When high school sports tell better stories than the Super Bowl

Eric Sondheimer, left, at the Fairfax State Preview Classic in January at Cerritos College.
(Nick Koza)

When Eric Sondheimer was cut from the basketball team at James Madison Middle School in North Hollywood, he joined the school newspaper and covered sports. Since then, he has reported on the Super Bowl, the World Series and the NBA Championships.

But these high-profile events have just been diversions, he says, in more than 40 years as a high school sports reporter. To honor his “integrity, work ethic, sportsmanship, and decency,” the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame recently named its new high school football coaches award after Sondheimer.

“It’s an opportunity to make your greatest impact,” he told me of his preference for high school sports. “I mean, do you want to be one of 100 people writing about Kobe Bryant, or do you want to be the one person to write about somebody who’s going to be a great player down the road?”

Do you want to be one of 100 people writing about Kobe Bryant, or do you want to be the one person to write about somebody whos going to be a great player down the road?

Eric Sondheimer

As a high school senior and aspiring journalist, I found the prospect of writing about a man who has covered high school athletes for 19 years for the Los Angeles Times a bit daunting. But he was easy to talk to, and he shared his experiences covering John Elway when he was at Granada Hills, increased competitiveness in the realm of high school sports and how important it is to value the journey each athlete takes.

Jessica Zhou: What do you believe is, or should be, a journalist's role in high school sports?

Eric Sondheimer: Clearly, it’s different from covering the pros, where you have journalists criticizing certain athletes or coaches for not winning, or not producing. I’ve always believed that the coaches are teachers first, and that the kids are kids. But you also have to be very careful to remember that they are students first, and it is still high school sports, even though the high school sports world has changed immensely throughout the years.

What is biggest change you have observed in high school sports?

I think transfers have really changed the way high school sports is being run and perceived. It’s really the same schools winning year after year because when they don’t do well, they’re replacing kids with transfer students. They never have a rebuilding year. I feel sympathy towards the schools trying to be successful but they lose kids to these other schools. I have to work out ways to deal with that, such as picking a coach of the year that doesn’t have a bunch of transfers, recognizing teams that are homegrown teams, that are doing well. I’m searching for ways to recognize the schools that are doing the best they can with their homegrown players. But there are so few of them these days that it’s becoming a difficult task.

What drives people’s fascination with sports at the high school, collegiate and professional level?

It’s all about the future. I’m supposed to project who’s going to be the next college or professional star. I always knew there was a big business in college recruiting. People want to know who’s going to be the next big star at the college level and so there’s a lot of interest at the high school level. They want to know who’s going to be their next running back, or their next star baseball or basketball player, or swimmer or softball player.

It’s fun, in my perspective. When I first started, one of the first people that I covered was John Elway, a high school quarterback from Granada Hills. I mean, who knew he was going to end up being a Hall of Famer? Through the years I’ve had an opportunity to cover a lot of high school players who went on to be college or pro standouts, and it’s always fun to look back and say, “Yeah, I got to see them when nobody knew who they were.”

Long after these players have stopped playing sports, do the lessons they’ve learned stay with them?

I hope so. I don’t want to just tell the story of the athlete scoring the most points, or accumulating the most touchdowns. That’s not the best story in my opinion. It’s the story of what they are learning from their everyday lives of high school, and from their parents and from their coaches, because most of these kids are not going to be professional or even college stars, but what they learn at the high school level is hopefully going to help them make it as adults.

One reason I’ve been writing about high school sports for so long is because there are so many lessons to be learned and to be told, and hopefully some of the things that I’ve written about through the years will rub off on others.

I dont want to just tell the story of the athlete scoring the most points .... [The best story is] the story of what they are learning from their everyday lives.

Eric Sondheimer

Jessica Zhou is a senior at West Torrance High School and a contributor to High School Insider. She describes herself as a writer/student/mixtape-curator/something-or-other who appreciates a good story. Say hello @itsjesszhou!

Interview was edited and condensed.