The Yang Slinger: Vol. XXIII
I visited Las Vegas last month in search of the stories behind Henry Ruggs III, Tina Tintor and the crash that ruined everything. I wound up finding Tony Rodriguez–and writing about him. Here's why.
In case you missed it, yesterday Sports Illustrated’s website published ‘THIS WHOLE THING HAS F—-ED ME UP’, a freelance piece I’d pitched a good while back.
By social media standards, the article received serious buzz. So I thought I’d provide some background, and offer a bit of the story behind the story. Because this one was an absolute beast …
In case you’re somehow unaware, in the early morning hours of Nov. 2, 2021, an intoxicated Raiders wide receiver named Henry Ruggs III was drunk and speeding through the streets of Las Vegas when he lost control of his Corvette Stingray and slammed (at 127 mph) into the rear of another car. The Toyota RAV4 belonged to 23-year-old Tina Tintor, who had been out walking her dog, Max, before driving home. The impact sent Tintor’s car soaring 600 feet down the road. It stopped and burst into flames.
As you surely know by now, Tintor and her golden retriever died. Ruggs lived, and is facing up to five decades in prison. It’s a brutally awful saga.
In the immediate aftermath, I all but begged a few writer friends to dig into the tragedy. I just find something profound in the intersecting of life’s unpredictable paths. Here was 23-year-old Tina, a recent Target employee; a daughter of first-generation immigrants; a quiet woman with a small handful of friends and peaceful anonymity. Here was 22-year-old Henry, a recent first-round draft pick out of Alabama; a skilled pass catcher with ungodly athleticism and an infectious peppiness. He was a new father. By all accounts a legitimately nice kid. One worth rooting for.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the collision and its impact.
One life over.
One life ruined.
Families and futures destroyed.
But, for whatever reason, the saga sort of came and went. So on January 6, 2022, I sent a text to Adam Duerson, a Sports Illustrated editor/wonderful guy I’ve known for many moons.
This exchange followed …
I offered a bit more detail, and the piece was assigned. Which was … surprising. Jarring. Because I don’t really freelance very often these days, and it’d been a long time since my last Sports Illustrated story. Also, not for nothing, I was busy. Book research. Book writing. Podcast pitches. Two kids, a wife, an annoying dog. All the shit the modern human goes through.
And yet …
This story called me. It just did. That doesn’t happen all that often. I’d say 95 percent of the pieces I’ve written were ideas that I was perfectly, predictably fine with. Even happy with. But … called? Rarely. I’d argue the last article assignment that legitimately yanked me from my seat was this nine-year-old story for SB Nation on a long-dead halfback named Ricky Bell.
The story I planned on writing would focus upon the intersecting of two lives. So I reached out to Ruggs’ attorneys, a couple of Ruggs’ former teammates. I also reached out to Tintor’s family, to Tintor’s friends. I sent out, oh, 150 of these via Facebook to former high school classmates and Facebook pals …
And, well, it didn’t work out so wonderfully. I tracked down a number for Tina’s brother, who was polite but also clear that the family didn’t wish to participate (he said he was fine with me doing a story. So it wasn’t particularly negative). I exchanged a DM with one of Tina’s closer pals, and it also didn’t go very well …
I was lost. That might surprise younger writers. Really, you’re 100-years old. How are you still getting lost? But it happens to all of us. Rodney Barnes, the excellent scribe and one of the minds behind HBO’s “Winning Time,” recently told me that an idea is always best at birth, because nothing can ever meet the perfection of a blank page. That is exactly how I felt working on this piece.
So I did what thousands of others have done when nothing is coming to fruition: I ran off to Vegas.
I told Adam Duerson that I wanted to make the 4 1/2-hour drive to Sin City and poke around for a few days. I didn’t quite know what that meant, but in the lead-up I grabbed my handy-dandy old-school steno notepad, booked a room at the Paris Hotel and Casino ($59 a night!) and jotted down some potential destinations …
You can’t read my writing (I know this, because I can barely read my writing), but my plan was to hit up as many key spots as possible. My first location was the actual scene of the tragedy—Rainbow Road. I found a man who witnessed part of the accident, and he agreed to show me the different landmarks. We spent about an hour together, walking up and down the street, focusing on the painted lines, the burn marks, the vigils.
It was intense …
Afterward, I drove to the cemetery where Tina Tintor is buried, asked an employee to guide me to the plot (the place is enormous) and stood there for a looooong time, freezing my ass off but indifferent to the elements. At the risk of sounding corny/self-indulgent, I think it’s important—when writing of the dead—to visit the tombstone. It reminds you of the gravity of the situation. We all get caught up in the buzz of a story; in the rush to be first; to be best; to snag details no one else has.
Yet the cold, oft-forgotten reality is that someone ceases to exist. Tina Tintor was 23. Twenty three. That’s less than half my age. Her life was extinguished because someone decided to drink and speed. It’s senseless and grotesque.
Hence, I stood here and tried to think about Tina …
[A side note: The other thing I do at cemeteries is pay attention to those buried alongside your subject. First, it’s interesting. But second, sometimes there’s a story alongside the story. Or a tie between the wording of adjacent stones that catches your eye.]
After visiting Tina’s grave, I decided to give Henry Ruggs’ house a try. As I mention in the story, he’s stuck inside his once-upon-a-time dream crib. When I pulled up to his street, I was greeted by this unfortunate site …
I did what I’ve done countless times before. I sat about 200 feet to the side and waited.
Finally, after a solid 20 minutes, I saw a car pull up to the gate. I followed him in, but quickly noticed the driver park and look suspiciously my way. Ruggs’ home is one of, oh, eight or nine in the community. It’s tiny. The last thing I need is to be arrested for trespassing. So instead of knocking on Ruggs’ door (something I was torn about doing, to be honest), I took some photos of his house (just for descriptive purposes) and drove off.
A note: This all might sound a bit … too much. I get it. But journalism is oftentimes too much. I do not believe in breaking laws. Ever. But a NO TRESPASSING sign isn’t a law, per se.
So … yeah.
It was all informative, but also sort of fruitless. I drove to Tina’s home (she lived with her parents), not to knock on the door (they’d already said no) but just to get a feel for where she was raised, the street, the community. This hung by the mailbox …
I also found out where Tina’s best friend lived (I had no number) and left a note at the door with a copy of one of my books (she texted me later, a polite thanks-but-not-yet).
I was starting to believe none of this would work out. I literally said to my wife, via phone, “I don’t think I’m gonna be able to deliver on this one.”
To which she said, “I don’t buy it. You always find something.”
And then I found something.
I was back at the hotel, bemoaning my fate, watching TV, half paying attention as I scrolled through the different Las Vegas news websites and their coverage of the crash. It was all pretty much the same—and all nauseating. I’ve long held a strong dislike for the cheesy opportunism of local televised news, but this felt like a new collective low. Every story was punctuated with incongruous excitement. Like, the anchors were thrilled to be telling a saga where lives were ruined. One could feel the exclamation marks leaping through the air.
In particular, I was struck by this piece from the KTNV website. It concerned a man named Tony Rodriguez, who apparently witnessed the crash and tried saving Tina. There was video and an accompanying article, featuring one of the worst final sentences in the modern history of journalism …
I had not yet heard the name Tony Rodriguez. He was barely mentioned. So I began asking. The man who took me to the accident site figured Tony Rodriguez probably worked at the apartment complex near the crash—hence, I snuck through the gate (it’s a thing) and poked around. Nothing. I dug through the police files, seeking out an address. No Tony. I conducted a newspapers.com search. No Tony.
Finally, as a last resort, I did a whitepages.com search for a Tony Rodriguez in Las Vegas. This felt like the ultimate long-shot. Were Tony named, oh, Cecilio Guante or Lenny Spermmug or Tollbooth McCoy—sure, I’d find him. Obscure names are a journalist’s best pals. But there had to be a gazillion Tony Rodriguezes in Las Vegas.
And … there were. But then I narrowed the search (whitepages.com Premium Membership is absolute gold and worth every penny) to folks between ages 40 and 50 (the news showed a quick shot of Tony), and suddenly there was only (I believe) one. Which would have kicked ass had the name been accompanied by a phone number. But this Tony Rodriguez either didn’t have a number, or kept his unlisted. In fact, there wasn’t even a mailing address.
One cool thing about the whitepages.com Premium Membership is it also lists possible addresses. And beneath Tony’s name was a woman named Francine. I didn’t know for certain whether Francine would be related, or if her number would even work. Hell, it could have even been Tony’s number. One never knows. But with nowhere else to turn, I wound up with this text exchange …
[To be clear, I wasn’t lying. By now, I was thinking the focus might have to be Tina and a shitload of recent accidents in Vegas.]
Amazingly, Francine was cool. And helpful. And (rightfully) proud …
I texted Tony. Told him about the story. Gave him a link to my Wikipedia page (my website was down). Told him I was serious and wanted to do this righteously.
It took him, oh, a half hour, but he responded …
To be clear, I knew nothing about Tony Rodriguez—save he was involved in an awful accident, he had a sister and his name was Tony Rodriguez. He suggested we meet at a Starbucks on Flamingo and Rainbow. I arrived 20 minutes early, and waited.
I called my wife: “This guy is blowing me off.”
I texted Tony multiple times …
Finally, he entered.
Tony looked like any other guy. Short, stocky, some stubble. The first thing that caught my attention was when he told me he never goes to Starbucks. I know that sounds weird, but everyone in Nevada seems to go to Starbucks. Not Tony. I bought him a coffee, and we sat at a corner table. He seemed uncomfortable. A bit jittery. This was unfamiliar turf.
I shared my thoughts on the tragedy. That there was so much loss and absolutely nothing positive to speak of. His eyes were so fucking sad. His face, too. He began to talk about his role; about holding Tina’s arm; about the fire. I don’t know if it was therapy for Tony, but there’s something to be said for the power of chatting with a stranger. He went on to discuss his drug usage; his waywardness. He was a man carrying around so much pain, and genuinely grateful (I think) to discuss.
I’ve been asked how I got Tony Rodriguez to open up, and the answer is disappointingly simple: I listened.
We probably sat there for two hours. He is a longtime heroin addict who steals metal to pay for food—and I couldn’t have loved him more. He oozed empathy. Decency, even. To meet Tony Rodriguez is to want to help Tony Rodriguez. Or at least be there for him.
Which, of course, is the shittiness of this profession. I was there to tell his story, but—if we’re being honest—how much does it help him? I bought him some coffee drinks, but I couldn’t pay him for the information. I offered kind words, but … so?
When our time together ended, I shook Tony’s hand and wished him well. I called my wife and said, contentedly, “I think I found my story.”
As Tony drove off, I knew I’d be sleeping comfortably in a warm bed that night, properly nourished and content.
I wish I could have said the same for him.
The Quaz Five with … Kyle Tucker
Kyle Tucker covers the University of Kentucky’s basketball program for The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter here.
1. You cover Kentucky basketball. You're watching them play Saint Peter's. As the game goes on, and it's close, are you of the belief Kentucky will ultimately win? Do you have a 'holy shit' moment?: There was tension almost from the start. Although Kentucky spent a couple of months looking every bit like a title contender, it hadn’t been that version of itself in a long while coming into the tournament. The team looked tight before the game. Looked flat in the opening minutes. And then there was Saint Peter’s, this tough-as-hell team that is coached by the most confident human I think I’ve ever met, playing 10 guys and coming at you in waves, defending like crazy (per usual) and scoring at will (very unusual), all of which I think stunned Kentucky.
Still, it took a long while before I could actually believe the Peacocks — how absurd is that, the Peacocks?! — were going to win. In history, only nine 15 seeds had ever beaten a 2 seed, and Kentucky had never, not ever, suffered a truly unbelievable first-round NCAA Tournament defeat. Only twice had the Wildcats lost to a double-digit seed and never one lower than an 11 seed. This just doesn’t happen to Kentucky and John Calipari, who advanced to at least the second round of his last 14 NCAA appearances (including 10 Elite Eights and five Final Fours in that span). So when, with four minutes to go in regulation, UK was on a 10-2 run and led by six, like most folks watching I assumed that order had been restored and we’d all be writing about whether this was a “wake-up call” the Cats needed. Saint Peter’s provided a knock-out punch instead.
My “holy shit” moment was at one point late in regulation when, for the only time in 10 years covering Kentucky, I made eye contact with Calipari while the game was in progress — and saw what sure looked like panic on his face. I had a great seat, almost directly behind the Kentucky bench, and as Saint Peter’s went to the line for go-ahead free throws, Calipari walked down a few feet to the scorer’s table, turned his back to the court and wiped a face full of sweat in a towel. When he looked up from the towel, I was right there in front of him. He looked right at me and made the kind of face that says, “Can you believe this shit?” I could not, of course. And it was obvious he couldn’t either. And that he didn’t really know what the hell to do to stop this nightmare from unfolding.
That was the first time it really occurred to me that yeah, the Peacocks really might do this. Surreal.
2. Is it possible to have relationships with players when they're one and done? Is it even worth trying?: Not really, no. Not for media types like me and not for fans, which I think is a major contributor to what I’d call one-and-done fatigue around here. I should note two things: One, this year’s team flipped that script and through returning players and transfers was among the oldest teams in the country (although transfers who don’t stay long present the same getting-to-know-you challenge); Two, the main problem fans have with one-and-done at the moment is that it stopped getting UK to the Final Four almost every year. If the Cats were still the dominant force in college basketball, far fewer fans would have an issue with this kind of roster construction.
Now, to the question of relationship-building: It’s basically impossible. Even before these last two truly miserable years (from a coverage standpoint) where Zoom replaced almost all human interaction, it was tough to establish any real personal connection with guys you cover for nine months. Especially when there’s pretty sparse media access and even less one-on-one interview time. There’s also this: College freshmen haven’t lived a whole lot of life, so how many of them have a ton to say at that moment in time? This season, interviewing 24-year-old Kellan Grady about activism, 23-year-old Davion Mintz about mental health, 22-year-old Oscar Tshiebwe about his family’s struggle in the Congo, really crystallized that point for me. As for finding a way to connect to players when you have so little time to do so, my work-around has been parents. Get to know them early and stay in touch often. For the freshmen, in particular, Mom and Dad still play a major role in their lives — and at that age probably know their life story better than they do.
3. Who's the absolute best college basketball player you've ever seen? Why?: Limiting this to guys I’ve covered: Anthony Davis. He was just such an anomaly. He blocked an NCAA freshman-record 186 shots that season. Only 11 of 338 Division I teams blocked that many. Whole teams! He got better and better and better as that season went along. He is still saved in former Kentucky assistant (now Louisville head coach) Kenny Payne’s phone as Baby Giraffe. Because he was so tall, slender and awkward when he arrived in Lexington that, well, you get the visual. But by the end of the season, he could cook you offensively, suffocate you defensively and was going to get every rebound that even entered his orbit. The kid totally dominated that 2012 national championship game despite the fact that he couldn’t buy a bucket. There’s just something different in the air when you’re watching a transcendent athlete become that right before your eyes. It was a delight. (At the Final Four that year, I wrote about the assistant coach at Cleveland State who almost had pre-growth-spurt Anthony Davis locked up, and what a thought that is, right?)
4. I hate college coaches. I think they're power-hungry turds. Not all, but most. What am I missing?: You don’t have to work real hard to get me to talk shit on power-hungry turds in coaching. And there’s a decent-sized list. But I’m not sure I agree that most are that way. The crazy, crazy money being thrown around has probably muddied that water a little more lately, but there are so many coaches who toil and toil for years and years trying to make it in this business. I’d say the majority of them are in it primarily because they love basketball and teaching. I’ll use Kenny Payne, who I mentioned above, as a perfect example. That guy is 55-years old and finally getting his chance to be a head coach — at his alma mater, where he won a national title as a player but was basically blown off the last time they had an opening. When he was at Kentucky as an assistant for a decade, you could not find a player or parent who didn’t think KP was like family. I interviewed nearly every guy he recruited and mentored who was in the NBA (huge list!) for a profile in 2019, and to hear those mega-millionaires talk about what he did for them and meant to them, it was pretty powerful stuff. More likely than most college coaches being power-hungry turds? Only a handful of very loud voices ever get heard.
5. Rank in order (favorite to least): Bimbo Coles, Supergirl, clowns, Albert Pujols, "Remember the Titans," Disney World, people flashing you a thumbs up, the smell of a library, Anthony Davis, Tupac, Al Michaels: Tupac, the smell of a library, Remember the Titans, Disney World, Anthony Davis, Al Michaels, Supergirl, Bimbo Coles, Albert Pujols, people flashing a thumbs up, clowns. To be clear, if the scent of a library is old books and generally pleasant things, it’s No. 2. If you’re thinking of, say, a library that smells like diarrhea, kid vomit and those old wood shavings or whatever they use to soak up the puke, throw that just before clowns. Because clowns kill.
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Ashley Hays, staff writer for the University Daily Kansan.
I’m all in on Ashley’s opinion piece, THE OVERPRICED POPCORN IS WORTH IT—which makes a strong case for hitting up the movie theatre instead of staying home and sitting on the couch.
Writes Ashley …
One can follow Ashley on Twitter here. Bravo, kid …
Yet another story of one of my myriad career fuckups …
In the summer of 2000 I was rolling along at Sports Illustrated—fresh off the John Rocker story, recently promoted to senior writer. I mean, everything was going swimmingly.
Then, I was assigned to profile David Wells, starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Well was a strange bird. Moody, funny, eccentric, ornery, selfish, loving. He was liked by some teammates, hated by many. You never knew which David Wells you were about to get.
Anyhow, I approached Wells in the Toronto clubhouse, introduced myself, requested some time. He was friendly enough, but told me he hated Sports Illustrated and would never talk to me. “But I don’t care if you sit in group interviews,” he said. “That wouldn’t bother me.”
So … that’s what I did. I listened and I watched and I found myself amazed a man that large could pitch that well. Which—minus any great Wells’ insights—wound up being the focus of my story, headlined HEAVY DUTY.
The lede …
David Wells is fat. Not phat. Fat. He is not a work in progress, not a lug trying to shed some pounds, not a Weight Watchers washout. Over the past 13 years, since Wells broke in as a reliever with the Toronto Blue Jays, players and trainers and managers and general managers and owners have spent time--too much time--trying to convince themselves and the rest of the world that Wells was a fat guy in search of a skinny body. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wells is a fat guy who is content being fat, and if he is in search of anything, it is a beer: Coors Light, in a bottle, please. Everything about Wells is fat. The three likenesses of family members tattooed on his upper body are fat. The dark-brown goatee that could comfortably house a family of six robins is fat. His fingers and toes, his ears and nose, his forehead and chin(s) are fat. Even his voice sounds fat, the words spewing forth in a husky tone, with a fleshiness to them.
Wells was furious. Absolutely furious. Slammed me in the press. And he was right. It was mean and petty and tone-deaf.
I remain embarrassed.
Random journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: I only have one musing this week, and I want to emphasize it: The CBS decision to make Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith cornerstones of its March Madness coverage has put me over the edge.
I get celebrity.
I get entertainment.
I get ratings.
But neither man (both exceptional in their traditional NBA posts) knows a damn thing about the modern college basketball landscape. They don’t know the players. They don’t know the coaches. They devote their time to generalizations, to guesses, to stories and blatherings. And, just maybe, that could work in certain formats. But not here. Not when we, the viewers, have to be routinely educated and updated on the teams we’re watching (often for the first time).
Seth Davis, my former Sports Illustrated colleague and hoops guru, is still a key component of the CBS coverage. But his reduced role (in favor of celebrities) is a true disservice to the sports fan who watches games wanting to understand these games. Seth busts his ass, knows his stuff, grinds and grinds and grinds.
It’s all nonsense.
Quote of the week …
“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”
I'm consistently struck by Jeff's basic decency in dealing with people. There are a lot of writers/reporters out there who don't give a damn about anything other than their "brand" and getting attention off someone else's bad fortune. Being human and self-deprecating enough to poke fun at yourself, admit mistakes and grow from them are impressive qualities. I admire how willing you are to do all that.
Jeff, another great one. Thanks for sharing these.