“Amateur Hour:” Brendan Marks and participatory journalism

My friend Brendan Marks is a sports reporter at the Charlotte Observer, but he’s more than that. He’s becoming Charlotte’s version of George Plimpton, a writer who made his name in participatory journalism. The Observer has started “Amateur Hour,” in which Marks tries out a variety of roles in pro sports. So far, he’s ridden 170 mph around a NASCAR track, stood in the goal as a Charlotte Checkers centerman slapped shots at him, and, most recently, tried out for a NASCAR pit crew. He’s showing how newspapers can effectively use video. (Don’t know how? Kristen Hare at Poynter has some tips.) Brendan’s funny — “100 crunches?” — engaging and self-deprecating. As such, he’s entertaining visitors, building community and, I submit, heightening trust in the Observer.

Brendan was a student of mine at Carolina. I asked him a few questions about what he’s doing.

Me: Whose idea was this, and how did you get stuck with it?

Brendan: I volunteered myself for this after I came up with the idea. Sometimes you forget about how amazing some of the things these athletes are doing. We were talking about that one day and I was like, why don’t we try and do that. Sometimes when I watch Kemba Walker dribble, I’m like that is offensive, that is egregious that a human being can do something like that. Now I’m supposed to try and defend it? If I didn’t appreciate it before, I’m certainly going to now. It’s a good way for the general public to realize how amazing these athletes are. You hear so many people on social media say “Aww, Cam Newton sucks or Cam Newton’s terrible.” OK, you go try to catch a pass from Cam Newton or you go try to make some of the plays that Cam Newton does. Cause you’ll fall over and break every bone in your body.

Do you have any athletic background?

Let me put it this way: I like to think I have an athletic background. I played high school sports — soccer and track — and was not the worst person on the team, but I definitely was not the best. But I feel like that’s the whole purpose of it: For somebody who is truly, truly average — and I know that I am — trying to do these ridiculous things with ridiculous athletes.

Is there any one of these sports where you think, with a little practice, “I can do it, I can probably drive this car at 170 miles per hour?”

I think the only one I would realistically have a shot at is maybe kicking fields goals in the NFL because of my soccer background. I’m pretty confident I could hit – I mean I have friends who are total schlubs who can hit a 25- or 30-yarder, maybe not consistently but they can. So I’d like to think that I could at least do that. I recognize my shortcomings; literally, I’m 5-foot-9. Don’t get me wrong: I go into all of these with the goal of being competitive. My goal when I went into the hockey thing was to stop half the shots, which I obviously did not do. (Me: He stopped one.)

You’ve done NASCAR and hockey. What other sports are coming up?

Just about any dumb, ridiculous thing you can think of. The Charlotte Knights have a pitcher who throws 103 miles per hour. I’m going to try to hit a fastball off him. I’m going to go to the Panthers and try to kick some field goals with Graham Gano. Maybe try and throw some passes to a rookie receiver. We’re going to go over to the Hornets and play one-on-one with Malik Monk or trying to have a free throw contest with Dwight Howard. So that’ll be fun. And then they get kinda weird and wild. There’s a river near here. They’re going to have me go noodling for catfish. Basically they took George Plimpton’s idea and they’re making it redneck, which is fine. It’s been fun so far.

What kind of feedback have you gotten?

I’ve gotten plenty of people making fun of me on Twitter and deservedly so.  But generally the feedback’s been pretty good, actually. I think a lot of people, they usually start out the conversation by saying, “Boy, you were really terrible.” But then the next line is “But hey, at least you can skate. That was impressive enough. Like, I don’t even know how to ice skate.” OK, that’s fair. I think a lot of people are interested in it because they can see themselves doing the same thing. They would love the opportunity to be able to do some of these things. What little kid doesn’t dream about growing up and playing for the Panthers or the Hornets? I’m getting to do that, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. It’s really cool and I try not to forget that, how lucky I am to be able to do that.

Have the videos gotten a lot of traffic?

The most telling statistic that we found was anybody who watched it was watching it for the entire 5 minutes. Nobody was clicking on it and saying “this is boring” because it’s not. It’s hilarious. If anything people are watching it multiple times.  What that told us was that there’s an interest in this. For me the most telling part of doing the hockey video was, at the very end, I had no idea that I would be so exhausted. I was out there for 3 minutes – 3 minutes- I haven’t sweated that much or been that exhausted since I played in overtime soccer games in high school.

Would you do boxing?

I would, I mean, I’d have to have some good insurance.

Do you have good medical insurance?

The Observer does have good insurance, but I may need a whole separate policy if I’m stepping into a boxing ring.