On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes sports columnist and author Fred Bowen on Monday, August 3 at 12:30 p.m. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
A quarterback upstaged by a younger player. A pitcher who loses his cool on the mound. A point guard who can’t get along with his teammates.
Fred Bowen knows that sports, while fun, are also filled with disappointment and conflict that can teach us a whole lot about life — and make for dramatic, action-packed novels.
Bowen, who has written about sports for the Washington Post’s KidsPost section for 20 years, just came out with his 25th sports book for kids: “Gridiron: Stories From 100 Years of the National Football League.”
We’ll talk about his new book, and how we keep sports alive when the pandemic makes it hard to be a player and a fan.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Fred Bowen Author and Washington Post/Kidspost Sports Columnist; @FredBowenBooks
KOJO NNAMDI"Off the Rim," Throwing Heat," "Out of Bounds," "Final Cut," "Full Court Fever." These are just a few of the 25 action-packed books Fred Bowen has written for kids about sports. If you haven't yet read a book by Fred Bowen, you may have caught his kid's Post column which he has written for the Washington Post for 20 years. He's also coached more than 30 kids' sports teams, so he's very prepared today to talk about playing sports, watching sports, reading about sports and writing about sports. A reminder for adults, you're welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids, we take kid's questions only. Fred Bowen, welcome.
FRED BOWENThanks for having me on, Kojo.
NNAMDILet's start with where were you born and where did you grow up?
BOWENWell, I grew up in a beautiful town north of Boston. It's called Marblehead, Massachusetts. And, actually, when I was a kid it was named one of the four or five most beautiful towns in America. So, I was very fortunate, as a kid.
NNAMDIWell, I may not have known where you were born, but I do know when you were born. So, hey, happy birthday, Fred.
BOWENOh, thank you. Thank you. I hope you don't ask me how old I am, because I was going to be prepared that I share August 3rd with Tom Brady and Tony Bennett. They have an August 3rd birthday, and I thought I could just say, well, I'm between Tom Brady and Tony Bennett.
NNAMDII prefer to say that you're 21 years and some months.
NNAMDIA few hundred months.
BOWENRight, right. A few.
NNAMDIWhat kinds of things did you like to do as a kid?
BOWENOh, as a kid, well, I was one of six kids -- or one of seven kids. I was the sixth kid of seven. And so there was lots of activity around the house. I had four older brothers, played sports with them all the time and, quite frankly, did a lot of losing, because I was the little brother. But got into sports and things like that. And, actually, spent a lot of time just kind of throwing a ball up against the back of the house and sort of pretending games in my mind. And that actually, as I look back, was a great way to sort of make up stories about sports. And so that probably got me when I started to write sports stories, I'd already been doing that as a kid. So, that was good preparation.
NNAMDIHaving four older brothers made it difficult for you to win one-on-one at any sport, but ultimately, you beat one of your brothers in badminton. Tell us about that.
NNAMDITell us about that.
BOWENI remember this quite well. I can't remember the exact age I was. I might've been about nine or 10. I'd been practicing quite a bit, and I was playing my older brother Dave who's four years older, and I beat him. And I remember, I just dropped the birdie over the net for the final point, and Dave took it rather hard. He just turned around and through the badminton racket into the next yard and stormed into the house. There have been very few times in my life I've been as happy as that. (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) Fred, at what point did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
BOWENWell, you know, it's funny. I came down here, went to law school at GW, became a lawyer. The crucial thing was I got married when I was about 28 years old. And my wife was a journalist with that local newspapers. She was with the Montgomery County Sentinel, Montgomery County Journal. Remember the days when there were local, you know, county newspapers. But the -- and we used to hang out with the journalists.
BOWENAnd one night, at a party, her editor came over to me and said, well, Fred, you know, you're funny, you love to tell stories, you love movies. I was going to a lot of movies at that point, and said, how would like to be a movie reviewer for my paper? And I thought, hey, they'd be great. And so I started to do that, and then when our kids came along, my wife was not really -- she didn't support the idea of, oh, you're going to go to the movies by yourself all the time? No, that wasn't going to happen.
BOWENAnd so I started doing video reviews. But then when I started to read sports books to my son when he was, oh, I guess about six or seven, I didn't think they were very good, and I thought, gee, you know, I could write a better sports book than this. And I tried, and I failed with the first one. But then I had pitched it a little older. But then I started to write for the eight to 12 crowd, and that felt right. And my first book was published in 1996, called "T.J.'s Secret Pitch." It's still in print. It still sells. So, it's been a great second career, because I retired from being a lawyer about 12 years ago.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of the eight to 12 group, here is 11-year-old Nikko in Washington, D.C. Nikko, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NIKKOSo, my name is Nikko, and I'm 11. And I wanted to know, what do you think will happen with the MLB season this year?
BOWENWoo, boy, Nikko. (laugh) Maybe it would've been better if I was Dr. Anthony Fauci. I think they will sort of soldier on, unless they really start to get more and more positive tests. One of the things, I really think that it may be hard for everybody to play the same number of games. I'm trying to figure out. They're postponing games. The Miami team has had a lot of positive tests. And now the St. Louis team has had a lot of positive tests. They're postponing games. I'm not sure how and when they're going to make these games up. And if those games start piling up, it may be very difficult to finish the season. Does that answer your question, Nikko?
NIKKOYeah, it does. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIFred, growing up in Massachusetts, you were obviously a Red Sox fan, and your favorite player was one Pumpsie Green, who was not known as one of the stars of the team. Who was he? And besides, why was he your favorite?
BOWENWell, you know, it's interesting, and a lot of the columns and the books have sports history in it. And this is a little bit of sports history. And that was -- Pumpsie Green was the first African-American to play for the Red Sox. The Red Sox shamefully were the last team to integrate, and they integrated in 1959, and Pumpsie Green came along. And I was, you know -- I think I was picking up a vibe in my family that we should be rooting for this person. We wanted him to succeed.
BOWENThe other thing, though, that I think was so great about him -- and he was not a great player, at all -- was what a wonderful nickname, Pumpsie. (laugh) And so I think something like that was just so attractive to me at a very young age. I thought, oh boy, that's a cool name, Pumpsie, especially when you're named Fred. You know, to have a name like Pumpsie would be a lot of fun. (laugh) So, that was the reason.
NNAMDIAnd it's always a lot of fun when you have a favorite player that is not necessarily everyone else's favorite player. (laugh)
BOWENWell, right. I mean, everybody could, you know, go along with, you know, Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox. He was going to be a Hall of Famer, and things like that. In fact, right now with the Nationals, my favorite guy, I root for him like crazy, is Michael A. Taylor. He makes it hard to root for him, because he can't quite get it all done, but I think he's a -- you know, I'm just hoping for the day that it all sort of falls into place and he becomes a better ballplayer.
NNAMDIHe happens to be one of my favorites on the team, too. But you not only grew up a Red Sox fan, but you wrote a book about Ted Williams. Yet you've lived in the Washington area for many years, so are you a Red Sox fan or a Nats fan now?
BOWENWell, I sort of officially, what was it, I think it was like four years ago, switched to being a Nats fan. And it was mostly because the Red Sox had won, like, three World Series in the last nine years or something like that. And I did fit in the line, which I wanted to in the column. And that was, I said, well, if you want to win every year, you're no better than a Yankee fan.
BOWENAnd several Yankee fans wrote me about that saying, hey, what's wrong with wanting to win every year? And I had to write them back and explain, well, I was just sort of teasing. But, yeah, I sort of felt like the Nats, at the time, you know, had a series of heartbreaking close calls. And that, you know, I was used to that, as a Red Sox fan.
NNAMDIFred Bowen, let's talk about your new book "Gridiron," which is a little different from most of your books because it's nonfiction. What's it about and why is it called "Gridiron"?
BOWENWell, the full title is "Gridiron: Stories from 100 years of the National Football League." And what it is, it's a beautiful book. It just came out, and it is a history, of sorts, told through 20 different chapters of the National Football League. For example, the league started in an automobile showroom in Canton, Ohio in 1920. And they were just men who owned various, you know, semipro, pro teams, and they wanted to have a more organized league.
BOWENOne of the things that I tell the kids in the book is that it costs $100 to get into the league. And somebody who was at the meeting said, nobody paid the $100. He said, I doubt there was $100 in the room.
BOWENSo, it's a very interesting look back over the years. And I go into the history of the league, but also talk about some of the great games, like the 1958 championship game, the immaculate reception, the first Super Bowl. You now, a lot of great stuff. And it is illustrated by James Ransome, who is just a spectacularly talented artist. He is a three-time recipient of a Coretta Scott King honor. So, he's the real deal when it comes to art.
NNAMDIWell, "Gridiron" is full of whacky football history that many people don't know about. For example, the league's first championship game in 1932 and its very unusual odor. What can you tell us about that?
BOWENWell, this is one of those things, when you're doing research, you think -- and especially when you're writing for kids, you think, oh, this is so perfect. I can't believe this even happened. First thing you have to understand is for the first 12 years of the league, they didn't even have a championship game or any playoffs. They just sort of named the best team in the league. And the teams would play a different number of games. One team would play 10, one team would play 15, and it was very disorganized.
BOWENWell, one year the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans were tied for first place. And George Halas, who was the owner of the Bears, said, well, we ought to have a championship game to drum up interest in the league. But he insisted that it be in Chicago. And some of the other people were saying, well gee, Chicago in December. It could snow. He says, no, don't worry about that. Well, it snowed. In fact, there was a blizzard. And so they had to play the game at the ice rink where the Chicago Blackhawks played.
BOWENNow, it wasn't on the ice, obviously. There had been a circus the previous week at the ice rink. And so they played on that surface, which contemporary accounts of the game said there was an odor at the ice rink at the stadium because of what the animals from the circus had left on the ground. So, when you think about, oh, well, the NFL is this big bazillion dollar business, in the old days they were laying in basically elephant dung. (laugh) You know, it's a long way from those days.
NNAMDII'm going to get back to the NFL for a second but 11-year-old Henry, love your book "Out of Bounds," and adds, what is your favorite soccer team?
BOWENOh, my favorite soccer team. I'm not as big a soccer fan as I probably should be. I would say that my favorite team, as I've watched over the years, has to be the United States National Women's team. First of all, they are terrific. And, second of all, they are really, you know, a wonderful example of a team and working together. In fact, one of my books, the history part in the back of the book is about the 1999 U.S. women's national team which had a coach whose only job was to make the women better teammates, and that that was very instrumental to them wining in that year. And that was the famous Brandi Chastain game, and all that. So, I'd have to say that team is probably my favorite.
NNAMDIYou also talk about what happened to the first soccer World Cup, the cup itself. (laugh)
BOWENWell, actually, that's going to be coming in an upcoming book that'll be out next year. And my series books, the ones that -- the chapter books, as opposed to the nonfiction book, "Gridiron," they combine sports fiction, sports history, always have a chapter of sports history in the back. And the one that's coming out next year will be about this mystery of a soccer trophy that disappears from the town. But the history is that the World Cup, the original World Cup trophy was stolen from Brazil, I think it was back in the 1980s or '90s, and has never been found.
BOWENAnd that's one of those things where you think, wow, really? And they say, well, what's that trophy they hold up? Oh well, that's the second one. The original, though, was stolen and has never been found.
NNAMDIWow. You also write in "Gridiron" about the first NFL draft. Can you explain how it was different than drafts today?
BOWENWell, very different, Kojo. Today, of course, the draft is, what, three days. It is this extravaganza. They have experts. They have the players waiting to come out and be introduced, and they put on the hat. You know, the whole show and stuff.
BOWENYeah, and, of course, there's the months of, you know, speculation beforehand. The first draft of the NFL was, I believe, in 1936. It was held in a hotel room in Philadelphia. The nine teams attended. Most -- some, like the general manger. Most of them had almost no research, no -- they would come in with, like, newspaper clippings of, you know, all-star teams or all-American teams. Each of the teams drafted nine players, but -- and this is the amazing thing -- so there were 81 players drafted. Only 31 of them ever played in the NFL, because most of them said, well, why would I want to play football for that little amount of money? I can go and get a job that pays real money.
BOWENAnd so a little different from today. In fact, the number-one pick was a guy who -- what was his name -- Jay Berwanger had won the Heisman Trophy. He's the number one pick. They didn't offer him enough money. He went and became a sportswriter and later a businessman. I think we can safely say that that will never happen again. (laugh)
NNAMDIThough you just published a book about the history of the NFL, you also, in Kids Post, write about the NFL today. Recently, you wrote a column about Colin Kaepernick and how the NFL treated him. What did you have to say?
BOWENWell, I've written about him several times. And one of the things that I think's important to get across to kids is that, you know, this is a -- Kaepernick's actions are really in the tradition of nonviolent protest. In other words, I think that our Founding Fathers knew that there were going to be times when people were going to have to speak up, and they were going to have to be given the opportunity to do that. Obviously, over the years now, more and more players are speaking up about Black Lives Matter, about different issues and things, and that's fine.
BOWENThe other thing that I said was it seemed pretty clear that, when you looked at Kaepernick's accomplishments and some of the quarterbacks who were still on NFL rosters, that somehow the NFL was blackballing and keeping Kaepernick out. And so those were the things that I wrote about. As always, I can't say that everyone agreed with me. I got, you know, several emails and letters saying, you know, you're wrong about that, but that's part of the fun of writing a column.
NNAMDIFred, you've also written recently in Kids Post about the Washington football team's decision to rename itself. What's your feeling about that decision?
BOWENWell, Kojo, I wrote in 2005 that they should change the name of the team. And the -- and at the time -- when you write for kids, you want to give them an example of something they can kind of understand. And I said, well, if you had a nickname for a friend of yours, and your friend didn't like the nickname, wouldn't you stop calling him that nickname? And that was really sort of the thinking that I had.
BOWENI also gave the history of the name. They had originally been the Boston Braves, then they changed it to the Boston Redskins and then they came down to Washington. But no, I've been in favor of changing the name. And now it'll be interesting to see what name they'll come up with. And, actually, I did some research in this. I think about 11 or 12 of the NFL teams have allowed -- have had some input from their fans on what the team should be named. So, maybe the Washington football team will do that.
NNAMDIAnd if they do have some input, what will be your contribution?
BOWENWell, I put in my column that I thought Red Hawks was sort of a cool name. It's a bird that's all around the country. About -- what was it -- I think I counted 14 of the NFL teams are named after animals, and like five or six of them are after birds. So, that might be kind of cool. But then I saw that article about the Red Tails, and that it would be to honor the Tuskegee Airmen. So, there are a lot of good ideas.
NNAMDILet's talk about some of your novels about kids and sports. Where do you get your ideas, and how come you always weave sports history into your stories?
BOWENWell, I've always loved history. That was sort of my favorite -- kids ask me sometimes, you know, what kind of books do you read? And I'll answer them, mostly history books. I like that. The ideas really often came from my own experiences, but also all that coaching was tremendous research. And so you would see the kids, you would see the issues that they were dealing with, and you could kind of make them into a story.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Fred Bowen is an author of sports books for kids. He also writes about sports for the Washington Post Kids Post section. Fred Bowen, always a pleasure. Thank you for joining us.
BOWENOh, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with Kids Post writer Fred Bowen was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our summer reading conversation was produced by Kayla Hewitt. This is Kayla's last show before she returns for her senior year at Georgetown University. Kayla started as an intern on the Kojo Show last summer. We asked her to come back because we needed her astute judgment, fine writing and strong work ethic. We wanted her back also because she's one of the more delightful colleagues you could hope to have. Kayla recently told us she's seriously considering going into journalism when she graduates. Journalism would be better for it. So, thank you, Kayla.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, George Washington University School of Medicine is undertaking a final stage COVID-19 vaccine trial, and they're seeking volunteers. We explore the hopes and reality around vaccines. Plus, Susan Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN and national security advisor to President Obama is here to talk about her memoir, "Tough Love." That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, stay safe, and thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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