Musings, observations and the occasional insight as I bid a fond farewell to Sports Illustrated after 16-plus years on the job, covering the NFL....
• First off, Snap Judgments was a Paul Fichtenbaum creation, and the then SI.com managing editor deserves all the credit for conceiving of this column, way back when there still wasn’t even a trace of gray in my hair. He called one day in early 2004 and told me he wanted me to start writing a comprehensive roundup of every Sunday’s NFL action, with short, hard-hitting and opinionated bites of insight. And, oh by the way, he wanted it filed by 7 p.m. or so in order to have it posted well before the Sunday night game kicked off.
And I’ve been Snapping my way through game-day Sundays ever since, 12 seasons’ worth. The games have gotten longer and later (thanks for those 4:25 p.m. starts, NFL office), the steady stream of controversies that flare up every Sunday grew more complicated to write about in the social media age (T.O. did what?), and it was harder all the while to be as thorough and timely as I wanted the column to be. It was never the monster of copy that my colleague and friend, Peter King, creates every week for his Monday Morning Quarterback column, but then again, it was a pretty heavy lift given that we were trying to consistently have it published in what almost amounted to real time, while the impact of that day’s games were still fresh.
I had to think fast, trust my eyes with what I saw and hope like heck what I wrote would bear up to the scrutiny of the all-seeing NFL fans and whomever else would be reading my work that night or the next day. In other words, I had to hope my judgments weren’t so snappy that they were riddled with errors and faulty logic and reasoning. People would invariably ask me how I managed to turn around a column of that width and breath in that time frame, and all I knew to tell them was that I’m not really sure. I just tried to put blinders on and let it flow. Sometimes it went smoothly, and sometimes it was like hours of oral surgery.
So to all those friends or colleagues that I ignored or unintentionally snubbed while I had my face buried in my computer screen in some NFL press box, either watching the Red Zone Channel or writing furiously, please accept my long-delayed apologies. Cranking out Snaps was never a snap for me, and it took my best effort to try and stay on top of all the craziness that can unfold on a typical NFL Sunday. The vast majority of the time, I was at an NFL game, trying to cover that as well as stay current with what was unfolding around the rest of the league.
Hearing from so many loyal readers in the past two weeks, who want and need their Snaps, I can honestly say the column found its audience over the years. It always feels like meatball surgery journalism to write, sharing my reactions without talking to or testing them out on anyone first, but there’s a ravenous market for that quick-take style and Snaps filled something of a void when it first started.
I’ll never forget the compliment NBC television legend Dick Ebersol paid me years ago, saying he had a rule when he started the network’s Sunday Night Football package: Bob Costas and the rest of the on-air talent had to read my Snap Judgments before going on the air, to get a sense of what had unfolded that day in the league.
That’s good enough for me. Because that was exactly the goal, back when Snaps was first thought of. So, thanks, Fichto. Turns out you were on to something. Stringing together my game-day musings, observations and occasional insight turned into a 12-year habit.
• I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating: Though I did good work covering the Bucs and Vikings at three different newspapers in Florida and Minnesota throughout the ’90s, I never would have been at Sports Illustrated if Peter King hadn’t put my name on a list.
During Super Bowl week of 2000, in an Atlanta brought to a standstill by an ice storm, I got a call from someone named Steve Robinson, who said he was the managing editor of CNN/SI, the network and website that those two media behemoths shared from 1996 to 2002. Robinson said he wanted to talk to me about a job, and my first reaction was to chuckle, thinking I was being pranked. But I went in and interviewed with him that week in the CNN Tower in Atlanta, and by that March, I was on staff.
I had been Peter’s correspondent for both the Bucs and Vikings for years, and he knew my work from what I filed to him every Sunday night, for his NFL notes column in the magazine. He had given Robinson three names, mine and two others. When I found out my competition, I started to think I had gotten this gig by default.
The other two names? Adam Schefter, then a Broncos beat guy at The Denver Post (hey, whatever happened to him?), and John McClain, who was and still is a Houston institution, covering the NFL for the Houston Chronicle. See what I mean? Default choice or not, I knew a good break when I got one, and I made it last 16-plus years.
• Speaking of Peter, I’ve been around long enough to know he inspires both a massive and loyal following, and more than a few haters. But you won’t get anything but admiration and respect from me when it comes to the man I dubbed “the Big Dog”. (His nickname for me, Donnie Brasco, is way better. But he is the Big Dog. In every way.)
Peter is the most loyal friend you can ever imagine having. Big-hearted, overly generous, and as solid as they come. And absolutely great in a crisis. I can call him with anything, be it a problem, question, or one of life’s greatest unknowables, and he’ll have something smart and meaningful to say about it. In my experience, the man is rarely at a loss for words.
It hasn’t just been my extreme good fortune to work with him, befriending him has been one of the my life’s coolest blessings. And the same goes for his always unflappable wife, Ann, who’s someone I never get to spend enough time with. As for his two daughters, Laura and Mary Beth, I basically got to watch them grow up and turn into friends of mine, too.
This just in: Peter and I both love baseball. And we’ve gone everywhere together from the memorable Game 6 of the 2002 World Series between the Giants and Angels (shouldn’t have flipped that souvenir to Russ Ortiz, Dusty Baker!), to the bleachers in left at Wrigley Field on a perfect summer day (two Old Styles, please?), to too many life-or-death Red Sox games to recall (Can you believe he doesn’t like “Sweet Caroline” in the eighth?). Once when I lived in Columbia, Md., just south of Baltimore, he called me at 11 a.m. on a work day and shamelessly goaded me into driving to Philadelphia right that minute in order to catch a nondescript Phillies afternoon doubleheader with him. “C’mon, you have to do it,” he bellowed. Of course I went. My name is Banks and they were playing two.
Peter knows how I feel about him, because I tell him, fairly often. But it’d be nice if everyone else got to know the guy I know. Because if they did, the hater club would be closed or severely hobbled, due to lack of membership. The Big Dog is a very big part of my life, and always will be.
• I only have anecdotal evidence to base this on, but I don’t remember ever getting as big a reaction from any piece I’ve written at SI than the one I did back in August 2005, when I outlined my 10 reasons for hating fantasy football. And for the record, no, I still haven’t ever played fantasy, don’t intend to start now and have never been tempted to try. But thanks for asking. Again.
The feedback to that column was overwhelmingly negative, of course, because fantasy football is so ridiculously popular, but there were some folks out there who agreed with me that it changes the way you watch a game, it confuses and divides your natural loyalties, is too heavily skewered toward offense, glorifies stat accumulators over team players, blah, blah, blah...
Against the grain is not my default setting, but that one struck a nerve and I still occasionally hear about my act of NFL heresy from fans. But that’s okay. It’s one take that has stood the test of time for me, and I’m glad I never joined the cult. I’ll bet someone is firing off another nasty email to me any second now. Just try to avoid the “bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you” cliché, okay? Heard that one a few hundred times. Thank you.
• Writing for Sports Illustrated has been a real honor and something I actually told people I was going to do when I was growing up, having gotten my first subscription to the magazine a few months before I turned nine. It has definitely had its perks, but I won’t miss one particular line of questioning, having experienced it 1,001 times over the past 16 years, no matter where I go:
Unnamed person (usually male): So what do you do?
Me: I’m a sports writer. I cover the NFL for Sports Illustrated. (Wait for it....)
Unnamed person: Wow. Very cool. Do you get to be at the swimsuit issue photo shoot?
Me: Nope. Not once.
Unnamed person (with a look of disappointment): Oh. Too bad.
Me: Yeah. Keep in touch.
• People who know me well know I’ve moved a lot during my time at SI. I started out this gig still living in suburban Minneapolis, from my time on the Vikings beat. In the summer of 2001, Columbia became home. By mid-2005, I was in Boston. Then on to Madison, Wis., in late 2008, and the western Philadelphia suburbs in early 2012. In early 2015, for my wife’s job, we moved to New York and took up residence in Brooklyn.
So I’ve gotten to experience a lot of different places on the NFL map. If you’re scoring at home, that’s six states in a span of about a decade and a half, and a warehouse full of boxes lived out of. When I was hired, SI told me I could pretty much set up shop anywhere as long as I had a phone, laptop, airport and an NFL team or two nearby, and boy, did I take them up on that offer. I essentially morphed into the life of an itinerant assistant coach, moving every three years. I suppose that’s why I tried to always keep Snaps light, better to transport them anywhere.
• I’m still not sure where I’ll be working next, but there are some possibilities I’m considering and I’ll let people know shortly via social media if any new destination gets nailed down. Could be a different kind of autumn for me, though. I really can’t imagine the NFL holding a regular season without me being involved, because, well, the last time my work schedule in the fall didn’t revolve around the NFL schedule was in 1989, the year before I went on the Bucs beat in St. Petersburg. But I checked with folks in the league office this week and they seem determined to carry on. Who knew?
• Some cool stuff that happened to me because I got to write about the NFL for Sports Illustrated:
— Quite a few years ago, a bunch of Saints fans started chanting “Donnie Brasco” when they saw me before a game outside the Superdome. Thanks for that, Peter. The reach and influence of The Big Dog knows no bounds.
— Back in November 2005, I was doing a hit on Jim Rome’s radio show, talking about a piece I had written that week about the 10th anniversary of the Browns leaving Cleveland in 1995. Bill Belichick had talked to me extensively for the story, and it was a highlight headline for me that season.
But the great part was, that Rome interview also served as my current brother-in-law Steve’s introduction to me, because he was driving near his home in Portland, Ore., and heard me on the air. We had never met at that point, and he said it took him a minute to put it together that the Don Banks on the radio was the same Don Banks who was dating his sister, Alissa, and about to join the family. So thanks, Jim Rome, the match-maker. Sort of.
— In 2006 and again in 2007, I had very, very bit parts playing a sports writer (a true stretch role for me) in a pair of movies: First Invincible, and then The Game Plan. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson might be huge stars to you. But to me, they’re just my co-stars. Thanks again, Chip Namias, maker of movie dreams that come true.
• As a writer, editors can be viewed as mere necessary evils, but that has largely not been my experience at SI. I’ve had the good fortune of having worked with a string of top-notch people who have handled my copy, and I owe them all many thanks for their patience, confidence and making me read and sound so smooth over the years. And a blanket apology as well for driving you all a little nuts, given my penchant for being so darn particular about every word. I totally cop to that flaw.
When I started at CNN/SI, Duane Cross was my day-to-day NFL editor, and we told each other with smoke and mirrors we could figure this gig out. And we did. Then came the multi-talented Andrew Perloff (my always razor-sharp podcast partner, Pro Football Now co-hort and current staple of The Dan Patrick Show); the calm, cool and efficient Bobby Clay; the supremely organized and gifted Dom Bonvissuto; the imperturbable and cooler-than-us-all Tom Mantzouranis; the steady and wise-beyond-his-years Ben Eagle; and finally, the fount of ideas and creative energy that is Melissa Jacobs. Along with the unsung and hard-working NFL team of Bette Marston, Eric Single and Amy Parlapiano editing me, I’ve had as much fun the past couple seasons as I’ve ever had at SI, and it was these quality folks who helped the tentative old guy branch out and dabble in new platforms such as video and podcasting.
I also want to say thanks to both Maggie Gray (star of “The Maggie Gray Show”, otherwise known as SI Now and Pro Football Now) for all the superb work and great laughs, both on and off-camera, and Ryan Hunt, SI.com’s managing editor and a friend since I walked in the door back in early 2000. Good people are hard to find, but I’ve been surrounded by them for a long time now. You’re all going to be irreplaceable in my world, and here’s hoping we work together again someday.
• Lastly, the past couple weeks I found out just how loyal and generous my readers and listeners are after the news of my impending departure from SI made the rounds. There are quite a few Snaps-aholics out there who are getting fidgety not knowing when their next fix is coming. I hear you, and I’m working on it. Trust me. (Remember our 12-step program.)
But thanks to all for letting me muse, make observations and at least attempt the occasional insight for all these years of NFL coverage at Sports Illustrated. It has been a better ride than I ever could have dreamed, and I can’t believe how quickly 16-plus years passed. Went by in a Snap.