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Nate Olson: Going home again without moving there

I'm helping to bring SBLive to my home state of Iowa.

By Nate Olson | Photo by Jimmy Jones  

My childhood friend, Brayton, has been trying to get me to move back to Iowa for quite a while now. 

Every class reunion and periodically on our pretty regular morning phone calls ... “Just move back here,” he will say. 

At first, I thought Brayton, a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan who turned me on to the Cubs in 1984, missed me, but now I get the impression he wants me to be his neighbor so that he can coach my 10-year-old son, Luke, a hard-throwing pitcher and cleanup hitter, who is already a way better baseball player than I ever was.

Brayton thought I had finally come to my senses when I announced that I was managing the launch of SBLive Iowa and SBLive Nebraska. SBLive is a national high school sports digital media company. I’m a regional editor and began last year managing Arkansas, which had been softly launched, and started sites in Oklahoma and Missouri before taking on this new assignment this spring. 

“So, you are moving here, now,” he said on a recent phone call.

Well … not exactly. Before I explain, let me back up.

I grew up in Carroll at Swan Lake Park. My dad, Dave, ran the park for 30 years. I loved sports since I could walk but as Brayton and my other great childhood friend, KJ, who was an awesome athlete, would attest, I was an average, at best, baseball and basketball player. I knew by the time I was Luke’s age, though, I wanted to be in the sports media. I had also decided I was going to Iowa State.

By the time I graduated from Carroll High School, I was still on course to be a sportswriter, but after a visit with the guidance counselor, I decided to go to Northwest Missouri State. The move turned out to be a great one, as its smaller classes allowed me to write on the school newspaper and appear on the campus TV station my first semester.

I graduated and left Maryville in three-and-a-half years with help from courses I took at Des Moines Area Community College which helped me get a jump on my required courses.

In December of 1996, I took a job as a sports editor at the Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper. It was a great place to cut my teeth, and I enjoyed spending time with my great aunt and uncle, who took good care of me, but it wasn’t an ideal place for a 22-year-old bachelor.

So, in the summer of 1997, I became the sports editor at the Atlantic News-Telegraph. Just like in Algona, there was plenty of good prep sports to write about and with Atlantic’s location smack dab between Des Moines and Omaha, Neb., I could enjoy weekends with friends.

However, the management wasn’t great, and I really was already tired of being a one-man band. With the help of a headhunter, I found a job as a sportswriter in Bentonville, Ark. I had no idea how much it would change my life.

Now, I never really wanted to move farther south than Kansas City, but I knew this would be a career-boosting move. And after all, I could always advance my career closer to home later in KC, Des Moines or Omaha.

The big appeal of the Bentonville job was having a chance to cover the University of Arkansas. After just over a year, I had landed a job as the backup beat writer covering Razorbacks basketball for the sister paper in Fayetteville.

But I had also met a sweet Southern Belle, Sheena, who lived three hours away in Little Rock. We were engaged and trying to decide where to live. Her father was terminally ill, and I was torn. And then, the decision became much easier. The Fayetteville newspaper was going to be wrapped with the state newspaper in a sort of merger and didn’t need a full staff in Fayetteville. I had been offered the sports editor job in Bentonville. I accepted it, but I told Sheena it was not a job I was so attached to that I would ask her to move when she was mourning the loss of her dad.

So, I moved to Little Rock the week of our wedding in March of 2001. Six weeks later, I took a job covering HBCU University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff at the Pine Bluff Commercial. Eventually, I became the sports editor and commuted 45 minutes south of Little Rock some days.

From 2006-15, I worked for a company that produced a high school football yearbook, a national high school sports magazine franchise that produced editions in Arkansas and was the managing editor for a lifestyle/news magazine printed by the state newspaper.

In 2015, with two young boys, I switched to the communications field — first at a regional bank, then as a consultant and finally as a state employee.

The entire time, I wrote freelance sports columns and covered high school football on the radio as a sideline reporter and scoreboard host.

That’s where SBLive sports comes in. In the fall of 2020, I noticed posts from the company written by writers in California. I learned later that they were subbing in since California’s prep sports season was on hold due to the pandemic.

I have worked on many freelance assignments with my photographer friend Jimmy Jones, and he told me the company was looking for local writers. I got in touch with managing editor JD Humburg in the late fall and started writing some high school football articles. With the pandemic raging that winter, I wrote some basketball from afar and coordinated a big weekend of spring sports championships. It was around that time that JD floated the idea of hiring me as a regional editor.

That blew me away because I had never dreamed I’d make a living in the sports media again. It was a dream come true, and now my son JD (13) was a seventh-grader, so it was actually ideal for me to be back in the business working at home where I could cart him and Luke around to school and activities (JD plays club soccer and football). 

Last August, I scrambled to assemble a team in Missouri thanks to my college connections, and in October a longtime Arkansas friend, Buck Ringgold, produced Oklahoma content as a contributing writer.

Then in April, I was told I’d hand Oklahoma and Missouri off to Buck, and I could start Iowa and Nebraska. SBLive will complete an expansion that will more than double our presence across the country and will include sites in more than 30 states.

What this means for Iowa is great local prep sports coverage. Player lists, rankings, game coverage, columns, features and more. 

But, minus a few pieces, I won’t be actively covering stories. Over the past few weeks, I have assembled a talented group of writers, some I know and others I just met.

Chris Short, known by his friends as ‘Hort’, graduated from Carroll Kuemper in 1985 and played on that dominant state championship basketball team that included current Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. Chris was seven years ahead of me, but eventually we crossed paths as sportswriters in Southwest Iowa and have remained friends. He left journalism a couple of decades ago, but he agreed to write for SBLive and has done a great job compiling the Top 25 baseball rankings. 

Former Burlington Hawkeye sports editor John Bohnenkamp, who covers University of Iowa sports for the Associated Press, is handling the softball rankings. Barry Poe, a mainstay at the Soux City Journal, is digging in with baseball and softball lists. I didn’t know John or Barry well before, but I am proud to have writers of their caliber on our team. 

There are more coming, and even though SBLive has barely been on Iowa’s radar for a few weeks, it has created a buzz among journalists, who have told me they are intrigued with our coverage.

I know it will create the same excitement with players, parents, coaches and fans. It has been well-received in other states, and with Iowa’s passion for prep sports and the absence of some traditional coverage, SBLive’s emergence is perfect timing.

I will not be Brayton’s neighbor anytime soon (he'll have to manage without big Luke), but I am glad to be doing business in my home state again. I look forward to reacquainting with more old friends and meeting new ones. This is going to be a fun ride.