By Rick Assad
Youngsters enjoy playing sports because it’s fun, it’s an excellent form of exercise and it allows one to be with their friends.
In time, many develop to the point that they are good enough to excel in high school, while a handful will play at the college level. Only a very select group reach that rarefied air of playing in the professional ranks.
Still, growing up in Burbank, Joey Kaufman had designs of making it all the way to the top, despite the long odds.
Like so many, Kaufman played at the YMCA and the Parks and Recreation, but then it began getting tougher.
There came a time when he realized playing in college and the pros wasn’t in the cards, so Kaufman changed direction and decided to pursue a career in sports journalism.
“Like most sportswriters, I first wanted to play in one of the professional sports leagues,” Kaufman said. “It was the NBA for me. I grew up during the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant dynasty [1996-2004 in which the Lakers won three NBA titles]. Then you realize your athletic talents are, well, limited. Writing about sports became the next-best thing.”
Kaufman, who attended St. Francis High in La Canada and USC, has worked his way up the professional ladder and is currently the Ohio State football beat writer for the Columbus Dispatch.
In Kaufman’s first year on the job, 2019, the Buckeyes went 12-0 during the regular season and then defeated No. 10 ranked Wisconsin 34-21 in the Big Ten Conference championship game.
Ohio State was ranked No. 2 and then faced defending national champion and No. 3 ranked Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, which was part of the College Football Playoff, but fell 29-23.
“It was the peak college football experience, where the legacy of a season can rest entirely on one game. For months, Ohio State annihilated every team it faced. It won every regular season game by double-digits. By November, some were lauding it as maybe the best in school history,” Kaufman said. “But a college football season is defined by your losses. National champions are rarely afforded more than one. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, their defeat came in the postseason in a tight game plagued by turnovers and officiating that drew the ire of Bucknuts. Clemson, which upended Ohio State, went on to face LSU in the national championship game, where it lost [42-25]. Maybe the same fate awaited the Buckeyes. But their fans will be left with a lot of “what if” questions for years.”
Kaufman, who graduated from USC in 2013 with a bachelor of arts degree in Print and Digital Journalism and Religion, knew what he wanted to do with his career.
“I don’t know if I thought specifically that I would cover UCLA, USC or Ohio State, or really any college football,” he said. “But I knew I wanted to cover major pro or college sports, and at the time I was covering high school sports in 2009. I was just starting journalism school at USC. So it’s the stage where you feel like there are many possibilities, even as newspapers were taking a significant hit amid the Great Recession.”
Kaufman did cover some games locally.
“My experience covering preps in Southern California is more limited, but I spent a few months in early 2014 covering a handful of games for the Burbank Leader and Glendale News-Press,” he said. “So I was at a few baseball and basketball games at Burbank [High] and Burroughs.”
Kaufman added the Northwest Herald, a newspaper in Crystal Lake, Illinois to his resume and the Orange County Register, where he covered USC and UCLA athletics for four years.
Growing up in Burbank was an enjoyable experience for Kaufman. “It’s a great place to be active. Lots of indoor and outdoor basketball courts. The Chandler Bikeway has great running,” he said. “I definitely miss hiking in the Verdugo Mountains. Ohio, where I live now after moving here last year for a job at the Columbus Dispatch, is certainly much flatter.”
Still, Kaufman, who has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors and the Football Writers Association of America, finds time to return to Burbank, which he misses.
“In some ways, I see family and friends less often now, people I miss especially this year amid the uncertainty of a global pandemic [COVID-19]. Along with family, I definitely miss some close friends who still live in the area,” he said. “And the breakfast burritos at Corner Cottage.”
Kaufman’s parents, along with his brother and his wife still reside in Burbank.
Covering the Buckeyes is a fulltime job with fans wanting to know anything and everything about the team. What’s Kaufman’s strategy?
“My writing approach is to let the details shine. At its core, journalism is about conveying information,” he said. “I want readers to learn something. A new anecdote. A new statistic. Someone else’s viewpoint. All that comes from reporting. My aim is to write stories in a way to relay those things. I don’t want my writing unclear or be over the top that it serves as a distraction. I’m not a character in the story.”
Covering USC and UCLA football is a major beat, as Kaufman knows, but it really pales by comparison to being a beat writer for the Buckeyes.
“The magnitude of Ohio State is bigger,” Kaufman admitted. “It truly feels like a team that is supported by the entire state, which includes several major cities, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. In most states or cities, there are two major college teams. Neighboring Michigan is split between Michigan and Michigan State. Football-mad Texas is divided between Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU and other schools in the Big 12. The L.A. area roots for USC or UCLA.”
Kaufman added: “So, because of that, Ohio State gets a ton of coverage from newspapers, TV stations and radio stations from across the state, as well as online sites that are based in Columbus,” he said. “It makes it a challenge. That’s a lot of people eager to read coverage of Ohio State and a lot of people providing it, so you want to be as informative as possible and tell the diehard fans new stories they might not have heard before.”
Kaufman said that he wants his stories to be different and stand apart.
“Trying to avoid the pack. It’s a common refrain in sports writing or journalism at large,” he said. “But if dozens of reporters are crowded around the quarterback in the locker room, they’re all getting the same recollections and soundbites. As much as it’s important to talk to the stars, finding people who are overlooked brings untold stories and a unique perspective.”
After spending the vast majority of his time in Southern California, Kaufman has no regrets leaving the region and is happy to be in the Midwest.
“It’s good for reporters to get out of their comfort zone and go somewhere different, learn about a new place,” he said.