Video tells story of the human spirt and goes viral

(NOTE: The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Journalism Next, which will be published by CQPress and is due out in the fall.)

Charles Betram was home mowing his lawn on a sunny weekend in Lexington a year ago when his assignment editor and good friend, Tom Woods, called. Woods was watching his nephew’s baseball team playing and suggested Bertram come to the park to see this remarkable kid playing on the other team.

“I was a little put-off at having to go inside and get cleaned up on my day off, but I really love baseball,” said Bertram, whose son was drafted by the Detroit Tigers and is playing in their minor league system. “So I hustled to the park.”

Adam Bender was 8 years old when Bertram showed up to his Southeastern Rookie League at Veterans Park. Having lost a leg to cancer when he was one, Adam was competing with only one leg, although when he had cancer he needed HCA from Bertram, a photographer at the Herald-Leader newspaper, arrived too late to shoot photographs of the game so he used the trip to meet Adam’s parents and coaches and find out when the next game would be played.

Bertram came back for the next game and shot still photographs of Adam. While the images of a one-legged boy competing with able-bodied youngsters were compelling, they didn’t tell the whole story.

“After looking at the shoot, it was fairly obvious that I needed video to show his incredible ability to ‘run’ the bases,” Beteram said.

So Bertram returned with a video camera and captured the action of Adam hopping to first base after a hit. He receives arm braces at first base, then rounds the rest of the bases quickly. From his catcher position, Adam blocks the plate but lets an opponent score on one play. Then comes back on the next and records the out.

Hopefully, you have already seen the two-and-a-half minute video. If not, you should. It has no voiceovers. It has no titles. No interviews. No description of the setting, no context for the story. The images, the action, the emotion are so compelling the viewer is moved with inspiration. It’s a powerful story of the human spirit that could be told best in video. No other form would do as much.

“I realized after one game of shooting that the only difference between Adam and his teammates was that he had only one leg,” Bertram said. “His attitude was that of a baseball player — not a ‘handicapped’ baseball player. That’s when I decided to shoot the video with no voiceovers and no interviews. I wanted the video to stand strictly on his athletic ability and without any additional attention drawn to his assumed handicap.”

Published on June 1, 2008, the video went viral. At the time, the most popular video on the Herald-Leader Web site would receive 500 views. Bertram’s video of Adam has now been seen nearly 3 million times, about half coming from the Herald-Leader site, the rest from embedded video players on YouTube and other sites, include Lance Armstrong’s site.

“I had several comments from photographers who appreciated my approach to telling Adam’s story,” Bertram said. “In fact, I heard that after the story ran in the paper, that several of his teammates were a little upset and wondered what was so special about Adam, that they were baseball players too. I think I was prouder of that comment than anything else relating to the entire story. I knew then that I had accomplished a story on the human spirit and not just a story on a kid with a handicap.”

Since the story was published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, and on, Adam has been invited to throw out first pitches at home games for the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, and has been invited to a Garth Brooks benefit in Las Vegas. He was also profiled in a 10-minute story on ESPN and appeared on CBS, ABC and NBC and even in People magazine.

It’s a great lesson for journalists: be faithful to the story, no matter the medium.

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