This week we talked with Wayne Epps, Jr. from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Epps’s beat at RTD is athletics at Virginia Commonwealth University, but he also lends his hand to covering other sports in and around the city.
We talked with him about how he turned a lifelong love affair with sports into a job, how he enjoys sports even in his off time, deadline magic, the metaphysics of the game(s) and a lot more.  

To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us about what you do?

I cover VCU athletics at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a role that I’ve had for about a year and a half. The big sport on my beat is basketball, so that’s my main focus throughout most of the fall and winter. Then I help out with coverage of various other things, like the Flying Squirrels (Richmond’s Double-A baseball team) and JMU football.

I’m from Prince George County, not far outside of Richmond. My interest in journalism was really sparked as a sophomore in high school. I wanted to give sports writing a real try, so I applied to join the staff of The Royal News, my high school newspaper. I got a great introduction to journalism from my teacher, Chris Waugaman, and my sports editor at the time, Amir Vera, and I discovered that I really liked it. So, I stuck with it, and decided that it was something that I wanted to pursue as a career.

From there, I knew that I wanted to major in journalism in college and went on to JMU. I started working for the school newspaper there, The Breeze, early in my freshman year and never left. I learned so much working for The Breeze and in the journalism program at JMU and worked with so many great people. It was a really fun four years. I graduated in 2016.

In early 2017, I was hired as a sports producer at the Times-Dispatch, helping to cover high school sports and put together high school box scores. That was a great learning experience for me and then, in September 2017, I was hired into my current position, covering VCU athletics. It’s been such a fun experience, and I’m thankful for the opportunity. I’ve learned a ton and am fortunate to be a part of such a great newsroom, with so many talented people. I’ve really enjoyed my two years there.

Was wanting to become a sport writer a natural evolution of your love of sports? Did that intensify, or change at all, after you started writing professionally?

Yes, I would say so. As a sports fan growing up, I enjoyed reading about sports, and used to write about sports in an informal way during a free writing exercise in a junior high English class. So, going into high school, I wanted to give formal sports writing a try, and that led me to get involved with my school newspaper.

Then I do think the perspective changes a bit as you start writing about sports professionally, in a way it should. I think you start to look at sports with a little bit more of a critical and analytical point of view, and less like just a fan.

In your off time, are you still able to watch and enjoy sports as a fan and not as a professional? Or are you always kind of in writer mode? 

Yes, definitely. But I think that I maybe just look at it with less of a magnifying glass than a game that I’m covering. But, at the same time, I think you always take note of things that could lend themselves to your own writing. Something might catch your eye, or a broadcaster may mention something, and that can spark a story idea or something like that. I do try to stay on the lookout for nuggets, even when I’m just watching a game for fun.

What’s it’s like covering VCU athletics in Richmond? Sports writers are known to catch flack and praise from all sides with a lot of their pieces. 

It’s been great. The VCU fanbase is very passionate and knowledgeable, which makes it even more fun. The fans are locked in on all happenings concerning the basketball program all year round, so it’s cool to get to try to provide some of that insight into the program. And all of the coaches and players at VCU have been very accommodating and accessible to allow me to do that. So it’s a really enjoyable beat to get to be on.

Some say that sportswriters are the last practitioners of deadline writing and the magic that can come out of cranking copy from the press box. Do you have any instances of “deadline magic”? How have you come to work with such stringent ones over the years? 

I think where some of that deadline magic can really come out is from close games. Those are exciting to watch, but can also be challenging to write, especially on deadline. So one of the things you have to do is try to write two versions of the game story —one from the angle of one team winning, and one from the angle of the other team winning. That way you can be ready to go whichever way the game swings.

So a more recent instance I had of that came during this past VCU basketball season, when VCU played Dayton on Jan. 16. The game was tied with under a minute remaining, and so I tried to prepare for either team winning. VCU guard Marcus Evans ended up hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer with 33 seconds to play, and VCU won. But I also have a file with the beginning of a story with Dayton as the winner.  

But, covering games on deadline, you have to write as much as you can while the game is going on and then, if you have time, plug in quotes. So that’s something I think I’ve gotten more comfortable with, to work with those deadlines.

Most sportswriters are in a good way fanatical about their dedication and love for the game. They’re true believers. In the big picture, what is it about sports that sinks its hooks into you? Is it the physical, the strategic, the communal?

I really think it’s a combination of all three. We marvel at the physical feats that we get to see. But then we also appreciate the strategy that it takes to be successful, especially in the critical moments — like executing a game-winning shot off an inbounds pass in basketball,  putting together a two-minute scoring drive at the end of a football game, or whatever the case may be.

And then the communal part can be pretty amazing in its own right. Sports really do connect all different kinds of people. No matter the age or background, a common love for sports goes a long way and that’s something that I think is really cool.

“Sports really do connect all different kinds of people. No matter the age or background, a common love for sports goes a long way and that’s something that I think is really cool.”

What’s been one thing that covering the VCU sports beat for RTD has given you (personally, or professionally) that you did not anticipate?

I would say the video component of VCU coverage that we added this year. Zach Joachim, a sports producer at the RTD, and I sat down for a short weekly show during the season, discussing VCU basketball. Dean Hoffmeyer, our deputy photo editor for video, shot and edited the video. I did anticipate doing some multimedia content, but I don’t know if I expected to do something quite like that. I was really happy with how it looked, with the set and backdrop that Dean put together. It was a good learning experience for me, and I’m looking forward to doing more of the videos next season.

What keeps you wanting to write about sports at a newspaper? What does it give you on a personal level?

It’s fun getting the opportunity to provide some deeper insight to readers. I like getting the additional details to paint a fuller picture and gain a better understanding of the games, the athletes, the coaches, the athletic programs, etc. Just being a sports fan, I’m curious about those details myself, so I enjoy getting the opportunity to seek those things out and write about them.  You’re always learning something new and doing something new, and I think that’s really cool.