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September 29, 2014

Guest Post by John Feinstein, Author of THE WALK ON


Sure, Alex Myers --- the protagonist in John Feinstein's new series, The Triple Threat --- is a fictional 14-year-old who plays football, basketball and baseball. But that doesn't mean that John didn't get inspiration from somewhere. First was his own childhood. Second was his favorite series growing up, Chip Hilton Sports, which followed a young athlete dealing with all of the triumphs and challenges of the school sports world. In the below blog post, John talks about how Chip influenced him throughout his youth and how Alex is both similar and different. 

I was in the fourth grade --- I remember it distinctly because I didn’t especially like my teacher --- when I came home from playing baseball in the park one afternoon and my mom handed me a book.

            “I thought you might like this,” she said. “It’s about baseball.”

            The book was called PAY-OFF PITCH.”

            The hero was Chip Hilton. I started reading it that night after dinner --- it was a Friday so I didn’t have homework --- and, except to eat, sleep or go out to play ball --- I didn’t put it down until Chip and his buddies had figured out how to go all out to win the championship, but do it with honor.

            Once I had finished PAY-OFF PITCH, my mom began tracking down the rest of the Chip Hilton Sports series for me. The series actually began when Chip was a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball) at Valley Falls High School and then took him to State University (where else?) where he continued to compete in all three sports.

            I wasn’t a star like Chip but I did play all three sports growing up in New York City. We played football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball the minute the weather turned even a little bit warm.

            It is remarkable, looking back, how far ahead of his time author Clair Bee --- a great college basketball coach himself --- was when he created Chip. In PAY-OFF PITCH, Chip’s baseball team is threatened by scandal because one of the players has fallen in with some sleazy agent-types who are looking to sign Chip and jeopardize his college eligibility.

            Fifty years later, sleazy agents remain a huge issue for college and high school athletes.

            When I created Alex Myers, the hero of THE WALK-ON --- which is book one in the Triple Threat” series ---I had Chip in mind. A three sport athlete who runs into the inevitable issues that any 14-year-old kid may face: jealousy within his own team; a coach who can be difficult (the subject of the second ‘Chip,’ book I read); real-life issues like a divorce or, in Chip’s case, the loss of his father. Alex is dealing with feeling like he’s lost his father even though they live 250 miles apart.

            There are two issues that Alex faces that Coach Bee couldn’t possibly have anticipated all those years ago. One is specialization: Nowadays, with so much money potentially at stake for those who become stars in a sport, parents often force their children to focus on one sport 12 months a year. No one has an offseason. Kids go to summer camps for football, basketball, baseball and even hockey. There are year-round academies, which are like boarding schools where kids leave their homes to hone their skills in tennis and golf.

            Some end up with college scholarships --- but the cost of the academies is at least as much as the cost of college. Very few end up with the sports pot-of-golf their parents envision when they tear up their childhood so they can ‘work’ at their sport. Very few kids get to ‘play’ a sport anymore; it has become work.

            Alex plays sports --- three of them. He loves to compete and win but he isn’t obsessed and his parents, even living apart, aren’t either. They get it --- which is rare in today’s world. I’m trying to make the point through Alex that it is possible for teenagers today to still play a sport for that old-fashioned Clair Bee/Chip Hilton reason: because they love to play.

            The other issue Coach Bee couldn’t anticipate was steroid use, which, unfortunately, is more and more prevalent at the high school level every year --- especially in football, where getting bigger and stronger is considered to be so crucial to success. Most teenagers don’t worry about health risks later in life: they’re too young to think about mortality. And, sadly, they rarely worry about getting caught because even in the NFL when a player tests positive for drugs, he’s just suspended for a few games and comes back to be cheered and continue to make millions.

            In short, many --- if not most --- think it’s worth the risk.

            Alex learns about all of that in THE WALK-ON.

            I guess the only real difference between Alex and Chip is this: Chip never really admitted he had a crush on Mitzi Savrill, the cashier in the drugstore where he worked after school. There’s no doubt about how Alex feels about Christine Whitford.

            There were 24 Chip Hilton books in all. I hope there will be many Alex Myers books. Thanks Coach Bee.

            And, thanks mom.

John Feinstein graduated from Duke University in 1977. He worked at the Washington Post for 11 years as both a political and sports reporter. He has also worked at Sports Illustrated and at the National Sports Daily. John is the author of a number of bestselling sports books, including LIVING ON THE BLACK, TALES FROM Q SCHOOL, THE PUNCH, THE LAST AMATEURS, A CIVIL WAR, A SEASON ON THE BRINK, and sports mystery novels for young readers. He currently writes for The Washington Post, Washington and Golf Digest, and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” Feinstein lives in Maryland.