When I think back to the last football team I covered as a beat writer, the New York Giants for four seasons in the 1980s, I think how lucky I was.
Today, I really feel for beat writers, with the spoon-fed managed news, the "open'' locker rooms with three backups out front and the starters hiding, and players mostly petrified of saying anything -- on or off the record.
We were able to have long talks with players in the parking lot or by phone at home. Sometimes, with two little kids and a wife at home, I'd be thinking as linebacker Harry Carson or defensive lineman Jim Burt went on and on (all of it good and valuable), "Enough!''
When I told Bill Parcells once I really needed to talk to him about something, he said, "OK. Meet me at my parking space at six tomorrow morning.'' I did, and he gave me 45 minutes. One Friday after practice, quarterback Phil Simms told me he had a house full of sick kids and didn't want to risk catching whatever they had with a playoff game two days away. "Want to go to dinner tonight?'' he asked. We did. And while the Giants weren't the rollicking Raiders, linebacker Lawrence Taylor did keep us all worried about 3 a.m. phone calls.
As for the football part: The four best teams in football between 1985 and 1990, with apologies to the AFC, were San Francisco (two Super Bowl wins), New York (two), Washington (one) and Chicago (one), in some order. The Giants played 22 non-replacement games against the Redskins, 'Niners and Bears in those six seasons and went 15-7, including 10 wins in 12 games against Joe Gibbs. In '86, New York went 14-2, sweeping the Redskins and beating the 49ers in the regular season before taking those teams out again in the playoffs by the combined score of 66-3. They then crushed the Broncos in the Super Bowl, 39-20.
Parcells knew by plugging the interior lanes with three premier run-stuffers -- nose tackle Burt and inside 'backers Carson and Gary Reasons -- and by punishing the quarterback with a superb Taylor-led pass-rush, no team would run roughshod over them. Imagine beating the great 'Niners 49-3 in a Joe Montana rib-cracking playoff game, and then beating Walsh's best team, in 1990, with five Matt Bahr field goals.
Bill Belichick, the Giants' defensive coordinator in those years, cut his game-planning teeth under Parcells, of course, and there were more than a few times when after putting together what he thought was a perfect scheme on a Monday and Tuesday, Parcells would see some part of the design Tuesday night and say, "Throw that out!''
But where Belichick really might have learned something from Parcells was in the psych lab. Before the Giants met the Rams in a 1989 playoff game, Parcells was determined to play mind games with Taylor, who always had trouble with Rams left tackle Irv Pankey. He left a round-trip plane ticket to New Orleans on Taylor's stool. Taylor asked Parcells what it was. "A ticket to New Orleans,'' he said. "You fly down there, give the return ticket to [linebacker] Pat Swilling and tell him to fly back for the game. No one will know. You both wear 56. He's the only guy who can handle Pankey. You can't.''
A motivated Taylor had two sacks that week, beating Pankey.
Over the years, lots of people have asked me what Taylor was really like, and what it was like to watch him up close for four years. That's easy. LT never let us get close.
That's an understatement. I probably had three or four civil conversations with him in four years, once after he sweetly kissed my wife's hand at a banquet one night. But as a player, Taylor was infinite fun to cover.
I'll never forget when the Giants were 0-4 in the 1987 strike season, going to Buffalo to try to save their season in the last replacement game before the good guys came back. Taylor crossed the picket line and told Parcells, "I don't know how much of a difference one man can make, but I'm gonna try to win this game for you.''
The Bills assigned a truck driver from Illinois, Joe Schulte, to waylay Taylor. He got called for holding Taylor seven times. SEVEN. Taylor, in the third quarter, tired of the abuse and out of the officials' sights, drove his fist into Schulte's throat and screamed, "How do you like that, sucker!'' The Giants had a pathetic strike team and lost the game 6-3.
Taylor had two sacks that day but he was so dominant that owner Wellington Mara told me he thought it was Taylor's best game as a Giant. "I just like to play the game,'' Taylor said afterward. "I don't care who's out there on the other side. It's football.''
Sometimes you're fortunate in this business to be in the right place at the right time. In the primes of Taylor, Simms and Parcells, I was.