As the best of North Carolina and South Carolina’s high-school football teams were battling it out on the field at the Shrine Bowl last month, the cream of a different crop was proving her mettle on the sidelines.
Ashley Starnes of Raleigh was selected as one of two student correspondents for the Shrine Bowl, an annual event that showcases star athletes while raising money for the Shriners Hospitals for Children. Ashley, a senior at Millbrook High School, and her counterpart from South Carolina covered every aspect of the game, from practices and play-by-play at the big event to human-interest stories about the people behind the scenes.
For a week prior to the Dec. 21 bowl, she kept a schedule that would make even a seasoned sports reporter reach for the coffee pot: at breakfast with the football players by 7:30 a.m., chasing stories and doing interviews all day, then writing and producing a multipage newsletter every single night, often not seeing her bed until after 2 a.m.
“It was definitely really hard work, and it started as soon as I got there,” she said. “I got there, set down my bags in a hallway and started interviewing people.”
The biggest story, of course, was the game itself (in which South Carolina edged out North Carolina 28-23), and it was also her biggest challenge.
“Writing about the game was definitely a challenge for me, because I’ve never had to write a sports article like that,” Ashley said. She’s the features section editor for Millbrook’s newspaper, Cat Talk, but it publishes only every six weeks, so articles tend to steer away from specific events that quickly become outdated. “I’m used to having plenty of time to write my articles, so it was challenging to have to crank them out every day. But I guess that’s more comparable to how actual journalists have to work on stricter deadlines.”
Behind the scenes story
Her favorite story, however, was set far from the football field. She interviewed Tyrone Johnson, a police sergeant who is head of security for the Shrine Bowl and also the father of 6-year-old Tyraina Johnson, the Shrine Bowl Queen and a one-time patient at a Shriners hospital. Tyraina was born with shortened Achilles’ tendons, which required years of casts and physical therapy before she could walk.
“As I talked to him, he began to open up about how special his daughter was,” Ashley said. “… He began to tear up, and it made me start to tear up. Because now she can run, she can ride her bike, she wants to be a track star. He’s a track coach, and I’m a track runner, so I’m like, ‘that’s just so awesome.’”
From her week covering the Shrine Bowl, Ashley said she brought home new skills she can put to work at her school paper.
“I learned how to connect with people,” she said. “That was a skill I was kind of lacking, I guess. I could talk to people, but I had to talk to so many different types of people at the Shrine Bowl.”
Ashley, who describes herself as an introvert, said she also got more comfortable talking to people she had never met before and got some good practice in finding the right questions to ask.
“By the end of the week, just talking to people in normal conversations I was always thinking about journalism and the newsletter,” she said, recounting an off-duty conversation she had with a football player’s mother that ended in her asking if she could quote something the mother said.
But most of all, she said, it was her conversation with the police officer that really stuck with her.
“After talking to Sgt. Johnson, I realized that I could help the athletes and the staff realize why they were there in the first place,” she said. “I could help them know the true meaning behind the game, and I could shape them and connect with them as well and learn people’s stories. As a journalist, I had access to all these things and I realized how much of a role I actually could have there.”