KALAMAZOO, Mich.—CNN contributor, ESPN senior writer and Western Michigan University alumnus LZ Granderson celebrates Homecoming this week as a distinguished speaker and honored graduate.
As a CNN commentator, Granderson is among the most prominent voices in journalism today on a variety of national news topics, including the death of an unarmed teenager who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — the subject of his Oct. 22 talk at Sangren Hall.
The WMU School of Communication invited Granderson to speak and is inducting him into its alumni academy. The College of Arts and Sciences also is honoring him with an alumni achievement award.
The journalist is among CNN's go-to pundits and has been awarded for his commentary by the Online News Association and others. In addition to his work for CNN and sports reporting for ESPN, Granderson lectures at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he currently lives with his partner Steve and their son Isaiah.
But some 24 years ago, college attendance wasn't a foregone conclusion for Granderson.
Read the inspirational story — pulled from the WMU Magazine archives — about how he came to WMU and blossomed:
'I loved my time at Western'
LZ Granderson has one of those gripping graduation stories, a sort of double rite of passage in which he becomes a first-time dad and a college grad on the same day.
Studying for finals at the hospital, holding his then-wife’s hand through the overnight hours of a long labor, crossing the Miller Auditorium stage after a few winks of sleep before rushing back to his spouse and newborn son — it’s the stuff of great stories.
But there also is the compelling account of how Granderson made it to college — or nearly didn’t — before he launched a journalism career that today has him reporting for ESPN and regularly appearing on CNN.
In 1990, Granderson says a WMU admissions officer’s visit to his Detroit home "literally saved my life.
"She was the only academic counselor to come to my house. And I was a wreck. I had no plans" for what to do after high school, he says during an interview in Grand Rapids, where he shares a home with his son, partner and mom. It’s also the setting for many of his live appearances on CNN.
In addition to working full-time for ESPN, the 41-year-old is one of CNN.com’s most popular columnists. It was the popularity of his once-occasional pieces for CNN online that prompted its news executives to offer him a job as a regular contributor.
He posts a weekly column and frequently appears on air as a pundit. Politics, fatherhood, guns, the value of date night, the pop diva Pink — you can’t pigeonhole his opinion making.
As a sports reporter and analyst for ESPN, he covers news about the NBA, NFL and other sports. You may have seen his coverage of Wimbledon last summer.
But when that WMU counselor met Granderson years ago, he wasn’t on a path toward such career success.
Growing up, Granderson describes himself as "intellectually curious," a gifted wordsmith, voracious reader and a nerd about sporting news.
But he admits that a too-cool-for-school attitude meant his grades were in the tank at Detroit college-prep high school Cass Tech. And he dabbled in marijuana and alcohol use.
At home, no one pushed the importance of excelling academically. And at times he got the opposite message.
"My stepfather was abusive and functionally illiterate. There was a lot of resentment that I was naturally gifted, which brought me a lot of pain. I remember literally getting beaten once because I was reading out loud. He told me to read to myself," Granderson recalls.
While he might not have had someone at home pushing for his academic achievement, a WMU counselor saw potential in him.
"Essentially she was looking at my academic career and then looking at my test scores and saying, 'These grades don’t match up with these test scores. What’s going on?' I just told her, 'I goofed up,'" Granderson remembers.
"She said, 'If we let you into this school on probation status, do you think you can handle it?' And, I handled it," he says.
It was one of several brushes Granderson says he's had with "angels," people who recognized a talent and gave him a chance to run with it.
College was just what he needed
"I loved my time at Western. ... That's when I got more comfortable in my own skin," Granderson says. "It was a time in which I was my most creative."
He performed in plays, in the dance department and led a garage band. He wrote for the student paper, the Western Herald, and he hosted a show called the "Book Worm" on the University's student-run radio station, WIDR.
Dr. Von Washington, professor emeritus of theatre, remembers a young man who was intelligent and anxious to learn, "which is very, very important for a good actor."
"He was equally willing to be directed and he was very well directed himself. He came prepared and he was thorough in his work."
Granderson says that no one at WMU was more important to his development than Washington, who cast him in numerous lead roles and whose mentorship went beyond the stage.
"He knew the industry that I was flirting with. It was a natural bond. He really pushed me as far as my ability as an actor and he pushed me as a man," Granderson says.
And though he enjoyed acting — and actually took breaks from college for roles in some Hollywood films — the career Granderson ultimately decided to pursue was in news. He earned a degree in interpersonal communication from WMU with a minor in journalism in 1996.
Following graduation, he worked at The Grand Rapids Press for several years and then was recruited by the Atlanta Journal Constitution to cover home design during a period when home-improvement reality TV was taking off in a big way.
"And I didn’t even have a house," Granderson says. "It was another situation where an editor who hired me said, 'I just have faith you can figure it out and hit the ground running.' I totally poured myself into learning as much about home design as fast as I could."
The job also was a foot in the door at a big newspaper and he saw in it a chance to move to sports reporting, the beat he really wanted to cover.
In fact, the Journal Constitution later asked Granderson to become the lead writer for a special entertainment section and he pitched the idea that sporting events also were entertainment. So sports features were added to the mix. He wrote about teams, personalities and quirky facts about players.
"ESPN came in and saw what I was doing, loved it, and asked if I could do it for them. It was perfect because I started writing those types of pieces because I was a huge fan of ESPN The Magazine and that was the kind of stuff they were doing," Granderson says.
His subsequent work with ESPN has taken him onto the biggest stages in professional sports, covering some of its biggest names.
Granderson will allow that he’s had "a very, very charmed journalism life" and that the key was having people who believed in him.
"What's been most beneficial to my career was being blessed with those angels in my life who allowed me to go out and run. And when I tripped and fell, they didn’t say, 'See.' They said, 'Get up and keep running.' They said, 'Go for it,'" he says.
"I've been really, really blessed to have that."
For more news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.
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