Trailblazer of sports writing, Will Leitch, enters IMC Hall of Fame


Photo courtesy of Will Leitch

Will Leitch spent majority of his time writing for the sports section for The Daily Illini and took up many positions during his time from being the Sports Editor to the Interim Editor-In-Chief for the summer. Since his time with The Daily Illini, Leitch founded Deadspin and was the co-founded The Black Table.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

The story of one of the world’s sports writing pioneers began rather tame, in a town called Mattoon, Illinois. It was here where Will Leitch, founder of Deadspin and co-founder of The Black Table, began his journey. 

While he is known for Deadspin and his love of sports, people often overlook what Leitch is really passionate about: telling stories.

From blog posting to writing novels, Leitch has delved into every possible way to share his voice. One of his most recent projects in which Leitch has shared his voice is a film review podcast with childhood friend Tim Grierson. 

Until recently, Leitch has not been known for his film knowledge. Launching this podcast is just another way of reaching people, no matter how outrageous his takes can be.

“Rogue One sucks,” Leitch said. “The ending is good. The last twenty minutes of Rogue One are good. You know, like when Darth Vader shows up.”

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Before co-hosting the Grierson & Leitch podcast, Leitch had a long road of hard work that led him to where he is today. In fact, his hard work started even before his time at The Daily Illini.

Growing up in a small town, Leitch had to make opportunities for himself. In his high school, there was no student newspaper. Grierson and Leitch decided to take the liberty to create the school’s first newspaper as an outlet where they could write. While this opportunity helped Leitch initially pursue his passion for writing, it wasn’t until The Daily Illini where he fell in love with publishing his writing.

The fall of 1993 saw the true start of Leitch’s journey as a writer, as he joined The Daily Illini as a sports reporter in his first week on campus. It was here, where Leitch fell in love with finding himself through writing stories. The idea of publishing his writing for others to read excited Leitch.

“Roger Ebert has this great line, where he learned in college that his three favorite words in the English language were ‘by Roger Ebert,’” Leitch said. “I always loved that line, because basically what it meant was that he fell in love with the byline, and he fell in love with connecting and finding that voice.”

The Daily Illini was the entire college experience to Leitch. Everything revolved around what he wanted to write about while he wasn’t in class, and the people he met there became lifelong friends.

Mike Cetera, who rose through the ranks at The Daily Illini simultaneously with Leitch, was more than just a coworker. He was a friend who Leitch has shared a great bond with ever since meeting at the paper. The two roomed together for their last two years of college, where Cetera got to observe firsthand what The Daily Illini meant to Leitch.

“(Leitch) even more than I, thought that college was the newspaper,” Cetera said. “He didn’t really give a crap about classes. He lived for, ‘I’m gonna write and edit for this newspaper.’ And that is what happened.”

In his time at The Daily Illini, Leitch did it all. He started as a staff writer, became assistant sports editor the next year, sports editor the year after and was interim editor-in-chief for a summer. In his decorated time working for the newspaper, Leitch uncovered why he liked The Daily Illini so much.

Leitch was able to try things out, seeing what worked for him and what didn’t. He described classes as forcing one to have a “linear” view of learning, whereas his hands-on approach at the newspaper gave him an upper hand in learning both journalism and tactics for his future career.

“None of the stuff I wrote was great,” Leitch said about his time at the paper. “But I learned what worked, and I think it was a good warm up for really writing on the internet. To me, that was one of the glories of The Daily Illini. I was able to figure out what worked, what I liked writing about, what I was talented at writing about, what I wanted to get better at and what I needed to improve on. That was really exciting.”

Preparing for writing on the internet proved an incredible lesson for Leitch, as in 2003 he would use his experience from The Daily Illini to become a founding editor of the website The Black Table, which he started with three friends, one being Aileen Gallagher. 

Gallagher and Leitch met in New York after graduation through mutual friends and instantly had a great connection. Gallagher and Leitch soon became coworkers at New York Magazine, which only propelled their already strong friendship.

Gallagher too, got to observe Leitch firsthand, as he continued his trend of attempting new ways to have his voice heard on the internet. Blogs were a new way of telling a story without having to stick to the same rules as a typical newspaper article.

“It was all pretty goofy and irreverent,” Gallagher said about The Black Table. “We just did a lot of experimentation that felt really freeing and really fun. The internet was so exciting back in those days because it was lawless.”

Just two years after co-founding The Black Table, Leitch founded his most famous creation: Deadspin. Deadspin is a world-famous sports blog that Leitch began posting on in 2005. It posted recaps, previews, player features and more written about a wide variety of sports. This is the thing that gave Leitch his true stardom.

Off the back of founding Deadspin, Leitch has been able to turn into what he is today. He is an author, a journalist, a blogger and even a podcaster. Leitch’s successes have come thick and fast since the launch of Deadspin in 2005, but he is nowhere near done yet in his constantly morphing career. His most fulfilling work has been published recently, insinuating that despite his successes, Leitch wants to continue perfecting his craft.

“What I found most personally fulfilling, if I’m being honest, is probably (his novel, ‘How Lucky?’),” Leitch said. “Literally no one, including the person writing the book, thought of myself as a novelist. But I had a story I wanted to tell, and I wanted to try it. And I thought, ‘Let’s see if I’m any good at this.’”


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