By Adam Brown
HottyToddy.com’s Adam Brown sat down with former sports writer Billy Watkins who recently won the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, an award created in 1994 by the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration that honors writers for their impactful publications. Past winners include famous authors Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, Barry Hannah, John Grisham, Curtis Wilkie and Jesmyn Ward. Watkins discussed his time at Ole Miss and his love for sports and music.
Brown: If you would, start off by talking about how you got into journalism.
Watkins: I was in business. I was going to be a real estate and insurance person. And I kept falling asleep in class, and I kind of always had the writing bug and a love for sports … and I just kind of decided on a whim. I was a semester away from graduating. I just decided to see if it’d be possible for me to switch majors and get out in a reasonable amount of time. A professor sat down with me and charted a course. I had really taken everything I needed to except the journalism courses. I had not been a great student up until then—I wasn’t really fond of school as much as I maybe should have been—but once I got into journalism I just loved it. I loved the classes. I loved working at the Daily Mississippian. I just knew I had found my passion. Thank goodness it turned out to be the right decision for my life anyway. And that’s what I encourage students today—be willing to change. Don’t feel like you’re locked into something just because you’ve been doing it for two and a half years. You’re talking about a lifetime.
Brown: Could you talk to me about your love for sports and who you wrote about?
Watkins: I grew up reading “Sports Illustrated” and “Sport Magazine” and playing sports—typical Mississippi boy, just loved it all. And then, to get paid to go to games, I was like, ‘OK, I can do that,’ and it was a lot of fun. I’ve been very, very blessed to cover a lot of things—a lot of Super Bowls and Masters. Some of my favorite things to cover were high school football games on a Friday night. There’s nothing quite like that. Something about those lights when they come on and those kids come out there and they’re playing because they love it. They want to play with their teammates. I don’t know, there’s just something great about it. But I wouldn’t take anything for covering all the big stuff either. I was able to cover Eli’s (Manning) first Super Bowl win—to watch him grow up, then play here and to win that, that was a special thing for me to be there.
Brown: What does winning the Richard Wright Award mean to you?
Watkins: Well, when I got the letter, I really thought they had sent it to the wrong person. I didn’t see myself winning that at all. It’s an award that a couple of my friends before me had won—Rick Cleveland and Jerry Mitchell—and I had gone to one of the ceremonies and I had talked one time to Willie Morris about Richard Wright and how much respect he had for Richard, so I was totally blown away by being selected to win that, and a real humbling thing. I’m still in shock about it. I think it just means I’ve written a long time and I’m just old. [laughs]
Brown: Looking back at your career and knowing that you’ve gotten to cover many events from high school up to the Super Bowl, what’s some of your favorite games that you can remember?
Watkins: I think for a lot of reasons Eli’s Super Bowl was special. They beat the Patriots, who were going for a perfect season. The Mannings are such a great family—all of them—and I’m just so happy for Eli. That was a really big deal for me to be able to write about that and cover that. But there have been so many other football games. Back around ’78 or -9—I’m not entirely sure when—there was a game between West Kemper and Enterprise Clark, and it was in one of those little stadiums, and people lined up three rows around the field. West Kemper won 20-19; I can remember the score like it was yesterday. In a lot of ways, that game was just as much fun as the other one, the Super Bowl. It’s really hard to pick out a lot of individual games. For whatever reason, those two games stand out to me.
Brown: Could you talk to me about where you got your start? What paper did you go to after you left college?
Watkins: When I was up here, I was covering spring practice at Ole Miss and a running back named Michael Sweet hurt his knee, and Michael was a really good running back for Ole Miss. I did a story for the Daily Mississippian. But the next morning I called the Meridian Star—and that’s the paper I grew up reading—and I called the sports editor there—his name is Mac Gordon—and I said, ‘Look, I was the only media member there, nobody knows this, but Michael Sweet got hurt at practice. I don’t know how he’s gonna be for the season. Do you want a story?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great.’ So I became kind of a stringer for them, and as luck would have it, somebody was going back to school as I was getting out of school, and he was able to offer me a job. That was in December of ’75, and in ’78 I became sports editor—the sports editor, Mac, left—and then went to Jackson in ’82. I was just very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
Brown: Besides your love for sports, what other areas do you find interesting?
Watkins: I love to write about people. I believe everybody has a story; I really believe that, especially in Mississippi. I don’t know what it is about Mississippians. I feel like there’s something in the water. I don’t know. It’s just pretty easy to find a story. You don’t have to look very far. I stress to students that every story is really about people, whether it’s an income tax story or a water bill story or whatever, it’s really about people—how is it going to impact each person and that kind of thing. Even when I was in sports, I really was more interested in the players than I was in the final score. It was the players’ stories and what they had to go through to get on that field, and stuff like that—what they sacrificed to get on that field.
Brown: What advice would you give young journalists?
Watkins: Be accurate—number one, be accurate. The second thing, in writing, I think you really have to know your stuff. You really have to do as much research as possible and know as much as you can. I think you need to have fun with it. I don’t find the process of writing a lot of fun. It’s a necessary process to go through. It’s hard work, it’s exhausting, and some days it doesn’t go well. The format of delivering stories to people, it’s already changed so much just in the past 20 years, and the format is going to change again in the next 20 years. We’ll probably be laughing about the days of ‘dot com.’ I may not be around to see it, but there will come a time when ‘dot com’ is outdated and there’s a new platform to deliver stories. But the one thing that’s never going to change—ever—is that people love a good story. They love a good story, and if you can give that to them, whether it’s in a newspaper or a magazine or a ‘dot com’ or a blog they’re going to read it. So to me, that’s the thing to keep your eye on if you’re a young writer, is to keep your eye on the story and adjust to the platform and just remember the story, that’s what it’s about, not the platform.
Brown: Is there anything that I’ve left out that you might want to talk about?
Watkins: That’s a great question and one that 99 percent of writers do not ask. Just coming back today and being able to visit with students, being able to visit with Dr. Norton, it’s been a real joy for me to get to hang out with them some and see what bright students we have in Mississippi. I know some of them are from out of state and all, but just what a great future Ole Miss has with kids like that in school here, and I know that the journalism school is in great hands with Dr. Norton. I know that. I’m still learning just like anyone else, but I love what I do, and I know you love what you do, so that’s really the main thing. Today was a lot of fun.