“I didn’t win the Pulitzer today,” I announced as I walked into my professor’s office on a spring day several years ago.
She turned from her computer, confused, and quizzically responded, “Did you expect to?”
“Yeah, well, our story was a finalist,” I explained. “I just came from the press conference over at the journalism school. The story on the crash of flight 800 won instead.”
She sat up and listened intently and laughed at how nonchalantly I told the story of trying to find out if I’d take my place in journalistic history for a breaking news story I’d worked on the year before I started law school.
My story was about a crazy, rich guy who’d shot and killed an Olympic wrestler who trained on the rich guy’s suburban estate outside of Philadelphia. Because I’d been covering news in this small town, attending every community meeting (regardless of how little happened) for almost two years, spending Monday mornings going through police reports about people who’d run stop signs, I’d gotten to know the police and neighbors in town pretty well.
This helped when I happened to be in the news room on a Friday (my normal day off) when news came of the shooting. The cops and neighbors knew me, so they gave me information on the shooter. The clerk at Blockbuster told me the types of movies he liked to rent. The police told me they were thinking of getting a military helicopter to chase him if he took off in an armored vehicle they believed he owned. It also helped when I had to spend the weekend in the bushes around the estate.
There I was, in the freezing cold, holding my binoculars, watching the police take positions around the estate, while they figured out how to remove the suspect who was now barricaded inside his mansion. Fortunately, some of the police officers offered coffee and a sweatshirt.
The whole scene came to an end two and a half days after it started, notably, just hours before Super Bowl XXX kicked off. There was no shoot out, no storming of the mansion. Yes, it was surrounded, but the scene ended with him coming out on his own.
In the following months, someone else was assigned the story of the trial. Someone else wrote the book on the story.
I went to law school.
And all that remained of my history as a journalist was that, for a few years, on the day when Pulitzers were announced, my friend Jason would send me a teasing e-mail with the simple message, “If only that bird hadn’t fallen out of the sky.”