Seth Wickersham’s long ESPN the Magazine feature about Kellen Winslow is a prime example of the dominant ESPN the Magazine feature mode. That is, it’s a friendly-enough article about the maturation process of an athlete who may not really deserve a friendly feature or be all that mature. The gist of it, as is often the case with these sorts of ESPN features, is that While You Think You Know Presumed Asshole Athlete X, It Turns Out That You Don’t, because really PAAX loves his dogs or grandparents or the game (so darn much that it sometimes makes him seem like a jerk). It’s not a hugely unworthy direction for a feature to go, and certainly not notably more worthless than the standard tabloid “Whipping Boy Athlete X is Gutless, Yeah I Said It.” But it’s not surprising, and works less well for some athletes than others.
There is, it turns out, only so much any writer can do to polish Kellen Winslow, Jr. Which I guess is fine, since Winslow can be however he chooses to be and the piece itself is pretty readable. Wickersham’s big discovery is basically that while Winslow is still weapons-grade cocky and maybe kind of a butthead, he is also calm, polite, serious about football, etc. when engaged in conversation. It’s sort of a longish feature to come to that non-conclusion of a conclusion, but Wickersham perks things up by doling out some excruciatingly excruciating details on Winslow’s staph-related swollen testicles scare from last season. (The article is currently behind the ESPN Insider wall, but you should really consider joining, if only because then you’re guaranteed not to miss a week of Bill Simmons’ podcast. I think he’s talking to Adam Carolla about women this week) Anyway, strap in:
If the story about his testicles doesn’t get Winslow any appreciation, he doesn’t know what will. He’s in the kitchen of his San Diego home, remembering an October morning in Ohio last year when he woke up and was sore — down there. “I thought it was nothing, it’ll go away,” he says. “Next morning my testicles were enlarged, to the point where it hurt to walk.”
Winslow rushed to the Cleveland Clinic and was immediately admitted. Becuase the Browns decided not to release any information about his condition until there was an official diagnosis, rumors spread that Winslow had an STD. His publicist texted the Browns’ PR staff: “Because of speculation (sic) and rumors we are letting the media know that Kellen was treated for a ‘staph infection’ resulted (sic) from a cut he acquired from a car door — stretching the truth a bit, but it will dispell (sic) the rumors and inuendos (sic).”
A media rep from the Browns replied, “Don’t do that. Kellen needs to talk to (then head coach) Romeo Crennel and (then GM) Phil Savage first.” The Browns have had a staph infection problem: at least six players have been infected since 2003. Picking that injury as a cover was not acceptable. “If it isn’t staph, don’t say staph,” the Browns rep texted. “It will force the team to contradict him.” Seventeen texts ensued, some contentious.
Eventually doctors confirmed that Winslow did have staph. And he had passed it on to Janelle, who was also hospitalized. Winslow was terrified they wouldn’t be able to have kids, and that if they could, their child might be infected. In the hospital, with tubes running into one of his testicles, Winslow’s treatment began: “They had to drain it. They had a scalpel. They cut into it. I had to clean it every day with a Q-Tip, for two and a half weeks. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever been through.”
After four days in the hospital, Winslow wanted to take the field against the Redskins on October 19. Few players, if any, have had fluid drained from their testicles so that they could participate in a game, let alone practice. Winslow did.
Maybe hire another publicist? At any rate: impressive(ly wince-inducing).