With the release of his eighth book for the preteen set, is Mike Lupica becoming to youth-sports fiction what J.K. Rowling is to fantasy?
Photograph by Tom Pepin
Will Tyler, the latest athlete to take the field in a Mike Lupica novel, is an adolescent who’s been tackled hard in the game of life. Channeling his inner twelve-year-old, Lupica has once again put himself inside the head of a sports-obsessed preteen to tell the story of The Underdogs, a down-on-its-luck Pop Warner–style football team that fumbles, then triumphs.
The Underdogs represents the eighth time that Lupica, a longtime New Canaan resident and one of the country’s preeminent sports journalists, has penned a fictional yarn for the Little League set that addresses his signature themes of friendship, loyalty, perseverance and good sportsmanship. You can always count on the New York Daily News columnist and ESPN2 radio host to score in the genre with a relatable role model. Often it’s a kid a lot like the lightning-fast running back Will Tyler, who rallies corporate America, his discouraged teammates and his emotionally wounded dad to save a bankrupt football program in a dying factory town.
“It takes no talent, no character, no heart, no spirit to get knocked down,” Lupica says of the message that permeates his books targeted at adolescent boys. “I’m always interested in what you do to pull yourself up. If there’s an underlying theme, it’s that adversity builds character and reveals things.”
The come-from-behind formula has been a literary slam-dunk for the author who has become to youth-sports fiction what J.K. Rowling is to fantasy. Lupica has a long-term deal with his publisher, Philomel Books, to produce a new title each fall. He also recently embarked on a new venture with Scholastic to produce a series of shorter stories for a slightly younger demographic.
“School librarians and moms love me,” Lupica marvels. “I’m very glad to be known as the guy who gets their boys to read.”
Having written nonfiction biographies of Reggie Jackson and former NFL coach Bill Parcells, adult fiction, and his newspaper columns for more than three decades, Lupica never imagined that writing for kids might be his ultimate claim to fame. “When I’m at a book signing and a boy walks up to me with a copy of Heat so worn out it looks like it was run over by a truck, I know I’m doing something right. But no one is more surprised by how this turned out than me.”
It was a real-life experience on the basketball court at New Canaan’s Saxe Middle School that inspired 1997’s Travel Team, Lupica’s first foray into the youth genre. Alex, the middle of the author’s three sons, was cut from his travel basketball team because he was too short. Frustrated and convinced that “twelve is too young to be telling any kid they can’t do something because of their size,” the journalist recruited all the boys axed from Alex’s squad to form the New Canaan Rebels. Lupica bankrolled the team and hustled to organize a schedule of games. In a miracle season, the Rebels went from suffering humiliating losses to winning and ultimately beating the team from which they were cut —by one point.
Lupica was considering writing a memoir of “the best sports season I’ve ever been part of” when his book agent suggested its plot was perfect fiction. “We printed 20,000 copies of Travel Team and I was worried it was 19,000 too many,” Lupica says. But the book was a runaway bestseller. Its success also made Lupica realize there was a void of relatable literature for boys. “I didn’t realize I was fixing a problem. I certainly didn’t set out to fix it, but I am told by parents and teachers again and again that my books are the ones that got their boys interested in books.”
Lupica suspects the reason he continues to connect with young sports enthusiasts is simple: “I write the books I wanted to read when I was twelve.”
During his own youth in Oneida, New York, the four-sport athlete devoured Clair Bee’s Chip Hilton series of basketball novels. He keeps a vintage stack of those books in the writing cottage behind his home where he drafts his novels by hand. “I guess I’m writing those books for the next generation of kids.”
Lupica pays close attention to the culture of his sophisticated pubescent audience. “Kids today are smarter than I was when I was their age. I was school smart, but today’s kids are smart about everything. Anyone who thinks they can write down to them will lose them.” Lupica has kept his connection to young athletes by being a “serial Little League coach” to his three sons, Christopher, Alex and Zach, and daughter, Hannah. His children range in age from thirteen to twenty-four. And even though his kids are aging out of league sports, the author says, “With all that I’ve seen in professional sports and on the fields right here in town, I’ll never have writer’s block.”
He also suspects that part of the secret to his literary success lies in the observation of his wife, Taylor, co-owner of the Elm Street boutique True Blue: “She says writing in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy is a perfect fit for me because deep down, that’s really who I still am.”
If Lupica has an adolescent locker-room mentality, it’s an evolved one. Case in point is the character of Hannah Grayson, the punter in The Underdogs. She is the confident daughter of a newspaper publisher whose athletic prowess helps her team enter the win column. Lupica calls Hannah—who deliberately shares his daughter’s name—one of his favorite fictional characters. “There are exceptional female athletes who have no need to tee it up with the boys, but I was writing to the girl who believes she really can do anything a boy can do in sports. And my message to the boys, is this girl should get a shot.”
Lupica says his character shares his daughter’s qualities of being “wonderful, confident and smart,” but his fictional Hannah is “far more cocky.” Meanwhile, his own seventh-grade girl, an accomplished rider, is lobbying for an equestrian-themed novel. “Even though it’s a little out of my element, I’m seriously considering it,” says the author.
It’s not unusual for Lupica to cultivate material so close to home. He’s fictionalized versions of jerk coaches and obnoxious sports parents he’s seen on local playing fields “because they deserve to be picked on.” But he’s quick to add “most coaches and parents are great people who volunteer and sit in the bleachers for the right reason, which is the kids.”
Speaking of coaching kids, Lupica says writing The Underdogs reminded him of just how much he misses the role. Come spring, he might just turn up on the sidelines of a baseball diamond in town. “I’ve been talking about coaching just for the sake of coaching, and I think I would like to do it again. It would be fun to work with a group of boys I don’t know and just see what happens.”
Now, that sounds like the beginning of another great plot line.