NARROWSBURG, NY — For well-known sports writer/photographer Richard Ross, the realm of athletic competition is a metaphor for life. Richard Ross in action with his trusty Canon DSLR Along …
NARROWSBURG, NY — For well-known sports writer/photographer Richard Ross, the realm of athletic competition is a metaphor for life.
Along the way, you win some, lose a few and, other times, you strike out in the bottom of ninth of the championship game, with the deck stacked and the winning run poised on the hot corner.
While many sports scribblers are content with reporting the score and, for a dash of spice, a couple of stats, Ross tends to delve deeper into the meat of the saga, exploring what really makes high school sports tick.
He keeps a focus on the youthful players as they find their own way on a team, discover themselves as scholar athletes and learn what it takes to give it everything you have, until the gauge is on empty, and you’re running on fumes at the finish line.
“Sports are the theatre of life,” said Ross, who garnered the New York Press Association’s (NYPA) coveted Sports Writer of the Year award in 2008.
At that annual convention of statewide reporters and photographers, he recalled the moment when one of the big guns from Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) singled out his work from the sports pages of The River Reporter to, in essence, demonstrate to the assemblage of sports-writers, “This is how it’s really done. Covering sports is a lot more than ‘What did you think of the game coach?’”
Asked what fuels his passion for sports, Ross replied, “In a lot of ways I feel like I’m carrying a 17-year-old within me… His presence has enabled me to relate to young people with a great degree of understanding and compassion.”
“My intention in writing and photographing sports is greater than reporting the details… It’s far more global." — Richard Ross
Before becoming a sports writer/photographer, he worked as an elementary school teacher at P.S. 282 in Brooklyn from 1968 to 1985. During his time there, he was employed as an educational consultant for strategies in teaching reading. He moved on to teach English and journalism at Livingston Manor Central School from 1986 to 2002. Not content to let his pen sit idle, Ross became the sports and youth editor at The River Reporter for seven years starting in 2002, and in 2009 embraced his entrepreneurial spirit by founding Sports Insights NY Photography. In 2015, he joined the staff of the Sullivan County Democrat, a family-run newspaper established in 1891, as a freelance sportswriter.
Reflecting on what makes his brand of sports coverage stand out from the rest of the pack, Ross said he vividly recalls the emotional times of growing up—that transitional period when we move from child to adult.
“I love kids, for, indeed, I am one,” Ross admitted in a self-revelatory moment, adding, “I talk to them about their endeavors and seek to affirm their efforts in my writing. I’ve always had this great rapport with kids,” adding that his teenage psyche “has never aged a day.”
Ross noted that, along the way, he’s run in a couple of New York City marathons. In the aftermath of open-heart surgery in 2014, he has logged several hundred miles in the pool as one way of overcoming adversity on the way to recovery.
“I have this great passion for sports,” he said. “They are far more than games of skill with their inherent details and outcomes, they are the enactment of so much more of the human experience. They embody courage, perseverance, competitive spirit, elation and disappointment.” According to Ross, what young athletes learn on the fields-of-play mirrors life itself, as they are “enmeshed in experiences that have resonance” long after the final buzzer or, perhaps, their careers in high school sports. “Within the context of games, matches and races lies the potential for greater learning about oneself and about the realities of life,” he added.
One thing that really rankles Ross and ruffles his journalistic feathers is the notion that sports coverage can be summed up with the oft-heard query, “What did you think of the game, coach, and what’s your record?”
While that technique is a quick-and-dirty form of getting the story—”just the facts, nothing but the facts”— it’s doesn’t really tell the whole story of what’s behind the curtain backstage.
“By the time people read a newspaper, they (already) know the score,” he explained. “I have a larger sense of what it is. I’m fascinated by it, every game, every event has a story of its own, and then there’s how the players and coaches deal with the unpredictability of what will happen. Every game is a separate life entity, not just a minute-by-minute chronology of it.
“My intention in writing and photographing sports is greater than reporting the details… It’s far more global. It’s about character, the competitive spirit of human beings, disappointment, along with the ability to rise above the hard knocks life can dish out, and dealing with adversity, something I know a great deal about from my own personal experience.”
Ross said he’s been a writer all his life, but after getting into the realm of local high school sports, he had to learn a few photography tricks. Through shooting sports, he was recognized by the NYPA for Best Sports Action Photo and Best Sports Feature Photo, along with first-place awards for best column and best sports coverage.
Since 2005, he has been honored by the Basketball Coaches Association of New York (BCANY) with their Golden Media Award for Outstanding Coverage of Scholastic Basketball. In 2008, Ross received the NYS Athletic Administrators Association award for Outstanding Coverage of Section IX Athletics.
“Sports photography is capturing that moment, freezing it,” said Ross. “Part of what I’m in is the memory business, that will endure far beyond the life of the game. [You] can look back on the pictures and re-read the stories, and those moments will come back to life again. I think that kids in particular need to be reminded of the values of their experiences, in a time where there is so much emphasis placed on winning.”
Ross has a dim view of the pervasive belief that winning is everything in today’s society, as exemplified in film, entertainment, politics—essentially across all strata of life.
“It’s always about winning, winning, winning… Either you’re a winner, or you’re a loser. If kids don’t win, they think they aren’t successful,” he said.
As a counterpoint to this way of thinking, Ross addresses what he considers to be the real meaning of success, both through his writing and interactions with scholar athletes. Citing the wisdom of John Wooden (1910-2010), the legendary head coach of men’s hoops at UCLA, Ross paraphrased one of the most notable Woodenisms: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction in knowing that you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.
“In the hierarchy of talent, inevitably, there will be someone on a given day who can be faster, better, stronger, or more efficient,” said Ross, giving his own spin on the meaning of success as it relates to sports. “But if we know we did our best, that is the one and only viable measure of success. Developing a sense of grace in both winning and losing are life skills that are invaluable.”
Speaking about changes in the local sports scene, Ross said that, in recent years, he’s observed a drop-off in the number of kids turning out for some sports, based in part on the seemingly endless array of distractions facing youth today. He cited the usual suspects, the bête noires if you will, of social media and the use of smart-phones as prime examples. “Their identity is tied up with how they think other people view them, [but] sports keeps them grounded. It’s very demanding if you’re going to do it well,” he said.
Continuing this thread about the rigors of sports, Ross said coaches “have a tough time” getting student athletes to believe that you can’t do it half-way if you want to leave your mark in the yearbook or on a banner in the high school gymnasium. “Sports is really gritty, hard work. It’s about you and yourself, that’s where sports is so instructional… It teaches you about yourself, it’s guts and grit.”
Ross reflected on a few student athletes that left their mark in local lore: Michael Mullally, “of all the kids that I’ve covered, I’ve never seen a kid marshal that kind of commitment,” Sarah Grodin, a distance runner and steeplechase contender from Monticello High, and also from the Home of the Panthers, Jessica Fingers, “an exemplary runner, a real team leader."
While most local high school scholar athletes don’t advance to playing sports at prestigious Division I institutions “the highest echelon of college athletics,” Ross strongly believes that their experiences at high school can leave a lasting impression. “Just like academics, sports builds character, spirit, attitude, leadership qualities, self-discipline and the ability to follow direction,” he said.
And on the other side of the equation, you have the coaches.
Ross was at pains not to single out any individual coaches as standing heads above the rest, noting “my assessments are not based on their win/loss record," but no story about local high school sports would be complete without mentioning Dick O’Neill, Monticello’s illustrious coach of boys' varsity basketball (1985-2008), who posted his 400th career win during the 2007-08 season, and, in 2003, was inducted into the NYS Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. “He was a tremendous role model with great rapport with the kids,” recalled Ross, adding, “He was unbelievable, low key, forceful and dynamic… He maintained a very strong sense of discipline and integrity.”
Waiting in Ross’s literary future are a couple of books: a definitve guide for high school sports writers and another one with the working title of "The Gathering," a “personal novel about the idea that we are complex people, with more than more persona."
What makes him tick as a sportswriter/photographer? “To do this enterprise justice, I feel compelled to get as close as I can to the people, circumstances, and history that provide the backdrop to the actual event,” Ross replied. “As such I develop close relationships with players, coaches, alumni, officials, and, of course, absorb as much as I can about the nuances and specifics of the sport, so that I can impart more depth and texture to my readers… By creating memories in words and images [because] life is fleeting, and these will help preserve these halcyon years.”
A decade ago, Ross launched Sports Insights NY Photography with the motto, “Catch the action and preserve the memories,” and is hired by parents to ‘shadow’ their student athletes during athletic events (www.sportsinny.com).