By Linda Geist
for The Vandalia Leader
Unlike the eight times he covered the Olympics for USA Today, Martinsburg native Steve Wieberg is watching the Olympics from the comfort of his home this week.
Nearly three decades after being an award-winning sports writer, Wieberg left his job in July to begin a new career as a high school English and journalism teacher near his home in Lawson.
Wieberg covered 29 consecutive Final Fours and had not missed a NCAA Convention since 1983. Wieberg’s resignation follows a major restructuring of the paper’s sports staff. Although he wasn’t part of that downsizing, he decided to pursue a career that offered more balance between home and work. “I wanted to live more of a ‘normal’ life,” he said and that meant he could not be available to jump on a plane at the drop of a hat to cover a breaking story.
The graduate of Community R-VI High School began his sports career on the high school newspaper and as an unpaid stringer for The Mexico Ledger, the area’s daily newspaper. While attending the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism as a first-generation college student, he beat the path back to the Ledger to cover sports. Upon graduation, he had a job waiting for him at the Ledger. It was there that he met his wife, who was working as the assistant classified advertising manager.
After five years at The Ledger, Wieberg joined a newspaper owned by the Gannett newspaper group in Springfield. He had been there less than a year when he was tapped to do the cover story for a USA Today prototype. USA Today was a new Gannett startup and em-ployees already employed by one of their newspapers had the opportunity to join the new staff.
Wieberg, being from a town of 300, and his wife, being from nearby Vandalia, hesitated to move to Washington, D.C. for the job. Wieberg wasn’t familiar with the Beltway, and had only flown twice in his life, both times to cover games.
But when the paper launched Sept. 15, 1982, he began as a “loaner” from the Springfield newspaper. Loaners remained on the Springfield payroll and had the option to return to their jobs if they decided they didn’t like their new jobs. He stayed and his twin sons and a daughter were born while he worked there. They were among the reasons that he and his wife wanted to return to the Midwest or a small town. With the advent of the Internet, he moved to Lawson, Mo., and leased a one-room office to work out of rather than his home.
He and his wife found a home in Lawson (population 2,400) and their children graduated from there. The NCAA’s headquarters were in nearby Kansas City at that time.
“So Paula and I pulled out a map and, for two days, drove through small towns to the north and liked the looks of Lawson when we came through,” Wieberg said.
He added that it was a very nice, tidy small town. The downtown was still vibrant and there were children all over the place.
“We checked, and heard nothing but good about the schools,” Wieberg said. “Our choice turned out to be a good one.”
A high school baseball player, Wieberg shared his love of the sport by coaching baseball while his children were in school. Wieberg describes himself as “grinder,” someone who is willing to work harder and longer than most to get the story. Those long hours could have translated into a different lifestyle, but Wieberg remained grounded in his small-town roots.
That nose-to-the-grindstone approach has earned him a reputation as one of the most respected writers in college sports. In addition to covering college football and basketball, Wieberg has taken on issues surrounding the game. He was among the first to investigate increases in spending for college sports programs, and in the 1980s, he helped lead USA Today’s wide-ranging coverage of NCAA finances. He was one of the first to explore the recent Penn State scandal. He’s had his share of scoops, including a recent story that college presidents were set to approve a four-team playoff in major college football. He also covered the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma, aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Despite his reputation for sports reporting, Wieberg chalks up his own best work to his reporting on the Joplin tornado. Wieberg was the first USA Today reporter to arrive on the scene at the tornado. He had covered tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kansas before, but he wasn’t prepared for what he saw. “I had never seen anything like Joplin. It was a landfill 360 degrees around,” he said.
His August 2011 story about a severely injured boy whose parents were killed in the tornado reached into the hearts of readers. Wieberg was able to return to Joplin when the school re-opened and the boy walked through the school doors for his senior year.
His long list of awards including “10 Most Powerful People in College Sports by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007 and induction into U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame in 2008,
But it wasn’t the stories or awards that drove him to succeed, he said. The stories were by-products of his ability to build relationships with coaches, athletic directors and other writers across the world. One of his biggest accomplishments is that he feels at home wherever he goes. “I can land almost anywhere in the country and call somebody up to have dinner,” he said.
Wieberg’s search for more balance in his life also will give him more opportunities to visit with friends and family including a sister, Janis Deimeke, Audrain County Recorder of Deeds; twin brothers Tom and Tim, both of Martinsburg; and brother Greg of the Kansas City area. His parents owned Wieberg Implement, along with his father’s two brothers-Joe and Bud. His parents Carl and Margie Wieberg remain in Martinsburg. His wife, Paula, grew up in Vandalia and still has strong ties to this area. Her sister, Lori Sutton, lives in Vandalia, and a brother Mark Sutton, resides in Atlanta, Ga. All are graduates of Van-Far High School. A brother, Steve, and her parents, long-time Prudential agent Paul Sutton, and Mary Bennethum, are deceased.
Wieberg finds himself challenged to begin a new career as a high school teacher. He is taking graduate level classes to become certified and is working to establish the broadcast journalism department at the school.
He and his wife are glad they chose to live in a small town. “Living in Lawson is a lot like living in Martinsburg. You and your family are part of the community. You’re vested in them, and they’re vested in you,” he said.
Wieberg’s wife works in the Lawson School District, just a few blocks form their home.
When the school bells ring this fall, he hopes to begin a new chapter in the life of one of the nation’s most celebrated sportswriters who takes on a new career in his 50s after reaching a professional pinnacle that most could only imagine.