When I was very young in the reporting business, I found it thrilling to be sent by The Washington Post to cover big-time sporting events, ranging from The Final Four to the Super Bowl to the U.S. Open tennis tournament to the World Series.
When I was the Maryland beat reporter, I would cover the Terrapins on Saturday and then the Redskins — yes, back then that’s what we all called them — on Sundays. I was, as photographer Dick Darcey put it, part of the “travel team:” Paul Attner, the beat writer; Ken Denlinger and Dave Kindred the columnists; Darcey, a brilliant photographer, and me — the kid.
I loved it.
When I got a little older, I was able to add all the tennis majors and all the golf majors to my resume — even wrote books about them. I’ve had the privilege of being inside numerous locker rooms, ranging from Bob Knight to the Baltimore Ravens to Army and Navy to Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano.
Dean Smith gave me great access to himself and his teams, but he was adamant about the locker room. “NO ONE goes inside our locker room other than coaches and players,” he told me once. “We don’t even let the managers in at halftime. That’s been our tradition here since the beginning.”
I thought I had an answer for that one. “Dean, slavery was a tradition once, too.”
He leaned forward and said, “Are you REALLY trying to compare getting inside our locker room with slavery?”
Talk about being shot down. He was, as always, right.
Everyone changes as they get older. But I had something of an epiphany on Sunday. I was in the press box at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, watching the Eagles play the Denver Broncos. I was there to see Carson Wentz because I’m writing a book about playing quarterback in the NFL and, given that Wentz might very well be the MVP this season when all is said and done, I figured I should see him and try to set up a time to talk to him.
I was able to do that. And, for the record, I’ve very much enjoyed the five guys I’ve worked with since last spring: Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Doug Williams. The common bond they all share is that they’re very smart – one reason, I believe, why they understand the project. Each has taken a very different career path — Williams, of course, is now retired and running Washington’s front office — and the seasons of the four active quarterbacks have been very different.
Luck won’t take a snap because of the shoulder surgery he underwent last January, and Fitzpatrick, once again, is being asked to step into the breach for an injured starter. The book will work because they’re all good guys, good stories and good talkers. Plus, there is nothing like playing quarterback in the NFL both for good and for bad.
But as I sat in the press box on Sunday and looked around, I was hit by a wave of ennui. I looked around. There were probably about 250 people in the press box. Most, I couldn’t help but notice, were white men. What they all had in common was how IMPORTANT this was. I would bet that almost all of them — ranging from the 25-year-old kid sitting next to me who couldn’t even be bothered to tell me his last name when I introduced myself before he put his headphones back on to the guys who have covered the Eagles (or Broncos) for 40 years – couldn’t possibly imagine anyplace else they would want to be on a fall Sunday afternoon.
I was that way once upon a time. I was part of the “travel team,” and damn proud of it. But even then, I was never able to take the NFL or, for that matter, big-time sports as seriously as I guess I should have taken it — or at least was expected to take it.
I remember the first time George Solomon, my longtime boss at The Post assigned me to write a sidebar on a Redskins game. I actually had a date that Sunday and told him so. He told me how lucky I was that he was asking (ordering) me to go to the game to write a sidebar. I was 22. When George spoke, I listened. (That also changed as I got older).
Washington was playing the Cardinals — St. Louis then — and won the game easily. My assignment was the St. Louis locker room. I listened to Bud Wilkinson, an immortal college coach at Oklahoma, but very mortal in the NFL, talk and then spoke to a number of players. I went upstairs, wrote a 22-inch sidebar packed up my typewriter (yes, typewriter) and headed to the elevator. I didn’t rush — the date had been cancelled — just wrote at my normal speed, which has always been fast.
When the elevator door opened, Solomon, Denlinger and Attner were coming upstairs from the Washington locker room. Ken and Paul were about to START writing.
“Where are you going?” George asked, surprised to see me.
“Home. I filed.”
“WHAT? Don’t you understand you have to take this seriously? This is the REDSKINS! You don’t just whip through a sidebar in 15 minutes! (It had been closer to 45). If it’s any good, it might go on the page.” (The front of the sports section was referred to as the page).
I told George I had given the story full effort. He walked away mumbling. The story must have been pretty good because it was on the page and I was informed the next day that, even though I needed to take the Redskins more seriously, I was now on the travel team.
Sitting in the press box in Philly on Sunday, I realized almost everyone there felt the way George did. This was IMPORTANT. Being in that press box meant YOU were important. All I wanted to do was get the game over, talk to Carson Wentz and get the hell back down I-95 so I could get home before my 7-year-old daughter went to bed.
Trust me when I tell you I understand how lucky I’ve been and how fortunate I am that I can still go to games big and small and get paid to do so.
But I’ve reached the point where if I could choose my next book topic it would be Columbia football. Or maybe Ivy League football. Or, as many people have suggested, a look back 25 years later at the kids (now men) I wrote about in A Civil War. Or, just a sort of travelogue, picking and choosing events I’d like to see: Amherst-Williams football; the D-3 Final Four (been once, like to go again) an April baseball game that means nothing — or very little. The Web.com playoff finals.
Yes, I’d rather spend a week there than at Augusta in April. I know that sounds blasphemous and insane, but I mean it. I’ll always go to the Final Four because many of my friends (though not nearly as many as in the past) will be there, but I’d rather be at the CAA Tournament or the Patriot League or America East playoffs. They’re more fun and they aren’t played in football stadiums. And, you can actually be a reporter; actually talk to people.
I love writing books but you know what gives me as much pleasure as anything nowadays? The weekly pieces I write for the GoArmySports.com website after Army football games. I like writing about those kids and I love seeing them have success. And, as most people know, if I had one event left to cover in my life it would be the Army-Navy football game.
You see, what I still love to do the most is be a real reporter: talk to people at length. Not be asked by PR guys, “Well, what do you want to talk to him about?” Or, “Coach can give you five minutes.” Bob Woodward once explained to me that everyone — famous or not — has a story to tell. Back then, I thought, “If Woodward says it’s so, it must be so.” Now, I believe it even more.
I know I’m old and jaded, but I DO still love a lot of what I do. It’s just not what you might expect me to love. Or, for that matter, what I once loved.
John Feinstein’s new book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be No. 5 on the New York Times sports bestseller list this coming Sunday. His latest kids mystery, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” is also out for Christmas.