Get to know columnist John Niyo: His newspaper career began as Johnny Orr's delivery boy

The Detroit News

Editor's note: As coronavirus sweeps the globe, shutting down so many entertainment options including sports, we thought this would be a good opportunity for you to get to know a little bit about us. Up today: Sports columnist John Niyo, who can be followed on Twitter @JohnNiyo.

►1. I get asked a lot how I ended up a sportswriter, so here’s the CliffsNotes version. I wrote for my high-school newspaper, then walked into the Michigan Daily offices my first week on campus in Ann Arbor in 1989. The sports editor at the time was Rich Eisen — you may have heard of him — and he put me to work covering non-revenue sports. Two years later, I found myself sitting courtside at the Final Four at the end of the Fab Five’s wild freshman season. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe was seated next to me. Bill Walton came over to chat. Somehow I got roped into the conversation as an equal. I’d started college planning to major in economics. What came after that is what economists call “rationality,” I think. But don’t hold me to that definition: I never got past Econ 202.

John Niyo has some fun with the esteemed Bob Wojnowski at the 2015 Big Ten basketball tournament.

►2. I grew up in Ames, Iowa, home to Iowa State University, which is where my late father, who came to the U.S. from Uganda in 1962 and studied at Tuskegee University in Alabama, spent more than 30 years as professor of veterinary pathology. My mom was a scientific editor for the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). One of my first summer jobs was at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, doing research on the hybridization of DNA in swine. I also worked at a golf course, which I found much more fun. But listen to the scientists right now, folks. Please.

►3. I delivered Johnny Orr’s newspaper as a kid. And we had season tickets to watch his Iowa State teams play at Hilton Coliseum. Best memory: December 1987, Iowa State beats Iowa, 102-100 in OT in a matchup of top-20 teams. Three future first-round picks on the floor in Jeff Grayer, B.J. Armstrong and Roy Marble, but Lafester Rhodes scored a school-record 54 points that night. Second-best: March 1986, Iowa State upsets Michigan, 72-69, to reach the Sweet 16 at the old Metrodome in Minneapolis. In Ames, we remember it as the JV-Varsity game, because after Roy Tarpley & Co. got off to a fast start, CBS announcer Dick Stockton said “It already looks like the JV is playing the varsity.” The JV ended up winning. Orr, one of the funniest and foulest-mouthed coaches I ever met, called it his greatest victory ever. 

►4. Jack Hoiberg, a walk-on for the Spartans’ basketball team, is the son of Fred Hoiberg, who was two years behind me at Ames High School. Jack’s mom, Carol, was my classmate. It’s always good to see them at Michigan State games. But it’s also a friendly reminder that I’m older than I wish I was.

►5. My wife is a school social worker, which makes her a saint in my book. There are plenty of other reasons, too, after nearly 20 years of being married to a sportswriter.

►6. My first car was a yellow Datsun 710 with a rusted-out floorboard in the front passenger side and a stick-shift knob that regularly fell off. My mother sold it at a garage sale for $75 while I was away at college. (I still have a spare set of keys if anyone knows where it is.)

►7. Five bests? Musician: Bob Marley; Concert: Living Colour, Latin Quarter, November 1990; Book: Travels with Charley; Sports movie: The Bad News Bears; Sports venue: Fenway Park.

►8. I’ve known all 50 state capitals by heart for as long as I can remember. Challenge me and you will end up buying me a drink. Usually because you don’t know Missouri. Or can’t remember Vermont. (Back in college, that’s the one that stumped Jim Harbaugh in the wee hours of the morning. Long story, but you can look it up the Michigan Daily archives.)

►9. More than once, I faked illness to get out of going to church on Sunday so I could stay home and watch Bill Flemming’s narrated college football highlights show. I’m pretty sure Father Haviland who lived across the street forgave me, though.

►10. My first trip to Michigan Stadium was the 1989 season opener as a freshman, when Rocket Ismail returned two kickoffs in the rain and everyone in the student section left covered in soggy marshmallows. (One of the silliest student traditions, in hindsight.) Worst college hangover just happened to be the morning of the Michigan-Michigan State game in 1990. Eddie Brown didn’t help matters later that afternoon.

John Niyo at the Beijing Olympics.

►11. Best day as a sportswriter: I’ll go with Aug. 16, 2008. I covered Michael Phelps’ record-tying seventh gold-medal swim at Beijing Olympics in the morning — the 100 fly race that ended in a photo finish, with Phelps winning by .01 seconds — then raced over to the Bird’s Nest with a couple colleagues in time to grab a beer and watch Usain Bolt set a world record in the 100.  Still remember the disbelief on our faces when the digital timer showed 9.69. Unreal.

►12. Locally, though, it’s impossible to top the two spring nights at Joe Louis Arena in 1997. First, there was the March 26 brawl with the Colorado Avalanche, one the News had foreshadowed with a Claude Lemieux “Wanted” poster that morning. (Take a bow, Phil Laciura.) Cyndi Lambert, my mentor on the Red Wings beat, punched my shoulder in the press box almost as hard as Darren McCarty slugged Lemieux as the mayhem began. And then there was June 7 when the Wings completed the sweep of the Flyers to end the 42-year Stanley Cup drought. Not a lot of social distancing going on in Detroit that night.

►13. Olympics I've covered, ranked: 1. London 2. Rio 3. Beijing 4. Athens 5. Salt Lake City 6. Torino. I'll let you guess which was the one I got stuck covering with Wojo.

►14. After a dozen years covering the Red Wings, the Olympics, college football and writing features for the News, I took over the Lions beat in 2008 when Mike O’Hara took a buyout. I missed training camp to spend that month in Beijing, but returned in time for the regular season. You may recall how that one went. (Joe Barry, the Lions’ defensive coordinator, also briefly attended Ames High with me, by the way.) O’Hara dubbed me “John 0:16” after that season. Might be the only good joke he’s ever told. I left that gig a year later to become a columnist, and I would argue my final record of 2-30 as an NFL beat writer deserves some sort of recognition in Canton.

►15. I no longer get confused for Tiger Woods. But for about a decade there, it was ridiculous. Never more so than the week of the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where Fred Funk’s friendly wave from across the parking lot was a preview of coming attractions. The woman with the clipboard who tried to send me to player registration — “Good luck this week, Tiger,” she said — was another. I lost track of how many autograph requests I turned down that week, and Tiger’s caddie throughout his amateur career, Jay Brunza, even suggested I go out early on the course as a practice-round decoy. But at least my buddies and I did get a few free drinks out of it that week.

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