It being Super Bowl week and all, we thought perhaps this would be a nice time for our first two-interview week. Monday was Chuck Klosterman, and today we have sportswriter Jeff Darlington of the Miami Herald. If his name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because he was all over the news in South Florida last year at about this time for an incident involving Nick Saban. For the first time, he talks at length about how it all went down, as well as life on the NFL beat and “GainesVegas.”
Q: In many ways, you had the worst sportswriting job in the NFL this year – covering the one-win Miami Dolphins and geographically-challenged linebacker Channing Crowder. Outside of the trip to England, what were some of the highlights (or lowlights) that didn’t make the paper? And how pumped are you to now be covering an operation run by Parcells, who is notorious for being combative with the media?
Thanks for the sympathy, Big! But really, it wasn’t that bad. You want to talk about rough? Ask Mike Triplett from the New Orleans Times Picayune what it was like covering the Saints in 2005. He wasn’t just covering bad football – he was doing it while living in a rented apartment in San Antonio away from his wife while she and the rest of his city were rebounding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I’m a single guy in my mid-twenties living in a fun, warm city covering a storied NFL organization. No complaints here. Was it sometimes difficult to get great quotes from players who’d rather drink a gallon of whole milk in an hour than talk to reporters? Hell yes. Losing isn’t fun for anyone. But you get through it. And, as an objective reporter, you realize that your job isn’t about becoming emotionally involved in the success or failure of a team. That’s for players and fans to do. So when it comes to highlights or lowlights of the season, there wasn’t necessarily anything that happened in the locker room that dragged me down or picked me up. Now, outside of the locker room was a different story. I’m digging life. Nothing beat my last day in London, when I finally had some time to take a two-hour cruise down the River Thames, throwing back a few Carlsberg beers in some damn crisp weather with some damn cool people.
As for Parcells, nothing new there. I’ve been dealing with access limitations since I started my career covering the Gators at the University of Florida. Although I’m young, I’ve already begun to develop a distinct mentality when it comes to covering big programs: You should always hope for a strong, cooperative understanding between you and the team your covering – but you should never rely on it. I hope I never let my ability to report a story be dictated by anyone but my own bosses. Would I like to be accommodated with great access, while maintaining a strong relationship with the people I cover? Sure. But any reporter that’s reliant on team-provided access to break news on their beat would probably be better suited for a different industry.
Q: Talk us through a day on the NFL beat during the season. Do you find yourself checking the competition? Reading blogs? Spending too much time at the practice facility? What are you looking at, 10 hour days?
Man, the beat can get brutally repetitive if you let it. That’s why you’ve got to find ways to let your own motivation drive you on a daily basis. After three NFL seasons, I felt like I really took a big mental step in my career this year as a result of one huge lesson: Worry only about yourself. For my first few years, I was constantly wondering what everyone else had reported – everything from whether the backup punter’s hang nail had healed properly to whether Ricky Williams would be reinstated. Checking Web sites. Googling names. Reading anything and everything that might have the words “Miami Dolphins” within the story. Then, I realized something: If I’m doing that, I’m not calling agents. I’m not checking courthouse records. I’m not developing relationships with the people that matter within the organization. That doesn’t mean I don’t still read as much as I can. But I’ve found ways to manage that time, whether through Google News Alerts that go directly to my iPhone or setting an allotted amount of time (eight minutes every two hours) to stay updated on what might be out there. Still, no matter how creative or aggressive you want to be, you eventually are going to spend about five or six hours per day at the facility. That’s just a necessary part of the job – interviews in the locker room, taking attendance at practice, teleconferences, hiring stringers for upcoming away games, yada, yada, yada. But even then, you’ve got to stay self-motivated. About a month ago, I was interviewing a player in a corner of the locker room with my back toward the center of the room. A hoard of reporters was headed toward Zach Thomas’ locker for his weekly interview session. So the player I’m interviewing jokes, “Dude, you better get over to Zach before you miss something important.” I just told him, “Well, hopefully, we can make all of them miss something more important over here instead.” I ended up with some great quotes from that interview – which I’ve found is often the reward of independence on a competitive beat.
Q: The Nick Saban incident is a year old, and the story has been written about enough that there’s no need to go over it. But we’re curious about two things – the level of seriousness from the death threats and your relationship with the radio clown who screwed you over.
You know, it really blows my mind that it’s been a year since all of that went down. It feels like much longer. I actually just had a sincerely nice chat about it with Coach Saban a few days ago at the Senior Bowl. “You live and you learn,” he told me. (I think I’ll keep the rest of that conversation between the two of us. See, Coach? I’m learning.) But believe me, I completely understood why those Alabama fans were pissed. Hell, I assure you that I was more livid with myself over the fact that I’d unintentionally jeopardized everything I love about my life over such a stupid lapse in judgment. My actions might not have been malicious, but they were damn dumb. Thank God for great friends and supportive bosses. As for the death threats, I’m not really sure where that rumor got started, but I never had my life threatened. I mean, I got some very, very, very colorful messages from some passionate fans that would have liked to kick my skinny ass if I stepped into their state again. But nothing over the top – and nothing that required me to actually feel threatened about my safety. As for the radio guy, let’s put it this way: For the past several years, every day when I wake up in the morning, I read something called the “Desiderata.” The first line says, “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” I pride myself in being a passionate but peaceful person. I’m a pretty laid-back dude with far too many great friends and far too much happiness in my life to let it be soured by the actions of others. So bottom line is, after that went down, I simply focused on making myself a stronger, wiser, more careful person. Hopefully, everyone else involved also did the same.
Q: After it all went down, did you hear any positive or negative reactions from other journalists ? It seems like a perfect situation for jealous co-workers or rivals to hope for your demise and swoop in on a coveted beat.
For many reasons, I’ll never forget that month of my life. Never. I learned so much about myself, about loyalty, about appreciating what I have, about respecting the power of our industry. And believe it or not, most importantly, I realized how blessed I am to have so many tremendous, loyal friends both in and out of the business. I’ll give you the most vivid example I’ve got: A day after that audio file hit the Internet, I was absolutely crushed that I’d potentially ruined a career that I adore. All because of such a brutally stupid mistake on my part. I was so embarrassed, and I just wanted to escape. So I drove my car to Wendy’s, loaded up on a bunch of crap, and sat in my parked car in the middle of a mall parking lot. Pure silence. I’m sitting there thinking, “I’ll get a few of my friends to land me a bartending gig for a few months, and maybe I’ll try my hand as a sports agent or something.” You’ve got to realize, I love my profession. And I made a promise to myself at an early age that if I was going to succeed in this industry, I was going to do it the right way — the ethical way. Even if unintentionally, I messed that up. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Until my cell phone rang. It was Leonard Shapiro, a brilliant longtime NFL writer from the Washington Post. I’d never met him. And I didn’t even think he knew who I was. You know why he called? To show his support. To tell me to stay strong. He starts telling me this story about 40 years earlier when he’d temporarily broken the trust of Joe Namath over something he’d regretted. Joe Freaking Namath and Leonard Freaking Shapiro. I thanked him, but I don’t know if he realized how much that call actually meant. After that, I started my car up, threw on some Buffett tunes, drove home, and began to do everything I could to repair the damage that I’d done. Over the next several weeks, I watched as some of my best friends in the business had my back. Jason Whitlock. Charles Robinson. Joe Schad. Jorge Rojas. Jemelle Hill. Lynn Hoppes. Dan LeBatard. Rick Maese. Wright Thompson. I could go on and on and on. Dozens of amazing people showed how much loyalty truly means. I probably didn’t deserve all that support. But I promise you, I’ll always remember who helped me through those times. Like I said, I’m a peaceful person, but I’d damn near take a bat to somebody if one of those friends asked me to. Aside from family, there’s nothing in my life that’s more important than my friends.
Q: We came very close to attending the University of Florida, but didn’t for various reasons. Tell us what we missed out on.
I don’t call it Gainesvegas for nothing! At the risk of sounding far too much like Uncle Rico, I’ll resist the urge of talking about the glory days for too long. But no doubt, those were some glorious, glorious years. I mean, I did work my ass off as a correspondent covering the football and basketball teams throughout school. But I played hard, too. No regrets about that. So what did you miss? If you want a true dose of the ‘Ville, head over to The Swamp with me in the spring on a Friday afternoon. Absolutely epic. Plus, keep in mind, I was fortunate enough to land my first gig with the Orlando Sentinel six months before I graduated. Do you know how many $4 pitchers of Coors Light you can afford on a full-time salary in Gainesville? A lot. A whole damn lot.
Q: Nobody we went to high school with ended up in the NFL or MLB, but you had three future pros in your school. Were you friends with those guys? At the time, did they seem like locks to be pro athletes?
That was definitely a pretty unique part about my high school experience. Three of my friends ended up in the pros – and it wasn’t like I came from an athletic powerhouse. I went to Seminole High School, which is just a cool little beach town near Clearwater. Ryan Fowler, who now starts at middle linebacker for the Titans, was the first person I met when I moved to Florida in the sixth grade. I still have this picture from our Pop Warner days when he was being honored as the team’s MVP while I was being honored as the team’s scholar athlete. I guess it makes good sense that he became the pro athlete, and I became the sports writer. Casey Kotchman, who plays first base for the Angels, is also a good friend. And yes, we always knew he’d make it. His dad always made him hit with a wooden bat when we were in little league. The third guy is D’Qwell Jackson, who plays linebacker for the Browns. He’s probably the most natural athlete of the bunch – and a very cool, very chill guy. Anyway, whenever we’re all home at the same time during holidays, it definitely makes for some fun story telling at the local hometown pub.
Q: You’ve lived in Florida for most of your life, and since we’re obsessed with sharks, we must ask: any close encounters? Have your friends had any?
Actually, I once spent three days in a hospital after a lemon shark separated nearly every tendon in my left foot. The bastard latched its teeth into my ankle and started furiously shaking its head. Fortunately, as an avid fan of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, I knew what to do. So I punched the shark right in the nose, escaping its grasp before paddling to shore with my foot in hand. And that’s where the story ends, mostly because I’m not a very good liar and none of that ever actually happened. Not a second of it. Sorry. Completely untrue. But in the words of Chris Farley, “You could imagine what it’d be like if it did.” For what it’s worth, I am a serious beach bum. And I do watch Shark Week.
Q: The iphone: Is it worth it? Hell yes. The best reporting tool since LexisNexis.
Q: Favorite Friday Night Lights character? Never seen it. I’ll watch the hell out of some Entourage episodes. And I love The Wire. Otherwise, I’m not much of a TV-watcher. Unless it’s Shark Week.
Q: What’s it like to party with LeBatard? Actually, I can’t say I’ve partied much with LeBatard. But the few times I’ve been out with him, he has struck me as a Jay Gatsby type. He just stands back and watches with a smile on his face. It’s pretty cool, actually. He’s another one of the good guys.
Q: Your absolute must-read newspaper/magazine writer excluding your paper? Wright Thompson. A great friend and a terrific storyteller. That’s
what is very cool about Wright. Anytime we have the chance, we’ll saddle up to a bar, let the hours flow as fast as the booze, and just tell dozens of crazy-ass stories. But Wright also has a magical way of transforming those stories into the written word. Eventually, in about 15 years, I hope Wright gets tired of sports writing, moves to the Keys and becomes a novelist. I truly believe he could become one of the greats.
Q: You more of a Shore Club guy or a Delano guy? Tuesday nights at the Delano. Very cool scene. Both places are pretty swanky, for sure. I typically only hit that scene a few times per month, although it does treat me well typically. I really enjoy it, but I generally stick to the bar scene in Fort Lauderdale instead.
Q: Favorite 90210 character? Dylan McKay, bro. By the way, bro, did he ever hook up with Kelly Kapowski in those later episodes? Then, bro, I’d truly be envious. Bro.
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