Helping Others Tell Their Story
Mike Yorkey may be the most prolific, best-selling author you’ve never heard of. But undoubtedly you know of the famous athletes whose stories he has helped to tell: NBA players such as Stephen Curry and Jeremy Lin; NFL players such as Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy, and Sam Bradford; Major League Baseball players like Ben Zobrist, Dave Dravecky and Mariano Rivera; world-ranked tennis stars including Michael Chang and Roscoe Tanner, plus golfing greats and NASCAR drivers. Add his works of historical fiction and World War II spy thrillers; books about finances, marriage and family; business books about networking and becoming an entrepreneur; and the collaborations with evangelist Luis Palau and health experts such as Jordan Rubin. Over one hundred books! Before he started writing books full-time, Yorkey spent eleven years as the Editor of Focus on the Family magazine. Risen met with him at his San Diego home to talk about his journey as a writer and teller of great stories.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: You grew up in La Jolla, now a very affluent suburb of San Diego and an international tourist destination. In those days, it was a little-known beach town. How did your upbringing impact your decision to become a writer?
Mike Yorkey: Of course, we went to the beach a lot growing up, but I’d have to say that sports and reading had the most lasting influence on me. My family lived across from the high school football field and it was like having a big play yard in front of us. We were constantly there, playing whatever sport was in season. I learned to play tennis on the school courts. My mom and I also went to the library often and the reading fueled my imagination. I still remember meeting Dr. Seuss, who also lived in La Jolla. I was just five years old and he shook my hand.
When I got to high school, I started writing sports and features for the school newspaper. In my senior year, La Jolla’s weekly paper needed someone to write about the football and basketball games and I was hired at a wage of 14 cents per column inch. Usually the stories were about ten inches long, so I made $1.40, but it was a good training ground and I had a lot of fun. I decided then that I wanted to become a sports writer. I thought being able to sit in the press box, eating free hot dogs and watching the Chargers or the Padres play, would be a pretty fun way to go through life.
When it came time to choose a college, I looked for one with a great journalism school and also a respectable Division 1 tennis team since I’d gotten pretty good and wanted to continue playing. The University of Oregon fit the bill. During my first week or two there, I went to the student newspaper to volunteer and was immediately welcomed. The paper was published five days a week, with 30-plus pages a day; there was a lot going on.
In my freshman year, I was given the assignment to go interview Dan Fouts, who was a senior there and went on to play in the NFL for the Chargers. There were no recording machines in those days so there I was with my little pad and pencil, a green-horn freshman talking to the big senior. I asked some question about the upcoming game against Stanford. He responded while I just sat there looking at him and finally he said, “When I’m talking, I want to see your pencil moving!” It was kind of an intimidating experience. From there, I got to be in the locker room, covering football and basketball games. It was a great training ground, doing interviews on the fly, meeting deadlines. Although I was still a volunteer, it was all about getting clips that I could show in order to get my first job. It sounds antiquated today, but that’s how things were in those days.
After graduation, I returned to San Diego with the goal of going on staff at either of the two city-wide newspapers. I applied for a spot as a cub reporter and made it to the final two out of dozens of applicants, but they ended up taking the other guy. At the same time, my parents moved to Mammoth, a ski resort in northern California, and I was on my own in La Jolla. Fall came, and I didn’t really have a job other than teaching tennis part-time. I decided I might as well move to Mammoth too.
RM: Mammoth ended up being a catalyst for a lot of pivotal things that happened in your life, a place where puzzle pieces came together. Please explain.
MY: Initially I worked for the Mammoth Mountain ski area selling lift tickets. When that first springtime came and work on the mountain was winding down, I started giving tennis lessons. I got very busy because I was the only instructor in town, and I opened a little shop. I continued this routine—ski resort in the winter, tennis in the summer—for a couple of years. I also did occasional free-lance work for the town newspaper. During my third year in Mammoth, I met a young Swiss ski instructor named Nicole Schmied who had come to teach skiing and learn English. She contacted me about purchasing a particular tennis racket that was available in America but not in Switzerland, and it was love at first sight. Unfortunately, after knowing each other for only six weeks, she went back to Switzerland for the summer. Phone calls were very expensive, but I wrote to her every day. I actually asked her to marry me on the phone and we were married the following May at a castle outside of Zurich. It was pretty magical.
Afterwards, we lived in Mammoth for another season before moving to Geneva so I could learn French and Swiss-German and get acclimated to the culture. We lived in Geneva for a year, then moved to Zurich, where I taught tennis from morning until night at the biggest indoor tennis center in Switzerland. I was making really good money but I thought, “I’m twenty-seven years old. If I’m ever going to start my writing career, I’d better do it now.” So, we moved back to Mammoth, totally on faith and without any clear plan. I opened up my little tennis shop again and started at the Lakes District Review newspaper, a once-a-week publication, doing production help. Nicole was pregnant and I had to make some money, right? I worked one day a week plus wrote the occasional article. Right after Labor Day when I had to close the tennis shop, a reporter quit so I was hired full-time. Great!
A few months later, I got a mysterious phone call at night, telling me I needed to investigate Michael Jencks, the most powerful political figure in Mono County. It was an anonymous tip that reminded me of Deep Throat from the Watergate days. Jencks had been an attorney in San Francisco so I headed there and went through the public records. I found a bunch of IRS liens and unpaid business debts—a lot of money. I also made phone calls and the word apparently got back to Jencks. He in turn called my publisher and asked, “Do you have a reporter looking into me?” He was intimidating my publisher, who was not a gutsy guy, but I insisted I wanted to do the story. I worked on it for a month, turned it in, and then left town with Nicole to spend a couple of days in Palm Springs. While I was away, the publisher called Jencks and read him my story before publication.
It was the perfect time because I was being paid all day to read Dr. Dobson’s material about marriage and family and then I got to go home and put those things into practice.
RM: Sounds a bit like calling Nixon before breaking the Watergate story. Were you angry?
MY: Initially yes, but it was a way the Lord was protecting me. There were one or two very minor changes made, which undercut any chance of Jencks suing. If there had been anything wrong, I would have been fired. But the story stuck, and in fact created a flurry. The local radio station picked up on it and six months later, the voters recalled Jencks from office and I was promoted to editor. So, within nine months I went from not having a job to becoming a cub reporter, to becoming an editor supervising three other reporters.
RM: Another piece of the puzzle was about to fall into place for you at Mammoth— getting to know Dr. James Dobson, the acclaimed author and founder of Focus on the Family ministry. Now Focus is a hugely influential, international Christian organization, but back then it was still relatively small. How did you and Dr. Dobson connect?
MY: Every summer, the Mammoth Open tennis tournament took place and my mom was the director. We noticed James Dobson had entered and I recognized the name. The Dobsons had a second home in Mammoth and I’d met him previously at church. We were acquainted well enough to say hello to each other by name. I saw the angle of “Famous Author Plays in Local Tennis Tournament” as an opportunity to get some good material for the newspaper. I asked him if I could do a feature story and he agreed. After that, we started running into each other more frequently, and even played racquetball a few times.
By this time, I had been the local newspaper editor for three years, I had two kids, and I wanted to move up the career ladder. I decided I wanted to work for a Southern California daily like the Los Angeles Times. Looking through the want ads one day, I saw an ad for Associate Editor for Focus on the Family in Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles. Whoa, this would be perfect! I sent in my resume, being sure to drop Dr. Dobson’s name in the cover letter. Months later, I finally got a form letter saying that they weren’t interested in me. A couple more months passed and I happened to see Dr. Dobson. I remarked, “Hey, did you know that I applied for a job with you guys and all I got back was a form letter?” He expressed surprise, then added, “Well, I’m up here with one of my vice-presidents. I’ll have you talk to him.” I talked to the VP, Rolf Zettersten. He told me they were planning to start a book division and maybe they could find a position for me reading and evaluating book manuscripts. That didn’t sound very appealing, but of course I didn’t tell him that. Instead, I took him up on his suggestion to come by the ministry sometime.
A month later I made a trip to Arcadia and had lunch with Rolf and his magazine editor. Just a friendly lunch, nothing was really offered. A week or two later, Rolf called and said, “How would you like to become editor of Focus on the Family magazine?” They had decided to move the magazine editor over to the new book division. So just a few months after being overlooked for a lowly position as an Associate Editor, I got offered the full banana. I said, “I’ll take it!”
RM: As a result, you and the family moved in 1986 from quiet Mammoth to busy Southern California, and for the next eleven years you worked at Focus. What was that like?
MY: I was there during a period of tremendous growth for the ministry. There were about 300 employees when I arrived and within a few years, it shot up to 1,200. They had only one magazine, called Focus on the Family magazine, and its circulation grew from 1 million to 2.3 million copies while I was editor. The joke was that when I made a mistake, I got to make it 2.3 million times. In the late ‘80s, they started adding magazines right and left: Breakaway, Brio, Citizen, Clubhouse, Clubhouse Jr., Single Parent Family, etc. Those were dynamic years.
RM: How did your experience at Focus on the Family shape you as a person?
MY: I was tremendously influenced by working there. Our kids were two and three years old when I started. It was the perfect time because I was being paid all day to read Dr. Dobson’s material about marriage and family and then I got to go home and put those things into practice. Also, we had devotions each morning as part of the workday. Once a month, we had chapel, with prominent figures coming in to speak. I couldn’t help but just soak it all in, the whole atmosphere. People were really nice to work with. We worked hard, but everyone was encouraged to stick to a 40-hour work week and go home to their families. Focus was a special place and I knew it.
God told him his message would be taken all over the world. He had written it, and now the next step was to find someone in Christian publishing. I was the only person he knew.
RM: You had a job with lots of responsibility. You and Nicole had two youngsters and in whatever free time you had, you were together on the courts playing tennis. What gave you the idea to start writing books on top of everything else?
MY: Just before we moved to Colorado Springs with Focus on the Family, my co-worker Greg Johnson came by my office and out of the blue he said, “We should write a book.” I had never thought about writing a book in my life! Greg was the editor of Breakaway magazine, and he wanted to write about how busy dads could be better dads. His idea was to use our ministry connections and interview fifty of the best fathers we could find. That was the genesis of my first book, Daddy’s Home, which Greg and I wrote together.
One of the things we learned was the need to identify and take advantage of the most important hours of the day. Those dads said the most important hours are between 5:00 and 8:00 at night—coming home from work, having dinner, being together. That always stuck with me so, I started work at 7:30 a.m. and was out of the office at 4:30. When my son had his baseball games, I coached. When my daughter wanted to play tennis, I played with her. Those were rich years because I followed the advice of the Focus on the Family dads.
My first three books were written with Greg while we were at Focus, on our own time, moonlighting on weekends or at night after the kids went to bed. We split up the writing and really it didn’t take that long. Another of my early books was written with Rolf Benirschke, a former kicker for the San Diego Chargers. Rolf had also gone to La Jolla High School, but he was a year behind me and we didn’t really know each other. One day I got a phone call at Focus from him and he explained that his wife had given him my book, Daddy’s Home, and he had recognized my name. He was wondering if I was the same guy who used to live in La Jolla. Before we hung up, he said, “If you’re ever in San Diego, let’s get together.” The next time I was out to see my parents, Rolf and I met for a round of golf. After that, we continued to stay in contact. He told me he had been trying to tell his story for fifteen years, had worked with three or four writers, but it had never happened. I offered to take a look and a few months later I started writing, Alive & Kicking with him.
RM: I imagine the decision in 1997 to leave Focus on the Family was a difficult one. How did that come about?
MY: When Focus announced in 1990 they’d be moving to Colorado Springs, of course we went with them. We loved our Colorado years, but my parents were back in San Diego and we had lost my only sibling to cancer in 1988. There was a certain tug back to Southern California that was always in the back of my mind. An outfit called Family University approached me out of the blue to return to San Diego and work in an editorial capacity for their fledgling company. I had recently been promoted to Editor in Chief of eleven magazines at Focus and yes, it seemed wild and crazy, but Nicole and I felt a total green light. I asked for almost double what I was making at Focus, more money than I’d ever made in my life, and they met that request. We moved back to San Diego but within six months, they went bankrupt. I liken it to the Israelites being directed to the edge of the Red Sea: What’s gonna happen now? I felt like the Lord was saying to us, “Just stand back and watch.”
We had purchased a house with a big mortgage and also had put the kids into a private, Christian school with tuition that was even more than the mortgage payment. Our children loved it there but it seemed inevitable that we would have to move them to public school. Then we got a phone call from the school’s business office saying an anonymous donor had just paid for the rest of the school year and also the entry for the next school year. It was about $6,000! I never learned who had given it. We had envelopes put into our mailbox stuffed with $10’s and $20’s. This happened once or twice. It was mind-blowing.
Perhaps the most amazing thing was the timing of a package that was sent to my old office at Family University a few months after I had left. I had decided to go back to clean out my desk a final time, and there sitting on the top was a FedEx package. It was from a Des Moines businessman named Fred Stoeker, with whom I had become acquainted several years previously. He had sent in a cute story about using Dr. Dobson’s book, Preparing for Adolescence, and I had selected it from among a pile of about 900 submissions to be published in Focus on the Family magazine. He was not a writer so I had helped him with it over a period of a few months. A one-shot thing. Well, there in the FedEx box was a manuscript for a book by Fred. I took it home, read the cover letter, and called him. He explained his mission to bring an important message of sexual integrity to Sunday school classes and felt the Lord had impressed on him to write it in the form of a book. God told him his message would be taken all over the world. He had written it, and now the next step was to find someone in Christian publishing. I was the only person he knew. He had contacted Focus on the Family and was referred to Family University. I told him, “I’ve just worked the last six months without a salary.” That was in early 1998.
RM: The message of sexual integrity for men has indeed been taken all over the world. That manuscript became Every Man’s Battle, the first in a series of eleven books you’ve written with Fred. They’ve been translated into over 30 different languages, with over two million copies in print. How timely was that!
MY: The opportunity to come alongside Fred has been both a professional and a personal highlight for me. We’ve taken on some heavy topics over the years, trying to help men with their common battle of how they look at women. In those days, it was the department store bra and panty ads in the Sunday newspaper. Now of course the intensity of the battle has multiplied greatly due to the easy availability of pornography. Not long ago, Fred told me he was at a Christian college and 100 percent of the guys said they had looked at porn in the last week and 87 percent of women said the same. Staggering!
I started getting royalty money kicking in around 2002, when our first child went off to college. The first year, I remember college bills were $36,000 and my royalties were $36,000—within a couple hundred dollars of each other. It was amazing how the Lord provided.
RM: Since that first big break with Fred, has it been a steady flow of new writing opportunities for you?
MY: The reality is that I never know what I’ll be working on next. When Family University went bankrupt and closed down, one of the first things I did was to contact Greg Johnson with whom I had written Daddy’s Home. Greg was also an independent book agent and in fact had been my agent even while I had a full-time job with Focus. I had written some books on the side, usually a book a year. Greg told me he’d try to keep me busy with little jobs here and there. That was the start of this twenty years of working by faith. Every deal is different. Sometimes people go through my agent and sometimes they reach out to me directly. The athletes with a household name usually make a deal with the book company first, then the writer is sought. In the case of tennis star Michael Chang for example, the connection was made through Rolf Zettersten, who’d left Focus and was in charge at Thomas Nelson Publishers. He knew I was a tennis nut and thus suggested me. Michael called me from Paris and interviewed me over the phone. He specifically wanted a Christian writer.
My book with Roscoe Tanner happened through Chico Hagey, with whom I played tennis at La Jolla High School. Chico went on to play at Stanford, where he and Roscoe were teammates. Years later, Roscoe bounced a $39,000 check for a boat, got caught, and was sent to prison. When he got out, he didn’t have any money and was calling his old buddies asking to couch surf. Chico was one of them. Chico called me, saying Roscoe wanted to share his story but he didn’t know any writers. It was quite a story, including being locked up in Germany with terrorists and drug smugglers. He had been a Wimbledon finalist in 1979, losing in five sets to Bjorn Borg, and everything was taken away from him. He gave his life to Christ while in the German cell.
In 2005, natural health expert Jordan Rubin and I began what has developed into an extended association. He had previously written The Maker’s Diet, selling a million copies. He got a three-year contract to do seven books a year—one major book and six small books annually—and needed a full-time writer to help make it happen. He gave me a salary, which I’d never had before. In the past few years, I’ve continued to do about a book each year for him.
To come alongside people and help them tell their stories in an engaging way is satisfying, and a lot of fun too.
RM: Let’s talk about some of the famous athletes you’ve gotten to work with. Top athletes from football, baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, even race-car drivers. I love the way God has satisfied your youthful desire to make a living from sports. The list of players and books is so long. Is it hard to identify particular stand-outs? Do you have any heroes from among them?
MY: I’ve worked with some great people! Ben Zobrist, who plays for the Chicago Cubs, was the MVP of the 2016 World Series. A couple of years before he joined the Cubs, I spent a few days with him and his wife, Julianna, at their Nashville home, helping them write Double Play. It’s the story of how two pastors’ kids fell in love at an early age, and how Ben came out of nowhere to become a Major League All Star.
Spring Time, which I co-wrote with Steve Springer, is the baseball version of the 1992 movie Rudy, which was the story of the scrub on Notre Dame’s football team who was too small to play competitively, but too determined to quit. Similarly, Steve didn’t grow between the ages of twelve and fifteen , rode the bench on his high school baseball team, got cut from his junior college team, and was basically out of baseball… and yet he made it to the major leagues!
RM: What are you working on now?
MY: I recently finished a book with Casey Diaz, a Latino gang-banger who found Christ and is now an associate pastor and a sign-maker for Hollywood films. Another current work is with Gina Pastore. Her husband, Frank Pastore, was a Major League pitcher in the ‘80s who later became a talk-show host for KKLA and died in a motorcycle accident in 2014. He wrote Shattered in 2010 and now her story is called Picking Up My Shattered Pieces. It’s about their interesting life together and how her life changed after his sudden death. They were childhood sweethearts, but he was four-and-a-half years older. When she was a 16-year-old junior in high school and he was a worldly 21-year-old pitcher in the minor leagues, they decided to secretly elope since her parents wouldn’t allow her to get married. He picked her up at home one morning, under the ruse of taking her to school. She was carrying a brown shopping bag with some toiletries and a change of clothing. Their plans hit a snag when they realized they couldn’t get married in California because she was underage. So, they decided to fly to Tennessee, where he played and where she could get married at sixteen without a parent’s permission. The excitement ensued when her parents figured out their plan and it became a mad race to the airport. Of course, that’s only the beginning of a pretty crazy story.
RM: Do you have any favorite books?
MY: After the Cheering Stops with Cyndy Feasel is a favorite because her sobering story has changed the way I look at football. And I think it’ll change the way a lot of people look at this violent game. The subtitle to the book is An NFL Wife’s Story of Concussions, Loss, and the Faith That Saw Her Through. She did a great job showing the 20-year transformation of her husband, Grant Feasel, a former center with the Seattle Seahawks who retired at the age of 32 after ten years in NFL. He started drinking; first on the sly, then more openly, then drinking every day. He’d go into the bedroom and turn on the TV and just drink himself into a stupor each night. She couldn’t understand why. He had been a Boy Scout, an all-American type of guy. They went to Abilene Christian University together, went to church together, and he spoke at Christian events like FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes]. He finally told her, “You don’t know what kind of pain I’m dealing with.” He was experiencing horrible headaches, a consequence of all the hits to the head he had taken in football. Sadly, he drank himself to death; he died at the age of 52 of cirrhosis of the liver. They sent his brain to Boston University and they discovered that he had a pretty major case of CTE, [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.] Now we’re starting to learn a lot more about what repetitive hits do, and Cyndy is at the forefront of the national discussion about CTE.
Another favorite is Alive & Kicking with Rolf Benirschke, which I mentioned earlier. He’s still a close friend and I know the book has had a great impact among those who have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, and those who have had the operation to remove their large colon, known as an ostomy. Since Rolf continued to play professional football for seven seasons subsequent to his surgery, readers see that a normal life after ostomy surgery is not out of reach. I think 60,000 copies have been distributed and ministered to a lot of people over the years. Rolf receives letters all the time. He’s just a wonderful man who visits people in the hospital and he’ll give them a copy of the book. It’s very gratifying to be part of changing people’s lives and giving them hope.
RM: You work with Christians who want to glorify God rather than themselves. You’ve enabled them to share their stories and convey weighty messages. How do you feel about the role that you play?
MY: I’m inspired by the chance to influence people and change their lives for the better. That is something I’m very grateful for. To come alongside people and help them tell their stories in an engaging way is satisfying, and a lot of fun too. I also appreciate the opportunity to come alongside athletes, helping them to revisit famous moments and share what they were thinking at the time. I believe in the power of story-telling. Story-tellers throughout history have always had an audience. Before the printing press was invented, people went from village to village telling stories. Jesus Christ used stories—parables—to give people word pictures. It’s a skill and a gift.
RM: Any parting thoughts for Risen readers?
MY: The pace of life seems to keep getting faster and faster and I’m worried that people’s attention spans will not remain sufficiently long for them to maintain reading a book. Books are treasures! Books can take us places that we never thought possible. They can teach us and inspire us to make changes. They spark our imaginations to create a “theater of the mind.” My closing thought is this: Please keep reading!
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