ESPN’s Seth Wickersham Crafts Narratives To Uncover The Human Element Of Sport

A photo of Seth Wickersham
Seth Wickersham has established himself as one of the nation’s premier investigative sportswriters. (Courtesy of Seth Wickersham)

On a crisp, early morning in Indianapolis, Seth Wickersham found himself crouched alongside the bank of a quiet river, phone in hand, as he recorded stories of a man who could have been one of the greatest of all time. Andrew Luck – former quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts – stood a few feet away in a pair of waders fraying at the knee, eyes locked on his casted line, patiently waiting for a fish to bite. It had been almost three years since Luck, only 29 at the time, shocked the sports world and stepped away from professional football after seven seasons. His decision to retire left coaches, teammates, and fans asking the same question: Why did he choose to walk away? After years of self-reflection and time spent far away from the public eye, Luck was ready to share his story – and he wanted Wickersham, a senior writer for ESPN, to tell it.

“I did not feel an agenda from him,” Luck said. “There was a rapport that was built, most importantly, and I felt comfortable.”

Wickersham had initially reached out to Luck only a few months following his retirement. In a letter, Wickersham expressed interest in capturing the untold story that countless others wanted to hear. He also indicated that he was willing to wait until Luck was ready to talk, however long it may take.

“I made it very clear that I don’t get paid by the story,” said Wickersham. “My life was not going to change whether he said yes or no.” It took more than two years of trading emails back and forth, but once Luck was ready to go on the record, Wickersham was ready.

At 47, Wickersham has established himself as one of the nation’s premier investigative sportswriters. Directing most of his attention toward the NFL, Wickersham has profiled many of the sport’s luminaries, including Peyton Manning, John Elway, Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh. In 2021, he released his first book: It’s Better to Be Feared: The New England Patriots Dynasty and the Pursuit of Greatness. In it, Wickersham takes a deep dive into how Tom Brady and Bill Belichick crafted one of the most dominant dynasties in NFL history; it was named Sports Illustrated Nonfiction Book of the Year.

Wickersham is known for his in-depth reporting and ability to craft narratives that uncover the human element of sport, shedding light on issues that often go unnoticed. He’s been at ESPN for 22 years. Prior to his career, Wickersham graduated with a degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri in 2000, a place that fueled his journalistic desires. But college was not where Wickersham was first introduced to the beauty of masterful storytelling. To learn where his writing voice originated, one must venture all the way back to his childhood home in Anchorage, Alaska.

Wickersham followed the news from a young age. His father, Kirk Wickersham, was an avid reader of the local newspaper and spent most mornings sipping black coffee with a splash of milk as he read through each section of the paper. Despite his busy schedule as a lawyer, he would often come home after work and run routes for his son – still dressed in his work clothes. Wickersham eventually developed a passion for news stories in the sports section and bonded with his father over articles in Newsweek, TIME, and Sports Illustrated. As a kid, there was no better feeling than coming home to see a fresh stack of magazines sitting on the counter. His father would always wait until they had both read the articles before discussing them.

Wickersham looks back at those days fondly. It was a time before media turned digital; one would have to wait until the following day to view scores from their favorite teams. Unfortunately for Wickersham, he and his father were forced to be a little more patient. Because of its distance from the states, Alaska was somewhat disconnected in its mail delivery service. By the time the weekly sports magazine made it to their house, the game stories were outdated by almost two weeks.

“Their news value was kind of done at that point,” Wickersham said.

This resulted in him gravitating toward stories that delved deeper into the underlying themes and emotions of events. He sought work that would remain relevant, even if it was read weeks, months, or even years after its initial release. This childhood tendency shaped Wickersham into the writer he is today. “I always sort of wanted to be writing the deeper profiles, the deeper investigative pieces,” he said.

The task of revealing the truth behind Luck’s retirement was no small ambition. It required Wickersham to spend generous amounts of time with Luck, and early mornings down by the river provided a small glimpse into a much larger story. During several visits over the span of five months, Wickersham and Luck shared several cappuccinos, brewed to perfection. He watched as Luck said goodbye to his daughter, Lucy, as she got ready to leave for preschool. They spent nights sitting out on Luck’s deck, chatting as if they were old friends. Luck did most of the talking.

“When you are writing profiles, you are living in that person’s head,” Wickersham explained. “Sometimes, that is an exhausting place to live.”

129,000 words: A book’s length of notes and transcripts that strived to capture the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of a man who walked away from a game he once loved. Luck told stories of heartbreak and resilience, broken bones and broken records, crippling anxiety and overwhelming joy. Wickersham gathered it all, and as all great reporters do, he listened.

“Honestly, the process of talking to Seth,” Luck said, “ was one way that I could integrate my stories a little differently, through a different vehicle.”

For much of his life, Luck felt his path had already been written. As Wickersham explained it, “He got on a pair of American train tracks and couldn’t get off.” As the writing process began, Wickersham dedicated himself to conveying the story that Luck wished to share. Wickersham would serve only as a guide, taking the reader through different moments of Luck’s journey, the same way Luck did for him.

A man standing in the river.
ESPN’s Seth Wickersham spent countless hours interviewing former NFL quarterback Andrew Luck about why he retired. (Courtesy of Seth Wickersham)

In his ESPN article published in December 2022, Wickersham wrote the following excerpt: “The sports world was stunned. This was a generational quarterback. A quarterback on track for the Hall of Fame. A quarterback who’d just won the Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. A rare quarterback who seemed born to do what he was doing. This was Andrew Luck.

How could he walk away?

He delivered his speech, with trembling conviction. And the next day, at home, he couldn’t pick an emotion. They were all tangled together, relief mixed with mourning, guilt mixed with a profound unburdening, a dozen thoughts and feelings that he couldn’t name or even really describe. He had no idea what came next, or how hard it would be to find out. All he knew was that he didn’t have to pretend anymore. He stepped into the shower and stood under the water, and with the steam rising started to cry.”

Upon completion of the story, which totaled 8,703 words, it was posted to ESPN+ as an exclusive. The feedback from readers was overwhelmingly positive. Wright Thompson, a respected ESPN sportswriter known for his long-form features on the intersection of sports, politics, and social issues, also happens to be one of Wickersham’s closest friends.

“The story was a classic Seth story, in that it was thoughtful, meticulously observed, and it got at the very heart of the NFL,” said Thompson.

Wickersham and Thompson are constantly learning from each other’s work. Thompson commented when at his best, Wickersham “makes a story seem as though it wasn’t written so much as it was just born that way.” The Luck piece was no exception. “I can pick out one of his stories without a byline,” Thompson said.

The recognition came from more than sportswriters. People from all different backgrounds – professional athletes, college students, and standard employees – related to Luck’s story; they felt his pain. Ari Patu, current Stanford Football Quarterback, found the piece to be “simply beautiful.”

“The way in which the author was able to depict Andrew Luck as a human being, as opposed to just a football player made all the difference,” Patu said.

Over the years, Wickersham has come to realize the famous sports figures in his profiles, and the issues they are trying to solve, are often human and relatable. When asked about his process of finding an angle to write the Luck piece, Wickersham recalled a principle given to him by a man who is widely considered one of the finest stylists in the history of sports journalism, Gary Smith: “Every profile is figuring out the central complication of someone’s life and how on a daily basis they go about solving it.”

Thompson cited the same quote when asked about his own writing and reporting methodology.

Wickersham, among many others, quickly recognized the central complication in Luck’s life. However, what truly captivated readers was the way in which Luck went about solving it – and whether or not he was successful.

“How often do we actually ever solve the complication in our life with a neat bow around it?” Luck said with a chuckle.

Wickersham is a gifted writer. Luck was a generational quarterback. Both have had extremely successful careers, yet neither choose to live in the past. Wickersham writes stories that withstand the test of time and retain their value no matter when they are picked up to read.


  • Jason Kaul

    Jason Kaul is a senior studying psychology, from Ham Lake, Minnesota. With an interest in pursuing sport psychology as a career, Kaul has conducted research for Stanford and examined how mindsets about stress and exercise influence the health and well-being of Stanford student-athletes. This past summer, Kaul continued his research as an intern for the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance. Outside of the classroom, Kaul competes as an Inside Linebacker for the Stanford Football team. He is a three-time Pac-12 All-Academic Honor Roll recipient and was awarded the Chris Draft Commitment to Community Outreach Award in 2021 for his efforts in serving the community. Kaul is also the president of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) at Stanford.

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