BY TYLER BRADFIELD | Ball State Sports Link
How in the world did this happen?
Stringing together the correct words to answer this simple, self-imposed question still remains a struggle.
Saturday, June 18, 2017. Downtown Cleveland.
I found myself knee-locked on a stage wearing my favorite, navy suit. The same suit I had purchased roughly nine months ago using my first paycheck from my new Graduate Assistantship with Ball State Sports Link. Directly in front, a microphone emerged from the base of the floor as blinding lights fixated straight into my line of sight.
Beyond those lights, over four hundred individuals filled a large, awards banquet hall. However, from the stage, they remained unseen due to the beams of lights. Resisting a big smile, I wore a slight squint to shield my overly sensitive eyes from the lights.
Despite the four hundred people in the room remaining unseen, I knew the focus had shifted to us. Quickly glancing out of my peripheal vision to a large screen on my left, I caught a glimpse of myself shown by a camera somewhere out in the sea of light. Yep, they were all, indeed, patiently waiting for me to start talking. This was our moment.
No one fully understands just how overwhelming that moment is, how blinding those lights are and how big that adrenaline rush is until they have stood on that stage.
I have plenty of practice delivering speeches, from public speaking classes through college, to even a wedding reception as the Best Man in my friend’s wedding. Besides, I did, in fact, go to college to pursue a career in broadcasting, which has led me to broadcasting games on the television and radio for several years now. Speeches are not a foreign concept to me, and quite frankly, public speaking has never filled me with unbearable anxiety.
As part of my play-by-play job with Ball State Athletics, I have hosted banquets, alumni events, hall of fame inductions, community events and even given a handful of acceptance speeches at various award conferences. This moment and atmosphere should not be new to me.
Slightly off to my left and staggered behind stood a familiar face, fellow Sports Link member and close friend, Connor Nichols.
Together, we produced the SL Featured, “Dear Teddy” – The Teddy Williamson Story, in 2016. That story has led us to similar moments, sharing an awards stage and an acceptance speech in Las Vegas and Atlanta garnering hardware for national awards for feature storytelling.
But, for some reason, this stage, and this moment seemed different.
A year ago, I was nominated for my first professional Emmy as a feature story producer for my SL Featured, “Broken” – The Andrew Stutz Story, and by the grace of God, I won.
Talk about an overwhelming moment. I walked up the stage, resisting that same smile, and accepted the award with a brief acceptance speech.
I hadn’t fully stepped back stage and my phone was already in hand, texting and calling my parents trying to find the air to say, I did it.
In my climb into the broadcasting and television industry, I have been fortunate to experience and witness countless breath-taking moments.
I’ve interviewed some of the biggest names in sports: Tom Brady, Paul George, Craig Sager to name a few. I’ve sat court side at the NCAA Tournament. I’ve been to the other side of the world. I’ve stood on Lucas Oil’s turf and interviewed Eli Manning days before he would win his second Super Bowl on that very surface.
All of those moments took my breath away, for sure, but it is hard to prepare for the moment you hear, “And the Emmy goes to… Tyler Bradfield.”
“Whoa… An Emmy?… Me!?… No?… Can’t be?… This has to be a mistake.”
It was overwhelming, no doubt, but in an honest moment, even after a year, it never fully registered. It seemed almost like an error or a mistake. Parts even remain a blur.
No one thinks they’re bound to win an Emmy. Some work their entire life in the television industry in pursuit of these gold statues, and at 22-years-old, here I was holding one with my name on it.
Humbled? Beyond! … Stunned? Yes! … Shocked? You bet so!
A part of me wishes I could time hop back to 2008 and tell that 14-year-old, less than confident, unsure freshmen walking the halls of Pendleton Heights High School to an intro radio class, “Hey, pay attention now, this will lead to an Emmy.” I’m sure he would have laughed at the seemingly outlandish comment.
Even a year later, when occasionally introduced on the air or to a group of people as an “Emmy Award Winner,” it still doesn’t sound right. I usually awkwardly laugh at the title in attempt to ignore it and write it off.
Emmy Award Winner?
How in the world did this happen?
So, here we are, right back at the exact same awards, the Regional Emmys. This year hosted at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown.
The Emmys operate under the direction of the “National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences” (NATAS). Since Emmy Awards are given in various sectors of American television, they are presented in different ceremonies held throughout the year.
Emmys are viewed as television’s equivalent to the Academy Awards (film), Grammy Awards (music) and Tony Awards (stage). The most notable are the national Emmys due to their media coverage from the four major networks, those being the Primetime Emmys and the Daytime Emmys.
Regional Emmys on the other hand, operate under regional chapters located across the country. Each chapter conducts awards to recognize excellence in all the regional television markets.
Regardless of winning on a national or regional level, all recipients are recognized by the NATAS as “Emmy Award Winners,” a title used in the television industry as validation.
The Lower Great Lakes Chapter blankets Central Indiana. The blanket encompasses Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania including the Indianapolis market, Cleveland market, among 11 other television markets across the three states.
The nominees were released in April, and just like the year prior, I was again holding off an ear-to-ear smile staring at not one, but two nominations this year:
- Professional – Sports Feature/Segment
- Professional – Video Journalist, Unlimited Time
I viewed last year as a once in a lifetime opportunity. When the two nominations came in this year, in a way, it was the exact same feeling all over again, just a year later.
The two nominations were for the aforementioned SL Featured, “Dear Teddy.” A story casually brought to our attention during a meeting with former Ball State Football Coach Pete Lembo in the summer of 2015, but not fully pursued until July 2016.
We approached Teddy with the idea of maybe doing a story about his relationship with his father.
Teddy’s father, Ted Williamson, Sr., spent a majority of Teddy’s childhood in federal prison. In attempt to provide for his family he became involved with illegal matters. The consequences forced Ted to miss his son’s childhood — including his entire high school football career where he excelled to becoming a sought after recruit.
While in prison, he was forced to watch his son’s college football career from a television screen in a prison cell as opposed to being in the stands.
Ted has since been released on parole. As the two rekindle their relationship, he owns his own towing company and used car lot in their hometown, Ferguson, Missouri. The same area nationally known for reaching prominence following the riots after the Michael Brown shooting in 2014.
One of the biggest obstacles storytellers face when trying to assemble a feature is gaining access and trust from the subjects.
With the current media landscape revolving around instantaneous breaking news and “gotcha journalism,” a wall has divided athletes and media members. The media industry has reached a point where reporters are selfishly scouring the field for breaking news to grow their own personal brand and Twitter following, rather than approaching a story and subjects with a caring heart.
Athletes and subjects in turn have become guarded in fear the media may cross their words and frame them in a faulty light. Somewhere along the line, the industry has religiously clung to an ethical standard in which, it is seen as biased reporting to hold anything off the record from the viewers.
Sure, I believe in good journalism. Biased reporting is not good. Conflicting interests lead to inaccurate stories. Manipulation is altercation.
However as a storyteller, you’re just one person trying to tell another person’s story to the world. Sometimes it’s okay to slap a few hands and share a few meals. The subject has to trust you to tell their story. We’re people, not robots.
Put yourself in the shoes of the subject. Who would you trust? Would you open up to a reporter barging into your home with a camera, or someone who sits down and says, “Hey, I think your story could help others, want to get lunch and talk about the idea?”
Prior to shooting a single piece of footage, conducting a single interview, or even pursuing the story in the slightest way, we met with Teddy without cameras or microphones. It was just a conversation about his life and an idea. Cameras and microphones lead to an unnatural exchange and a guarded subject. If the exchange is unnatural, isn’t that in a way manipulation?
Shouldn’t you create a natural bond before attempting to step into an unnatural environment with cameras and microphones? Allow the subject to open up without those walls before you ask them to look into the lens of a camera and answer, “What was the lowest point in your journey?” It will lead to more natural responses and a more accurate representation of the subjects.
The subjects also have to be open to the idea for the story to be successful. A reporter can narrate and list as many facts as possible. However, it can detract the personal connection between the subject and viewer, consequently decreasing the story’s emotional impact. The storyteller is just the bridge between the subject and viewer.
A reporter at no point played a role in the course of the subject’s life. So, why should a reporter insert themselves into a story? A reporter, in my eyes, should ask engaging questions, then get out of the way, and let the subject tell the viewer their story. Yes, I am a fan of reporter involvement in stories, but the best act as the avenue and bridge, not a character within the story. That’s good storytelling and journalism.
The camera-less meetings with Teddy were simple.
“Teddy, we know bits and pieces of your relationship with your father, his past legal troubles, and how it has shaped you. We think we could help you tell this story. We think it may even help inspire others experiencing similar hardships. We aren’t here to paint you or your father out to be the villain. We think you have a fascinating story, and we would be honored to tell it in a way that makes both proud.”
We’ve been asked numerous times, “How did you get the access into the tow truck?” and “How did you get those answers out of your subjects?”
Teddy and his father didn’t know us from Adam. We were two total strangers walking into their life. Why in the world should they trust us to tell their life story revisiting years of pain, hardship and divide?
So, before we filmed a single interview or asked any questions on camera, we walked a mile in their shoes. We planted ourselves into their lives. We spent time with them to build a relationship and trust without cameras in a natural environment.
Walk a mile in someone’s shoes and it is a little easier to see their perspective.
Ride around Ferguson, Missouri, in a tow truck with a man recently released from federal prison with no camera or notepad, just you and him. Talk life with him for a day, walk a mile in his shoes. Life looks a little differently.
Not saying I support Ted’s past decisions or can even begin to reason with why he made the decisions he did, but I can at least understand a little. He was just trying to provide for his family, aren’t we all? I think any human being can relate with that. Just the way he chose to provide may be a little different than another.
We weren’t there to judge them. We weren’t there to uncover facts from the trial. We were just there to tell their story. That’s it.
There is a certain responsibility a storyteller assumes when walking into a person’s life and the subject looks at them and says, “Here’s my story, now take it, and tell it to the couple thousand people who will watch.” Always take that responsibility seriously.
In a way, storytellers act partially like therapists.
Teddy and his father hadn’t shared the complete story with many people. They hadn’t even addressed it in detail amongst each other since Ted’s release being the type to suppress feelings. As we started to ask questions such as “Are you proud of your father?” and “Why did you do it?” and “What was the lowest point?” It afforded each a chance to express themselves, talk to a complete stranger, and expose their bandaged emotional wounds for the first time.
I’ll never forget riding in the car, just Teddy and I, in Ferguson after a day of filming and emotional interviews and he said, “I really appreciate all you’re doing. This is the first time we have really addressed it as a family. It’s a little like therapy, thanks for not judging us.”
We followed this philosophy through the entire process of the story. We are just one human being telling another human being’s story.
So how did we learn about Klondike Park and the cliff? How did we capture that moment of Teddy sitting on the cliff where he would escape life during high school?
Teddy said, “Hey, I have this place I want to show you. I never told my family about it, but I think you’d like to see it.”
“Okay?” After an unplanned, hour drive later, here we are.
Teddy climbed up the cliff as our cameras remained below capturing footage of the scenery. I climbed up with him. Without a camera or microphone near, I asked out of curiosity, “What’s on your mind being back here?”
That simple question led to a conversation.
A few minutes later, I asked if he was comfortable wearing a microphone and having a few cameras pointed at him just to capture this moment. Take your time, don’t let the cameras ruin this moment of you and I sitting out here. I didn’t look at Teddy face-to-face like a normal interview; it was too much of a natural moment to look at him. We wanted the footage to reflect the moment. There was no need to stage it, just let it happen.
Be a person willing to listen. Don’t be a reporter with a notepad and a Twitter feed religiously abiding to some ethical standard chasing “gotcha journalism.” There is a place for that in this world, yes, but on a cliff in an emotional conversation with a stranger about forgiving his dad is not the spot. I had nothing in my hands during the “interview,” I just asked about things I was curious about after riding in the tow truck with his father and being around them.
I knew the story. A list of questions would have ruined the moment. I just listened and followed up out of curiosity, while Connor reacted with the camera and captured the moment.
Sometimes 30-45 seconds sat between Teddy finishing talking and me asking a follow up question. The breath-taking view filled the awkwardness as we both processed everything.
Entering the post-production editing phase, it was demanding. All-nighters, sleepless nights and arguments fueled by frustrations became our routine for about two weeks straight.
We had gathered over 12 hours of footage from interviews to creative video shoots and candids. The family had completely welcomed us into their lives and poured their hearts out to us. Now, Connor and I had to take everything, condense it down to 12 minutes, and retell it.
That’s a little overwhelming. That’s a big responsibility. Where do you even start? Do you start with the first game Ted saw Teddy play in college after being released? Do you start with the cliff? Do you start at the beginning and work chronologically? Do we work backwards? Should we just come right out and say it? Should we start with Teddy reading a letter his father wrote to him while in prison? Where do we end?
You can see where the arguments started to occur. I would see it one way, and Connor would have a totally different vision. Neither opinion was wrong, it was just frustrating as we reasoned through it. There were many nights we would take a short break from editing to talk to our girlfriend’s on the phone for a few minutes before they fell asleep. We would resume editing, and the next thing we knew, they were texting us as they woke up for classes.
This was our life for a few weeks.
Through it we strengthened our storytelling. We stretched our creative bounds as we deciphered through shots, cuts, and edits. A few times at 4:00am, we would stop to do 25 push ups and walk to the vending machines, just to get some blood flowing in order to stay awake. We made friends with the janitor who worked the third shift as he entered nightly to replace the trashcan liners.
During those two weeks in late November and early December, our final thoughts didn’t involve standing on an awards stage in June. But through the arguments and all-nighters, it forged a friendship with Connor and I. We had worked together before, but nothing this in depth and strenuous. Outside of a few naps and hour breaks for classes, we were together every moment for about two weeks straight.
Many times I would lay down in bed for one of my short naps; ideas of how we can transition from one topic to the next flooded my mind. At times, it felt like we had gone to war with this story.
I learned so much from Connor in those two weeks, and I hope he can say the same about me.
Do I enjoy watching the finished piece? Yeah, but I notice subtle things as opposed to being able to just enjoy the whole story like a casual viewer. When putting together a story, you get so caught up in the fine details of the different branches and leaves, it is difficult to step back and appreciate the whole tree upon completion. That’s the life of a producer.
However, we hope others watch it and walk away respecting the family. We hope you walk away understanding life through their eyes with an appreciation for the adversity. We hope you can learn a thing — or two — about forgiveness. We certainly did.
Teddy’s story is no different than any other story. At the most basic root, the story is about a father who loves his son, and was attempting to provide for him. The circumstances and decisions were just a little different is all.
We knew the story was impactful, but we were unaware to the degree it would personally impact our lives and career supplementary.
The story released and aired in December. A few months later, the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) selected “Dear Teddy” from a pool of over 1,450 entries to receive their “Best of the Film Festival” award.
A few weeks later, Connor and I are on a plane flight out to Las Vegas with our instructor, Chris Taylor (“CT”), for the BEA conference to accept the award.
Prior to the awards show in Vegas, Connor and I met with the guy who would be presenting us the award.
He gushed over his affection for the story and how he thought it could air in a major market right now.
In search of some constructive criticism and advice, I asked how would he change the story to improve it? Perhaps shorten it here? Tell this section in a different way? Remove this camera shot? Rewrite this part?
After a brief pause, he looked at us, and suggested in a serious tone, “You know, if you could get Tom Rinaldi to voice it…”
Tom Rinaldi is an ESPN reporter widely known for his work on the E:60 series. Many across the industry see Rinaldi as the standard for sports feature storytelling with his constant tear-jerking stories, interviewing skills, and always spot on narration. So do we.
A few months later, the Sports Video Group (SVG) also nominated “Dear Teddy” for the nation’s “Outstanding Special Feature” in their annual College Sports Media Awards.
With the conference in Atlanta, that meant another trip, another hotel stay and another awards show. This year hosted coincidentally by Tom Rinaldi.
Nominated against stories from Florida State and several other universities across the country, Connor and I once again found ourselves standing on a stage accepting an award for feature storytelling. Except this time, we were accepting it from the master of storytelling himself, Tom Rinaldi.
Ironically, prior to the awards, Tom had been a part of the keynote speech where he spent a small portion offering advice about giving and receiving criticism within the industry.
So, in attempt to get a few laughs, of course we retold the story about the guy in Vegas suggesting we get Rinaldi to voice “Dear Teddy” during the acceptance speech. I looked back at Rinaldi from the podium after the story and jokingly said over the microphone, “So, if we could get that voiceover done, that would be great.”
Talk about a thrill. We had just won the nation’s Outstanding Special Feature. Here we are, on a stage accepting it from the industry standard for storytelling, and telling him a story. Pretty surreal, and standing right next to me for both was Connor, someone who had become one of my closest friends through this whole experience.
How in the world did all this happen?
Then came the Emmy Awards.
If you’ve never been to the Emmys before, it is a loooooooooong ceremony. Long! Like real long.
The first of our two nominations finally came up… Video Journalist.
“And the Emmy goes to… Tyler Bradfield.”
Whoa… We had done it.
I had been here before, just a year ago, but this year everything just seemed different for some reason. Which made no sense internally. It was the same stage as last year, the same award. Why did it seem so different?
Maybe my perspective had changed?
For me, it was my second Emmy. For Connor, it was his first.
Last year, it was totally shocking. It never fully registered. I felt out of place. Sure, I was humbled, but amongst a large pool of talented individuals, it felt like a mistake. I had no business as a 22-year-old, recent college graduate, being nominated against Fox Sports Ohio, the Cleveland Browns, WRTV 6 and Fox 59 in Indianapolis. Let alone winning? Besides, there is a student division, isn’t that where I should be with the rest of our peers, not competing against professionals? I felt so out matched and out of place.
I stood up and looked at Connor after they announced we had won, “Come on, you’re coming with me.”
Although my name was the only name on the award, as the “journalist” of the piece, I explained during the acceptance speech this Emmy belongs to both of us. A journalist in our eyes isn’t someone who just goes out into the field, conducts interviews, and reports. No, a journalist is someone who can pick up a camera and tell a story through the lens of a camera in the way they film, shoot or edit something. That is Connor Nichols to a “T.” He’s one of the best. Sure, for the sake of the award category, I was the “journalist” who sat down and did the interviewing, but Connor was there every step of the way. This story is just as much his, as it is mine, and that’s why we share this award.
I finished thanking Connor and the many friends from Ball State who were in attendance for sharing this moment and memory.
We turn and step back stage.
We get back stage, and that was the biggest rush ever. Some of it remains a blur. We signed the papers and were directed to a photographer for pictures.
While with the photographer, we received a text. Our second nomination (Sports Feature/Segment) followed a few categories after our first. We had won it, too! Connor sprinted back out to the banquet hall from backstage and ran up to the stage. He accepted the award for us. I never got to see his speech being backstage with the photographer. Next thing I know, he’s walking around the corner with two more of these gold statues, one with his name as the “Co-Producer,” one with my name as the “Executive Producer.”
We start smiling and hug each other. We did it. Swept our nominations. From BEA in Las Vegas, to Atlanta for the College Sports Media Awards, and now the Emmys in Cleveland. Whoa… What a journey and a whirlwind to process.
After a year, and now three Emmys, it started to register. I received a text from my old roommate and former Sports Linker, Dillon Welch, and it finally hit home.
“Congrats, you don’t just walk into three Emmys.”
Maybe last year wasn’t a mistake? Maybe we did belong here? Maybe we can do this? Maybe we do have a future in this?
“Emmy Award Winner” is a title in this industry thrown around as validation. It hangs with you the rest of your career. No, it doesn’t determine success.
Some of the most successful and qualified producers and reporters never garner a single Emmy. It doesn’t equate to a guaranteed job. However, the industry uses Emmys as a term of validating measurements.
To have our names associated with that title and be classified into that category is a surreal feeling and beyond humbling.
There are many deserving people we didn’t get a chance to thank from the stage. Besides, we firmly believe awards are more a representation of those behind the scenes such as teachers and mentors fostering opportunities, teaching and guiding than those actually on the stage accepting. Especially, when you tackle a feature story, so many people see it, touch it, and suggest changes before it’s released. It is impossible to assume full credit. These belong to those people as well.
If Chris Taylor, Alex Kartman, Brad Dailey of Ball State Sports Link don’t invest so many hours and resources into us then we aren’t on that stage. If our high school teachers at Pendleton Heights and Brownsburg don’t fuel a passion at a young age, we aren’t there either.
We owe our parents a ton. If they don’t lend us supportive hands and affirmation in pursuit of our dreams, this doesn’t happen.
But, most importantly we owe Teddy and his father. Without their willingness to share the story and trust in our ability to tell it, this doesn’t happen. They lived it. We just told it. Internally, it seems a little strange benefiting and receiving recognition from someone else’s misfortune. As much as we tried to implant ourselves into their lives to understand, we will never fully comprehend just how difficult, straining, and challenging those years were for both of them. To Teddy and his family, thank you!
So, what did I personally learn from this whole experience as I’ve tried to reason through the question from the start?
Well, I learned to embrace the journey and focus less on the destination.
As someone who was hesitant to return to Ball State after graduation for two additional, unplanned years of graduate school, this past year was an internal battle.
Grad school was never in the plan. At times I struggled to come to grips with it. Rather than seeing it as I was fortunate to be able to stay, I fell into the trap of viewing it as I was forced to stay. I focused on the date I’d have my Master’s degree as opposed to enjoying the two-year journey to graduation.
I was overly focused on the destination. I’ve always been wired to think this way.
It is beneficial to have goals, yes, but I learned it’s okay to slow down, look around and embrace the journey. You’ll find yourself in life’s most breath-taking moments surrounded by some of the world’s greatest people.
You may find yourself riding in a tow truck in Ferguson with a man recently released from federal prison discussing perspectives on life. You perhaps, may find yourself sitting on a cliff sharing an emotional conversation with a stranger about forgiving his father.
If you’re so focused on the destination, those all-nighters spent editing will blow right by you. You’ll miss out on the opportunity to make a friendship.
It is okay to embrace the journey. Sometimes you find yourself accepting an award from one of your idols like Tom Rinaldi. Sometimes you find yourself in Las Vegas for the first time in your life.
Sometimes the journey leads you backstage of the Emmys, jumping up and down in celebration, and taking pictures with these gold statues.
I take my work seriously and assume the responsibilities of a storyteller seriously, yes, but I also learned through this to never take myself too seriously.
It is okay to laugh at yourself from time to time. It is okay to ask for criticism from a janitor at 3:00 in the morning if this cut between two shots looks awkward. It is alright to point, laugh, and share a smile while dancing on the deck of a Vegas pool, hours before an acceptance speech. It’s life, it’s television, it’s sports, it’s exciting so just enjoy it.
Always take the work seriously, but never take yourself too seriously.
These moments could have happened to anyone. Anyone could have pitched this story and produced it. We were lucky and extremely fortunate. Never take that fortune for granted.
But, ultimately these Emmys gave me perspective.
You may see these Emmys as success; you may view these gold statues as validation. As cool as they are, to me, they are just awards.
Are we the first professional Emmy Winners from Ball State? No. Will we be the last? No, I sure hope not. We’re just two kids in a pipeline of a successful program.
And those? Well, those are just gold statues that happen to have our names on them.
To me, success is defined differently. Awards are just pieces of hardware, without friends to share the moment and memory, they really don’t hold much meaning outside of a title or a line on a resume.
Success to me is being able to share that moment backstage with Connor. Success is being able to say thanks to CT, Kartman, Brad, and my high school teachers for not only the support, but also the friendships over the years. Success is measured by being trusted to tell the story in the first place, not by a gold statue.
I see success as embracing the journey.
Sure, I’ll probably still awkwardly laugh the next time I’m introduced as an Emmy Award Winner to a group or on the air. But, those memories, moments, and friendships surrounding it validate success in my eyes more than a tossed-around industry title.
I may never receive a fourth nomination or a fourth gold statue in my career, and if I do, well, I anticipate the feeling to be the exact same. Regardless of the number, it still feels like a once in a lifetime moment.
In the meantime, at least I’ll always have the memories from these three because this could have happened to anyone.
So, three-time Emmy Award Winner…
How in the world did that happen?
I guess, it was just a journey from Ferguson to Cleveland, including the many unplanned stops in between, full of moments that took my breath away.