Debbie Jacob writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
When I ended up being a squatter in the Trinidad Express sports department, I had no idea how much the late Mervyn Wells and David Brewster would shape my career in journalism. As a junior journalist, I didn’t have an assigned desk so I began each day as a nomad who eventually settled in the sports department to write.
Quite aware that I had invaded a boys’ club, I marvelled at how gentlemanly everyone on the sports desk was.
There were never any crude jokes; never any attempt to make me feel anything but welcome. Mervyn must have set the tone for that department, because even later, when Kwame Laurence and Marlon Miller joined the group, this was the case.
The sports department worked as a team, so it’s all a blur to me when it comes to remembering who suggested which sports stories I should write. It could have been Mervyn, David or even Marlon who suggested I write a feature on Phardance, Trinidad and Tobago’s version of the United States race horse Seabiscuit.
Eventually, Mervyn and David roped me into writing boxing features. They told me sports stories would make me concentrate on description and action, and that would make me a better journalist.
One day Mervyn said, “I’ve got a great story for you on Tiger.”
I thought I would be writing a story on Leslie “Tiger” Stewart, the Trinidadian boxer challenging Marvin “Pops” Johnson for a WBC title in Trinidad.
Mervyn said, “No one knows that Tiger is the nickname of Johnson’s wife. You’re going to interview her.”
Mervyn set it up. He told me what questions to ask and that’s how he launched my boxing feature career.
Then, Mervyn and David decided it would be interesting for a woman to write a story about the gruesome job of a boxing cutman, so I interviewed Johnson’s cutman. “Find out how they stop the blood from flowing,” Mervyn said. And I did.
David discovered Johnson’s sparring partner was from my home town of Mansfield, Ohio, and he arranged that story. While six months pregnant with my daughter, Ijanaya, I sat in the front row to cover the boxing match, thanks to Johnson’s sparring partner.
Somewhere along the line, David suggested I do a story on Tobagonian boxer David Noel. When Noel had me follow him into the dressing room for the interview, I was horrified. This was 30 years ago and it was rare in those days for women to be writing sports stories.
When I came back with the story, Brewster read it and pecked away at the computer keyboard with his index fingers. He changed the lead and created the headline, “Help, there are men taking their clothes off around me!” It was a brilliant story about a woman covering a man’s sport.
Mervyn and David also shaped one of the best stories I ever wrote, titled “A boxer is like a baby.” The story shows the soft, vulnerable side of Stewart and Johnson, two boxers preparing for a fight. Only a woman could have written that story; only Mervyn and David could have thought of a woman writing it.
Mervyn and David had me write soccer stories as well. I wrote about everyone on the Strike Squad, and I covered the infamous game between the US and Trinidad and Tobago.
There’s no doubt in my mind. Mervyn and David literally and figuratively opened doors for me. Together, they made me a better and more confident writer. For that, I am eternally grateful. Rest in peace, Mervyn. You were a fantastic mentor.