Mike Lupica. Almost immediately, the name rings a bell. That’s probably because he’s one of the most well known sports journalists in the country. Lupic is a sports columnist for The New York Daily News, has a show on ESPN radio, and is a commentator on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, which is televised nationally.
But he’s also a great YA author who writes books for middle school readers. His latest book is Fantasy League, which is about… Well, let the author himself tell you the plot:
SI Kids recently spoke to Lupica about Fantasy League, working as both a journalist and an author, and his experience with fantasy football.
How did you come up with the idea for Fantasy League?
I’ve got three sons, and I’ve seen how crazed they are playing fantasy football, and I’ve seen what watching games with them is like on Sunday. It’s a real contact sport in my living room! They’re as interested in how they’re doing against each other as they are in the game they’re watching. I wanted to write a book about that, and kind of tap into how positive fantasy football is for kids.
But more than that, with my main character, Charlie Gaines, I wanted to write about a boy who becomes a hero because of his brain and his passion for football and his heart as much as his talent. Most of my books all revolve around some big game in sports. A guy can really throw a ball and catch it or do something like that. And there is a big game for Charlie in Pop Warner football. But he’s really not a good player. So what makes him a star is his brain. I wanted to make a hero out of someone whose brain, heart, and love for the game were the things that carried the day.
Do you play fantasy football yourself?
I do. My youngest son, Zach, and I have a team this year. I think we’re 1-1 so far. I keep joking, though, that if the team doesn’t do well I have to fire my General Manager, and my son says, “Be quiet, Dad!”
Did you base this book on your experience with fantasy football?
No. The real reason I wrote this book was because I really believe that kids, maybe you, and everybody I come across, they know more about sports than adults. I am constantly amazed by my kids and the kids I interact with, especially those I’m interacting with right now on my book tour for Fantasy League. This is a book about how much a kid knows and how if you gave him a chance, he could do as good a job at running these teams as an adult does.
How can playing fantasy football help kids to better understand the game?
It makes them study statistics. It makes them trust their own judgment about who they think might do better. I think fantasy football has made football fans much smarter than they’ve ever been before because they have more information about the players they’re watching than they ever did before.
In the book, Charlie sees the chance to draft two players that might give the Bulldogs the boost they need. If you had the chance to draft two players for an NFL team how would you feel? And who would you draft?
First of all, I’d be scared. But second, I think it would be really challenging. The first thing I’d do would be to ask my sons whom I should draft. And if I could have my pick of anybody in the sport right now, if I could pick one guy to start my own team, it would be Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. I think he is the best player on the planet right now.
What kind of challenges do you face going from writing about sports as a journalist to writing fiction books like Fantasy League?
From the time I wrote Travel Team, my first book for young readers, 10 years ago, I have felt so comfortable writing about sports from the point of view of a 12-year old or 13-year old or 14-year old. I’ll tell you something very funny. My wife told me after my first book, “Honey, let’s face it. You writing from inside the mind of a 12-year old seem to be pretty much a perfect fit as far as I can tell.” She said it’s nice that I can now use my immaturity to help support the family.
In the book Charlie is a bit of a celebrity and you’re someone who’s on television and you’re a bit of a celebrity yourself. How do you draw on your experience when you write about Charlie?
I’ve seen in my own life how much fun it is most of the time, but how sometimes when people come after you it’s no fun. I’ve got a funny line in Fantasy League from the guy questioning the owners of the LA Bulldogs about a 12-year-old boy calling the shots for the team. So Charlie gets to experience the good and the bad parts of fame in this book, and I think he learns a lot from it.
How has your experience as a journalist affected your books?
It brings a knowledge and experience about sports that I love to weave into my stories. I’m constantly having my characters reference historical things they could’ve learned possibly through their reading or watching ESPN. My friend, Buck Showalter, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, once joked to me, “I’m not paranoid. I’m just very alert.” I just thought that was a really funny line, and I just put that into the book I’m writing right now.
What is this next book?
It’s about a poor boy in North Carolina who by a very odd circumstance ends up living on his own for a while at the age of 12. Then he ends up in foster care, and he’s a very good player, and the people who become his foster parents change his life in a good way.
What message do you want kids to take away from Fantasy League?
To dream their dreams! To feel good about yourself in this world you don’t have to just be good at sports even if some of your friends are. If you’ve got a passion in this world, you should chase it as hard as you can. Don’t let anybody get in the way and don’t let anybody else tell you what your dream should be. Charlie finds out that he can use his knowledge of football to actually make a difference with his favorite team. That’s a pretty cool thing for a 12 year old.
What advice do you have for a kid who wants to be a journalist or an author?
If you want to be a writer, I would give you two pieces of advice: Be reading as much as you can. Never stop reading because the more good books you read, the smarter you get. And if you want to be a writer, be writing all the time. Even if you’re just keeping a journal, even if you just write down things that happened in your life that day, write them down because the more you do it the better you get at it. One thing that I always tell kids to inspire young writers is that as soon as you put your name on something, you make sure that it’s as good as it can possibly be. Write the best sentence, write the best paragraph, write the best page. You never know who might see it.
Did you do that yourself when you became a writer?
I did it beginning at 10 years old. I was already writing adventure stories with myself as the main character. I love to write. When I go out of the country I joke to my readers, they got to keep buying these books because I don’t have any other skills.
Photos: courtesy Philomel (cover), Taylor McKelvy Lupica (headshot)