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MMQB Founder Peter King Retires: The NFL Columnist Who Set the Bar ‘Impossibly High’

The legendary reporter and writer announced his retirement Monday, leaving behind a standard of generosity and greatness that has inspired the industry for 40-plus years.

I won’t soon forget what it was like to be in front of the legendary Will McDonough in The Boston Globe newsroom on Morrissey Boulevard. I was 17 years old, and through a connection at a football camp I’d gone to, run by Patriots legend Ron Burton Sr., I’d gotten a chance to speak with him. So there I was, an idiot kid in a Lincoln-Sudbury High School letter jacket, getting an hour with this icon of my childhood.

Simply put, I wanted to see what I could do to do what Willie did so well for a living.

I’ll never forget the time he gave me. He died five years later. And his name came up again a couple weeks ago when another legend of this weird game of ours, Peter King, told me of the decision he had made. King was going through the list of writers who had died while still on the job, as McDonough did, or didn’t get to leave on their own terms. I told Peter how happy I was for him, that he wouldn’t have to go out like that. 

I thought about being 22 and going to McDonough’s memorial at the then FleetCenter (now the TD Garden). I went because I looked up to him so much, and also because I never got to thank him for taking the time to talk to some lost high school kid whose dad wanted to give him some direction. And I thought about how, in so many ways, McDonough’s legacy was honored by how Peter did his job.

Now, I get to say what I never said to McDonough.

Thank you, Peter.

Peter King puts his feet up on the table and leans back in a chair

King started Sports Illustrated’s ‘The MMQB’ in 2013.

Because I’ve known him a lot longer and a lot better—I don’t think Will could’ve picked me out of a lineup—Peter, who worked at Sports Illustrated for 29 years, leaves a lot more with me as he retires from sports reporting. (I say reporting, because what Peter did, and people should know this, is not remotely covered by the term “sports writing.”) But in so many ways, and I told him this, I viewed Peter as a link to the guy who was the reason I got into the business.

And if I just got to learn about Willie from Peter, and take some direction on how to do the job, that would’ve been more than enough. But anyone who knows Peter knows: With the young people he’s taken under his wing, it would never end with just that. I know this sounds cliché, but, whatever you think of Peter as a writer and a reporter, he’s twice as good a person.

There’s no way I could tell all the stories I have of Peter helping me or one of my peers, or those younger than us coming up in the business. But I can give you some.

• In 2009, while I was at The Boston Globe, before Peter even knew me, he took my reporting on Randy Moss from a Patriots-Panthers game (Carolina defenders told me they made Moss quit) and featured it near the top of his Monday column. By that afternoon, the story was everywhere.

• In 2011, when it seemed like 99% of the NFL world was on vacation, I was on street corners covering the lockout for NFL Network every day, trying to stay neutral while covering the people I was working for. Peter reached out to me, made the effort to get to know me, and made me feel like the stuff Rich Eisen and I were doing day after day (with Eisen anchoring from Los Angeles) really mattered.

• In 2016, when I was tired of a lot of things at NFL Network and needed a change, Peter proposed that I come work for him, and maybe, in two years when his contract was up, take over the column space he so innovatively created when I was that lost senior in high school. I was so excited, I told my agent to not worry about talking to anyone else.

• In those two years we worked together, we traded information, and I got to observe who I saw as the greatest to ever do that job from the inside out. I’ll always cherish that time, the things he told me, and the direction he gave me to work with our younger reporters the same way he and others had with me.

And then, there’s this other gift he gave me that I value as much as anything: the gift of competition. When Peter and I were talking in 2016, he figured he’d probably retire in ’18. But as he and I worked together, and I saw his passion and joy for the job, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that, simply, There’s no chance this dude is walking away cold turkey. Peter, of course, wasn’t, explaining to me and the loaded staff of young up-and-comers he’d assembled at The MMQB that he was instead walking away to give us a chance to shine.

It was more than a line to him. We all knew he meant it.

So Peter went to NBC Sports, and I got my shot to write the column, the one he wrote for 21 years. Now, he and I were going head-to-head, and we would for six full seasons. Every Sunday for the last six years, I’ve had this healthy fear that I was going to get the score run up on me by the 1985 Chicago Bears of this genre of sports reporting.

Peter King walks alongside Peyton Manning

King covered some of the biggest names in the NFL across his 44-year career.

It has made me so much better. The bar was set impossibly high. I’ve jumped every weekend for the last six years trying to clear it. Even if I never got there, it drove me, and along the way I was so impressed with Peter’s ability to give me that implicit weekly kick in the pants without it ever becoming about me vs. him. I was always one of his people, and he was one of mine, and our relationship was never affected.

I also got to see, firsthand, just how hard it is to do what he’s done. There would be “Sunday nights” spent writing that would end at 8 a.m. Monday morning in a local Residence Inn, because I was doing everything I could to keep up with him. There were train rides to New York to go to our offices on fall Monday afternoons where I’d pass out, and a lot of Monday Night Football games I’d have to rewatch because I couldn’t keep my eyes open after the previous day.

And Peter was doing all this while in his 60s, and after more than two decades of doing it every single week, long Sunday night after long Sunday night.

A lot of people would ask why he kept going, and I think (and I don’t want to speak for him, but he did imply as much in his farewell column this morning) it’s simple. It’s because he loved it, and he’s competitive, and he cared about doing a good job. And because, well, the job isn’t done when the hour hand hits a certain number on the clock. The job is done when the job is done, and Peter did that job so tirelessly and so passionately, for so, so long.

Peter King and his dog pose in front of the MMQB Camp Tour truck

Starting in 1997, King emptied his notebook every Monday for his must-read column.

In taking all of these lessons and favors from Peter over the years, I’ve asked many times what I could do to repay him. His answer was always the same: He only wanted me to help someone else the way he was helping all of us. And that was always while he too kept helping, empowering, and more than anything, trusting all of us.

He trusted Robert Klemko to go to Mexico to get to the bottom of the Tom Brady jersey theft in 2017, a story Jenny Vrentas pitched. He trusted Vrentas to cover an ACL surgery from the operating room. He trusted Emily Kaplan, in her mid-20s at the time, to handle a deep dive into the troubles of Johnny Manziel in Cleveland, and a year later shadow Patrick Mahomes before his pro day. He trusted Kalyn Kahler, at 23, to profile Trevor Siemian as the quarterback was anointed as the replacement for Peyton Manning in Denver.

Peter, a lot of times, thought each one of us was a little bit better than we had any right to believe that we were. And that’s how you grow up professionally.

And beyond just that, he kept at it with all of us. When you’re in your 20s, and you start making professional leaps, you can get it in your head that your upward trajectory is going to be endless, that the compass to your career is going to keep pointing north. Eventually you figure out life doesn’t work that way. You’re going to hit bumps. You’re going to get knocked down. You’re going to have to keep working through all of it.

Peter embodied that with his staggering consistency. He led by example every day. I saw it when I was 29, just getting going in McDonough’s old job at The Boston Globe. I saw it at 43, in mid-January, when there was a lot of confusion over the future of our place here at Sports Illustrated, and he immediately reached out to see if there was anything he could do for me.

So today, and this week at the combine, I’m going to try to do all I can to help a few other people the same way Peter helped all of us.

I know there’s no better way to thank him.