If you want to be a sportswriter for a weekly newspaper, sometimes you take the good with the bad.
For instance, I am a retired Air Force veteran who has accounting and legal assisting degrees — no post secondary education in journalism. But, journalism is what I had always wanted to do in my youth.
So in the early 1990s, when I was in my mid-30s, I finally returned to my calling when I had the opportunity to edit and design a Toledo business publication.
Now 53, I’m probably not making as much money as I might have had I continued as a paralegal or accountant, or even if I continued my career in the Air Force, but it’s really all about quality of life, isn’t it?
||J. Patrick Eaken
The same goes for others who have made their trek through The Press as sportswriters.
When I first started receiving the Suburban Press at my rural Pemberville home as a 13-year-old in 1972, I was impressed with the cleanliness of the offset printing, but I remember the only sports being that which was submitted — mostly team photos of youth teams that won championships.
By 1982, there were features being done by news writers and freelancers, such as one on new Clay football coach Dave Shook who had just replaced the long time mentor Ted Federici. But, at the most, one, maybe two sports features per issue, if any.
“We were trying to grow the paper and we were trying to capture more of the market,” General Manager John Szozda, who arrived in 1983, said. “As were successful in doing that, we could afford more resources and we started hiring more freelance writers.
“But we’d basically run one sports story a week, and then Steve Junga approached us, and he wanted to be a sportswriter, so we gave him a chance. He since has moved on to The Blade,” Szozda continued.
“Back then it was hard to find any freelance writers, Now, there just happens to be a lot more in this area. We would run ads in the paper and wouldn’t hardly get anybody, or we would find somebody who didn’t have any writing background. For some reason, today there are more freelance writers available.
“You look at it now, and maybe some of it is how media has developed. Computers — that’s a big deal. The advanced features of e-mail does so much more because it takes no time to send it. That makes a big difference,” Szozda added. “We have better quality freelancers now.”
Along comes Junga, Rao, Griffin
In the fall of 1985, Junga, a 1978 Waite graduate and Curtice resident, showed up at Szozda’s office. Two years earlier, Junga had graduated from the University in Toledo with a bachelor’s degree in communications, majoring in broadcasting and public relations.
“I read the Metro Press now and then, and there were never any sports,” Junga said. “So, I just called John up and said, ‘Hey, would you like some?’ He said, ‘Sure, what have you done?’
“I ended up bringing out some clips from my classes at UT, and I don’t remember the exact conversation, but he basically said, ‘That’s good enough for us.’ He started me out $10 an article and another $5 if I took a picture to go with it. I had a 35 millimeter camera, and they provided film, and I would turn in my film and my copy on Thursday before I went to my other job in the morning.”
Junga said his first feature was on Cardinal Stritch basketball player Joe Gajdostik. It was the start of a sports writing career that has lasted over 30 years. In 1986, he talked Szozda into a promotion.
”I went for maybe a year, then I think I got away from it for awhile because I was working a couple jobs. Then I came back and told him I’d like to do this again, but I’m not going to do this for $10 an article. John coughed up $40 a week and he wanted me to do a feature and a column,” Junga continued.
In September of 1987, he was hired part-time at The Blade. He credits The Press with jump-starting his career.
“I had no résumé or clip file. I took a journalism class at Waite, but I never wrote for the Waite paper, and I never wrote for The Collegian at UT. I took classes and basically it all started with John at the Metro Press,” Junga said.
“I love what I do. I’ve been at The Blade for 25 years and I’ve covered a lot of great events and games over the years,” he continued. “I’ve met a lot of great coaches and players over the years —anywhere from high school to the professional level. I’ve done the Lions, the Browns, the Tigers, and the Indians, and the Buckeyes and the Wolverines, and all the way down to grade school stuff. I guess my favorite stuff is human interest stories.
“I can’t say enough about John Szozda. I think I did a decent job for John, but had he not said yes that day I’d hate to think where I’d be today without that career. That’s really meant a lot for me. I love what I do for work. That’s the absolute truth — had he not given me a shot I really don’t think this ever would have happened for me and it’s a big part of my life,” he said.
In 1991, Junga went full time at The Blade. In August of 1991, he quit his position with Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Today, he’s respected across Northwest Ohio.
“That’s part of the reward of the job is the people I’ve met over the years,” Junga said. “If there is one key, it is getting to know the people — not just calling them up. I actually took the time over the years to talk at great length with a lot of those coaches and players. That’s how you build those bonds and it pays off for you down the road, so when stuff comes up they are willing to talk to you. They trust you.
“I think I’d rather been a professional athlete, but I was very limited talent-wise, so the next best thing is to be close to it all the time. To get paid for watching sports is kind of a dream come true,” Junga continued.
Following Junga was Frank Rao, now with Channel 36 Fox News, and Dave Powers, who later went to a newspaper in Southern Ohio. Both were part-time sports editors. Rick Waldron became sports editor in the late 1990s.
Rao began wroting sports at The Press during the mid-1990s. Today, he is a camera operator for Channel 36 Fox News, but that will end because the station was bought out and the news department will be operated by the new company through a shared services agreement.
Rao says writing for The Press was his first media job, but adds that newspaper writing and television are two completely different capacities. He also had a job with a home improvement company. At The Press, he wrote two articles a week and took photos.
“I think the best part for me was being a part of sports with photography or writing articles, and covering the different teams,” Rao said. “My time there was really enjoyable and I had some great people I got to work with. Some people I am still able to interact with, like I still see (Press photographer) Ken (Grosjean) once in a while and I run into (former news editor) Scott Carpenter with the Metroparks once in a while.”
One of Rao’s favorite stories was traveling with a Genoa baseball team to Pittsburgh, where it played at Three Rivers Stadium. He is from Pittsburgh, so he visited family while there.
I became a Press sports freelancer in 1994 while owning a graphics design firm in downtown Bowling Green and editing the Toledo business newspaper until 1999. My first sports feature focused on the career of long time Oak Harbor coach Gary Quisno. In 2000, I became employed at The Press and in 2002, I became sports editor. Today, I am full time, also serving to help in graphics design, sales, and news writing.
The advent of digital technology has also brought along an army of freelance photographers — including Harold Hamilton, Scott Grau, Lee Welch, John Pollock, Dean Utendorf, Doug Karns, Don Thompson, and others who have contributed game photos.
“The photography in The Press has been just outstanding,” Szozda said. “We have a number of freelancers who have done a great job and they probably have better equipment than we have.”
Junga, still living in Curtice, says he still reads The Press today.
“It is a lot better today. You guys have multiple people doing a lot of things,” Junga said. “It’s much better and much more thorough and I think you guys have a lot more space than we had in those days. Back then, it was pretty much me, and I think after I left John had other people, like his son (A.J. Szozda). You do some good features and I like your All-Press teams and your previews.”
Today, The Press is blessed to have former Port Clinton News Herald sports editor (1989-2001) Mark Griffin as a regular sports writer. There have been other sports writers, including P.J. Whitman, Jeffrey D. Norwalk, Yaneek Smith, Ron Terry, Scott Calhoun, Deb Wallace, Simone Eli, Nathan Lowe, and others, and most still contribute today.