Sportswriter Shea Serrano’s unexpected writing career

“Teaching is the only better job than writing. It’s more fulfilling,” Serrano said. “You build a lot of relationships with the kids, which was my favorite part. I just felt important when I was teaching.”

Shea and Larami Serrano got married in a Houston hospital room, with family members spilling out into the hallway and an IV in the bride’s arm. She was 20 weeks pregnant with twins, and a routine checkup three days earlier threw a major wrench in the weekend’s plans: required bedrest until the babies were born.

“I could not return to my job,” she said.  “I never even saw my students ever again. I never went back to my classroom. It was an immediate: ‘You cannot move any more until you have these babies.’”

Together, they called about 200 guests and canceled everything they had planned for Saturday. A relative performed their makeshift ceremony on Sunday, the bride laying in bed and the groom wearing a matching hospital gown, a gesture of love in the midst of chaos.

“They say the worse the wedding, the better the marriage,” she said, her smile audible. “So I think we’re good.”

After the twins were born, the family was left with only one income and had to take a hard look at their finances and make some tough decisions. Shea Serrano had worked in home building and as a middle-school teacher, but needed to supplement his paycheck. After being rejected for part-time positions at Target, Walmart, restaurants and grocery stores, Serrano decided to try writing.

“I had a computer; I had the Internet,” he said. “That’s really all you need to be a writer.”

Serrano, now 34, has since published two books, including the 2015 New York Times Best Seller, “The Rap Year Book,” in which he selects and discusses the most important rap song in every year since 1979. (There were more than 20,000 preorders placed thanks to an excellent social media presence and dedicated readers.) He was a staff writer for Grantland, a popular sports and culture news source, until it folded last fall, and has contributed to major media outlets like ESPN, MTV, XXL and GQ.

As far as career paths go, Serrano is a trailblazer and an outlier. At Sam Houston State University, he started as a criminal justice major but eventually earned a degree in psychology. He met his future wife in 2000 and they started dating after he passed her a note from the back of their sociology class.

After graduation, they moved to Houston where she taught and he eventually earned his teaching credential as well.

“Teaching is the only better job than writing. It’s more fulfilling,” he said. “You build a lot of relationships with the kids, which was my favorite part. I just felt important when I was teaching.”

Stevenson Middle School is in southeastern Houston, and is a Title 1 school, providing assistance especially for low-income families and students. The school also has a high percentage of Hispanic students (Serrano says 98 percent), which is just like the school that Serrano attended growing up in San Antonio.

Reggie Miller, an iconic, wiry shooter, was Serrano’s favorite basketball player as a kid. He was drawn to his confidence, and the fact that he was trying to beat the best — Michael Jordan.

“He reminded me of me when I looked at him, I could see this guy and understand his life,” Serrano said. “So he was somebody I looked up to a whole bunch. He never seemed afraid of anything which was the opposite of how I was.”

Anthony Adams is the physical education teacher at Stevenson. He and Serrano coached many of the school’s sports teams together until Serrano stopped teaching last May to write full time.

Serrano worked hard to be a positive influence on the students, Adams said. Together they helped kids that were struggling with their classes or getting into trouble.

“We would take them out after school, take them to eat or go bowling. We did that quite a bit,” Adams said. “We had it pretty good at one time. And a lot of those kids’ grades changed, and behavior.”

While writing at Grantland, Serrano pitched the idea of a weekly column about his coaching experience and the atmosphere of the Stevenson football team. The editors approved, and “Tuesday Night Lights” was born. Nicknames (like “Little Ray Lewis” and “The Would-Be Star” and “The Helicopter”) abound in the fast-paced, candid and earnest accounts of preparation, victory and defeat.

Serrano’s writing style is direct, unorthodox and conversational by design. In a 2015 story for Grantland about his day with Houston Texans’ star defensive end J. J. Watt, Serrano contrasts their body types with illustrative self-deprecating hyperbole:

His body looks like what Superman would draw if someone asked him to draw what he wanted to look like. My body looks like if someone asked Superman to draw a pile of mashed potatoes wearing shorts.

“I didn’t want anybody to feel like I was trying to talk down to them,” Serrano said. “I try to make all the writing sound how I sound when I talk, and have some sort of smart idea behind it.”

Starting out with sports features and concert reviews, Serrano has built a career from his opinions, ideas and thought experiments. He’s not afraid to insert a mature theme or a swear word into his writing – in fact, a defining moment in his career came when he published an article entitled “Drake Was Whispering Encouragement in My Ear While I Was Having Sex.” After this piece ran in the LA Weekly, Grantland contacted him. They asked if he wanted to pitch stories for the website.

Even though Serrano climbed the media ladder quickly, it didn’t happen overnight. He began, humbly, as a freelance sports writer for the Near Northwest Banner, a tiny neighborhood publication that a “little old woman” was printing in her garage. His first story was about Craig Biggio’s retirement from the Astros. She paid him $15.

He used that experience to freelance for the Houston Press, covering the local hip-hop scene. Success followed and he eventually contributed a daily column called Serrano Time, all while holding a full-time job as an eighth grade science teacher, coaching various sports teams and raising his young twins.

Chris Gray, the Press’ music editor, recognized the depth of Serrano’s writing talent after just a few articles.

“Shea is just so unique I would hesitate to even compare him to any other writers that I know,” Gray said.

Although Serrano wrote for the music section, his writing style often blurs categorical lines.

“He knows a lot about rap and a lot about sports and sometimes he would use the two interchangeably in some of his writing,” Gray said. “And I always found it highly entertaining.”

“Rap and basketball have been together for a long time, so you can work one thing into the other,” Serrano said. “They’re just complimentary pieces.”

He’s written pieces about the best rapper’s tweets surrounding a Texans’ game, and about the time he chaperoned a middle school dance, and about his vision for his own funeral. His imaginative feature-heavy clips are intentionally far from hard news.

“Really the only trick is just don’t stop going,” he said. “A lot of times being a successful writer doesn’t mean you have to be the best one, you just got to be the one that gets told ‘yes.’ So if you ask enough times, they’ll eventually tell you ‘yes.’”

His confidence grew with his portfolio and he began pitching bigger and bigger news outlets, opening plenty of doors along the way.  A story about a legal battle between a rapper and a radio station went national, and he used that platform to start writing for LA Weekly. He took chances and overcame a lot to seize opportunities, and he was rewarded greatly.

Serrano’s career as a writer will continue with a book about basketball scheduled for release in 2017.  Eventually, he plans to return to teaching, where he found his purpose as a positive role model and motivator.

“I’m definitely going to go back to teaching. Once I finish getting all this money,” Serrano said. “Any money I can get, I want to get it, and get out.”

(Homepage photo courtesy of Larami Serrano via Shea Serrano’s Wikipedia page.)

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