In the latest edition of “Conversations with Clayton,” I begin my series of interviews with sportswriters who cover our fellow American Athletic Conference schools. My first such interviewee is Reece Kelley Graham, who covers SMU sports for The Daily Campus and is currently interning at the breaking news desk at The Dallas Morning News. We discuss SMU sports, the city of Dallas and his greatest career video game victory.
Clayton Trutor (CT): How did you get involved in covering SMU sports?
Reece Kelley Graham (RKG): Well, it has been a long and winding road to be perfectly honest. Baseball was my first love and I spent most of my youth playing it. That is, until my lack of skill caught up with me. But I always remained a student of the game.
I began to focus primarily on my second love about the time I entered high school: the theater. I know, weird combination. I sound like someone out of High School Musical, but that's where life took me and I'm so fortunate for my theater training - so many of the skills I learned made me a better reporter in the long run.
I was accepted by the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities for my junior year, where I continued to study theater. It was one of the best and worst experiences. The best because the training was phenomenal, the people were great and the fact that living away from home two years ahead of schedule gave me a great dose of reality before university. The worst because I felt sort of directionless once I graduated. My time at that school made me a better theater artist, but also made it clear for myself that I did not want to be an actor.
I applied to multiple schools with great theater programs, one of which was SMU, where I ended up enrolling. It was a very uncertain time for me - not wanting to pursue the thing I had spent the better part of high school training for. Coming to SMU ended up being the best decision I ever made, even though I had never been to Texas when I decided to come. The people and fresh start was what I needed, and SMU's Journalism Division (J-School) provided me the thing I was missing: a direction. It was about that time my love and knowledge of sports called back to me, even though SMU did not have a baseball team (it still doesn't). Every student in our school has a niche: business, fashion, politics, etc. I began my journalism training right after a large wave of student reporters interested in covering sports had graduated, so I pounced on those opportunities.
Tony Pederson, the chair of our division and former executive/sports editor at the Houston Chronicle, has made SMU's J-School a wonderful place to be. Our faculty is incredible and I cannot thank them enough for putting me on the right path. On top of all of this, it has been a great time to be at SMU for sports - a great time to be a reporter that is. Lot's of highs and lows, triumphs and heartbreak. I can only hope the rest of my career is as entertaining.
CT: How are the fiesta nachos at Milo Butterfingers?
RKG: As good as advertised, if not better. That's a popular spot. But if we're talking Tex-Mex, SMU students tend to gravitate more towards Bandito's or Digg's Tacos, both just a block away from campus. Bandito's flautas are sick and Digg's makes a margarita that'll knock your lights out. Dallas might not be a college town but definitely is college friendly, if you know where to go. Lower Greenville and Uptown are always hotspots for SMU students and grads. Also, there's Home Bar, which I'm pretty sure made a list of top college bars in America a few years back. I never have time to do much partying. I'd rather spend my nights in a press box than at a bar. If that sounds sad, I'm not much bothered by it.
CT: What are three things that people don't know about Dallas?
- The Dallas/Ft. Worth rivalry is a real thing, and I'm not just talking SMU vs. TCU. For two cities that make up one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, both could not have different cultures. One is a land of oil and cattle, the other, a land of shiny buildings and stock portfolios. It's very "old money" vs. "new money”, and the rivalry between the Mustangs and Horned Frogs is just an extension of that. Not that the people on either side of the metroplex can't coexist, the cultures just don't mix well. There are some people who have lived in Dallas all their lives and have never been to Ft. Worth, and vice versa.
- Dallas has the best BBQ, and it isn't even close. As someone who's grown up all over the South, I'm pretty sure smoked meats are responsible for half of my body fat content. I'm partial to the southern sweetness of Georgia, the mustard-based of South Carolina and Sonny's Fatboy's in North Florida (#legendary). But Pecan Lodge in Dallas, my word. With brisket that comes hot to your table with an inch plus of brine, I can't describe it. The first time I ate the brisket at Pecan Lodge, I had the answers to all of life's questions flash before my eyes, yet simultaneously forgot them because of the flavor explosion in my mouth. Some will swear by Franklin's in Austin as the best, but Dallas wins, 1, 2, 3. Ring the bell. Oh, and none of this was sponsored, I promise.
- Yes, everyone in Highland Park is really, really rich. They don't call it "Southern Millionaires University" for nothing. The neighborhood just south of SMU boasts some of the largest bank accounts in the state. Think J.R. Ewing, but instead of the Southfork Ranch, it's an entire neighborhood of people with just as much money as him, if not more.
CT: What are three things that people don't know about SMU?
- Greek life is king. Greek letters basically dominate the whole social landscape of SMU students. The university only has about 6,500 undergraduate students, but over 43 percent pledge a fraternity or sorority, which is huge. The student body is pocketed and lives almost entirely in small circles.
- The malaise is real. There's no pain like the pain of a Mustangs fan. There are plenty of sports franchises that perform badly, but none of them seem cursed like SMU. And that's not just my opinion - any other person in the SMU community would say the same. The "Death Penalty" will never be handed down to a school again, partially because it was designed specifically with those on The Hilltop in mind. To be fair, the school was asking for it, and probably deserved it. But the NCAA could have never foreseen the permanent damage it would cause. The Mustangs' basketball renaissance has been a blessing, a beacon of hope. When SMU finally does win a national championship in basketball or football, it will be the ultimate exorcism. Get a 30 for 30 director ready.
- SMU hosts the top video game design graduate program in the world. No, seriously. What a random thing to have at a school known for business degrees? It's called The Guildhall and is housed at SMU's campus in Plano, a city north of Dallas. It looks awesome and I'm super bummed it hasn't played a bigger role in my life to this point.
CT: If you had to put together a Survivor Series team out of your favorite Mustang athletes of all time, who would be your five guys?
1. Nic Moore: Nic is universally worshiped by almost everyone on the SMU campus to this day. He was probably the best thing to happen to any SMU sports team since Eric Dickerson in terms of immediate impact. His wining shot against California in the 2014 NIT quarterfinals will be forever engrained in my mind. He's like if Rey Mysterio had John Cena's untouchable status and drawing power.
2. Doak Walker: Because every Survivor Series team needs a veteran who takes the spot of a young up-and-comer. Besides, he reminds me of Bruno Sammartino, and Bruno was a gnarly dude.
3. Semi Ojeleye: Because every Survivor Series team needs a babyface who's more over than the captain. He's an absolute freak of nature. So skilled, so talented, so jacked, and so likable. And for what it's worth, Ojeleye is on here for that last one. Such a nice guy - the kind of guy a general manager will love someday. He's like a Sami Zayn/Finn Balor/Bobby Lashley hybrid.
4. "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan: Because he played football at SMU while earning his degree in applied plant biology. Need I say more? He met the great Fritz Von Erich on a recruiting trip to SMU and began wrestling after his football career was sidelined by knee injuries. He trained at the Dallas Sportatorium under Peter Maivia.
5. Jonathan Wilfong: Because every Survivor Series team needs a Fandango.
CT: Favorite sports venue in the Metroplex?
RKG: Other than Moody Coliseum? Easy. The Ballpark in Arlington. And yes, that's what it's called. The. Ballpark. In. Arlington. Not "Bank of the Week" Ballpark. Ameriquest Field? Globe Life Park? C'mon now. I know we live in a world controlled by money and sponsorships, but the original name was perfect. That's the kind of annoying thing that ruins my day when I accidentally think about it. But on a serious note, the stadium is a masterpiece. "The Temple" is a fine nickname. One of the last 90's era retro ballparks standing, and it too will be replaced soon.
CT: When you hear the word "Cincinnati," you think ___________
RKG: Skyline Chili. The sad thing? I've never had it. I've only been to Cincinnati once (for SMU's final game of the 2015-2016 basketball season) and it was only for 12 hours. Never found time, tragically. That chili has been the butt of some pretty good jokes from SMU students who like to compare it to the beautiful Dallas skyline. But I won't knock it until I try it. Something that absurd only sticks around if truly magical.
CT: What other teams do you follow?
RKG: Being from Atlanta, I'm a diehard Braves fan. I had no thoughts of switching that allegiance to the Rangers when I moved to Dallas. Braves always. Funnily enough, my dad had always been a Cowboys fan, so that kind of worked out. Other than that, I follow whoever my audience is following. I like the challenge. I follow college basketball religiously. UT-Arlington has been fun to watch as a supplement to covering SMU.
CT: Describe your greatest victory in a sports video game:
RKG: It was in NCAA Football 2011. Dynasty Mode, playing as the Florida Gators (where my dad's siblings went to school) vs. Tennessee in Knoxville. 4th quarter, :02 remaining. Score is tied at 0 (not sure how that happened, but I was most likely playing on Heisman difficulty). Volunteers ball at the Gators' 40. I accidentally forgot to call a prevent defense and instead went with man coverage. Receiver catches the ball at the 10 and is immediately tackled. Fumble. My safety picks it up and somehow gets by everybody, 90 yards for the winning touchdown.
CT: Predictions for SMU Football in 2017?
RKG: Bowl game, finally. After not getting to cover one during my four years on The Hilltop, I think it's finally time. The schedule is SMU's friend. The Mustangs could very easily win four of their first five games (Stephen F. Austin, North Texas, Arkansas State and Connecticut) and will give TCU a good fight. If it comes down to one final game, having Tulane in Dallas is a good scenario.
The defense looks mighty impressive, which I couldn't say, or rather, even comprehend saying three years ago. If Chad Morris can figure out his quarterback situation, SMU will be mighty dangerous. Ben Hicks, who replaced an injured Matt Davis last season, is currently the favorite. But Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey looks sharp and DJ Gillins, who transferred in from Wisconsin and is currently recovering from knee surgery, could be ready to compete for that spot next season. SMU has the receiving corps to do serious damage if somebody can throw an accurate ball.
Keeping Morris in Dallas is the next challenge. He came close to leaving at season's end and still hasn't received the indoor training facility that was announced last summer and rumored way before then. It hasn't even broken ground yet. He came to SMU because he was promised a commitment to rebuilding the program, and that new facility would be a major sign of that commitment. SMU needs Morris' energy and it would be a shame to see him leave, no matter the reason.
Follow Reece Kelley Graham on Twitter: @ReeceKelleyG
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