The first three games I covered since starting at The Augusta Chronicle two weeks ago told me everything I needed to know.
In those three games, I went 3-for-3 in watching skirmishes break out in the stands. That clued me in on what kind of sports community I was getting ready to immerse myself in. During the most recent one, I turned to another member of the local media with a look on my face that invited his simple, yet foretelling greeting.
"Welcome to Augusta sports," he said with a smile.
So here's what I know: Augusta, you are immensely passionate about your sports, particularly basketball, and you absolutely should be.
Augusta, you love your rivalries, and even people in their 40s, 50s and 60s have passion for their local high school teams that runs deep.
Augusta, especially my Richmond County friends, you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder because, though you’ve consistently produced great crops of talent over the years, sometimes it seems like The Garden City still flies far too low on the radar.
Augusta, I want you to know that I understand, I feel you, and I’m excited to be here to do my part to change that. It's what I've built my entire sports journalism life on.
Throughout a 15-plus year career of award-winning sports coverage that includes community newspapers in South Metro Atlanta and more “big boy” stops like my hometown newspaper, the Omaha World Herald or the Louisville Courier Journal, one of The Chronicle’s sister papers, I’ve made it my steady ambition to tell the stories beyond the stats.
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In this digital day and age, anybody can figure out the final score and leading stat stuffers with ease. Some of you can tweet out that information or share highlight videos before I even get back to my computer to write a game story. And that's cool and all, but my passion for sports journalism is built on taking people deeper than just what they see on the surface.
Athletes are human. We ought never forget that. Especially when we’re talking about those middle school, high school and collegiate up-and-comers that cities like Augusta love to keep its collective eyes on.
Community reporting, community sports, stories that start conversations about issues that people aren’t always comfortable talking about, that's what I love.
Stories that show the human side of the young man who rushed for 200 yards and five touchdowns on a Friday night, or a young lady who’s putting her teammates — and by proxy, the community — on her back to help bring home a state championship despite her own personal challenges. That's what drives me.
Stories that highlight the challenges that can hinder the athletes and programs in our community from achieving at the highest level possible. Stories that at least get us started down the road toward solutions. That’s what I’m after.
And I’ve been doing this long enough to not be naive. I know that we won’t always see eye-to-eye on certain issues. I know that sometimes it’ll feel like certain schools or sports get more shine than others. I’m aware that while some will praise the work we do together, others will not be so impressed. I get all of that. Over 15 years in the industry has taught me the power of having tough skin.
But I promise you, I’ll always do my best to be fair, balanced, accurate and impactful with the stories I tell. Even when I share my opinions in this column space once a week, my opining will always stand on a firm, factual and thoroughly researched foundation.
I believe good journalism can be life changing, both to individuals and communities. I’ve seen it happen in every place I’ve been, and I have no reason to believe I won’t see it happen here in Augusta as well.
Let me address one more thing before I end this introductory piece: I don’t look at Augusta as a “fly over” spot. This isn’t a stepping stone to get me from one place to a bigger place.
When I was a journalism student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I, like most young pups in this industry, had wide-eyed aspirations of writing for the world’s largest outlets, having my face and byline plastered on journalism’s biggest platforms. And I’ve had some of those opportunities. But now, as a 41-year old father, I’ve discovered something that means more than all that.
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Family. Community. The only reason why I left an amazing job as assistant sports editor in Louisville, at one of the USA TODAY Network’s best papers, is because life had put me in a place where I realized my family needed me and I needed my family more than I needed to chase what some would consider upward mobility.
In the last year, I watched someone very near and dear to my heart literally almost die from COVID-19. A year removed from losing my father to Alzheimer’s, I watched my mother — his chief caretaker — suffer through a litany of ailments that almost took her away from me as well. I have an amazingly gifted 10-year old son who's quickly racing to adolescence and has reminded me in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that he needs me in his face as much as possible along that journey.
I have roots right here in Georgia, right here in Augusta, and the opportunity to continue doing what I love while staying close to who I love, to me, was nothing less than a blessing from God and answered prayer. And it doesn't hurt that I get to kick covering Augusta National and The Masters off my sports guy bucket list!
So, if you’ll have me, Augusta, I’m here to stay for a while. Please don’t be shy. Reach out and tell me what kind of stories you’d like to see. Let me know when you think I’m doing a good job. Let me know when you think I’m not. Let’s grow this community’s sports scene together through and let’s have some fun doing it along the way.
Augusta, I thank you in advance for welcoming me into your family. Now let’s get to work.
Gabriel Stovall can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter and Instagram at @GabrielCStovall.
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Meet new Augusta area high school sports writer Gabriel Stovall