When you’re confronted with so much hypocrisy, it makes you either want to cut through myths… which is basically what these things are, really,” Thompson said, holding up his book. “There is a through-line for all of these stories. Every one of them is trying to tell a story that someone doesn’t want told.

“That’s certainly formed here (in Clarksdale). At an early age, I think you decide if you’re going to tear it down or become part of it. And that’s very little middle ground. I understand how people come to both decisions.

“I don’t think any of this happens if I’m from a suburb of Atlanta with the exact same parents and the exact same situation. The exact same neighbors and the exact same schools. Same teachers and same people in the classes.

“I got to think there’s something from being from this place that gets into you and, if you can get out of the place, you can carry that like a sword and a shield everywhere you go for the rest of your life. If you crawl your way out of this, there’s not a single thing in the world… I mean everything after that is easy. It’s almost like the greatest possible training you could ever have.”

The 1996 Lee graduate attended the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He would work for various newspapers, including The Clarksdale Press Register, Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Kansas City Star, before he landed a job as a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine in 2006.

He has written hundreds of articles for numerous publications, including a recent article in Garden and Gun magazine about Moon Lake and Katherine’s restaurant. He’s won a number of sports journalism awards and also an Emmy for his E:60 on noodling, the sport of fishing for catfish with bare hands. He is a member of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Sports Hall of Fame.

And as much appreciation as Thompson has for this community, Clarksdale residents are as equally supportive as more than 100 people turned out for the author’s appearance Friday.

Thompson jokingly said he thought about titling his latest book “Back For More Cash,” which got large laughs from the audience, but he admitted it was a bit of a chore narrowing down the 14 stories that eventually made it into the publication.

“When I read it, it sort of took my breath away,” Thompson said of the book’s preface, which he wrote over 90 minutes spent at a booth in the Yazoo Pass restaurant downtown. “They (the varied stories) really do fit together in an interesting way and speak to each other in an interesting way that was completely unintended. That was a total accident.”

During Friday’s appearance, Thompson read portions of his story titled “Michael Jordan’s Not Left the Building,” which detailed the 50th birthday of Jordan and how the former basketball superstar and one of the most famous people in the world was learning to live a life where “now you’re just a guy whose knees hurt.”

Reflecting upon Jordan and his voracious appetite for competition, Thompson told the audience, “He very much seeks out that part of his life that’s gone.”

And that adjustment of fading from the limelight is at the heart of his newest collection of stories.

“I feel like you spend 48 percent of your life wanting to be something, four percent of your life being it and 48 percent of your life having been it. And that’s certainly true for every person in this book.”

He believes there is a bit of a “mourning period” for athletes once they retire and try to decide how the next part of their life is played out.

“It’s interesting because people want to be famous because it sounds fun. But when they get famous, they want to give it back. And you can’t give it back because you’ve already made too many deals with the devil that you can’t unmake.”

As for Wright Thompson, the author said life is good. The 42-year-old now makes his home in Oxford where he lives with his wife, Sonia, and daughter, Wallace, and often makes trips home to Clarksdale to see his mother and friends.

“Everybody has a story they tell themselves about themselves.  And everybody has a story that other people tell about them,” Thompson said. “What I really want to do when you break it down… the essence of it…  is to figure out what those two stories are… and the most important is figure out what is the space in between, why does that space exist.”

As an example, he said he’ll often tell people that he grew up “working on a farm” from his days spent working in the cotton fields for local farmer Cliff Heaton. But what he’ll not say is that his father “was a pretty successful trial lawyer.”

Thompson said, “It’s because I have a self-image of myself as someone who got here by working really hard and one thing confirms the way I feel about it and the other thing doesn’t. Am I lying? I don’t know. But it feels true to me.

“When I look at and see my own journey here, and all the people who started wanting the same thing… and watching the winnowing happen and seeing who gets stripped away and who is left standing when we get to the top of the mountain… it feels to me, the single most important thing was not talent, but hard work and the ability to believe ‘someone’s got to do this, why not me?’”

(This story originally appeared in the April 10, 2019, edition of The Clarksdale Press Register.)

Thirteen months later, the lesson of a late-night encounter

It was on that dark stretch of rural road, hemmed in between stands of towering oaks and deserted railroad cars between Clarksdale and Lyon where I came upon him one recent Tuesday evening.

Driving home near midnight I was the lone vehicle along that stretch of road when I noticed a faint figure ahead of the beam of my headlights. Downshifting, I slowed my pickup until I came to a dead stop and shifted forward in my seat, hands and chin on my steering wheel, staring straight ahead.

He didn’t budge from the center of the roadway. Not a flick of a muscle.

Caught there in the glare of my beams he stared right back into my eyes. I clicked my lights, thinking that might scare him off.

No chance. It was as if we were in a stand-off.

I couldn’t tell if he was, quite literally, caught like a deer in headlights. Or rather, he was in some indirect manner telling me this was his turf and I was the intruder.

He was a rather scrawny fox. Kind of beat-up around the edges. Looked a bit older and it’d been a while since he’d had a decent meal.

We continued our staredown for a few more seconds until he glanced around and slowly strolled off to the side. I put my truck in gear and resumed my drive home.

I’ve thought often about that fox over the past few weeks. And in some ways, he’s sort of become symbolic of life now.

Earlier this month, me and my wife were faced with one of life’s decisions. An opportunity to return to the Carolinas, closer to family, beckoned. But it wasn’t an easy decision as we had made several new friends in our 13 months here and we believed good work was being done at The Clarksdale Press Register.

Yet, in the end, the lure of home won out as this is my final column as the publisher/editor of The Clarksdale Press Register. Just as my nocturnal neighbor was faced with that decision to stay or flee, we too opted to turn for home.

And, in my opinion, that fox caught in the headlights is also symbolic of current-day Clarksdale and Coahoma County.

It seems as if this community is torn right now on which direction to head in regard to so many heady issues it faces.

There are some ready to jump ahead and embrace all new things. Yet, there are others who are proud of the traditions and success of yesteryear and have a reluctance to deviate from what’s worked in the past. And, unfortunately, there are a good number of folks who really don’t care either way.

Oftentimes, when sides are pulling from opposite ends, you are left with a stalemate. You end up with inaction — that deer-in-the-headlights look as the future steadily bears down upon you.

And Clarksdale and Coahoma County cannot afford to stay frozen in place. To do so would be a failure.

Tough questions need to be asked about education in this county. Why are the three public school systems in the county failing? Are these schools meant to educate or rather provide employment? Can consolidation happen?

Crime continues to be at the forefront. It’s almost as if being broken into or having some of your property taken from your car or shed is as acceptable and as much a part of life here as having blues music 365 days a year. That needs to change.

There’s a shortage of available middle-class housing. As renters, we moved four times in the 13 months we were here. To find a good home where you don’t worry about being broken into or being flooded is a real challenge. And as this community continues to bring in new industry – and with it middle-class renters – there should be a concerted effort to make that a priority.

Take these challenges to heart, but also know there are so many good memories that fill my mind when I look back at the past 13 months. Things I will truly miss.

The taste of the honey-hot sauce on Pete’s Wings. The drawl and timbre of Charles Langford’s voice. The smile of Rena Butler. The smooth as silk delivery of a Valmadge Towner speech. Hartley Kittle’s comical comparisons. The awesome view of cypress trees rising into a clear blue sky on a Moon Lake pontoon guided by John Mohead.

I’ll miss Ed Seals’ monthly plea for city crews to plug those potholes in his ward. And I still crave to have a bourbon in hand as I sit and listen to Hank Burdine and Wright Thompson read their words. I’ll cherish hearing the sounds of the Coahoma Community College choir and a Sunday afternoon in a Mound Bayou church. I’ll miss Big A and Lucious and LaLa.

I’ll never forget the sight of John Ruskey pedaling down Yazoo, that hair and hat flapping in the wind. The weekly emails of encouragement and that living wall of musical history that is all Panny Mayfield.

Who couldn’t help but smile as they watched a gassed Clarksdale mayor Chuck Espy pull along a 180-pound dummy, only to collapse at the finish?

And who couldn’t help but to be overcome with dread and helplessness, watching as coaches pounded on the chest of a high school football player on a Friday night sideline, trying to ensure life was not lost.

It’s the candor of Bo Plunk. The diplomacy of Jon Levingston. The desire to do good by Christine McDaniel. And the friendship of Jerry Gardner and Travis Haggan. It’s the honesty of Paul Pearson. And the helpfulness of Demetria Jackson.

It’s life here in Clarksdale and Coahoma County.

On several occasions this year, I heard Mayor Espy quote actor Morgan Freeman from the movie “Shawshank Redemption”  when saying:  “It’s time to get busy living or get busy dying. And I choose to get busy living.”

Do that, Clarksdale and Coahoma County.

Get busy living.

(This article first appeared in the April 23, 2019, edition of The Clarksdale Press Register.)