NEVER GET in a peeing contest with a skunk—or a quarterback. On a Saturday night in the late 1960s, as one story goes, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's NFL writer Bud Shrake was hosting a party at his New York City apartment when a guest, Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith, challenged him to a tinkle-off off the terrace. Shrake produced a respectable stream, but, remembered his fellow SI writer George Plimpton, "Meredith was fantastic." Dandy Don outdueled the media that night—and the Giants the next day.
Over the years, the basic truths of covering pro football for SI have endured, one being that if you hang with NFL players, you'll get something to write home about. For his cover story on Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, editor-at-large Karl Taro Greenfeld rode shotgun in Johnson's canary-yellow Lamborghini as Johnson raced around Miami at speeds approaching 100 mph. "I was never worried," Greenfeld says. "He's not the greatest driver, but he always seemed in control because he is such a great athlete."
While reporting a story on Brian Urlacher last season, senior writer Jeffri Chadiha went bird hunting with the Bears linebacker. "I had never picked up a gun in my life," says Chadiha, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has been with SI since April 2000. "I had no idea what I was doing, but I played along." After a Cowboys practice at Valley Ranch in Irving, Texas, some years ago senior writer Peter King grabbed Michael Irvin, hoping to ask the flamboyant Dallas receiver a few questions. "I don't want to do the interview here," Irvin said. "Get in your car and follow me." King trailed Irvin to the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. Says King, "We walked in, and as soon as he had a dancer on his lap, he said, 'I'm ready for your questions now.'"
Some behind-the-scenes stories need a writer's powers of observation to tease them out. One week before the Saints' 27--24 victory over the Eagles last Saturday, senior writer Tim Layden spent the afternoon with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and his wife, Brittany, in their uptown New Orleans home. While Layden was there, a neighbor brought the Breeses a housewarming present—pumpkin bread, which they shared with Layden. "Here's this big celebrity, but he's new to the neighborhood, people are bringing him homey gifts and he was accepting them like my neighbors would," Layden says. "It struck me as an out-of-context moment."
Still, SI's NFL team, which includes senior writer Paul Zimmerman and staff writer Nunyo Demasio, knows that soaking up all that color—and other things that might be useful in a peeing contest—with NFL players can be exhausting. Says senior writer Michael Silver, who has covered the league for SI since 1994, "Living the college lifestyle as a middle-aged man, rolling with athletes, going to bars, writing all night—it's a tough job. You have to get out while you can." So far, though, Silver hasn't requested a transfer.
Playing the Field
The members of SI's college football crew follow divergent paths during the off-season. Senior writer Austin Murphy, who chronicled Florida's ascent to the national championship in last week's issue, will complete his fourth book, Saturday Rules, a celebration of the college game, and then, in July, travel to France, where Murphy, an SI writer since 1984, will cover his sixth Tour de France for the magazine.
In addition to writing THE HOT BUTTON, his weekly column on SI.com, senior writer Phil Taylor will head to spring training, giving the baseball staff an additional ace. SI.com's Stewart Mandel, meanwhile, hits the hardwood, analyzing college basketball through the madness of March and beyond.
Senior editor Mark Godich, above right, who has coordinated the magazine's college football coverage for the past two seasons following nine years on the NFL beat, will supervise horse racing stories—from the Triple Crown prep races this spring through the Breeders' Cup next October. "There's nothing better than being in a college town on a fall Saturday," says Godich. "But being in Louisville on the first Saturday in May runs a close second."