Before Zolan Kanno-Youngs was The New York Times’ White House correspondent or even a credentialed sportswriter, he was the senior captain of his high school’s football team.
“I just loved football...I joined for the heck of it,” said Kanno-Youngs, who at 5-foot-7 played tailback and safety for Cambridge Rindge & Latin, a school known more for plays in the theater than on the gridiron.
Considering Cambridge went 2-7 during his senior year, the “love of the game” inspiration makes sense. “We were terrible,” he said.
But Kanno-Youngs found something beyond love of the game to keep him going, namely the friendships and camaraderie that came with being part of a team. And he found other little things he enjoyed, from being with his pals, to the practices on freezing fall days in Boston.
He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next, and he wasn’t particularly worried about it. “It was high school,” he said “I was kind of just kind of living in the moment. I never intended to go to college for sports...I had a thought about it, but realized I wasn’t growing.”
He had to get serious about what he wanted. In his junior year, it occurred to him that joining the school newspaper would make sense. “I grew up reading The Boston Globe sports section, and I was already involved in sports,” he said. “It seemed like a natural next step.”
From then on, his path began to seem more clear. He stayed in Boston, continuing his journey at Northeastern University. In a year, he went from a senior football captain to an intern at CBS Radio. He was a reporter and broadcaster for the Huntington News and WRBB 104.9 covering Northeastern athletics.
Kanno-Youngs was a “yes” man, but in a very good way. He knew he needed experience and was ready to say “yes” to most any task, be it in sports or even city news. Being a “yes” man changed his career in a way he wasn’t expecting. It earned him an opportunity to be part of a co-op program at—you guessed it—The Boston Globe.
One of the first times Kanno-Youngs said “no” was in response to another potentially career-changing opportunity. Joe Sullivan, his sports editor at the Globe, told Kanno-Youngs about the Sports Journalism Institute. Sullivan said he thought Kanno-Youngs would be an excellent candidate.
The answer was no. “I couldn’t do it,” Kanno-Youngs said. “I had a study abroad that summer in Jordan to study Arabic.”
But Kanno-Youngs followed up with his editor the next year, and the rest was history. During his time in SJI in 2015, he got tools that you can’t get in a classroom. “Do you ever learn from a professional what it takes to write on a deadline?” Kanno-Youngs said.
Greg Lee, a former editor in The Globe’s sports department and now The Globe’s senior assistant managing editor, talent and community, was one of many who helped give Kanno-Youngs those tools. The lessons didn’t stop with deadline writing. “Do you ever learn from professionals how to respond to someone giving you the cold shoulder in a locker room?,” Kanno-Youngs said.
The lessons he learned covering sports in SJI would help when he began covering politics. He discussed the impressive network he gained from SJI, but the chief thing for him was the work experience.
He went from cold shoulders in the locker room to cold shoulders from President Donald Trump. “Even when Trump would tweet ‘fake news’ at my stories … it would make me uneasy,” Kanno-Youngs said.
Without SJI, it would’ve been a tougher transition for Kanno-Youngs. But the constant sports checks and emphasis on hitting deadlines paid off in the end. Now, the “yes” man can do whatever he wants on his terms.