The Crackle Wonders: Mike Sielski

Justin July 21, 2010 0

The latest addition to the SportsCracklePop book club is a bit more serious than our usual fare. “Fading Echoes” is the story of two high school football rivals who grew to be soldiers. Both shipped off to war but only one came back.

The author, Mike Sielski, was kind enough to take a few minutes and discuss his book.

SCP: How did you find this story in the first place?

MS: I got my first full-time job in sportswriting in 1998 at The Intelligencer, a daily newspaper based in Doylestown. I covered the football teams of the town’s two high schools, Central Bucks West and Central Bucks East. Bryan Buckley was a captain for CB West–the best team in Pennsylvania at the time. Colby Umbrell was a captain for CB East. I got to know each of them a little bit from interviewing them after games, but when the season ended, they moved on with their lives, and I moved on with mine.

Fast forward nine years. One morning, I noticed an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about an Army Ranger from Doylestown who had been killed in Iraq. The Ranger was Colby Umbrell. At the time, I was the sports columnist for the newspaper chain that owned the Intelligencer (I now work for the Wall Street Journal), and I wanted to explore how Colby had gone from being the young athlete I’d known to being the sort of man who would fight and die for his country.

A few months later, I wrote his parents a letter, asking them if I could interview them for a series of articles about Colby. They agreed. So I wrote a four-part newspaper series about Colby’s journey from Doylestown to Iraq.

I thought the story could be a book then, but to turn it into something worthy of publication, I had to find someone from CB West with a parallel story. That would give the story depth, a dual narrative. Through the grapevine, I heard that Bryan Buckley had served two tours in Fallujah as a Marine. I contacted him and his family to ask if they would be willing to have me talk to and write about them. They were. And so I began…

SCP: Did Bryan Buckley and Colby Umbrell know each other well before they both joined up? Was there any communication between the two at any point?

MS: They attended the same middle school and were teammates on the football team there before Bryan went to CB West and Colby to CB East. They were never particularly close; they knew of each other more than they knew each other. They never spoke to each other after high school. I suppose it would have been more “Hollywoodish” if they had been best friends, but I don’t think it detracted from the book. I hope it didn’t, anyway.

SCP: Have their familes grown close since everything happened? How are they doing today?

MS: The families have become friends since Colby’s death. They’re both doing as well as can be expected. The Umbrells still miss Colby terribly, of course, and because Bryan is now in the Marines Special Forces, the Buckleys still worry about his safety.

Politically, did telling this story color your opinions one way or another?  How about the families of the two players?

MS: It really didn’t. One of the best compliments those who have read the book have paid me is that they didn’t pick up on any political agenda in my writing. I didn’t want my opinions–or anyone else’s–coloring the story. I wanted to get out of the way and tell it straight. The Umbrell and Buckley families have strong feelings about the war, obviously, but I don’t know that the book changed their feelings, and I certainly wouldn’t try to summarize those opinions or speak for them.

SCP: What kind of town is Doylestown?

MS: It’s a terrific place, a great marriage of tradition and modernity. As I alluded to earlier, everyone knows each other or knows of each other. It’s a pretty affluent area–lots of boutiques and upscale restaurants–with a real accent on the arts. It also has a wonderful history (James Michener grew up there, for instance), and the most fascinating thing to me was its connection to high school football. Doylestown isn’t a steel town in western Pennsylvania, and it isn’t on the Texas prairie. Yet it had this great high school football rivalry. That, to me, made it a great setting.

SCP: When I googled Fading Echoes to find some more information about your book, another book with the same title came up. Erin Hunter’s version appears to be about  two factions of warring cats that live in a forest.  Have you read it? Does part of you wish your book was about a cat war?

MS: I have not read the other “Fading Echoes.” I’m sure it’s a fine book, but I’m allergic to cats.

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