A big, big welcome to Sandra Neil Wallace!
Would you give up fame and fortune to do what you truly love? How finding the Muckers story changed my life.
I remember the first time I was about to go on TV for an NHL broadcast. There was a production assistant counting me down to the minutes before I went “live,” and she said to me, “Do you ever think about the millions of people watching, and if you screw up, it would be the end of your career?” Of course I’d never thought about that, but guess what I started thinking? I suddenly felt fear like I never had before. Luckily, I didn’t screw up, but after five years in sports TV, I never forgot her words. The truth was I didn’t want a career in television. I wanted to be a writer. I just needed to find a story, and the courage to leave TV.
Little did I know I’d find that story at a historical society in one of history’s wildest towns in the west—Jerome, Arizona. I lived nearby, in Sedona.
A box of memorabilia had been dropped off that resembled the boxes you’d find at flea markets. In it were yearbooks and photographs of people eating watermelon in the Gulch a hundred years ago. Then letters began tumbling out; all written by young men to the principal of Jerome High School. The heartfelt letters, penned mostly by Mexican Americans, spanned the three decades up to the Korean War. Some wrote from bunks of battleships headed for Iwo Jima, terrified about what might happen. Others told of separate swim times in Jerome—one for Mexican Americans, and one for other whites known as “Anglos.”
I photocopied every letter and stayed up all night figuring out what to do with them. I knew they were too important to let go of.
No matter how dire those letters were, they always signed off with hopes of a Muckers football championship. It was obvious that the team brought these young men hope. So I connected the letters to the yearbooks, and the yearbooks to the newspapers and uncovered an incredible sports story: the 1950 Jerome Muckers football team, the smallest in Arizona, and one of the few integrated squads--Anglos and Mexican Americans--went undefeated. Together, the team defied prejudice and took a run at the championship. Then their school closed.
Here was my story. Yet as I faced the box of letters and a sports triumph forgotten for more than forty-five years, I considered walking away from that box. My own fear had set in.
How could I write in the voices of young men, most of them Mexican American? What if I really did screw up? As a woman sportscaster, I’d been down that road before: “A woman can’t report on the NHL or the NFL—they’ve never played the game.” One of my ESPN colleagues suggested that I tell a Latino writer about the story because how could I write it as well as he would? Another said to use initials like S.E. Hinton did for The Outsiders, to cover up the fact that I was a woman writing about male sports heroes in first person.
Then I interviewed the real Muckers.
When I asked them about their undefeated season despite so many obstacles, they said, “There was no way we were going to lose.”
I knew I had to take hold of the story and do the same. So I left sports television and wrote the novel, Muckers, inspired by the courage of that 1950 team.
My life took different turns, but I kept writing Muckers during yearly trips to Jerome. I wrote chapters sitting on the ledge of the segregated swimming pool, drained long ago, and in the old high school and the rock football field.
Fifteen years later, I can tell the real Muckers that their story hasn’t been forgotten. That I wrote a novel inspired by their heroic season, and that I was meant to find that box of letters.
About Sandra Neil Wallace
For fifteen years, Sandra Neil Wallace was a news anchor and ESPN sportscaster before writing novels. After the publication of her first novel Little Joe, she was named an outstanding newcomer to the children’s literature scene by the Horn Book. Muckers is her first historical fiction novel. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, author Rich Wallace, and their shelter dog, Lucy. Visit Sandra at www.sandraneilwallace.com and on Facebook and Twitter.