Every year, when Super Bowl week rolls around, I get asked the same question: Are you going?
On a number of occasions in my life, the answer has been yes — most recently in 2013 and 2014 when I was hosting a show on CBS Sports Radio. Thankfully, for most of my adult life, the answer has been no.
For a reporter, the worst assignment you can get is to cover the Super Bowl. The game is often good, but the chaos before and after is mind-numbing. Everyone writes the same story. No one has any real access beyond the NFL-controlled “media availabilities.” Often the best stories are about guys who won’t talk: Marshawn Lynch or Bill Belichick, who makes a sport of not saying anything.
During my last two Super Bowl trips, I had to endure the nightmare that is radio row. It isn’t as if you can do any real or serious interviews there; you’re basically seen as a conduit to promote product. Publicity types roam the room offering up celebrities of every sort — all of them pitching something.
In New York in 2014, we had Doug Flutie on, which, under normal circumstances would be fine with me. Flutie’s bright, had an interesting career and life and there are some stories — the Hail Mary against Miami comes to mind — that can’t be told often enough.
Flutie was working the room to pitch a knee brace he was endorsing. The interview started out well enough, but about five minutes in, he started pointing at the brace, which he was holding in his hands. I nodded, pointed at my partner, Andrew Bogusch, to indicate he had the information sheet on the brace, and kept going.
Two more questions. This time, Flutie started tapping me on the arm — not too gently — with the brace. Then he took the band that came with it and began snapping it at me. I turned to Bogusch, who took over. The interview was supposed to last 15 minutes. I cut it off at 10. I didn’t need to get injured in order to interview Doug Flutie.
Then there was the case of Bill Romanowski. I wasn’t at all eager to have him on and, honestly, I don’t remember what he was selling. But Max Herman, my producer, convinced me that it was Tuesday, there weren’t that many people to talk to and our bosses wanted GUESTS since they were paying for us to be there.
Fine. Romanowski’s PR person was his wife. She told Max that “Romo” could join us at 9:30. Okay. The appointed time came and went. No “Romo.” Max went and found his wife on the other side of the room. She’d had to switch things up but had forgotten to tell us. How about 10:30? Like I said, pickings were pretty slim on Tuesday morning. Max agreed.
Once again, at the appointed time, no “Romo.” We could see him sitting not far from us doing another interview. At 10:30, he didn’t move. At 10:35, still talking. At 10:40, I announced to Max we were done with “Romo.” If Jerry Rice or Dick Vermeil — scheduled for the next day — blew us off twice, I MIGHT take them the third time around. Not “Romo.”
A few minutes later Mrs. “Romo” came and stood directly in front of me. She was very sorry that “Romo” had no-showed again. He was available now at 11:05.
I told her thanks, but no thanks. She asked about 11:30. Nope. She looked at me, clearly annoyed and said, “But I told you ‘Romo’ was sorry.”
“And I accept your apology,” I said.
She looked at Max and Bogusch for help. They just shrugged.
I’m not trying to pick on “Romo,” but that’s the way radio row is all week. We were a national show, but for a fledgling network, so, while people wanted to come on with us, it wasn’t a priority. Often, once the product had been pitched, the PR guy would start giving us “cut” signs because he wanted to move on to the next show. That’s why I always saved the pitch for the tail end of the interview. I knew I wasn’t going to get cut off BEFORE the pitch.
Honest-to-God, when the show got cancelled, this was my first thought: “I don’t have to go to radio row at the Super Bowl.”
I’ve been there as a real reporter too, working for The Washington Post when I was very young. I would have much preferred covering college hoops during those weeks, but the Super Bowl was often an all-hands-on-deck affair for The Post, especially when Washington was involved.
Whenever the local team was playing, the paper put out a special section ballyhooing the game and the wonders of Joe Gibbs and his players. One year I wrote a piece asking if it was possible for the local media — print, TV and radio — to tone down the cheerleading a little.
The next day the phone rang in my parents’ house. My mother answered. “I’m looking for John Feinstein,” a voice said.
“He doesn’t live here,” my mother said.
“Are you related to him?
“I’m his mother.”
Pause. “Well, in that case, you suck too.” Click.
I got a call from my mom soon after that. “Would you PLEASE stop saying bad things about the Redskins?!” she said.
One good thing did come out of my Super Bowl reporting. I was assigned one year to track down coaches who had won the Super Bowl to learn the secret of success in the game. I talked to John Madden and Tom Landry and Chuck Noll. All were helpful — up to a point. I had made one other phone call — to Don Shula. I was almost finished with the piece when Shula called back.
I told him that The Post was doing a special section because Washington was in the Super Bowl and I had been assigned to write this story. It was clear from my tone that I was less than thrilled with what I was doing.
“If you don’t think it’s a good story,” Shula said, “why are you doing it?”
“Because I have to,” I answered. “We all have to write at least one story for this damn section.”
“Well,” Shula said, “I think your attitude is horse—-. If you don’t think the story is worth YOUR time, why is is worth MY time?”
Something inside me snapped. Shula was right — 100 percent right; 1,000 percent right if that was mathematically possible.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You’re absolutely right. If you don’t want to talk to me, I understand completely.”
“Ask your questions,” he said. “Let’s see how it goes.”
Twenty minutes later, I hung up with quotes that made the story — as Mary Tyler Moore might have said — not awful.
I’d been given a journalism lesson by a football coach. I have NEVER since that day approached any story with a horse—- attitude. That was MY best Super Bowl moment.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is the current New York times bestseller, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup.” His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017.