About Rick Houston

I am a veteran journalist with more than twenty years of full-time experience. I have written six books and contributed significant chapters to two others. Three of those projects were a part of the Outward Odyssey series on human spaceflight published by the University of Nebraska Press. I have produced hundreds of devotionals since 2004 for Stand Firm, a devotional magazine for men published by LifeWay, and countless online, magazine and newspaper feature and news stories. A semi-regular speaker at churches, schools, and civic groups, I am a session leader for Life Lessons from Mayberry, a week-long series of Bible studies based on The Andy Griffith Show that is held at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. More than 500 people from eighteen different states attended the event in 2013. Research for the book Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program changed my life. After not being able to fit in the safety harnesses of the Shuttle’s motion-base simulator due to my over-sized belly, I immediately began making better eating choices, exercising, and running. To date, I have run or walked more than 2,000 miles total and competed in fifteen 5k races, four 10ks, and three half marathons. I have lost 114 pounds … so far. I have been married since 1996 to Jeanie, a district court judge in four northwestern North Carolina counties. We have twin teenaged sons, Adam and Jesse. I also have an adult son, Richard, from a previous marriage.

Rock Bottom

Who we are as writers is a direct result of who we are deep, deep down inside as people.

CliffWSOf course, a lot goes into making us who we are. For me, it’s the entirety of those life experiences that cause me to strive to be a better person tomorrow and vow never to return to the circumstances in which I found myself during those long ago yesterdays.

One night in particular changed everything for me. It was the night I hit rock bottom, the end of my rope, the worst night out of many, many bad ones. It was late Friday, October 2 and the earliest-morning hours of the following day in 1992, and I was in the media parking lot of North Wilkesboro Speedway.

I’d gone through the agony of a divorce back home in Nashville, and after my ex-wife remarried, my son Richard was calling another man Daddy. That was a pain unlike anything I’d ever experienced, even more than the breakup of my marriage.

I’d moved to North Carolina a few weeks before, trying to find my way into the wondrous world of NASCAR. I had no real job, no money and very nearly no home. I was being paid nothing for the stringer work I was doing — nothing for the stories I filed, no expenses, no nothing. The only thing I received was a press pass.

Having covered a race in Martinsville, Virginia the week before, I wound up sneaking food out of the press box for dinner and sleeping in my car. The plan was to do the same the next weekend in North Wilkesboro, but when I arrived, it didn’t take long to figure out that meals wouldn’t be provided to the media until race day on Sunday.

It was Friday morning, and I had not a cent to my name. Panic set in. I was devastated. Scared. Hungry. And worst of all, completely alone. There was nowhere to turn. More than two decades have passed since that day, and even now, I can smell the personal-sized pizzas other reporters were able to buy from the concession stands.

After practice and qualifying that day, I waited until every other media member left the grassy parking lot behind the frontstretch grandstands. No way did I want them to see me setting up shop for the night in my car, and in that car in particular.

The next twelve hours or so were the longest — and emptiest — of my life. I cried that night, not knowing how things were going to turn out. I was more than 400 miles away from anybody I knew well enough to ask for help. I tried to pray, but had no eloquent words. There weren’t even any complete thoughts … all I could manage was the same basic phrase, over and over again.

Oh, God … 

I was scared and saw no way out of the fix I was in.

Oh, God …

Oh, God, please … 

Oh, God …

Sleep was next to impossible. As soon as day broke, I washed off, changed shirts and walked to the garage. Not long afterward, I ran into Deb Williams, the editor of Winston Cup Scene. 

In the NASCAR world, Winston Cup Scene reigned supreme. It was The New York Times, Washington Post and Sports Illustrated of NASCAR, and its writers were the best of the best. Deb let me know a story I’d written was going to run in the next week’s issue. It wasn’t a full time job, but it was at the very least an opening. Maybe I did belong. Maybe.

I headed to the press box overlooking the track, and it was there that I encountered Jerry Lankford, a reporter for the local newspaper in Wilkes County.

“Rick, I don’t know why I didn’t tell you about this yesterday,” he began. “The family that owns the paper I work for owns another one not far from here, and they need a sports editor. Would you be interested?”

Before I could stop myself, I bellowed, “YES!!!” I didn’t ask about the details, because they didn’t matter in the  least. I didn’t ask where the paper was located — it turned out to be in a little town in the mountains of North Carolina called Sparta — or how much it paid. All I cared about was that it was a job, and even better, it was a job with an established newspaper.

Just a few days later, I had my interview. By the time I made it back “home” to the motel where I was staying, I had a call that I’d gotten the job. I was officially the sports editor for The Alleghany News. I started on October 15, 1992 and almost exactly two years later, I landed my dream gig when I was hired as a full-time staff writer for Winston Cup Scene.

Amen … amen … and amen!

Some would call it a simple coincidence that I’d learned of my story running in Winston Cup Scene and the job possibility on the morning after such a terrible, dark, lonely night. No. No way. God heard the simple prayers I prayed that night, and He honored them.

I’ve never forgotten that night. I certainly never want to go back to those kinds of circumstances again, but I don’t want them to slip entirely from my mind, either. I want to remember the bad times so I can rejoice all the more in the good. I want that kind of raw emotion to be present when I write.

Always.

Cover Stories

Today is a big day.

I received an e-mail this morning from the head of marketing at the University of Nebraska Press … and attached was what should be the final version of the cover for my next book, Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control. After what had become a little bit of an odyssey to determine an appropriate image, it looks marvelous. I love it.

If your manuscript is an unborn child in the womb, that first glimpse of the cover is similar to one of those amazing 3D sonograms that allows you to begin imagining what the youngster will look like. It’s a stunning moment and one that never, ever gets old. After all that time and expectation … this … is … getting … real.

Race To The Moon Sept 2009 006

Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke holds a copy of the cover for Footprints in the Dust, which features a photo of Duke during one of his explorations of the lunar surface. I contributed the lead chapter to the book.Fourteen years ago — not long after the birth of our twin sons, as a matter of fact — I got the cover and first color proof pages of my first book, Second to None: The History of the NASCAR Busch Series. It was a day neither I nor my wife, Jeanie, will ever forget.

Today’s e-mail brought back a lot of memories. Fourteen years ago — not longer after my twin sons were born, as a matter of fact — I received the cover and first proof pages for my first book, Second to None: The History of the NASCAR Busch Series. It was a day neither I nor my wife, Jeanie, will ever forget.

Jeanie is a district court judge here in North Carolina, and that particular week, the boys and I had tagged along to a conference she was attending. She had already left for that morning’s first session when the call from the front desk came.

Mr. Houston, a package just arrived for you if you’d like to come get it.

I knew exactly what it contained. I had not showered or shaved yet. The boys were just beginning to stir and had … well … very, very full diapers. I didn’t care. I pulled on a pair of ratty shorts and threw the kids into their monstrous side-by-side stroller. We must’ve made for quite the pitiful sight, but off we went nevertheless.

To get to the lobby, we had to go down a long hallway with large banquet rooms on either side. We made it to the front desk without being seen and tried to sneak back down the hallway to return to the safety and anonymity of our room.

We weren’t as lucky the second time.

At that exact moment, Jeanie’s conference took a break. Out of the rooms streamed every district court judge in the state of North Carolina. There I stood in the T-shirt I’d slept in, gym shorts, unshaven and sporting hair that might or might not have been combed, with boys whose diapers were already stinky … and getting stinkier by the second.

Oh … hey, Honey.

Jeanie forgave me. I had my cover and my color proofs. They were beautiful. So were Jeanie and the boys, dirty diapers and all. This is my most memorable cover story. What’s yours? If this is your first book, what are your expectations for the cover?

The Unfastened Safety Harness

Working on my most recent book, Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program (University of Nebraska Press 2013), changed my life forever.

The date was June 22, 2010, and research for Wheels Stop had led me to Johnson Space Center in Houston. Astronaut Doug Hurley was kind enough to invite me to do a run on the Space Shuttle’s motion-base simulator, an ultra-high-tech contraption that tilted upward to simulate the launch position, and then shook and rattled to prepare astronauts for the ride uphill.

IMG_0280

Although I was smiling alongside astronaut Doug Hurley (left) in the Space Shuttle’s motion-base simulator, my heart was broken. A major life change was already beginning to take place.

I couldn’t wait to take him up on it. I have dreamed of being an astronaut my entire life — my last name is Houston for crying out loud — and this was as close as I would ever get. Slowly, I fastened four of the five safety harnesses as we prepared for the run. The fifth belt refused to buckle due to the size of my belly. It still hurts to think about that fifth seat belt even four years later.

This wasn’t happening. I’d been embarrassed many, many times by my size, but never with an honest-to-goodness astronaut standing over me, trying to figure out a way to help. Doug never said anything ugly, but he didn’t need to. I was devastated, and becoming more and more so as I desperately tried to force the issue. My ribs hurt so badly, I could barely breathe.

SLIDE THREE

My before …

Fortunately, we proceeded with the simulation of two launches and five landings. It should have been one of the most memorable moments of my career, and it was, but inside my heart was absolutely broken. I had to change something, and I had to do it quickly. My wife needs a husband, and my sons need a daddy. Heading the way I was headed, I wasn’t going to survive.

Rather than going on some crazy diet when I got back from Houston, I simply started eating like I had some sense. Chinese buffets were my absolute favorite, but they had to go.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were were like my crack cocaine. No more. Not even half of one. Oreo cookies … country fried steak … it was once nothing to eat nearly two pounds worth of bacon and tomato sandwiches. I’ve never been drunk or high, but I know full well what it means to be addicted.

I could do one lap of a half-mile track near our local YMCA without feeling like I was going to break. Then, I could do two … and then four. I signed up to walk in my first 5k, and then I signed up for another. I took a class at the Y on how to actually train for a 5k, and ever since then, I’ve been running. More than four years later I’ve run seventeen 5ks, four 10ks, and three half-marathons. I’ve lost approximately 110 pounds.

houston5k1

… and after photos.

Today, I’m satisfied with my weight. I’m not skinny by any means, but I’m happy with where I am. There’s nothing all that special about my story. Yes, I’ve been able to drop a significant amount of weight, but it wasn’t some super-secret diet or workout routine that did the trick. I was a writer who was almost completely sedentary behind a keyboard and computer monitor, and once I started moving, I haven’t stopped.

Trust me. If I can do it, anybody can. Working on your latest project is important, yes, but not at the expense of your quality of life. Hang in there. You can do it. I promise!

Stretch

For the last several years, I’ve worked an assignment that has stretched me as a writer as much as anything has in a long, long time.

WritingI’ve never sat down with the intentions of putting a fictional story to paper, but some of the sports I’ve covered for NCAA.COM are just about as close as I will ever get. NASCAR, I know. I worked that circus full time for nearly ten years. I’ve loved baseball since I was a child. I played football in high school.

Technically, I didn’t exactly play high-school football. I was on the team. I had a uniform and everything, but to actually play, you have to see time on the field. I was such a stellar athlete, I rode the bench for a team that went 0-10.

Seriously.

I still loved football, and knew it well. But men’s gymnastics? Lacrosse? Track and field? Swimming and diving? My very first exposures to those sports were the days I sat down in the press box … or tent … or grandstands … to work their national championships.

I had a decision to make, and I had to make it quickly. I could treat these sports as some sort of quirky and obscure sideshow attractions, or I could handle them the way I eventually did. These coaches and student-athletes were absolutely as passionate about their respective endeavors as any involved in more well-known sports like football, basketball, and baseball.

How could I treat them with anything less than the utmost respect? I had to learn, and I had to do so fast. Admitting ignorance can be a wonderful thing sometimes, as I learned from the NCAA committee member who patiently explained the difference between a game, set, and match in tennis. I understood completely, I think.

As a result, I’ve come away with some of the most memorable stories of my career. There was Mo Imel, the women’s lacrosse star who gave up a Division I scholarship to move to a Division II school closer to her cancer-stricken sister. After her sister passed away, Mo and her parents attended the funeral in Maryland and then made the spur-of-the-moment decision to drive overnight to Mo’s lacrosse match the next afternoon in Florida.

Mo scored two goals that day, including the game winner.

So, Tip Number One is to broaden your horizons as a writer. What’s that one subject you’ve always considered writing about, but haven’t gotten around to actually sitting down and tackling just yet? Go for it, and you might be surprised at how it turns out.

Then there’s the sheer volume of copy I’ve been called upon to file for NCAA.COM. My personal record for churning out stories — and I’m talking career-wise, not just for NCAA.COM — is thirty-seven 800-word stories in sixteen days. Producing such a massive amount of work in that short a timeframe was one of my toughest challenges in nearly a quarter of a century as a full-time writer.

Again, I had a decision to make. When filing that much copy, it would have been easy to “phone it in” on a story or two. In other words, I could’ve simply slapped a bunch of words up on my laptop screen and sent them in without really caring about the result.

Aside from the theological implications of not making the best use of your God-given abilities, there are a few problems with this approach. Turn in too many “clunker” stories, and the assignment may go to somebody else the next time around. And for a freelancer like me, that’s a bad thing. A very, very bad thing.

Also, that story might very well be the only one ever written about a given coach or student-athlete. It’ll probably be posted on their Facebook page, or maybe even printed out and placed in a scrapbook or on the family refrigerator. If it’s under your byline, you want it to be the best story it can be, regardless of how many came before or after it.

Tip Number Two is to give yourself plenty of time when writing, if at all possible. If your deadline is tight, don’t just pound the story out and file it. Do your best work, always.

Believe it or not, I’m actually headed to Louisville, Kentucky this week to cover an NCAA Division II championship sports festival. Six different sports in three days, and filing what I’m assuming will be multiple stories for each. Say a prayer for me!

The Perfect-World Writing Room

StressedOutWomanDistractions.

They’re a writer’s worst enemy — they’re this writer’s worst enemy, at any rate. In a perfect word, my writing room would be absolutely quiet with little internet connection.That way, I’m not checking e-mails every five minutes, and Facebook in between.

That’s just not the way it works most of the time, though, is it? I spent a good ten years of my career covering the traveling circus known as NASCAR. Believe me, you’ve never lived until you’ve tried to file on deadline, two hours after a race, in room full of tired and grumpy fellow reporters. Or better yet … during practice, with twenty or thirty high-powered race cars roaring around the track and another twenty more in a nearby garage tuning up their engines.

Headaches? There are headaches, and then there are filing-on-deadline-in-a-NASCAR-media-center headaches. Working in that kind of environment seems as far from the perfect-world writing room as it is possible to be.

Come to think of it, the room would be sound proof. My wife and I have twin sons, Adam and Jesse, who are 13 and in the eighth grade. When they’re out of school in the summer and home all day, it’s almost as if I’m back in some NASCAR media center somewhere and trying to write.

Stop that, Jesse!!!

Stop what?!? YOU stop!

A few minutes of relative peace and tranquility are again interrupted by a blaring video game, enhanced by our sound system. Is there anything more aggravating than trying to write with a Minecraft soundtrack playing full blast in the background?

Actually, there is.

A couple of years ago while working on my book Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program, I had the opportunity to do a telephone interview with former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. The man has like seven different academic degrees, was the top guy in the uppermost echelons of the agency, and had been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most important people in the world at one point.

There I was, trying to ask questions that sounded a little more in-depth and intelligent than, “Boy, that Space Shuttle sure is neat, huh?”

I had the speakerphone turned up in order to get a good recording when Jesse chose to walk through the kitchen, just a few feet from the open door of my home office. It could have been his Asperger’s — or just being a teenaged boy — but he announced at the top of his lungs …

I just FARTED!

Dr. Griffin surely heard Jesse, because he paused in mid-sentence, evidently waiting for me to go strangle my son. Mercifully, after just an awkward moment or two, he continued on and never mentioned my son’s digestive issues. The interview turned out to be a productive one, and an important addition to the research for my project.

And I didn’t even have a perfect writing room. Go figure.