The summer Toyloy Brown III wrote his own story
August 24, 2022
August 24, 2022
His future was on the clock. Until suddenly, his phone rang.
Brown listened carefully as Greg Lee, senior assistant managing editor at The Boston Globe, told him he was one of just 16 students who had been accepted into the Sports Journalism Institute. It was the perfect gig, a summer training and internship program designed to develop college sports journalists and promote racial and gender diversity in America’s newsrooms.
“I was in total shock. He just called me out of the blue during winter break,” said Brown, better known as TJ by his friends and family. “I had just come back from a dentist appointment. This was the last thing I expected to hear when my phone rang.”
In that one memorable moment, Brown became the first Quinnipiac student to be accepted into the prestigious Sports Journalism Institute. Over the last 30 years, SJI alumni have been hired by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, ESPN and other major media outlets.
After the news finally sank in, Brown did what he’s always done, ever since he was a little boy. He called a family meeting.
“Any time TJ has big news or a big decision, he calls a family meeting with us,” said his mother, Janaya Williams. “Sometimes, he’d tell us about an award he got at school. Sometimes, he’d tell us about doing well on a big test, things like that. But with this, I think TJ understood very early on just how much this opportunity could impact the future of his career.”
Every summer, the Sports Journalism Institute holds a week-long journalism boot camp with guest speakers and SJI alumni such as Lee, a member of the Class of 1994. This year’s boot camp was held at Arizona State in May. From there, Brown and the rest of his cohort headed to internships all across the country: The Seattle Times, The Kansas City Star, The Denver Post, The Charlotte Observer, Yahoo! Sports and others.
Brown was assigned to write for USA Today and its parent company, Gannett. His internship began remotely before pivoting to Gannett’s New York City offices on Broadway near Times Square. As a native New Yorker, it wasn’t just home. It was a perfect placement in the biggest media market on the planet.
The internship quickly became a master class in journalism. Brown spent nine weeks reporting, interviewing, writing, and, well, rewriting. Rough drafts became polished pieces in the hands of skilled editors and a young sports reporter eager to learn.
Brown wrote about runner Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, a Sudanese refugee who was separated from her parents for nearly 20 years and competed on the Olympics Refugee Team in 2016 and 2020.
He pitched a story — and then crushed it — about Ian Jackson, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx and the highest-rated recruit to come out of New York City in a generation.
“I'm super appreciative of this opportunity,” said Brown, a 2018 alumnus of Cardinal Hayes. “I didn’t get into the program my junior year the first time I applied, so I definitely don’t take any of this for granted. I’m very grateful. I’m excited to put my best foot forward and give my all in this industry.”
A few weeks ago, Brown went to Citi Field to write about Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, the team’s $341 million superstar. But instead of falling into the statistics trap, Brown took a more thoughtful approach.
Sure, Lindor is posting big numbers this season. He’s already set the Mets record for most RBIs by a shortstop with 84 — and counting. But what’s his secret, Brown and everyone else wanted to know. After hitting .230 last season, Lindor is driving the ball with meaningful cuts this year.
So, Brown broke it down: “Fans can now see the resurgence in Lindor in his second season with the team. What they don’t see, however, are the countless times Lindor studies game film on his iPad when no one is around.”
The story was so insightful and well done, USA Today editors put it on the front page of the Aug. 11 sports section. When his internship ended days later, Brown reflected on a profound summer of growth and gratitude.
“These experiences have taught me so much about this profession and what it takes to succeed,” Brown posted in a social media thank-you note. “My time here has also boosted my confidence and hardened my resolve to forge a career in this industry. ... I’m beyond thankful to my editors for trusting me and making me a better writer, other reporters for their tips and for making me feel welcomed, and my fellow interns who are talented and people I’m glad to have as peers in this field.”
It would’ve been easy to stay home and attend college in New York City, but Brown wanted more. He didn’t want a comfort zone. He didn’t want to stay in his own lane. He wanted to be pushed to take chances with his writing and to drive important conversations.
Quinnipiac checked every box.
“Even though New York City is awesome, and I’m fully aware of all the opportunities there, I really wanted the challenge of adapting to somewhere else,” Brown said. “I don't know a lot of people from the Bronx who go to school in Connecticut. But I knew Quinnipiac would be good for my education, not only because they had a good classroom environment, but because they had a lot of opportunities where I could develop my skills as a journalist.”
Brown didn’t waste any time getting involved. During his first year, he attended every meeting for The Quinnipiac Chronicle, Q30 Television, WQAQ and QBSN magazine. By the time he was a senior, Brown had served as managing editor of the Chronicle and executive editor of For the QUlture magazine. He also served as secretary of the Black Student Union and vice president of the African and Caribbean Student Union.
“I felt that being active outside of classes and academics was important, particularly as a Black student at a predominantly white institution,” Brown said. “As much as I love writing, I didn’t want to shut myself out from other opportunities and other people who could help me grow as a person. I knew I wanted to be involved in For the QUlture magazine and to use my skills and talents to contribute to a project that helps people who look like me feel seen.”
Brown said his growth as a journalist was directly supported by the leadership and faculty of the School of Communications, including Dean Chris Roush; Molly Yanity, associate professor of journalism, chair of journalism, and director of the graduate programs in journalism and sports journalism; Margarita Diaz, associate professor of journalism; and Karin Schwanbeck, associate professor emerita.
As a first-year student, Brown said he appreciated Schwanbeck’s encouragement and patience.
“She was always really helpful reading my stories and giving me feedback to make them better,” Brown said. “I’m fortunate that I’ve had professors like her and older Quinnipiac students who always helped me and gave me the confidence to keep believing in myself.”
Yanity also took an early interest in Brown’s writing. She often read his work in the Chronicle and sent him critiques. If Brown was looking for unfiltered feedback, he found it in his inbox.
“I hadn’t had him in class yet, but it was clear that he had talent. I recognized that right away,” Yanity said. “So, I started sending him messages. I told him, ‘You’re writing way too long. I want to see you write one of these columns no more than 750 words.’ So, he took a crack at it.”
This time, Brown came in around 900 words. Not exactly 750 words, but certainly closer.
“When I finally got him in class, he sat in the front row and seemed to hang on every word,” Yanity said. “He was so engaged. He accepted criticism and took it to heart. He wanted me to bleed all over his work. Once he gets into a place where he has good editors, he’s only going to get better.”
All day long, the Metro-North trains churn past Cardinal Hayes High School, a neighborhood light rising above the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx. Inside its brick-and-stone belly, Danny Torres stands before his students each period and waters the future.
The best teachers — the ones who really connect with their students — have a special way of helping kids grow here. Torres should know, after all. He was once one of them.
A 1984 graduate of this exclusive all-boys Catholic school, Torres is a fine arts teacher with a gift for writing and a soft spot for storytelling, especially when it comes to Roberto Clemente. The Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder, often referred to as "The Great One,” died in a 1972 plane crash during a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame months later.
“There are so many stories about how Roberto Clemente changed my life,” Torres said. “I’ve had the privilege to get to know the late Mrs. Clemente and their family. He meant so much to so many people in Puerto Rico and here in the U.S. It’s why he won’t ever be forgotten. It’s not just the way he played the game. It’s all the good he did for others.”
Torres has done his share of good for others, too.
He remembers the first time he met Brown as a sophomore in class. At 15 years old, Brown was curious, creative and innately talented. A few weeks into the school year, Torres spoke to Janaya Williams at a parent-teacher conference. She mentioned that her son was interested in becoming a sportswriter.
Torres had an idea. He was looking for a student to help cover the Cardinal Hayes sports teams for the school’s website, so he spoke to Brown the next day in class and asked him to submit a writing sample. A huge NBA fan, Brown wrote about the hometown Knicks and the upcoming season.
“I read his story and my first thought was, ‘How can a 15 year old write like this?’ It was a very good story, plus he provided images to go with it and sent the story in a timely fashion,” Torres said. “I’m not at all surprised where TJ is now. He’s become a phenomenal writer, but he’s an even more extraordinary human being.”
Just like that, Brown had broken the seal on sports journalism. He took notes, transcribed quotes and fed his dream.
“Two weeks later, I’m writing my first football article. That’s pretty much how I got my start,” Brown said. “From then on, I covered a lot of stories. I was writing every week and getting paid in Subway money. I got like $7 an article to use at the Subway in our cafeteria. But right away, I knew this was something I loved doing.”
Torres was just as excited about Brown’s debut. He quickly emailed Principal William Lessa to share his assessment. After a little searching this summer, Torres found that October 2015 email.
“Toyloy Brown III is a sophomore who is currently in my art class. During open-school night, I spoke to his lovely mother (Dad is a great guy too) who coincidentally mentioned that ‘TJ’ was interested in sports writing. Who would have thought,” Torres wrote. “Immediately, I told her to speak to TJ about providing a sample of his work. He’s a die-hard Knicks fan and wrote about the upcoming basketball season. I made some minor corrections and suggested he cover this weekend’s JV football game. He was quite thrilled that someone really enjoyed his piece. I attached his recap from the JV football game and there were only MINOR corrections. He’s pretty good, well-mannered and simply a nice kid. I FINALLY found my student writer!”
All these years later, Torres is proud to share his former student writer with the front page of USA Today.
“I’ve always said if I can help even one student achieve their dreams, I’m going to walk away with a huge Kool-Aid smile because guess what? Kids just need you to believe in them. Once they know you believe in them, the sky’s the limit,” Torres said.
Brown and his family are from the north end of the Bronx, 40 minutes from Cardinal Hayes. They live in Co-op City, the largest single residential development in the United States. It’s a remarkable neighborhood of 35 high-rise buildings and seven townhouse clusters overlooking the Hutchinson River.
When he was little, Brown and his mother used to visit the Barnes & Noble down the block every weekend. The bookstore is closed now, but the memories and values endure.
“We’d pick out books together, and he developed a love of reading at an early age,” Williams said. “When we started, I used to read the books to him. Eventually, he started taking over, and he started taking out bigger and bigger books to read to himself.”
The precocious reader became the precocious student, the boy with straight A’s and the weight of perfection pressing on his shoulders.
“I distinctly remember a time when he got less than an A on a test. He got maybe a B, I think,” Williams said. “He came home so heartbroken and upset about it. He put himself on punishment and stayed in his room and promised to do better the next time. We never, ever punished him for anything like that. Everyone has a bad day, right? His father and I always told him to do the best he could. But he’s always been harder on himself than anyone else.”
At the same time, Brown has never wavered from his goal. His conviction has been steadfast, from that first JV football game at Cardinal Hayes to covering the Mets at Citi Field.
“From day one, when he told us he wanted to be a sports reporter, he never veered off that path,” said TJ’s father, Toyloy Brown Jr. “He's always stayed consistent with that plan. It’s never been, ‘Well, maybe I could do this.’ He’s always believed in himself — and so do we.”
Those trips to the bookstore, the family meetings, they’ve all played a part in getting this far. Brown will start his new job at the Knoxville News Sentinel, a Gannett-owned property like USA Today, later this month.
“I have to give credit to my parents for providing me with a really strong foundation and being the kind of parents I could always go to for support. Not everyone has that,” Brown said. “And because of that, I’ve always been encouraged to reach for the heights I want to achieve — as a student, as a professional, everything. I have always put extra pressure on myself not just to be good, but to be exceptional.”
The standard has always been exceptional for TJ Brown. More than ever now, he understands excellence comes with a mandate for mentorship. The Sports Journalism Institute was built on this promise in 1993.
Someday, it will be Brown’s turn to pay it forward and uplift the next generation of journalists.
“My goal is to maximize my potential in journalism as a writer, as someone who has a voice to interpret what’s going on in the game, but also talk candidly about race and other social issues,” Brown said. “I want to have as much freedom as possible to write impactful work. If I can go really deep into issues and have a platform and a voice, that would be my goal. I want to bring others along like others have brought me along. That’s very important to me.”
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