The empathy and observation brought to bear by Mark Kram Jr. in his first book, Like Any Normal Day, released this week, had their genesis many years ago, in the homecoming routine between father and son that was as familiar to the son as the name they shared. Mark Kram Sr. was one of SI's most acclaimed writers in the 1960s and '70s, and upon his return home to Baltimore from reporting trips he would always have tales to tell about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. There would be a game of pepper in the backyard, followed by dinner and, for the father, a drink. Then another drink and another, until the elder Kram was off in a world that only he knew.
"Dad's remoteness served me well," Kram, 56, says. "I had to dig so deep with him that I developed skills that transferred to my reporting."
The son went to work at his hometown News American, moved on to the Detroit Free Press and has been at The Philadelphia Daily News since 1987. No sooner had he begun his own career than his father was fired from SI for misconduct. The younger Kram has never written with his father's flourish, but his clean, precise style has earned him six appearances in The Best American Sports Writing. Still, it wasn't until his father died, in 2002, and he wrote a frank but loving reminiscence about him called "Forgive Some Sinner" (in which he tackled his father's drinking and indiscretions) that the son came into his own.
"I don't think I could have written Like Any Normal Day unless I'd written about Dad first," he says. "Beyond the sense of empathy to write this kind of book, you need to have built up some fairly strong writerly muscles."
Like Any Normal Day is the nonfiction account of Buddy Miley, a high school football star from Pennsylvania who, in 1973, was paralyzed in a game. The younger Kram learned about Miley after reading a letter to the editor in SI from the boy's mother. The letter moved Kram to write about Buddy for the Daily News in '93 and again in '98, a year after Buddy died with the aid of Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
Kram's reporting skill shines through as he draws out Buddy's reticent brother Jimmy and high school girlfriend, Karen. The result is an honest, unsentimental and painfully human story.
Before Kram Sr. died, he inscribed a copy of his book about Ali and Frazier, Ghosts of Manila, "To my son Mark. My best friend, the rock which kept this feather of a talent from the hard winds of doubt. Love, Dad."
The admiration was mutual. "Dad used to tell me, 'The race is to the steady and not to the swift,'" Kram says. "I always thought that if I hung in there and I kept working, that something would emerge." And it has. Mark Kram: his own writer, his own man.