You Can Go Home Again: How a City Hall Reporter Ended Up Writing a Book About High School Football

firstandlongcolor.jpgby Jeremy Berg

One of the recurring statements in Greg Borowski’s First and Long: A Black School, a White School, and Their Season of Dreams is that this is not the movies. The underdog does not always triumph, some problems never go away, and the characters we care about do not always succeed. First and Long chronicles the first season of the combined Messmer (private, Catholic, urban, mostly black and poor) — Shorewood (public, suburban, mostly white and wealthy) high school football team, a chronicle that reminds us real life is not scripted and that it is much more complex than a movie line. The lack of a Hollywood ending does not denote failure, and a single season is not the full measure of a team. But it is a beginning. The merger of the two schools’ teams was the brainchild of then Shorewood head coach Jim Trost, and Borowski does take time to detail the negotiations and logistics of the merger. However, he wisely chooses to open First and Long in the place where he spends most of the book — on the football field. Football is the heart of the story, and we are made to feel the heat of practice in August, the weight of helmets, the endless succession of drills and sprints. The physical hardships came on top of tough legacies for players from both schools. Shorewood’s football team had been a joke for years; Messmer hadn’t had one at all for almost two decades. On paper the idea looked great: beef up Shorewood with badly needed numbers and give Messmer students a chance to play football. Yet getting the disparate elements brought together by the partnership to function as one was another matter, and one of First and Long’s greatest accomplishments lies in effectively showing how hard it is to make a collection of individual players into a team. Borowski is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and he has a journalist’s eye for detail. His writing style likewise reflects his profession; First and Long is built on honest, direct storytelling, which works in its favor. The difficult issues of racial and economic divide, so often not discussed in Milwaukee, are key parts of the story, making them both easier to grasp and harder to avoid. The journalistic style also makes for easier transitions from one character to another, a necessity in a book with so many major players. The progress of the season, charted in how practices advance (or fall back) and that week’s game, always gives us a center to return to. The matter-of-fact style works most of all to fulfill that oldest of writers’ adages, “show, don’t tell.” As First and Long goes through the season, we experience the events that fuel the frustrations of the players and coaches and feel the effects of plays that refuse to come together, players with sporadic attendance, and the revolving door nature of such important positions as quarterback and captain. And from going through the team’s frustrations, we also have all the greater appreciations for their triumphs, the things that do work and the sense of brotherhood that gets built across the social divide. The subtitle refers to the first Shorewood-Messmer season as a “season of dreams,” and indeed, that is what it is. Dreams are wonderful things, and they can make projects like the Shorewood-Messmer partnership occur, but they also must compromise with reality. First and Long is a warts and all look at where that dream and that reality met. Borowski’s first book signing is at Harry W. Schwartz in Shorewood on February 24 at 7 p.m. There will also be book signing events scheduled for Woodland Pattern and an event at Messmer coming up in March.

It’s early morning and I’m drinking coffee with Greg Borowski, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter and author of First and Long, a new book he wrote about the football partnership that started in 2001 between Shorewood High School and his alma mater, Messmer Prep. We’re two blocks from the house he grew up in and half that distance from Our Lady of Divine Providence, formerly St. Casimir’s, the church Borowski attended while growing up — and still attends, despite living in Bayview now. No stranger to Riverwest, then. Perhaps that’s why he saw potential in a story on the team when few others did, even though his beat is City Hall, not sports. “I just thought ‘what a great concept, what a story that’s going to be.’ I initially thought I’d better talk to the sports department and make sure they do a good job following the season, and then on second thought, thought ‘well, I’m only going to be disappointed if I see someone else writing the story,’ and made the pitch to do it myself. As a former Messmer student, he also had a first hand look at the huge contrast between the two schools, practicing track at Shorewood. “Those two schools are so close, yet the difference is now so great” — a difference that has only increased over the years. Messmer’s student body is now predominantly African American as opposed to the much more even split it had when Borowski was still delivering the newspaper he now writes for. But splits have the potential to heal as well as grow. If Messmer and Shorewood weren’t diversifying themselves, the football team offered a chance to bring two very different, yet very close populations together. “A lot of the players from the two schools are such that had they not had this team, they never would have met. It intrigued me that here’s two people who would never have any reason to even encounter each other, who now through this process are friends, they’re staying in touch.” It was not an easy process by any means, and First and Long attests to that fact. Yet it has survived to a second season, and a third, the partnership finding what works and what doesn’t, the team getting better in stages. And even though the book is completed and the season it recorded is two years gone, Borowski has kept up with his old team. “I went to all the games of the second season. . . last season I went to half the games at least. I intend to keep doing it. . . It’s a little more fun now, to go back and just support the team. The players who were sophomores [in 2001] finished as seniors. . . I sort of graduated with the team.” –Jeremy Berg