Let’s cover the Super Bowl together

by Gary Shelton on January 30, 2018 · 2 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Tuesday, 4 a.m.

There are too many humans to fit into the room. Everyone is jostling everyone else. No one is happy. No one has enough time.

At that's just at the airport.

Once you get to the host city, it is harder.

For 29 years, I covered the Super Bowl in one of those love-hate relationships. I loved being at the site of the big event. I hated shouting questions amid the silliness. I did some decent stories, on

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Lawrence Taylor, on John Elway, on Doug Williams, on John Lynch, on Peyton Manning, on Richard Sherman. I frowned at the imbeciles in costumes trying to become the stories themselves. I saw Stanley Wilson ruin his career. I saw Joe Montana guide his team downfield. I saw Dan Marino lose. I saw Trent Dilfer win. I saw Walter Payton ignored on the goal line.

In short, I covered the world with a lanyard around my neck and coffee on my breath. So let's tell the tales. Some of these I've written about before. Some I haven't.

What's it like? Come on. We'll run through it together. Endless press conferences. Crowded restaurants. Tons of pages of player transcriptions. Early wakeup calls. Thousand of repeated cliches. Early morning bus rides. Late afternoon bus rides. A rare good question. A rarer good answer.

Sunday: You show up at the city early for logistics. You reread your script for the week, taking from an endless meeting at the office. You check the schedule of events to see who is available when.

Unlike a lot of things you cover, you can't ease into a Super Bowl. There are more days you are assigned copy, frankly, than there are interviews days. So you have to double up. If you can, you start an interview on Sunday night, or on Monday.

First, though, you stand in line. Checking into the media hotel is always a pain. You dump your bags, and usually, you frown at the smallness of your room. It isn't as bad, say, as the Olympics, where you stay in glorified dorm rooms. But it's not luxury, either. Of course, not one cares. People used to ask me how much fun it was to cover a Super Bowl. I'd talk about the cramped rooms and the crowded press conferences and the long hours, and they'd start to frown. They just wanted to hear how cool it was. Finally, my wife had this advice for me: Just lie.

On Sunday night, one of the teams often shows up, and there is a quickly assembled press conference where a half-dozen or so players sit at podiums and answer softball questions. How do you like Minnesota? Is it great playing in the Super Bowl or what? If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Usually, the quarterback is around. Maybe the star linebacker. You ask a few questions and try to get a head start. Usually, you can scrape together enough for a small story for the next day. Your main story was in the can before you left.

Monday: Monday starts things. You stop by and get your week's credential. This one doesn't let you in the game; it lets you go to press conferences. When Denver was in it, the press conferences were on  a docked boat. You might be asking Manning a question, and suddenly, the boat would shift, and you would have to be careful of your footing.

There are a thousand sports writers at these events, all of them working their particular angle. Maybe you're working on Nick Foles' rise as the Eagles' quarterback. Maybe you're writing about the Patriots' tough start. Maybe you want to talk to the Eagles' LeGarrette Blount about his days with the  Patriots.

It's hard to get a flow going. I remember questioning Jason Pierre-Paul once about his blind father and the lessons he learned from him. I was two questions in, and Pierre-Paul's answers were very good. And the next question was whether he was afraid going into the game. Really? You think an NFL player is going to tell you he's wracked with fear?

Tuesday: Tuesday is the NFL's Media Day, which means it's the stupidest day in sports. There is always some male TV host in a wedding dress. Hey, guys. It's been done. There is Nickelodeon's "Pick Boy." There is Downtown Julie Brown. There are a thousand chest thumpers, all dedicated to a five second sound bite.

Once, I was at media day when Javon Kearse of the Titans was answering questions. He was wearing an impossibly large crucifix. Finally, a TV reporter asked him: "I see you're wearing a cross. What's the significance of that?" "Well, 2000 years ago or so, there was this baby born in a manger...'' For crying out loud, the significance?

I was there when Beth Littleford asked Mark Chmura if he was a tight end with a tight end.

Tom Archdeacon, a friend of mine, was looking for a different kind of story one year when his buddy Shelby Strother, the late, great columnist of the Times, asked if he had heard the story of Denver's Tony Lilly. Arch hadn't. So Shelby told him that when Lilly was at Florida, he was hunting one weekend and his foot was caught in a bear trap. Lilly couldn't get out. He spent hours trying, and he was afraid he was going to lose his foot, and he considered cutting it off. Finally, another hunter found him, and he freed him, and now Lilly was in the Super Bowl.

Arch loved the story. So he hung out near Lilly for most of the allotted hour. Finally, when it was just a few people, Arch asked "Can you tell me what happened with the bear trap?"

And Lilly goes: "What bear trap?"

Arch looks up and sees Strother, laughing his rear off, not far away.

Gotcha.

It isn't always fun. Ray Lewis sat at a podium in Tampa one year and tried to ignore the questions about the murder investigation that he was  in the middle of. He painted himself as the victim, and some bought that. An ESPN host led him away with his arm draped around him, one of the biggest showboat moves I've ever seen.

Wednesday: The interviews continue, but they're smaller, more sensible. Players are usually at their team hotel, and they sit around circular tables. The big names have their own lecterns, and the main guy is in the press conference room.

You can get some work done. I once interviewed the Patriots' Tedy Bruschi and the mother of children he had inspired. Bruschi had overcome a stroke; so had the two kids. It was a good read, if I do say so myself. I once went with another reporter to Jerome Bettis' old high school. They screened for guns at the door.

It was at one of these sessions that I heard the most misstated question of all time. Doug Williams was talking about the tribulations of being a black quarterback. A reporter named Butch John asked him "Obviously, you've been a black quarterback your whole life. When did it start to make a difference." But the crowd broke in laughter halfway through, and legend is that Williams was asked "How long have you been a black quarterback." Doug himself mentioned that question in his autobiography. It never happened.

This did happen. At the same press conference, a woman asked Doug. "Since you're the first black quarterback in history, and the Redskins were the first team to integrate, do you find some justice." A couple of things: Willie Thrower was the first modern-day black quarterback back in the 50s. Two: The Redskins were the last team to integrate.

The worst decision I ever made was at the Super Bowl. Jim McMahon, who had very few redeeming qualities as a human, showed his butt all over New Orleans. I had convinced Edwin Pope, the Herald's columnist, that McMahon was a different cut of guy, like Namath or Buddy Parker. He was really a decent guy.

And McMahon proved me wrong.

Sigh.

Thursday: It's the final day of interviews. You scramble a little, because you have the big Sunday package to write.

I was in Miami for the Colts-Bears, and I was trying to do a story with Rex Grossman, who I had covered at Florida. Grossman, as you might remember, was an unappreciated quarterback with the Bears.

S0 I waited until everyone was done, and I approached Rex. He talked about being criticized by non-football people, about how hard it was in the weather in Chicago, about how hard it was to please Bears fans. I thought I had pretty good stuff to write for Sunday.

One problem. For the first time, interviews were broadcast back to hotel rooms. When I woke up the next morning, all of my quotes were on the front page of the Chicago papers. All of them. It was a gut-punch, to be honest. I never considered the Chicago papers would keep reporters at the hotel to monitor what was said.

Most of the time, you're pretty busy at the Super Bowl. But there are pockets of other interests. I attended the Bruce Springsteen press conference. Prince performed live for a room full of hacks. The Stones. Michael Jackson told sportswriters he loved them. Tom Petty. Billy Joel.

Coaches talk a lot, too. Jimmy Johnson told us he wears tighty-whities. Chuck Dickeron, the old defensive line coach of the Bills, set his career on fire by tweaking the Hogs.  He suggested Jeff Bostic was "somewhere eating grease right now." He called Joe Jacoby "a Neanderthal who probably kicks dogs in his neighborhood." He called Jim Lachey "a 310-pound ballerina" and suggested he wore a tutu under his uniform.

It was all meant in fun, but the Redskins used it as motivation, and Dickerson paid with his job.

Friday: The commissioner spins anything controversial into how wonderful the league is. His press conference is largely overdone, because it doesn't have a lot of news value.

Also, you tend to do a little running around.

A story. Once, I wrote a story on the Rams' Marshall Faulk growing up in New Orleans. I mentioned that he used to go to sleep with gunshots in the distance. The next year, the Bucs were in the Super Bowl, and I went to John Lynch's old neighborhood, including his high school. I wrote that Lynch used to go to sleep with golf shots in the distance. I don't think anyone caught the parallel.

There are favorites. Lynch was one. Ronde Barber was one. I thought the world of Troy Aikman.

I first met Aikman after a regular season game. The Eagles sacked him 11 times on Sunday, so I was pretty sure I was going to get blown off the next day. I didn't. Troy did his normal press conference, then he looked at me and said "You're Gary, right?" I told him I was, and he led me out of the locker room to a practice field. We sat and talked for a long time. Class guy.

I felt for Troy at the Super Bowl. Barry Switzer and he weren't close, and Switzer hung him out to dry when the subject of his leadership came up.

Time was, you could get to know a player a bit. I remember Reggie White, who I thought was a bright, funny guy. But Reggie's Bible had sections the rest of ours didn't have.  At a Super Bowl, White suggested that Jesus Christ was crucified "because he was affecting the economy."

"He was healing the sick, and the doctors got mad," White said. "He was raising the dead, and all the funeral home directors got mad."

Rest in peace, Reggie. You meant well.

There was Shannon Sharpe, who  was the funniest, smartest, most delightful interview in the history of the game. You simply could not stay away from his podium. Whether he was calling Falcons defensive back Ray Buchanan a cross-dresser, or suggesting Atlanta backup quarterback Steve DeBerg was 145 years old, or talking about a childhood in which his family was so poor "that once a robber broke into our house, and we robbed him, " Shannon had them rolling in the aisles.

The Broncos tight end took a little pride in his greatness at answering questions. "You have to go for greatness," Sharpe said. "They didn't call him Alexander the Mediocre."

At the end of the interview sessions that week, Sharpe took a victory lap around the interview tent.

Friday night was the Commissioner's Party, which was a hoot. Great food, and you would find yourself around some interesting people. I got to know Larry Fitzgerald Sr. very well at a Super Bowl party. John Mackey introduced himself to me one year. I saw Bruce Willis take the stage and sing Young Blood.

Saturday: The players are off-limits. Instead, your focus turns to the Hall of Fame. It was a hoot when Warren Sapp, the good Warren, was inducted into the Hall. It was great when Derrick Brooks was.

A writer I know well asked why I thought that Michael Strahan wasn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Sapp was. I told her that when people talk about great defensive tackles, it usually starts with Sapp. With great defensive ends, there are a lot of names before you get to Strahan's. I don't think she agreed.

It was Saturday when I was in Miami when the riots were at their worst. I drove home, and an African-American man who lived in the same condos that I did was standing in the parking lot. He lifted his shirt to show me that he had a silver-plated pistol. I put my car in reverse and drove around for a half hour. When I came back, he was gone.

One of my favorite things at the Super Bowl was the annual meal I would have with other writers I was close to: Mike Vaccaro and Joe Posnanski and Les Carpenter and Ian O'Connor. We would play good guy-bad guy all night. Someone would throw out a coach, or a player, or a media person, and we would all vote.

I told Joe once that I was glad I was there, otherwise, I'd come up for a vote, too.

"Yeah," Joe said. "And you'd lose."

Monday: The day after the Super Bowl is reserved for the MVP award. It can turn humorous, too.

Once, Joe Montana was receiving an MVP award. And a guy in the stands said "Look at him. He's young and he's rich and he's famous and he's a great athlete.

A buddy of mine said, "Yeah, you ought to see his wife."

"Pretty?"

"Oh, yeah," my friend said. And then he said something crude.

There was a clatter of chairs, and we all looked back to see Jennifer Montana and her mother storm out of the room.

Oops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Willson February 1, 2018 at 1:34 am

Great column…thanks for sharing the stories.

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Gary Shelton February 1, 2018 at 9:36 am

Thanks, man.

Reply

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