On a holiday devoted to working, Peter King and the staff of the MMQB recount what makes covering football so rewarding
Peter King, Editor in Chief
When I got my first sportswriting job, at the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, I knew how important high school sports were. I was a general assignment reporter, backing up on the Reds beat, covering Xavier basketball, and, in the fall, college football. But, I was told, occasionally I'd be covering a high school game. One Friday night, I had to cover a game—I don't recall who was playing, but it was Moeller or Elder or Princeton, one of the high school powers of the day in the Cincinnati area—and talk to the coaches afterward, then drive back to the office downtown to bang out a 600-word story. After I finished I went home, slept a while, then drove three hours to Bloomington, Ind., to cover Cincinnati high-school quarterback Tim Clifford playing a 1 p.m. game for Indiana. After that game I drove home and was back in the office Sunday afternoon to write a notes column about local high school boys who'd gone on to play college football, and about how they fared over the weekend.
One of my neighbors remarked to me that it sounded like tough duty, working Friday night, then driving three hours back and forth to a college game on Saturday and writing that game, then going into the office Sunday to write some more. I was 23 years old at the time. I thought: This is great! I covered a Big Ten football game, and they're letting me write a college football column! So no, I didn't feel it was tough duty.
Last month on my NFL training camp tour, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was trying to explain to me why it was so good for the team to have free-agent linebacker Brian Banks in camp. Ryan talked about how much Banks, who was getting a chance in the NFL after spending five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, loved the game, and how much he missed it when he was away. Said Ryan: “Sometimes you get up in the morning and say, ‘We have to practice today.’ Brian's attitude is different. He thinks, “We get to practice today.’ ”
It may sound a little corny, but that's the way I feel about my job to this day.
Greg A. Bedard, Senior Writer
Why do I love my job? It can be summed up in this email that I received after leaving the Boston Globe for Sports Illustrated and The MMQB, and the many I received like it: “I am just a casual fan who likes to watch the Patriots. I have found your writing to be very insightful. I have learned fascinating things about the game, personnel and coaching/managing which I never understood or knew before. Thank you for making professional football so much more enjoyable for me.”
Most of us become journalists because, no matter what you cover, you want to serve and inform your readers. The game of football can be very complex, especially to the casual fan. If my stories can make them understand the game better, which in turn enhances their enjoyment and appreciation of the sport and the men who play and coach it—well, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Jenny Vrentas, Staff Writer
My first NFL beat was covering the New York Jets in 2010, for The Star-Ledger in Newark. That team was always in the headlines, from Hard Knocks to Darrelle Revis’ holdout to the brash Super Bowl talk it fell just short of backing up. That team was also a colorful, open book, which is so often rare in professional sports today. Midway through that season, one of the team’s veterans, defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, said something that I think of often in this business. Pryce had played in the NFL for 14 seasons, and the former first-round pick and two-time Super Bowl champion recalled being at a crossroads after nine years with the Broncos. “Pressure does two things,“ Pryce said. “It makes diamonds, but it also busts pipes.”
Pryce’s point was that he was on his way to being a busted pipe before he revived his career in Baltimore under defensive coordinator Rex Ryan (then later rejoined Ryan in New York). But his analogy encapsulates the high-pressure NFL world, and also puts into focus what we do as writers covering the league. Sure, you see your fair share of busted pipes—disastrous seasons, draft disappointments, meltdowns on a national stage. But a lot of what we write about, too, is the special stuff—players, coaches, teams and games that are legends in the making. The first Super Bowl I had the chance to cover, XLII, was one of those diamonds, and if you think about it, being able to chronicle the making of something that will last forever is a privilege.
I discovered the joy of doing that as a student at Penn State, writing for The Daily Collegian, which is why I took a bit of a detour from my biochemistry and molecular biology degree. But my dad, a chemical engineering professor, sometimes reminds me that he was the sports editor of the Danville (Ill.) High Maroon and White newspaper, where he authored his “Sports in Spurts” column. One week, the morning of a big game against a neighboring high school, he broke the news that Danville would be changing its offense from a T-formation to a single-wing for this game. Maybe journalism is more in my blood than it seems.
Robert Klemko, Staff Writer
In April, I drove to visit Brad Johnson in Bogart, Ga., near where the former NFL quarterback and Super Bowl champion is living happily in retirement with his wife and sons. We met at sunrise at the local Christian school, Johnson emerging from his Ford pickup truck with a big grin on his face, bow-legged and stiff all over at 44. I came to see him work out a young quarterback, 13, hoping to make the varsity team at his high school. The boy’s father and I watched from a distance as Johnson waddled across the perfectly-manicured, dew-covered field. He warned the exceedingly polite teen over and over never to throw across his body. “You ever see those signs, ‘Beware the dog?’” he asked the boy. “There’s a dog over here, and he’s gonna make that interception.” We stood out there for 45 minutes with the sun rising at our backs as Johnson jogged routes for his pupil, offered encouragement and pointed out mistakes. When the day was over and Johnson and I had finished our interview over barbequed ribs and fries, I shook his hand and thought of one more question: “How much did you charge that dad for the lesson?” Said Johnson, “Nothing.”
I understood that I was standing with a man who loved football as much as I do, who had given his life to it; his body, too. That’s why I love this job: when I get to meet someone so enamored with football, the joy of sharing it is reward enough.
Matt Gagne, Associate Editor
I’ve been fortunate to have covered so many different kinds of football games over the years, from a high school game in the middle of an actual cow pasture in New Hampshire to the Super Bowl in New Orleans in February. Of everything I’ve done—and I do know how lucky I am; my father has spent the past 30 years working in a lumber yard—two memories stick out:
The afternoon of Nov. 2, 2002, was bone-chilling cold in Brunswick, Maine. I was there covering the Bates-Bowdoin game for The Bates Student, and judged solely on the weather it remains the worst assignment I’ve ever had. Around 2 p.m. there were 34 mph wind gusts and the wind chill made it feel like 19 degrees. There was no enclosed press box, so I watched from the sideline, and thinking about it now makes me shiver. But that afternoon I witnessed the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen in person: Bates running back Sean Atkins carried the ball 37 times for 302 yards and scored seven touchdowns (23, 2, 30, 19, 1, 6 and 15 yards) in a 48-28 victory. I still have no idea how Sport Illustrated missed the story.
In 2008 I was working as a reporter for the New York Daily News. I covered the preps in Brooklyn and Staten Island and spent most of my Friday nights and Saturday afternoons running from one football field to the next. It was impossible to be everywhere and see everything, so I would try to predict which games would be the best to write about, and then work the phones to cover the rest of the slate. During the first week of the public school playoffs, I gave no thought to attending the game between Curtis (from Staten Island) and Beach Channel (from Queens). Curtis was the defending New York City champ and the No. 2 seed; Beach Channel was the 15th-seed. It was going to be a blowout.
Except Beach Channel pulled off a stunning 8-0 victory, its 41-yard play-action touchdown in the first quarter holding up as the game’s only score. I put a call into the Beach Channel coach and got an interview right away. I also put a call into the Curtis coach, Peter Gambardella, and left a message. I didn’t expect to hear back from him, but he called back within 10 minutes. Not only did he tell me what happened, he also thanked me for covering his team all season. In my 13 years as a journalist, he’s one of the classiest people I've ever encountered. (A year later, the Jets named Gambardella their High School Coach of the Year.) People are quick to point out the dangers of football these days, without mentioning its benefits. I’m not saying the dangers aren’t real. But I’m glad that teachers like Gambardella are the ones influencing and shaping the young men they coach.
Mark Mravic, Assistant Managing Editor
We’re all fans. That’s the not-so-dirty secret of sports journalists. Yes, as writers and editors we’re supposed to be objective and impartial, and for the most part we are—you have to be, to do your job well. But no one I know in this business didn’t grow up a passionate fan of some team: Bears, Niners, Packers, Cowboys; Red Sox, Lakers, Flyers, Gators.... Being a part of something that helped shape you, and knowing that millions of others share your passion, makes this job rich and fulfilling.
I was born in Pittsburgh and grew up a Steelers fan. In seventh grade art class I made a poster of Sports Illustrated’s Super Bowl X cover, with Lynn Swann’s spectacular diving, tumbling catch over a sprawling Mark Washington. Three decades later I was in my first season as the NFL editor for SI, and the Steelers were playing the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a rooting interest in the game—not that it would affect SI’s coverage, because you learn to compartmentalize. And I’ll admit to a special thrill as I sat in the photo room on the 31st floor of the Time-Life Building early on the Monday morning after the Super Bowl, picking the magazine’s cover: a shot of Hines Ward leaping joyfully into the endzone for the touchdown that clinched the win over the Seahawks.
I know some kid somewhere has a poster of that cover up on his bedroom wall. Maybe 30 years from now he’ll have a job like mine, and love it as much.