Brian Blickenstaff

Writer | Editor

Looking back at 2015

What a year! 2015 was easily my best, most productive year as a writer. Here are the highlights.

 

I got things rolling in January with a story about Daniel Engelbrecht, a soccer player who almost died on the field due to a heart condition. He thought he would never play again, but after several surgeries and an implanted defibrillator, he made his comeback—and even scored. This was the first big story I ever reported in German.

 

I had more fun writing my story about Egil Ellis, the greatest sprint dog sledder of all time, than anything else I wrote in 2015. I learned that dogs are amazing. I couldn’t have done it without a couple American filmmakers who were gracious enough to introduce me to everyone I needed to know in order to write what became my favorite story of the year. I’m looking forward to their documentary.

 

I wrote several stories about technology and sports. Both my story on how injuries are changing in professional soccer and on how psychologists are trying to get players to think faster were fascinating to report.

 

Another topic I focused on was youth development in soccer. My story on Double Pass, a Belgian company hired by U.S. Soccer to help revamp U.S. Soccer’s developmental structure was my biggest scoop of the year.

 

My longest story was about the life of Julius Hirsch, a Jewish-German national team star who fought for Germany in World War I before being murdered in the Holocaust. The German Football Association now gives out an annual award in Hirsch’s name for work done to promote tolerance and inclusion in German soccer. This story was translated into at least four languages.

 

I spent more time reporting my story on Sportradar than I did anything else this year. The story was also probably my biggest success. Sportradar is a company that looks at how betting odds move for signs a game might be fixed. (The company does a lot of other things, too.) My story goes behind the scenes of one of the company's biggest successes in its fight against match-fixing.

 

The best piece I wrote was also the last thing I published in 2015: my story about Sepp Blatter’s home town. It was a real challenge. I went in with nothing. But I came away with a different understanding of Blatter, who is probably 2015’s most hated sports figure. I feel like this story was a big step forward for me. I hope it was, anyway.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

 

Here’s to things to come in 2016.

 

Story on Preston Zimmerman

In 2012, I wrote a 3000-word profile of Preston Zimmerman for the now-defunct XI Quarterly. Preston was an interesting guy. He was one of the top youth soccer players in his generation, but his career had taken a series of strange turns. At 23, he wasn't full of regret, but he wasn't content either. The story I wrote was a look at the thin margins at the top, and what it's like when a player realizes achieving his childhood dream hasn't made him happy. Not long after the story was published, Preston retired, walking away from professional soccer despite several lucrative offers to keep playing. 

Preston recently told me all about his decision to retire, and Deadspin was nice enough to run an updated version of my original story. You can read The Making and Unmaking of Preston Zimmerman, American Soccer Player here

Photos by Tom Sekula.


Soccer is back!

The new soccer season is here. I've started off with a few short pieces about the Bundesliga. 

For Deadspin, I wrote about the dissatisfaction surrounding Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.

For Fusion, I wrote about the Bundesliga's smallest club, the mighty SC Paderborn 07. I will be supporting Paderborn this season, because I'm a sucker for underdogs.

Also for Fusion, I wrote about Hamburg SV. One of German soccer's most storied clubs, HSV has fallen on hard times recently. It's also where Julian Green, the young, American hotshot, will spend the season playing on loan. 

What I'm Reading, August 2014

Books

Finished

  • The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt -- I thought it was excellent. The story took a long time to unfold but was very readable throughout. By page 500 I was unable to put it down. Recommended.
  • The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner -- Like The Goldfinch, the prose were amazing. A bunch of good sentences weren't enough for me though. I gave it more than 200 pages before putting it on my nightstand and forgetting to pick it back up. 

In Process

  • A Book of Migrations, by Rebecca Solnit 
  • The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson
  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

On Deck

  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
  • The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany, by David Blackbourn
  • A Secret History, by Donna Tartt

Articles

I read some great pieces over the last week or so. Here's a short list. I recommend all of them.

  • America is Not for Black People, by Greg Howard on Deadspin -- Greg (full disclosure) has edited a few stories of mine for Deadspin. His talent is on full display in this piece about race in America. It's the best thing I've read in the aftermath of Michael Brown's death.
  • I Come From Erfurt: Art and Darkness in a German Dollhouse, by Tom Christie in The Los Anegles Review of Books -- An essay on contemporary fascism in Germany. Funny, insightful, and frightening. I always like reading the work of other American writers in Germany.
  • Some Days You Just Want to Kill Yourself, by Chris Jones in Esquire -- In the wake of Robbin Williams' suicide, Esquire republished this brave story about the author's struggle with suicidal depression. 
  • Wheels of Fortune: The People’s Republic learns to drive, by Peter Hessler in The New Yorker -- Hessler is one of my favorite writers--maybe my favorite at The New Yorker. He's not flashy like so many contemporary writers try to be. He just has an incredible feel for a good story, and this is one, about driving in China, is one of my favorites.
  • Underworld, by Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ -- The author spends months in a Ohio coal mine. One of the best pieces of magazine journalism I've ever read. The characters are just so round.
  • Towheads: The Far-flung Adventures of a Tugboating Family, by Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker -- another fantastic piece of mag journalism. Bilger tells the story of an entrepreneurial tugboat family. Like Laskas' story, this one is full of great characters doing weird things.

Have you read any of the above? Have any good recommendations? Let me know. 

Writing and the World Cup

What a tournament! In addition to watching the consistently amazing matches, I spent much of the last three weeks furiously typing stories for a number of outlets, most recently Deadspin. At Deadspin, I wrote an essay about German patriotism and the World Cup, which is a much more complex issue than it might sound. I also wrote about a trip I took to Amsterdam, where I watched the Netherlands-Mexico round-of-16 match and had a series of strange experiences. 

For Pacific Standard, I reported on the power of the German national team as a symbol of inclusion in Germany.

I've also been busy at work for Fusion and Sports on Earth. I recommend you check out their World Cup coverage as well. 

Stay tuned and thanks for visiting. Much more to come. 

Notes from a Trip Abroad

My wife and I recently visited the United States for the first time in two years. We spent time with friends and family in four states, attended two weddings, ate some amazing food, and drank some great beer. In addition to enjoying ourselves, we noticed some things about America that were either different last time we were there or that we’d simply taken for granted before moving to Germany.

1) Where did all this IPA come from? Before I left for Germany, bars promoted Sierra Nevada as a kind of new thing, and there were only a few other IPAs available. On my trip, it seemed like I was lucky to find a beer that wasn’t an IPA, and at several bars the only beers they carried were brewed locally. In LA, I got served a Sierra Nevada in a tallboy can!

2) Boy did I miss Mexican food! I once got a “taco” in Germany that was pita bread with a pork schnitzel inside garnished with sauerkraut and lima beans. I wanted to cry. By contrast, if I had to, I could survive on burritos from Patty’s restaurant--the best burrito place in my home town--for the rest of my life, and I would still look forward to ever meal. The burritos were just as I remembered them.

3) Eavesdropping on people is a luxury. Although my German is coming along, jumping into a conversation without context or even just understanding the details of a conversation between two strangers on a train can be tricky. (And if the people are speaking dialect, forget it.) Stepping off the plane in the US and suddenly understanding everything without even trying wasn’t just nice, it was kind of relaxing.

4) Hipsters are everywhere. Yes, we have hipsters in Germany too, but they tend to keep to Berlin. (At least for now, that is. Rumor has it, Leipzig is the new Berlin.) The ones in Heidelberg are huge posers. The amount that downtown LA has changed to accommodate the hipsters and other middle-class (mostly) white folk was pretty amazing.

5) The US is really, really big. Americans take the size of the US for granted and Europeans don’t really appreciate just how big it is. From Frankfurt, you can fly to the farthest corners of Europe in about two hours. By contrast, when I flew from Charlotte to Chicago, it took two hours. But it wasn’t just the distance between places that struck me. The suburbs seemed vaster than I remembered them. And the streets seemed wider. Irene and I found one LA street so wide we stopped to take a picture.  

What I'm reading, April 2014

Having recently read Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I was completely blown away by, I moved on to his first book of short stories, DrownDrown is just as good as Oscar Wao. It's not quite as fantastical, and it's not as funny either, but it's so deep. Diaz is fast becoming one of my favorite writers.

I was particularly taken by Drown's first story, Ysrael, about two young brothers in the Dominican Republic who become fascinated with a disfigured kid. There's just so much to it, and it's so vivid. The last short story to hit me like Ysrael did was Refresh Refresh by Benjamen Percy. And that was years ago.

I've got Donna Tartt's Goldfinch on deck. I hear good things.

What have you been reading lately?

© 2014 Brian Blickenstaff

All Images courtesy of Tom Sekula.