I got a bit nostalgic on Friday when I told my crew at The MMQB—we were gathered in New York City for our microsite’s offseason seminar—that Sunday was the 25th anniversary of Sports Illustrated managing editor Mark Mulvoy offering me a job and saying, “I want you to cover the NFL your way.” Nostalgic, and a bit ancient. Two of the staffers in the room on Friday, Andy DeGory and Emily Kaplan, weren’t born when I started at SI. Which means one of two things. Either I should get lost, and go where the dinosaurs go. Or I should, as many athletes say, stay till they kick me out of the game.
I’ve opted for the second choice, at least for now. Twenty-five years, 25 memories:
1. First assignment: June 1989. The NFL’s trying to birth a minor league, the World League of American Football, and I’m sent on the road for three days with the new exec of the league, banished Cowboys czar Tex Schramm, as he private-jetted from Jacksonville to Orlando to Birmingham to Charlotte to Nashville scouting for American franchises for an uninvented league. Highlight: I’m sent down the stairs of the plane first when we get to Nashville, and at the bottom is the Man in Black, with his right hand out to shake. “Hiyah, welcome tah Nashville. Ahm Johnny Cash,” said Johnny Cash. Those were the days: three days on the road for 370 words buried in “Scorecard.”
2. One of the great things about the Sports Illustrated of a generation ago was access. A PR man in those days would actually value an SI writer more highly than an ESPN reporter or anchor. And so less than 48 hours after the biggest trade in NFL history—the 18-player/draft-pick Herschel Walker deal between Dallas and Minnesota—I’m in a car with Walker as he runs errands the day before his first game as a Vike. “I’m ashamed to be here, almost,” Walker said. “These other guys have earned their stripes, and I’m almost sneaking in.” I was in the wrong place, even though Walker gained 148 yards the next day. I should have been in denuded Dallas. That trade gave Dallas several pieces it needed to win three Super Bowls, even though it set them up for a 1-15 season.
3. I loved the openness, the bawdiness, the intelligence of Jimmy Johnson. In training camp in 1990 we dined one night and he told me what a living hell the 1-15 season was, and he detailed all the crap that went on all season. At one point Johnson realized how much he was saying and his glare bore a hole through me. “Peter,” he said. “If you f— me on this story, I will squash you like a squirrel in the road.” Another time, he opened a briefcase to get something out, and a canister of Paul Mitchell Freeze and Spray Shine hair spray fell onto the floor. “Oooops!” he said, laughing.
4. Most often my first three or four years, pre-TV, I’d sit in the office on an NFL Sunday and gather enough material for a four-page “Inside the NFL” notes column. Or I’d go on the road and get a lead for the column out of a Sunday game. I liked the weird stats. Like this after the Colts fired Ron Meyer in 1991: In his last 72 games, Ron Meyer went 36-36. In his last 72 games, Chuck Noll is 36-36.
5. In a Jersey movie theater watching “A Few Good Men” in 1992, something happened that made me say, “You work at a cool place.” Tom Cruise’s character was on the streets of Washington, D.C., and stopped at a newsstand. He bought a copy of Sports Illustrated with my “One Happy Camper” story from Colts camp the previous year, on Eric Dickerson, and flipped through it for a few seconds. Had to call my mother and tell her about that one.
6. Biggest regret, by far: My father, who died in 1986, who brought home five or six Boston and New York newspapers every Saturday and Sunday to our home in Connecticut—that infected me with the media bug—never got to hear any of my stories, never got to go to any games, never got to know how important he was to what happened to me.
7. The media … what a difference a generation makes. I traveled in the early ’90s with a large notebook, a few pens and a small computer that most often stayed at the hotel. I’d take notes at a game, do interviews post-game, and go back to the hotel and write my piece for the magazine. When that was done, so was I for the week. The End. Now: I use a smart phone, a tablet and a laptop, daily. I phone, I tweet, I skype, I research the ’net. I do talk shows. I do video chats. The other day I did something called a Google+ hangout with Brandin Cooks and A.J. McCarron. In a 2014 game week, I’ll get up Sunday morning, try to polish off 2,500 early words for my Monday Morning Quarterback column for The MMQB. Then I’ll go to NBC to watch games, and I’ll interview some players and coaches by phone, and then the NBC pre-game show comes on and I’ll have a little segment on it, and then I’ll report whatever needs to be reported. Then I’ll go home to my Manhattan apartment and finish my Monday column, and then go in the office to do some video work, and the multimedia thing will start all over again. Back in the day you prayed something you found out on a Friday would hold until it got to peoples’ mailboxes six days later. Now that thing you found out will probably be on the internet in six minutes by someone else if you don’t rush to get it up first.
8. Deion Sanders, the football player moonlighting as a baseball player. Went to see him play for the Braves in Pittsburgh in 1992, when he was nearly an everyday player for Atlanta. He told me to meet him in his hotel room an hour after the game. So I went. He’d taken the collar against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield at Three Rivers, and when I got to his room, he was sweating, shirtless, taking swings in front of the mirror. The guy wanted to be good at baseball, but he knew the reality of it. “They can do without me,” he said. “I know it and they know it.”
9. In 1995, Mike Holmgren, the Green Bay head coach, let me spend a week inside the Packers. That was fun. Brett Favre farted in quarterback meetings a lot. What a memory he had. He’d be looking up at the ceiling, seemingly not paying attention, and QB coach Steve Mariucci would say, “Brett, what are you looking for with this protection?” Favre would just spit out, “Strongside ’back. C’mon Mooch. Gimme something tough.” That’s the week Holmgren, playing a game against Minnesota for the division lead in three days, had to call two rookie running backs into his office and tell them they couldn’t have a pet lion. A couple hours later, one of them, Travis Jervey, told me if he couldn’t get a lion, well then, he’d like a tiger instead.
10. Maddest a player ever got with me? Probably Kevin Gogan of the 49ers. I called him a journeyman in print in 1997, seeing as though he was on his third team in five years. When I showed up in their locker room a few weeks later, he confronted me and screamed, “JOURNEYMAN? JOURNEYMAN! JOURNEYMAN!!!!” I just stared at him as he towered over me—he was 6-7, 320—and screamed. “Do you want to talk about it?’’ I said. He just kept screaming, “JOURNEYMAN!!!” Strange afternoon.
11. Maddest a coach ever got? One time Bill Parcells told me we were through—he was coaching the Jets, and thought I told another writer something out of bounds—and that lasted about six or eight months. Now we talk a lot. I guess Bill Belichick got mad after some of my coverage of Spygate in 2007. I’m not sure, though. He hasn’t talked to me since.
12. Regrets? You’ll probably say, “The Saints’ bounty story.” Nope. I don’t regret a syllable of it. Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis and Gregg Williams and Jonathan Vilma should be mad at themselves, not at me, for not stopping it before it got out of control. I’d love to have a relationship with smart men and brilliant coaches like Belichick and Payton again, but these things happen in this business.
13. Best locker-room scene: Steve Young, after he threw six touchdown passes in super Bowl XXIX to shred the Chargers, hugging the Vince Lombardi Trophy so tight I honestly though he might bend it. “THEY CAN NEVER, EVER, EVER TAKE THIS AWAY!!!!!!!” Young screamed before the media got let in. (I worked for ABC at the time, and the game network got to be everywhere. Lucky me.)
14. Best post-Super Bowl scene: Young, that same night, throwing up red Gatorade in the limo taking him from the game to his hotel in Miami—all over agent Leigh Steinberg’s shoes. “Guess I’ll never polish these shoes again,” Steinberg said. Young was so dehydrated back at the hotel, cramping up so badly he was nearly catatonic; Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue had to come up to the room and give him IV fluids in both arms. When a relative in his suite tried to gloat a bit—“Joe Who?!!!”—Young right away said, “No, no. Don’t do that. That’s not right.” Young’s one of the classiest people I’ve met in these 25 years.
15. So … the classiest? In no particular order: Young, former Packers linebacker Johnny Holland, Wellington Mara of the Giants, quarterback Frank Reich, linebacker London Fletcher, Troy Polamalu, Marv Levy, Peyton Manning, the late Buffalo center Kent Hull, Barry Sanders, Kurt Warner, Dan Rooney, Jake Delhomme, Hardy Nickerson, Aeneas Williams, Coby Fleener, Alex Smith, kicker Gary Anderson, Warrick Dunn, Derrick Brooks, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Nnamdi Asomugha, Chad Pennington. I could go on for a long time. Suffice to say: Good guys outnumber the turds by a lot.
16. Player whose downfall surprised me the most? Not even close: Darren Sharper.
17. Best story: The Saints. Everything about the rise of the Saints from the depths of Katrina to Super Bowl champs is good—for the community, for the spirit, for sports. I’ll never forget Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis going to a Habitat for Humanity building site in the Lower Ninth Ward the day before the Reggie Bush draft, to boost spirits of the volunteer builders … and President Bush showed up. “How about this?” Bush said, greeting Payton. “A 42-year-old guy from Eastern Illinois, coaching the Saints, living his dream!” Cool stuff, all of it. And New Orleans is still wedded to the Saints unlike any other city south of Green Bay is to its team.
18. I’ve covered a lot of fun games, but for some reasons I’ll remember the game New England won to set the record for consecutive NFL wins (19) in 2004, because that story contained my favorite SI line. (The list of good lines is a very short one, believe me.) I’d written previously about Belichick having the biggest football library in the world—which he has since given to the U.S. Naval Academy library. In a quiet moment in the locker room after New England beat Miami to earn the record, I got Belichick about as celebratory as you’ll hear him. And I wrote, “ ‘It’s great to be in the history books,’ said the man who has read them all.”
19. Best interview: Brett Favre edges Peyton Manning, Richard Sherman, John Randle and Jimmy Johnson. The memory of each man is startling, Favre and Manning especially. I’ll never forget what Favre told me about his post-football life. This was in 2000. I asked him where he’d be and what he’d do in retirement. “I’ll be down in Hattiesburg [Miss.]. You’ll never find me. You know the ‘Where are they now?’ segments on ‘Inside the NFL?’ They’ll do one on me, but they’ll have to get Robert Stack, like on ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’ I’ll disappear.” Well, he’s in Hattiesburg. I can never get him on the phone anymore. He’s disappeared, except to coach the offense for the local high school football team.
20. Best time of year: training camp. I’m fired up for the trip in July, the same as I was 25 summers ago. It’s the only time you can get some semblance of quality time with players and coaches between July and February. I hate that so many teams are reverting to their in-season facilities. Go to Pittsford, N.Y., (Bills) and Spartanburg, S.C., (Panthers) and Latrobe, Pa., (Steelers) and Mankato, Minn., (Vikings), and I dare you to tell me there’s not some benefit for teams to get away and be together day and night—and for their fans to be able to touch them.
21. Smartest professional decision I made in these 25 years: listening to Steve Robinson, the first editor of the magazine’s website, in 1997 when he asked me to empty out my notebook on Monday morning with whatever I wasn’t writing for the magazine that week. That’s how “Monday Morning Quarterback” was birthed.
22. Three best mentors: 1. Paul Zimmerman. He never knew it, but the most important thing I learned from him was simply by observing him. He almost always interviewed people alone. Invaluable … 2. Mark Mulvoy, my first managing editor at the magazine. Chase the story, no matter how many interviews or winding roads it takes … 3. (Tie) The much-younger people I respect in this business now—Robert Klemko, Greg Bedard, Jenny Vrentas, Jeff Darlington, Mike Reiss, Liz Merrill—and I am sorry to leave so many out. They are important to me because the young people in this business are so good, and the only way I can keep my job is to chase them and continue to try to compete with them. Just try to compete with Merrill on a long story. It’s intimidating. But it’s great too, because her work is something to shoot for.
23. The job’s tougher now. Lots of layers of PR people and team officials and milquetoast player quotes. But I’m still having as much fun as the day I walked down the plane steps and there was the Man in Black. You’ve just got to try to figure out a way to get to the story.
24. So the world changes now. I am editor-in-chief of The MMQB, this site you’re reading now, and I spend eight or 10 days a year on the road talking to advertisers now, trying to tell them how we can deliver the goods others can’t. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I have to think of video now, and social media, and I have to think about several other writers and what they should be doing and writing. It’s different. But last week we had our second annual two-day offseason seminar (I guess that’s what you’d call it) and I was encouraged by the imagination of our staff. There’s a lot of original ideas out there, even as things like the scouting combine have jumped in coverage from 15 reporters in 1999 to 941 this year. You’ve just got to be smart, and you’ve got to think. I am very fortunate to have smart thinkers surrounding me on the staff.
25. I often think how fortunate I am professionally, to be doing something I like so much for so long. That’s what I would leave you with in this contemplative mood I’m in this weekend. When it’s time for me to go—and I hope that’s not for a while—I will be the luckiest man in the business that day, because it lasted so long.