Kindling an Emmy-winning talent
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Wayne Drehs, a University of Iowa alumnus and journalist for ESPN.com, still remembers his first attempt at a feature story.
“We had an English teacher at my high school that would always complain in class about how nobody would write for the school newspaper,” Drehs says. “To prove a point, I signed up.”
Drehs enjoyed sports, so he took his first assignment covering the sophomore football team at Addison Trail High School in Illinois. He conducted his first interviews, crafted his first story, and proudly submitted the piece to the English teacher who was begging for content.
The editing process didn’t go as expected.
“My teacher absolutely destroyed the story,” Drehs says. “He ripped it to shreds. He then showed my story to the entire class and essentially said, ‘this is how not to do journalism.’
“That lit a fire under me.”
The journalistic fire has sparked Drehs to the pinnacle of the sports journalism world. The Addison, Ill., native is in his 13th year at ESPN.com and has collected three Sports Emmys along the way.
All three Emmys honored massive multimedia projects produced by ESPN.com, with Drehs’ pinpoint prose as the centerpiece.
The first came in 2006 on a piece titled “ The Real Frozen Tundra” that described the challenges of competing in high school football in Alaska, from finding a competition field to flying in opponents.
The second, and most moving piece of the award winners, was in 2007 and titled “ Ray of Hope.” Jason Ray was a mascot at the University of North Carolina and died tragically after being struck by a car. Ray was an organ donor and the story follows each person that was given Ray’s organs.
The third was in 2008 and titled “ No Love Lost,” chronicling 10 generations of Chicago Cubs fans since their last World Series victory.
The Emmys, along with his national reputation as one of the best sports columnists in the business, led to another award for Drehs presented recently on the UI campus.
UI President Sally Mason presents a UI Distinguished Alumni Award to Wayne Drehs in June on the UI campus. Photo courtesy of Reggie Morrow.
Drehs, along with 11 other graduates, was named a UI Distinguished Alumnus at a luncheon in June. The award made the nationally known writer a little uncomfortable.
“I took some time to read the bios of the other people receiving the award,” Drehs says. “After reading those, I wanted to walk out of the room. There is one gentleman who was a wrestler at Iowa and was asked to bring back the Army Rangers program. All I do is write stories.”
Drehs has spent his entire life writing stories after honing his craft in Iowa City. He was passionate about athletics but knew he “didn’t have enough talent to actually be an athlete,” so he settled on writing about sports.
Once enrolled at the UI, Drehs immediately found a home at The Daily Iowan. The fire lit under him in high school was kindled in the real-world setting.
“The Daily Iowan is everything to me,” Drehs says. “The great thing about it is that it allows kids to practice real journalism every single day. I was able to attend Hayden Fry press conferences and basketball games with my notebook and recorder, just like everybody else.”
Drehs was learning the daily routines of a journalist while working at the paper, but his skills as a feature writer were shaped by two different influences at Iowa—a professor and a step outside of the journalistic comfort zone.
“I took a magazine reporting class with Steve Bloom and he really taught me a lot,” Drehs says. “He taught me to think bigger and think of stories from a feature sense, not a news sense. He helped me push my writing to another level.
“I also took a bunch of nonfiction writing classes that weren’t a part of the journalism school,” Drehs says. “Most of them were taught by graduate students who were at Iowa for the Writers' Workshop. Those classes put a huge stick of dynamite into the journalistic writing rules I had been taught. We just wrote and tried to be creative.”
Drehs held internships at the Omaha World-Herald and the Dallas Morning News. In Dallas, he earned his chance with ESPN.
He was covering inner-city high school football in Dallas, and the paper published an anniversary story on the significance of the sport in the state of Texas. Drehs saw a name that looked familiar and decided to pursue it.
The name was David Overstreet, a legendary football player who received a scholarship at Oklahoma and was a high NFL draft pick. Overstreet had died in a car accident in 1984. One of the high school players that Drehs was covering shared the same name.
It was Overstreet’s son.
David Overstreet Jr. was two years old when his namesake died. He had no memories of his father.
“The kid had pictures of his dad around the house but had no idea who he was,” Drehs says. “But when he played, he had some of the same style and flash as his dad. It was the first time the paper ran one of my features on the front page.”
When Drehs decided to apply for an opening at ESPN.com, he used the Overstreet story as the featured clip with his resume.
“That clip got me my interview with ESPN, and the interview went well,” Drehs says. “That’s how it happened.”
Drehs may have won prominent awards while at ESPN.com, but hardware isn’t why he’s in the business. He wants to tell compelling stories and has done so time and again on an international stage.
“Ray of Hope” was regenerated in numerous places, including the Oprah Winfrey Show. The story inspired approximately 50,000 people to become organ donors.
“The average donor can save four lives,” Drehs says. “You are potentially talking about 200,000 lives that could be saved. That’s not the reason you write stories, but the impact can be a great benefit.”
The impact of his stories reach far and wide, but Drehs is hoping he can help impact future journalists in the classroom. He often speaks to aspiring journalists, whether in high school or college, about his experiences in the field.
“I love speaking to classes and working with students,” Drehs says. “One of the ideas on my list of things to do is to teach for a semester or a year somewhere. I enjoy it so much, and there is so much to share.”
Drehs remembers what it was like hearing from real journalists in the classrooms at Iowa, soaking in as much knowledge and expertise as possible.
“We need more people teaching journalism that have been in the trenches and live it every day,” Drehs says. “Nothing brought journalism more to life than sitting in a classroom with a professor that had done journalism for a living. That’s something I want to give back to students who are as hungry for journalism as I was.”
The trip back for the distinguished alumni luncheon gave Drehs time to reflect on his experiences at Iowa and what the university meant to him. The UI allowed a young student with a fire for journalism the chance to pursue a dream.
“The University of Iowa is a special place,” Drehs says. “I met my wife there. My dog has a Hawkeye collar. I have my dream job and an amazing family. That’s all from the decision to attend Iowa."