Press Pass | Nick Underhill of The Athletic Talks Patriots Minicamp, Paying His Way to Spring Training, and Covering the Saints

Liam McKeone
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Nick Underhill is a Patriots’ beat writer for The Athletic. In the past, he’s covered the Patriots for MassLive and the Saints for The Advocate. He took the time to answer some questions from The Big Lead about how he got to where he is now, which Patriots to keep an eye on as the summer progresses, and more. 

Liam McKeone: Hi Nick, thanks for taking the time. In your own words, how would you describe your journey as a journalist, and how did you get to where you are now as a writer for the Athletic?

Nick Underhill: I wasn’t an excellent student growing up, and, quite honestly, I was aimless for most of high school. My senior year, one of my English teachers, Mrs. Iobst, sent this essay I wrote about going to a baseball game with my dad to the local paper. They liked it and asked me to write some features on athletes at my school for them. I’m still not sure I knew at the time that this was the thing I was going to do for the rest of my life, but I enjoyed it, and it was cool to feel like I was good at something.

I didn’t immediately go to college. I worked a bunch of odd jobs — attendant at a car lot, janitorial, plastic shop, landscaping, concrete — and for a while figured I’d settle into something and just do that for the rest of my life. That’s what everyone around me did, but I had this bad habit of not showing up to work. I hated every single one of those jobs, and I’m not the kind of person who is good at forcing himself through bad things. So, I eventually went to college, initially as a non-degree student (remember, I was aimless in high school) and decided to pursue journalism.

While I was in college, I worked for the student newspaper and hooked on with a Scout.com website, where they paid me $500 to cover the Erie SeaWolves. That’s $500 for the whole season. All they wanted each week was a notebook and a feature, but I attended every game and soaked up everything I could from the guy working the beat. I loved it. I used those clips to get out-of-town papers to hire me to cover their NBA D-League teams when they came to Erie that winter. Those were the early days of the league, and there was a surprising amount of places still willing to pay for coverage.

One of the papers was the Springfield Republican and MassLive.com. I worked a bunch of games for them, and the next spring I saw an ad on SportsJournalists.com about how they needed someone to cover the Red Sox during the first two weeks of spring training for them. I reached out, lied and said I’d be down in Florida for another reason, and could handle that for them. They gave me the job. I bought a flight out of my own pocket, paid for my own hotel, and went down to cover the Red Sox.

Looking back, it was a crazy move to make, and I would tell anyone considering doing something like that they are insane and allowing someone to exploit them. The younger version of myself wouldn’t have listened. I was desperate and hungry.  My time was being spent answering phones at my local newspaper and praying they would send me out on an assignment. When they did, the stuff I was getting was cross-country skiing and golf. I felt like this was a chance to get some decent clips. I was willing to pay for them.

So, that ended, and I went back to covering the SeaWolves and answering phones. Around May or June, MassLive.com asked me to fill in as their Red Sox blogger while the other guy took some time off. I accepted. Things went well, and a couple of months later, they asked me to start blogging about the Patriots. I jumped on the opportunity. With that connection, I started driving from my home in Pennsylvania to Foxborough for games. It was nine hours one way, which, admittedly, is a pretty rough commute.

I did this for a few weeks, including an away game in New York, before they eventually had me move out there. I was a freelancer, but they promised me a certain amount of money each year and ended up exceeding that pay each of the first two years. The third year, I was hired on full-time when MassLive.com began to move to the forefront of the operation.

After four seasons covering the Patriots, I had the opportunity to head down to New Orleans and work for The Advocate, which recently purchased The Times-Picayune. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The paper was terrific, and I feel fortunate to have covered Sean Payton, who is a teacher at heart and was always willing to answer my questions about how and why things work they way they work. The fans and the people there are unbelievable. The decision to leave was only difficult because it meant leaving them.

Underhill: I don’t think I need to explain or sell The Athletic at this point. Everyone knows they only want their writers to do good work and not spend time on anything that isn’t working toward that goal. It’s amazing, and they provided me the opportunity to come back here and work alongside Jeff Howe, who is one of the best beat guys in the country, and with Sean Leahy, whose reputation as an editor is unrivaled. I couldn’t say no. My wife’s family is located here, and I’m at least close enough to drive home in a day.

McKeone: Ben Watson seems likely to be the No. 1 tight end once he returns from his suspension. Who else in the tight end room could step up in the first four weeks, and potentially make an impact throughout the year at a thin position?

Underhill: This is one of the big questions of the year. It looks like Matt LaCosse is going to have the opportunity to take charge early in the season, but he’s definitely unproven, and it could go either way. Stephen Anderson is the only other guy who can contribute in the passing game. I wouldn’t be surprised if they add someone to the position between now and the start of the season. Maybe that move even comes during final cuts.

McKeone: N’Keal Harry has a lot riding on him as Bill Belichick’s highest-drafted wide receiver ever. How has he looked in his first OTAs, and how big of a part do you believe he could play in this offense?

Underhill: He looked pretty good during the one organized team activity that was open to the media but had a pretty quiet minicamp. There were some moments interspersed, but he didn’t do a whole lot when covered by Stephon Gilmore (who does?). I think he has a lot of work to do. This isn’t an easy offense to tackle, but there’s no reason to be concerned at this point. He should have a better grasp of things come training camp. The glimmers have been good.

McKeone: The top cornerback slot is set with Stephon Gilmore, but other than that, nothing seems certain. How do you see the secondary depth chart shaking out?

Underhill: They seemed pretty set on Jason McCourty working opposite Gilmore during the summer, which is a clear message that J.C. Jackson is going to have to earn that role all over again. I think he will. He looked great at times last season and came back with some highlights during the summer program. He still has a lot to prove, and if he doesn’t earn the job, having someone like McCourty to fall back on isn’t a bad thing.

One of the more surprising things is that Duke Dawson looked improved. The former second-round pick didn’t contribute as a rookie last year, and he has a long way to go even to make the team at a crowded position, but the early signs are positive. He’ll compete with Jon Jones in the slot.

This year’s second-round pick, Joejuan Williams, is going to have to fight for snaps at cornerback during camp.

As far as the safeties, I expect that group to fill out as you’d expect. Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Terrence Brooks at the top, with Nate Ebner contributing on special teams.

McKeone: Every year, the Patriots have at least one undrafted free agent make it out of camp and earn some playing time, like J.C. Jackson last year, Malcolm Butler, Adam Butler, the list goes on. Who are the names to watch as this year’s undrafted rookie success story?

Underhill: Jakobi Meyers would be the one to watch right now. The wide receiver looked solid during practices and seemed to have the attention of the coaching staff.

McKeone: The Patriots have made a habit in the last few seasons of trading picks for veterans. Is there any player you think they could be eyeing and might make a move for before the end of training camp?

Underhill: The next tight end available should get the Patriots’ attention. [Editor’s note: the Patriots traded for veteran tight end Michael Roberts the morning after this interview was conducted. One point to Nick.]

McKeone: Favorite stadium to visit as a reporter? As a fan?

Underhill: As a reporter, I like Atlanta. The press box is spacious, and they have TVs right in front of you on the desk for replays. That’s all I need.

The fan one is probably going to be really weird, but I went to a Cal game a couple of years ago, and the combination of weather, surrounding town and a relaxed atmosphere was enjoyable. I was attending the game in a very passive and casual manner and it was the perfect spot for that.

McKeone: Go-to food spot in Boston? Go-to spot in New Orleans?

Underhill: I’m still working on finding a go-to spot in Boston. I lived in Providence before, so I’m still in the discovering phase of things. In New Orleans, my favorite place was a Mexican spot called Johnny Sanchez.

McKeone: Your favorite player to interview so far?

Underhill: In New Orleans, it was either Terron Armstead or Kenny Vaccaro. Both of those guys made me a lot better at my job. I probably leaned on them too often.

Here, just as before, I’ve found that Devin McCourty is still insightful and gracious with his time.

McKeone: What’s something about being in sports media you feel other people outside of the industry don’t understand?

Underhill: I don’t think a lot of people understand how and why we get paid to watch sports, and I really don’t have a good answer for them. I still can’t believe I get to do this.

McKeone: What’s one thing you wish you knew before starting out your career?

Underhill: That my relationship with all sports would change, I still love sports more than anything, but the way I interact with them has changed. I don’t think anyone can maintain their fandom and do this job.

Keep up with Nick’s work on the Patriots via his Athletic author profile and Twitter page

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