Wednesday morning, we had the brief opportunity to speak with legendary football writer Peter King of Sports Illustrated. He’s got a new book out: Monday Morning Quarterback. We spoke to him on a wide variety of topics – like the time a player came after him in the locker room, ESPN, coffee, Rick Reilly, his love for baseball, and yes, his daughters.
Q: So the Braylon Edwards trade just broke about 90 minutes ago. I’m a thrilled Jets fan. Any initial thoughts about it?
King: If the Jets are a 10-win team, the [3rd round] draft choice is going to be somewhere in the high 80s. I think that for the third pick in the draft five years ago, who has had two very good years, and two not very good years, it is probably a good risk. As far as Cleveland goes, it has made three big moves since last spring. They’ve gotten rid of two problem children in Edwards and Winslow, and they’ve traded down from a high pick to get the Jets Sanchez. They’ve gotten 12 players out of those three trades. Obviously you can’t make any judgment on that yet.
Q: Your MMQB column often mentions brands and hotels .. Conan O’Brien has joked that when he mentions a brand, he gets cases of food or razors or Frosted Flakes or whatever shipped to him. That ever happen to you?
King: People always say, ‘what do you get from Starbucks?’ I’ve never gotten a damn thing from Starbucks. I heard from a VP once when I mentioned something critical about one of their coffee blends, but I’ve never gotten anything. The only thing I got one time was some distributor sent me a case of Heineken Lite after i said ‘thank goodness I can drink more Heineken without fear of calories.’ People have said ‘hey, i want to send you …’ such and such, but i have not taken it. The beer just showed up on my doorstep one day in NJ.
Q: Has the way you put the column together changed at all since joining NBC?
A: It has changed a lot. It used to be that I was at a game, and I’d write … I’d say four years ago, my average column was about 4,000 words. Maybe half of which were from the game I had just covered for SI. Now, my column is about 8,000 words and I try as best I can – this is a readership survey thing – to write about 32 teams. I can’t. And I don’t. This past week I didn’t write about the Dolphins and I got about 20 tweets or emails, ‘how could you avoid the Dolphins on the week we crush Buffalo?’ It is impossible for me to look at 15 games (when there are no byes) and to digest and make comments that are more than cursory on 15 football games.
When I’m at NBC I can watch nine at a time, but you can’t watch nine football games at a time. Last week, I wish I had talked more about Cameron Wake, the guy from the Canadian Football League that the Dolphins signed in free agency this year. They got three sacks out of him on Sunday. It didn’t hit my radar screen until i was looking over the box scores on Monday morning and I saw that.
Q: In the book, you name the Top 100 players of all-time. Your No. 1 player is Don Hutson, the WR. How difficult is it to compare guys from the 30s and 60s to guys in the 1990s? Isn’t it impossible because they are three completely different eras?
A: If you sat down and asked a very big baseball fan, ‘who is the best baseball player of all-time?’ I don’t know that he’d say Babe Ruth, but he’d be in the discussion. Whenever I say that I think the two best football players of all-time are Don Hutson and Otto Graham, people look at me like I have three heads. I’m trying to respect history. I’m trying to judge apples with apples. Otto Graham played 10 years of pro football. Seven of those years, he quarterbacked his team to the Championship. Seven of those 10 years, he was the leading passer in his league. You could argue about Joe Montana and say he played against better players and all that stuff, it’s a fine argument. But the thing that I can’t understand is when people dismiss that when Don Hudson retired, when passing was a nascent thing … when he retired, he had three times as many touchdowns as anybody else in the first 30 years, and twice as many receptions and yards. His touchdown record lasted until 1989. People totally dismiss that.
It’s possible that if we compared everything and talked to people, that everybody, with the exception of me, would say that Jerry Rice is the best receiver of all-time. And quite possibly the best player of all-time. That’s fine. That’s why we all have opinions. I don’t begrudge anybody their opinion. But to dismiss Don Hutson as possibly the greatest receiver of all-time would be the same thing as to dismiss the fact that Babe Ruth shouldn’t be considered the greatest player of all-time. Or that Gordie Howe shouldn’t be considered the greatest hockey player of all-time.
Q: Some of your peers have said your first love was baseball. Was there ever a time you left writing about football to cover baseball?
A: I love baseball. I was asked, maybe 8 or 10 years ago to write the baseball column for SI. I thought about it, but … when I worked in Cincinnati from 1980-1985 for the Cincinnati Enquirer, I was the backup guy on the Reds. I went on a few road trips – this was at the tail end of the Big Red Machine. I loved it. I loved the baseball life. It was so much fun. I like the rhythm of covering a team, even though I didn’t do it for longer than say, two weeks at a time. I really thought it was something I wanted to do.
But the three most recent baseball writers at the Cincinnati Enquirer had all gotten divorced. I looked at it … I was married in 1980, we had our first child in 1983 … in 1984 I covered the Bengals for the first year. I thought, ‘it’s a more sane lifestyle.’ My love for baseball never died. I still love the game. I lived and died [Tuesday] night watching that great, great baseball game between Detroit and Minnesota. I had no rooting interest, but it was one of those games where you couldn’t look away.
I felt over time, as you get to know the people and the life and the regiment of the NFL, it is a tremendous sport to cover. If they had seven games a week, and I was cover it everyday, I think it would be difficult for me because I like to have a personal life. I like to be married. I like to do things other than write.
I have tremendous admiration for the great baseball writers. They’re such workhorses. I grew up in Northern Connecticut wanting to be Peter Gammons. I’d get the Globe in the morning and say, “gosh, I’d love to be as good as this guy.”
Q: One of the big knocks on Sports Illustrated this decade has been that the magazine was slow to embrace the internet. Do you agree or disagree?
A: Going back to 1997, I remember when my editor said – and I’m paraphrasing – ‘hey, there’s this thing called the internet, and we want to start doing some things with it and we want our writers to start writing for it.’ I had been used to being a newspaper guy. And the amount we had to write at SI was microscopic compared to the amount we had to write at newspapers. So I said, ‘hey, why not. I’ll do it.’
I think for years, the culture at the magazine – and other magazines, too, not just Sports Illustrated – was quality over quantity. So a lot of people didn’t want to go to the website and do website stuff at the beginning. How slow and fast we were … I don’t know. It’s not like ESPN Magazine existed and then guys went to ESPN.com. It’s different.
I don’t think anybody at the time knew how massive and 24/7 the internet would be.
Q: What do you make of your longtime colleague Rick Reilly leaving for ESPN? Have you spoken with him? Seen him on Sportscenter?
A: I turned on the TV one night and he was doing Sportscenter. He was really, really good. I thought he was excellent. I really like Rick. I never knew him well and I haven’t talked to him since he left, but i think everybody at SI would say they loved him writing the backpage. He did it like nobody else could. He was tremendous.
But in our world these days … I noticed when Mike Reiss went from the Boston Globe to ESPN Boston – I know Mike pretty well, and I talked to him about it … and, look … if you’re a writer, the opportunity to hit the lottery – I’m not saying ESPN is the lottery – and better your own personal way of life … that is something that we’re probably not going to overlook. It’s the same thing with me. If you have a chance to make a lot of money doing something … if I’m going to work the same amount of time with the same amount of productivity and output, and I can make x vs half of x, why wouldn’t I do it? I just think ESPN is basically out to conquer the world, and they’re going to take everybody who they can away from the competition, and so I think it’s pretty understandable what happened.
Q: One of the polarizing topics in your column are the non-NFL items, like airplane rides, or your daughters’ athletic endeavors. How much of the reaction do you read? Have your daughters ever told you not to write about something?
A: If my daughters ever said don’t write about it – and there were times they said, ‘don’t write about this’ – I would’t. When I was asked to do this column 12 years, SI’s Steve Robinson told me point blank, “I want you to put some of yourself in there. What is your week like? What is your job like?” The thing I always say to people – if you counted up the words of every single MMQB column, 85 percent of the words would be about pro football.
I understand that some point don’t like that other stuff – but it’s America, we’re not going to please everybody. My attitude has always been – if you come to a section that you don’t like – whether it is about what happened to me on an airplane last week, or it is my daughter’s scoring the winning goal in a field hockey game – then just move on. Go and read the next section.
I don’t get angry about people saying whatever they want to say .. it’s a free country. I don’t understand the vitriol that goes with it. But that’s life. That’s the way it is.
Q: Ever have an altercation with an athlete? Anything close to one?
A: Kevin Gogan of the San Francisco 49ers. I forget what year it would be – the first year he got to San Francsico . He was a guard, he had been on Oakland, he had been on Dallas. And I called him, in an SI story, a journeyman. The next time I was in the 49ers locker room a couple of weeks later in Santa Clara, he flipped out. He went crazy. He came at me screaming, ‘JOURNEYMAN! JOURNEYMAN! and he would not let me do my job around the locker room. Gogan is a big guy, and he came after me. He was never going to hit me, but he had fire in his eyes.
Sometimes people disagree with what I’m going to say. Braylon Edwards didn’t like that I predicted the Browns would be the worst team football this year. When I saw him in training camp – and I know him pretty well – he treated me like the dirt on the bottom of his shoe. But that’s just the way the business is. If you fear people’s reaction to whatever it is you’re going to write, you probably are not going to last very long in this business.
Q: You didn’t make a pick yet for the World Series … who do you like?
A: I’d pick the Angels. I think Kazmir and Figgins are going to be the difference. I love Figgins, and I think Kazmir, whether it is against the Red Sox or Yankees, I think he’s going to be the difference.
Q: You rarely write about college football. Is it safe to say you like baseball more than college football?
A: I used to cover college football in Cincinnati. I absolutely loved it. Over the years, I began either taking Saturday off, or working Saturday at a game site with the visiting team that was coming in. There are many times that I’ll be sitting in a hotel Saturday night writing the first couple thousand words of MMQB – what I do now is on Saturday night, around 8 or 9 at night, after dinner, I’ll start writing MMQB, and I’ll have a game on in the background.
College football is fantastic. But there are only so many things that you can really be into. If I’m going to watch 98 percent of the at-bats in 162 Red Sox games, it is hard to say, “I can’t wait to see Alabama-Auburn.” I’m at a little bit of a disadvantage come February-March when I go to the scouting combine. A lot of my peers know who all these guys are, and I don’t. I have to start from scratch on a lot of these guys. I just don’t devote the time during the season to studying college football like Rick Gosselin and Pete Prisco do. It’s just not something I do until after the NFL season.
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