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Fifth grade dreams

senior columns

How many people get the chance to do what they dreamed of doing when they were in fifth grade?

When I was in elementary school, I was a big fan of John Feinstein, a Chronicle alum himself, and a series of his books about two teenagers who win a writing contest and get to cover some of the biggest events in sports. The books were fun to read and had a few details that resonated personally with me. For one, Susan Carol, one of the two main protagonists, is a huge Duke fan like me. And in my favorite book in the series, the Washington Nationals end up winning the World Series in a dramatic Game 7 victory thanks to a surprising hero (sound familiar?).

Like any other sports-obsessed kid, my dream was to be playing on the field. But the more I read these books, another goal fixed itself in my head: being a sports reporter. Throughout middle school, this remained my dream job. I remember writing an entirely fictitious article, complete with a box score, about a local fictional quarterback who led a D.C. football team to the Super Bowl. I could think of few things better than being the next Thomas Boswell or Barry Svrulga (also a Chronicle alum) at my hometown Washington Post.

In high school, however, this dream all but entirely faded away. I thought more about what I should be doing instead of thinking about what I necessarily wanted to be doing, something I’m sure many people relate to. But if there’s one thing I’m grateful to Duke for, it’s the opportunity to grow in my four years to have the confidence to be authentically, totally me. And part of that meant reconnecting with my fifth grade, reporter-crazy self along the way.

When I got to Duke, I reconnected with a friend who was already deeply involved in journalism, the Chronicle’s  managing editor for Volume 114, Ben Leonard. After the activities fair I tagged along with him to our first-ever Chronicle meeting. I’d let it go for years, but somehow I had stumbled my way into my fifth-grade dream, straight out of a Feinstein book: I was a Duke basketball-crazed sports reporter covering the teams I loved.

Since that first meeting in 301 Flowers, I’ve gotten the chance to do things that might have made even Susan Carol proud. How many young Duke fans get the chance to grow up and sit courtside at a Duke basketball game in Cameron, and then go into the locker room to interview Grayson Allen or Zion Williamson? How many other young lacrosse fans in attendance at Duke’s thrilling first national championship in Baltimore got to cover the program seven years later and get to know its legendary head coach, John Danowski? How many "Bull Durham" fans have gotten to watch the Bulls scrimmage Duke, and talk to future MLB players in the locker room afterwards?

I can’t help but smile reading that paragraph. If I had told myself in fifth grade I’d do those three things one day, that alone would have been enough. I mean, how great is that?

And even more than those moments, the reason I loved living my fifth-grade dream here was because of the people I got to live it with. There are countless things that compete for students’ attention at Duke, and it was often a challenge for me to balance everything I wanted to do. But even long after I realized a career in journalism wasn’t for me, I never considered leaving the Sports section because of the friendships I made here and the great people I got to meet. From my first editors who coached me into a reasonable facsimile of a journalist to the great younger writers coming up behind my class, it’s as creative, welcoming, hard-working and talented a group of people as you’ll find at Duke.

When I hear my mom call my name and I walk across my living room to pick up my diploma from the mailman in a few weeks, my next stop won’t be a career in journalism. I’ve covered my last game, scrambled to meet my last deadline and (mercifully) transcribed my last interview.

But thanks to Duke, and to the Chronicle, for four years I lived my childhood dream of being a sports reporter alongside some of the best people and writers I’ve ever met. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.

Riley is graduating with a B.A. in Public Policy Studies. He is going home to Washington, D.C., where you can find him on any given night the Nationals are in town in Section 223, Row J, Seat 2. 

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