Tag Archives: nfl

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Michael Rothstein

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If you’re a fan of digging and probing and reporting at its finest, you have to love ESPN’s Michael Rothstein.

In a strict sense, the veteran scribe covers the Detroit Lions, but that’s sort of like saying, oh, Rickey Henderson was once a speedy leadoff hitter. Rothstein’s work is all over the map. He does the deep dive. He does the injury update. His features are lovely, his profiles revealing. To be honest, he’s sort of buried on the Lions beat, in that non-Detroit NFL fans probably miss some of ESPN.com’s absolute best work.

Hence, his status as the 307th Quaz.

Today, Michael talks about surviving the recent ESPN carnage; about whether the Lions are better off without Calvin Johnson and how he approaches assignments in the hard-to-crack NFL. He once had a dog named Magic, he makes a pretty unconvincing case for Garry Templeton’s Hall of Fame candidacy and his Bar Mitzvah was sort of a mess.

One can follow Michael on Twitter here, and check out much of his work here. He’s one of the best in the business, and now he’s one of the best of the Quazes …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Michael, last week ESPN laid off a ton of reporters, and I’m wondering what this was like for you. Were you nervous? Did you know you were safe? And how did it make you feel?

MICHAEL ROTHSTEIN: Absolutely there were nerves and fear. How can there not be? It’s human nature because you don’t know what is going to happen. I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate to still have a job at ESPN. As far as that day, I’m not going to get too much into specifics. I will say throughout that entire day and still now, thought more about the people who were losing their jobs. So many people I know were part of the cuts – including my first beat partner at ESPN, Chantel Jennings, and one of the people who was instrumental in hiring me, Jeremy Crabtree. That’s not even going down the list of people I’ve worked with and have become acquaintances and friends over the years. They are all talented and, more importantly, good people.

J.P.: I usually don’t go overly conventional, but I’m gonna go overly conventional: You cover the Detroit Lions. Last year, after losing one of the Top 5 players in franchise history, they improved from 7-9 to 9-7. I don’t get it. Was Calvin Johnson’s loss at all an addition? Can that argument be made?

M.R.: Ha, this a very conventional question. Despite Detroit’s record this season, I wouldn’t say the Lions losing a generational talent like Calvin Johnson ended up as an addition. Anyone who says that is discounting how good Johnson was. The short answer is the argument can be made, sure, but it’s not one I agree with.

Johnson’s retirement did forced Matthew Stafford to read defenses and throw to the open guy. It might sound like a simple concept, but when Johnson was on the field, there were times where Stafford felt he could throw to Johnson even when he had double (or triple) coverage on him because it was still a favorable matchup. Along with a full offseason for the best name in sports, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, to put together an offense, Detroit changed what it did after Johnson retired. The Lions went with short passes instead of throwing deep because they had a game-breaker in Johnson. The Lions just didn’t have that type of player this year in their receiving corps. Marvin Jones has speed and hands but was too inconsistent. Golden Tate works best when you get him the ball off a short pass and allow him to miss. That’s been his game since I started covering him his freshman year at Notre Dame.

In the NFL, half the games teams play are tossups. Unless a team is New England, how a team fares in those six-to-eight games makes the difference between 10-6 or 9-7 and 6-10. In 2014 and 2016, the Lions won the majority of those games. In 2015, they didn’t and started off the year 1-7, costing the team’s old general manager and team president their jobs.

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J.P.: I hate dealing with the NFL, because there are just so many overly protective, super guarded PR people limiting media access to the bare minimum. So … how do you tolerate it?

M.R.: It’s actually something I’ve never really thought about because of how I came up in the industry. Before covering the NFL, I covered colleges for about a decade. I spent four years covering Notre Dame under Charlie Weis—where access wasn’t terrible but wouldn’t be considered open—and four years covering Michigan football, where access was just poor. There were times covering Michigan where I would be going to a press availability not knowing who I would be talking to with no control who I would be interviewing. This sounds like whining, but it definitely hurts in preparation.

In my four years covering Michigan football, the school went from having reporters stake out the parking lot after games to try and interview players (seriously—I ended up chasing former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson across a parking lot for an interview once) to all podium after a game and having no say in players I’d be talking with. Whenever I get annoyed by something, access-wise, in the NFL, I think back to that.

In the NFL, you’re dealing with adults and other than a handful of players, pretty much everyone is at least somewhat accessible. I’ve always maintained—and I’m guessing you probably agree—that telling good stories often starts with the relationships you build.

When I was really young, maybe still in college, I read Dick Schaap’s autobiography “Flashing Before My Eyes.” I grew up watching and reading Schaap. He was someone I looked up to as a kid when I decided I wanted to get into this. In the book, he talked about how he tried to collect people. That thought stuck with me. It’s pretty much how I’ve approached my job ever since.

Collect people, learn about them and what makes them who they are and convince them to open up to you to tell their stories. Glover Quin, Travis Swanson and, after a lot of digging, Matthew Stafford did this year. None of that happens if there aren’t relationships built.

I went off on a tangent, but it’s the long answer for how I tolerate it.

J.P.: Without naming names (unless you want to), do you ever feel like you can see the mental impact of football’s brutality on players? What I mean is, do you ever notice a slurring or slowing of speech, a lessening of sharpness, etc? Even if it’s slight?

M.R.: I see it more when I talk with players who are no longer playing the game instead of ones inside an NFL locker room. Rare is the player willing to discuss how brutal this game is on the mind and body while they are playing. It’s what made me appreciate a player like DeAndre Levy, who the Lions released this offseason, that much more. Levy openly challenged the NFL about CTE research and admitted he thinks about CTE and whether or not he might have it. He just turned 30.

A former NFL player I’ve gotten to know a bit through the years was the one who really opened my eyes to how brutal this game is mentally. I had already known about some of the effects of concussions, but he had a stroke at age 32. It’s not clear if football is what caused it, but you don’t often hear of 32-year olds suffering strokes. Or at least I haven’t.

I’ve definitely had players tell me they forget things and that they wonder if their days playing football are among the reasons why. I’ve had other players ignore the potential ramifications of what they do—and that’s something that just doesn’t compute with me.

Other than Levy, one of the players that was the most open about brain injuries and football was Rashean Mathis. I talked with him for about an hour about it early in the 2015 season. Among the things he told me was he would do everything he could to steer his son away from playing football—and that he thinks the league and the players need to do a better job of understanding the risks and educating parents of future players. That season, he suffered a concussion. It wasn’t diagnosed for over a week. He eventually landed on injured reserve because of it—and having already played a decade in the league, retired after the season.

When I was a kid I really wanted to play football. But my parents—my mom, specifically—forbade it. Pre-teen and teenage me was angry. Adult me understands why she chose to make that decision. NFL players saying similar things made me realize, all these years later, that my body is thankful for that decision. I played sandlot football with friends and other sports (poorly) instead.

J.P.: Along those lines—you’ve seen what this sport does to people. I mean, one veteran after another with brain damage, with no knees, with ALS, with … on and on. Do you think we, the sports media, should feel any guilt over our coverage of a profession some compare to big tobacco?

M.R.: That’s a tough question, Jeff, but it’s something I’ve definitely thought about. There have been days when I’ve finished up work and said to myself, ‘I’m watching these guys literally destroy themselves.’ And that’s sometimes a really difficult thing to wrestle with, especially as you get to know players and spend time with them for stories, learning about their families, their pasts and their goals beyond football.

On the professional level, there is at least compensation, but I remember interviewing one player after his college career was over—he didn’t end up making it in the league—and he couldn’t remember how many concussions he had. Sure, he got a college education, but the damage he might feel later on in life he won’t have compensation for.

It kind of goes back to the question before, but that was really sobering for me. As sports media—and I think my employer and others do a good job of this—we should be shining lights on what happens to players later on in life. How they struggle not only with the transition from leaving football to regular 9-to-5 life but also the health problems they end up suffering from.

One thing I think might happen more often is what happened with Calvin Johnson. He played nine years. He made a bunch of money and then walked away while he still could. I had dinner with him in December and he was showing me his fingers—some were not able to bend how your fingers and my fingers bend. His ankles hurt a lot. He deals with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Those are things that are likely not going away. Walking away with his relative health was important to him and I think you’re seeing that more and more each year. Players just don’t discuss it while they are playing.

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J.P.: I know very little about you—New York native, Lions writer. Soooo … how did this happen for you? Soup to nuts—what was your career path?

M.R.: That’s a question I ask myself from time to time. So not-so-brief resume: Grew up in East Meadow, New York and realized pretty early on playing sports on a high level was never going to happen. But I was always fascinated with writing. When I was a kid, I would use a typewriter to start movie scripts based off the Bad News Bears. In sixth grade, at Woodland Middle School, we had an assignment to write a book. Most kids wrote something simple. I don’t know how long mine was, but it had a plot centered around the United States and U.S.S.R. hockey teams, the Cold War ending during the Olympics and what would happen if there were long-lost relatives playing for each team. My parents, who were big supporters of mine from the beginning, actually had it illustrated. I was a kid, so I didn’t quite get the political ramifications, but I got an A.

I meandered through East Meadow High School, where I wrote for the school paper (and was fired because I wouldn’t apologize for a column I wrote about how senioritis was a good thing …) and had two big influences there: Paul Gott and Dr. Franklin Caccuitto. They helped refine my love of writing. I always loved learning and had a penchant for being annoying with questions, so it seemed like a fit.

Then I went to Syracuse, where I thought I wanted to be on TV. Quickly I found out anchoring wasn’t in my future because I was horrific with head turns from Camera 1 to Camera 2. Just picture an awkward T-Rex doing it and that was me. I also discovered I liked being able to sit down with people to learn about them instead of getting in-and-out in a 45-second VOSOT. I was lucky, because I had two strong professorial mentors—John Nicholson and Mel Coffee. They really pushed me.

I was at what I consider the best student paper in the country, the Daily Orange, and really got my education there. The staff we had was insane. I met two of my closer friends and early mentors there—Greg Bishop and another Quaz participant, Jeff Passan—who happen to be two of the most talented writers in the country. Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Saslow, who might be the best journalist under 40 in the United States, was two years behind me. The staff was so talented (Chico Harlan, Darryl Slater, Chris Snow, Chris Carlson, Pete Thamel, Connor Ennis, Dave Curtis, John Jiloty and Ron DePasquale were among the people I worked with for at least a little while in my time at the D.O.) and they were all influences.

I had no true journalism internships in college. I worked at Z100 in New York in promotions for a summer at the height of the boy band and Britney Spears/Jessica Simpson/Christina Aguilera/Mandy Moore boom. It was the most fun I’ve had in a job. I also worked at two summer camps as a counselor, including one where one of my campers was Matthew Koma, who has won a Grammy for the song ‘Clarity.’ When I was done with school, I applied everywhere around the country for a job hoping to find … something. That something was a job in Victorville, California—in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I was there 11 months, covered everything from Little League to minor league baseball and grew up a ton.

I wouldn’t be where I am now had Chris Simmons not hired me to go work in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Those two years made everything else possible. Chris was my biggest mentor and had a reputation for creating good journalists. He made me hundreds of times better as a reporter and also 1,000-times better as a man. He taught me how to really report and develop sources and gave me the tough love I needed. When jobs came open at his place after I left, I always told any young journalist to apply. He could have been an editor anywhere in the country but chose to stay there. Chris died last year and showing how much he influenced the writers he worked for, people flew in from all over the country for his funeral. In the back of my head I still ask myself when I’m working on a story what would Chris say.

From there I went to cover Notre Dame for four years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I covered football and basketball. It was my first real exposure to big-time sports, broke a few stories that won national awards and picked up another mentor in Ben Smith, who taught me the importance of humility and empathy in my writing. I also met some of my closest friends and sounding boards in the business: Brian Hamilton, Adam Rittenberg and Pete Sampson. After four years, the Ann Arbor News was folding and they started AnnArbor.com. They wanted someone to cover Michigan basketball, so I took the chance on a startup. I covered Michigan basketball and football for two years before a connection I made while covering Notre Dame called me to ask if I would be interested in going to work for ESPN. That, to both 10-year-old me and 30-year-old me, was a no-brainer.

I got hired to cover Michigan and did that for two seasons along with bringing my creation in Indiana, the National College Basketball Player of the Year poll, to ESPN. In the spring of 2013 I had heard about NFL Nation starting and it seemed like an intriguing new challenge. I expressed interest to my bosses and they let me interview and was fortunate enough to get hired. Been doing this four years now and it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve gone back to my TV roots on occasion—including fulfilling my childhood dream of being on SportsCenter—and work with some amazing colleagues, from my bosses now (Chad Millman, Mary Byrne, Chris Sprow, John Pluym and Roman Modrowski) to the other 31 people who cover NFL teams in our group. I learn from them daily. ESPN also gave me one of my biggest supporters, Gerry Matalon, and I’ve been extremely grateful for all of the advice he’s dispensed.

I’m definitely a work in progress – both on television and as a writer—but I’m always curious to see what’s going to happen next. But I try to never forget how fortunate I am to be in this position. Worked hard to get here, but got so much help along the way—and I’m sure I forgot to mention some of those people. It’s why I try to be as open and accessible as possible to young journalists coming up. I’m all about paying it forward. (Speaking of which, if you’re a young journalist with questions, feel free to reach out. My email is michael.rothstein@espn.com).

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J.P.: So I stopped covering baseball at SI because, after a while, I just stopped giving a shit. It got boring, repetitive. Your job is to live and breathe football. Detroit Lions football. How do you avoid fatigue? Do you avoid fatigue? Can you still get up for Theo Riddick’s ankle surgery?

M.R.: Like anything else, there are times I get burnt out. The last few weeks of a season, whether it’s heading toward a playoff run, a coaching search or the unknown, starts to wear on you because you’re on almost 24-7 from late July until January. It’s not a physically demanding gig, but mentally it’s grueling. What I’ve really tried to do is to go find things that interest me within football and then write about it. Sometimes, that leads to me writing about silicone wedding rings or what’s more frightening, a bear or a hippo. Or, I’ll go to Madison, Wisconsin for a weekend to write about the world of Tecmo Super Bowl gaming. That keeps it interesting.

I also like the competition. Dave Birkett, who covers the Lions for the Detroit Free Press, is a friend and one of the best beat writers in the country. Trying to beat him keeps me going because I’m very, very competitive—another gift from my parents.

There are days that can feel like forever and points where it gets boring and repetitive, but that’s when I go off and try to find something totally different to write about. That centers me. I’ve also started unplugging and traveling abroad in the summer, most recently to Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, and working out daily. Even in-season, every day I try to make sure I do at least one thing solely for myself, even if that’s going on a three-mile run. That helps keep me fresh.

J.P.: Does the ability to write with touch, detail, depth, precision, insight matter as much in this era of quick turnarounds as it did, say, 10 years ago? I mean, I graduated college in 1994, and it was all about trying to craft. Is there still a place for that?

M.R.: There are days it doesn’t feel like it does, but yeah, it still matters. It’s a constant news cycle filled with 140-character updates and Facebook Live and Instagram and sometimes writing 10-to-12 times a day. But a good story is still a good story and if you can tell one, there’s absolutely room for that. I look at the stories I’ve written that have resonated with people and they have been, for the most part, stories I spent real time with. As someone covering a beat, it’s just harder to find the time to do those stories now because of the constant demands of the news cycle.

People like Wright Thompson, Seth Wickersham, Don Van Natta, Dan Wetzel, Mina Kimes, Charlie Pierce, S.L. Price, Lee Jenkins and Chris Jones, if they write something, I’m reading it. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer and in the business. But when I hear athletes mention Mina’s story on the Bennett Brothers on a conference call with Detroit media, it tells me there’s room for it. The quality of writing from a multitude of people has never been better in my opinion.

J.P.: I’m gonna throw a slider at you—why do you think so many athletes and entertainers have tattoos? Is it merely peer pressure? Does it have to do with ego? Is it just coincidence?

M.R.: I don’t have any tattoos and have personally never seen the appeal, so I’m not the best person to answer. But I’ve asked athletes about this before and for some, it’s about art. For others, it’s about remembering where they came from and carrying those people with them. I know plenty of non-athletes, like my brother, an EMT, who have a bunch of tattoos. He does it because he likes it, although it made for easy mocking when he got Left Shark on his arm after the Katy Perry Super Bowl halftime show. So really, I think it is more coincidence and personal preference.

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J.P.: I feel like all journalists have a money story—that one crazy thing that happened on the job that will be your party go-to tale for decades. What’s yours?

M.R.: Oh man. There are a lot, including when I dressed up as a minor league baseball mascot named Wooly Bully, some epic road trips and forgetting what city I’m in. I’ve never really been threatened by an athlete or a coach or anything like that. But this one stands out, not for the actual incident but the prank pulled on me by Passan after. He’s still proud of it. I need to preface this by saying the parking lot on Michigan’s athletic campus has really poor sightlines when you’re pulling out of spaces.

When I was covering Michigan, the school had hired a new athletic director, Dave Brandon, who was the former CEO of Domino’s. On his first day on the job, I was pulling out of a space in the parking lot and he was driving his car through the lot. Through a combination of not being able to see him and being distracted by a tip I had gotten, we got into a fender bender. Luckily there was really no damage other than a scratch or two on either car, but not the best first impression you want to make.

Brandon was cool about it with me although word had quickly spread what had happened. The Michigan sports information directors had fun with it for a few weeks, as did my bosses, but the person who benefitted the most was Passan. Later that night, he called me from a blocked number pretending to be a personal injury lawyer representing Dave Brandon because he had heard about the fender bender.

Needless to say, I freaked out for about five minutes or so before I realized it was him. And Passan was good, getting me worked up and paranoid at the same time. He also taped the conversation and decided to send it to some of our friends. They sent it to some of their friends and, well, it spread pretty quick. One Michigan SID told me he still has it and listens to it a couple times a year. There are still times, six or so years later, when I get asked about it. It was one of my more gullible moments but a classic story.

J.P.: I think one thing young sports writers have to confront early in their careers is the intimidation factor—walking into a clubhouse and not being nervous. Did you have that at first? Did you need to tiptoe before you walked? How did you break it (if so)? And what advice would you give?

M.R.: I totally had that and it took a long time to get over. Every job I’ve had, those first few days or weeks there’s that sense of nervousness. That, to me, is part of any new situation. In every job I’ve had, I’ve definitely tiptoed first. It takes time to get to know people and a beat, so I think that’s OK. I often think of it as the early stages of dating – you’re nervous at first trying to get a feel of who the woman the other person who is a complete stranger, but eventually there’s a familiarity and comfort level. It took a little bit, but the nerves eventually go away.

My advice, especially for younger journalists, is do your research before you go into a locker room. I would look at rosters to see if there were any connections I had with guys in there, either if I had covered their school before or lived in their area of the country. Then I would use that as an icebreaker. It’s a way to both get them off of the conversation of football or basketball and into something else that immediately humanizes you and gets them to remember you. That’s better than rote questions players are asked over and over (and often get annoyed by). Otherwise, you’re just another nameless face. That’s not only a good initial locker room tool, but one that leads to better reporting and just becoming a better conversationalist in life.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL ROTHSTEIN:

• Three memories from your Bar Mitzvah: 1. There is, sadly, video evidence of this: I fell off the chair during the Hora. One of the dancers put her hand up for a high-five. I connected—and then fell on my butt on the floor in front of my dad. His face was priceless and for years, my brother would play it for whoever came over. My parents wanted to send it to America’s Funniest Home Videos, but they chose to save awkward 13-year-old me the embarrassment; 2. I was so bad at reading Hebrew and the different tropes that I only did four Aliyahs; 3. We had the centerpieces of my theme—movies—as decorations in our basement for years. I always loved acting—at least the concept of it—so it was something I wanted to do but have yet to try.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): owls, Haason Reddick, chicken soup, Taylor Dayne, The Notorious B.I.G., Marlon Brando, pastrami sandwich, “The Silence of the Lambs,” Billy Sims: Pastrami sandwich (on gluten free bread, because I’m celiac), The Silence of the Lambs, chicken soup, The Notorious B.I.G., Marlon Brando, Haason Reddick, Taylor Dayne, Billy Sims, owls.

• The world needs to know—what’s it like covering Zach Zenner?: He’s one of the more intriguing players I cover. He might be the smartest, too. He wants to go to med school after he’s done playing football and has done medical research during the last two offseasons, including during spring ball last year. Zenner’s just an honest dude who is very matter-of-fact with what he’s doing and his approach to everything. Most of all, he’s always willing to talk and is pleasant to deal with. As a beat writer, I’m appreciative of that.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes and no. I’ve never been close, thankfully, although there were a couple of times in prop planes where things didn’t seem to be going too well. I didn’t puke, but I definitely knew where the barf bag was. If I don’t fall asleep before the plane hits cruising altitude, I do get this split-second concern of ‘What’s going to happen here?’ I don’t have a fear of flying—I enjoy it, actually. But for a second it’s kind of like the last scene of the movie ‘Say Anything,’ when Diane Court and Lloyd Dobler are on the plane waiting for the seatbelt sign to go off. Once that happens, I feel much better about things.

• One question you would ask John Amos were he here right now?: ‘The West Wing’ is my all-time favorite television show—I’ve watched it through multiple times and am doing so again with listening to the West Wing Weekly podcast. Plus Aaron Sorkin is an inspiration to me as a writer, so I’d ask John Amos what it was like to be part of that cast as a recurring character working with Sorkin and Martin Sheen and how often did he try to ad-lib Sorkin’s dialogue?

• Five most talented football players you’ve ever covered?:  I’m going to restrict this to guys I actually covered as a beat instead of a one-off. Calvin JohnsonReggie BushNdamukong SuhD’Brickashaw FergusonDenard Robinson (in a close one over Matthew Stafford).

• In exactly 14 words, make a case for Garry Templeton, Hall of Famer:  Umm, a 16.2 career defensive WAR and an NL-best 211 hits in 1979.

• Three things we need to know about your childhood pet: 1. He was a white Westie named Magic, after Magic Johnson. I got him days before Magic announced he was HIV-positive. That was a devastating moment to 11-year-old me; 2. He was a friendly dog, although he mostly got attached to my dad because he was the one who walked him. He ended up living 15 years and I still miss him; 3. He helped me get over my fear of dogs. When I was in elementary school, a large dog chased me into the middle of North Jerusalem Road, a busy road in my town. While I was like Frogger around cars, the dog eventually tackled me. It left me scared of dogs for a few years until Magic. Now, I love dogs.

• How was your senior prom?: Not all that memorable. I went with Kristen Zbryski, who was a grade older than me, as friends. It was a good time, but getting close to 20 years ago. I more remember the boat ride around New York City after and the trip to Wildwood, New Jersey the couple days after that.

• What are the four words you way overuse?: Gluten, Meh, Literally, Worst

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Pierre Walters

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The NFL Draft kicks off in two days, which means—right about now—a couple of hundred or so college football players are dreaming of “making it.” I intentionally placed those two words in quotations, because “making it” doesn’t usually mean making it. “Making it” equals a fantasy life of snazzy cars, long-legged hotties, Nike endorsement deals, free kicks, a mansion, millions of screaming fans, etc. And, indeed, someone from this draft will “make it.” Maybe, just maybe, three or four or five guys will. And that’ll be about it.

For the rest, life in professional football becomes largely about survival; about lasting as long as possible so that money can be saved and the real world can be postponed as long as possible. When the hype of Draft Thursday dies down, and the headlines yellow and Chris Berman’s voice fades away, football is a brutal (though financially lucrative) business. Very few survive.

One person who knows this well is Pierre Walters, Quaz No. 153 and a linebacker with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009-2011. An undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois, Pierre busted his ass to make the roster, then stick longer than most. Like all NFL players, he knows the ups and downs of the pro existence. Like all NFL players, the end was far from pretty.

Pierre has become one of my absolute favorite people, and he brings forth one helluva interview.

Pierre Walters, cat lover, welcome to the land of Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Pierre, I’m gonna start with a question that I’ve heard asked, but never answered especially well. What does it feel like to absorb a really powerful hit at the NFL level? I beg of you, don’t just tell me, “Well, it hurts.” Like, what does it feel like? Can you brace for it? How long does the pain last? And what’s the worst hit you ever took?

PIERRE WALTERS: Is the intensity the highest at the NFL level? Yes. Do the hits hurt more than the ones I’ve given and taken in college? Not necessarily. There are a few that stick in my mind at the NFL level, but I’ll only tell you about one. It happened during the “inside run” portion of practice in 2009. Inside run is when the offense calls only run plays against the defense so both sides can learn how to execute their blocks and fits. I was playing linebacker on the left side of the defense when the offense ran some sort of split zone play. In that particular play, the fullback was responsible for blocking the last man on the line of scrimmage. In most cases against a 3-4 defense, that man will be the outside linebacker. This was about the 20th time we practiced against split zone that day and we were having a good physical battle with the fullbacks.

Anyway, I was on the left side of the defense when the center snapped the ball. As the offensive tackle blocked down (away from me), I knew the back was coming to block me. We crashed into each other head-first and carried on with the play. A micro-second after we hit, I saw the color purple—and I ain’t talkin’ Whoopi and Oprah. I mean, literally, the top-left of my vision turned purple with a yellow trim. It was wild. I didn’t get a headache or feel any pain. I shook it off and after about four seconds the sky turned that beautiful blue again. We spoke during the short intermission after the next play to reflect on the hit, laughed a bit and agreed we were going too hard on one another. He was dazed pretty good, too. We always practiced hard, but we didn’t have to kill each other every play. So we made a pact to make it look good and save it for the game.

The pain—if there is any—doesn’t last long. Adrenaline is an amazing chemical. Most of the time the real battle with pain takes place off the field when you have to do “normal” activities. That’s when you truly feel all the hits and tears. Pain is always present in some way, so you just have to do your best to cope.

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J.P.: You played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009-2011. Which means, in the eyes of many, you lived the dream. I’m interested—is the NFL life a dream? Does it live up to expectations? Is it genuinely fun? Or does pressure make fun not fully possible?

P.W.: It was a dream in more ways than I could probably explain. When I signed my contract on April 26, 2009, the very first thing that went through my mind was appreciation. I now have the chance to fulfill my farfetched goal of playing in the NFL, and of course to play the game a while longer. Immediately after that thought, I looked down at the numbers next to my name and couldn’t help but smile. “Someone pinch me.“ Obviously this meant, if I made the team, I’d be able to provide a bit of financial comfort for myself and my family. That was a main driving force behind my ambition. As the news spread, the reality of it all began to hit and it got more exciting. I got a flood of calls and messages with everyone wishing me the best and giving me their advice. That was the most fun part of my “dream“ … the “foot in the door” phase. Once I reported to rookie mini-camp, the fun quickly turned into business. All the hype and congratulating was cool, but I had to make it short lived and collect my emotions so I could focus on making the team. That’s when I first felt the stress.

People underestimate the pressure ballplayers tolerate. Let’s say your passion is loading trucks. You spent eight-to-10 years as a truck-loading apprentice before you finally reach the level when you can interview for that big-money truck-loading job. The moment is here … you got the interview! You look online and on television and your name, job title and potential salary are posted for the world to view. Everyone across the nation is locked in to see if you’re the next best truck loader to come to their city. Soon after, you’re getting messages left and right and people come out the woodwork saying they’re going to watch your loading career unfold. Now there are blogs, forums, truck fans and analysts scrutinizing your loading abilities from head to toe—most of whom don’t even know the first steps in picking up a damn box.

Throw in the anxiety you’ve created for yourself years ago to make it to the big loading show, then add on the large money that will serve as a saving grace for you and your family—and the pressure is on. Oh, and people are hitting you with baseball bats all day while you’re working!

The point is at that top level, there’s little time for fun because it’s taken so seriously by everyone—from the athletes to the fans. There is just too much on the line to relax, no matter how much you’re getting paid. Money definitely helps in life, but in no way does it completely eliminate stress. It’ll just add to the stress because now you have to expend that much more mental energy into keeping up with it and fending off vultures who may want to taste some of it.

I fell deeper into the “dream” when the checks started coming in. Here I am. Regular me, making this money and garnishing this attention. All of a sudden you’re standing out and people want to be around you. You, your family and your close friends know you’re just you.  But now you’ve earned a tag—“NFL player.” I began to see how extremely enthralled society can be when it comes to sports and pro players. We’d be at a bar or store and everyone who noticed you is surprised you’re there, and they drop everything to get a picture or whatever. I mean, I get it. I’ve always loved interacting with fans. It’s just crazy to be in that position knowing good and well you’re a normal person like them, and you’re just “loading trucks” like you have been since you were 13. Yet here they are, treating you like you‘re a king. I often wondered how the superstars of the league faired mentally with all the attention. Compared to how I got it I know they get it 100 times more, and I’m sure it can’t be easy. It seems cool on paper, but the attention gets menacing in sports. If you’re not careful you can get lost in it. It’s a dream because you become larger than life.

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J.P.: What was your life path? I know you’re from Forest Park, Illinois; know you attended Eastern Illinois University. But how did you get into football? What made you start playing? When did you know you were better than merely OK?

P.W.: I first started playing football my freshman year in high school, but before high school my favorite sport was basketball. In this area, most kids grow up with a basketball in their hands rather than a football. My friends and I would play football and a form of baseball we called “Piggy” in the street or at the park, but basketball was every day—and with Michael Jordan and the ’90s Chicago Bulls’ influence, I was just one more of the millions of  kids who wanted to be like Mike. For as long as I remember, I’d always been a high-energy little kid. I couldn‘t sit still at all. From ages 4 to about 7 my dad—a Vietnam War Vet—would challenge my brother and I to do push-ups and have playful wrestling and boxing matches in the living room. I loved every minute of it.

When the hoop dreams began to fade around eighth grade, that gritty fascination started to resurface and my curiosity in football began to peak. During an open house at St. Joseph High School my mom and I came across a booth for the school’s football team, and the varsity coach suggested I play. I agreed. My friend Chamario and I showed up for the first intro practice in June and my passion took shape that day. I became obsessed with the game. I was spellbound by the tough, militant environment. The field and the weight room became my refuge and that’s when I knew that I would be better than OK. Nothing was going to separate me from this game/feeling and I was ready to do whatever it took to keep it in my life. Plus, I knew that one day I would be built like my new-found heroes who were on my TV every Sunday and I wouldn’t be so damn lanky anymore. Finally, my body would grow and catch up with my head! It was a win-win!

J.P.: Knowing all we now know, do you let your kid play youth football? Why or why not?

P.W.: That’s a really tough question. Of course the man, and God-willing, future proud father in me says, “Hell yeah!” I couldn’t  imagine too many other things in life more special than watching a little version of yourself playing a sport you excelled in. I’ve experienced the many perks the sport has to offer and it served as a necessary outlet for me when I was young.

However, my heart and the humanitarian in me says “Hell no!” The harsh fact is football destroys your body and in many cases your mind. Point-blank, period. Some people have the ability to acknowledge that, but unless they’ve played up to at least the college level or know a college/pro player in an intimate way, they can’t even begin to fathom the extent in which it tears you up. Do all sports take a toll on the athlete in some way? Absolutely. But not like football. It would be hard giving my son up to the game at that age knowing that if he gets good enough and loves it enough, he’ll be playing for a long time. The physical toll is what I cringe at when I think about this question, but I cringe just as hard when I think about the way the populace will persecute him once his playing days are over and God forbid he needs health assistance.

In my mind, football and junk food are comparable. Many Americans are addicted to and love fast food, sugar and fried treats. They are the most “fun” foods to eat and you can’t tell most people any different if you tried to get them to cut back on the over-consumption, even though there is 100-percent factual evidence all that crap significantly shortens your lifespan. Americans were ignorant to the consequences of bad food until all the health food movements started popping up. As a result, stats show that we are finally getting healthier as a whole.

Now we have football. I don’t have to explain how much Americans love football. And they have every right to love it. What’s not to love about it? You’ve got super-sized, larger than life warriors blasting each other, catching touchdown passes, signing autographs and kissing babies! It’s a very exciting and admirable game. But, like our cherished junk food, most romanticize the sport to the point where they are completely unable to recognize the mutilation that’s happening to a man, and in turn, eliminating their ability to show empathy toward the player. The allure society has for money and fame has forced people to humanely detach themselves from ballplayers. What’s the saying about junk food? “How can something that tastes so good be so bad?” I’ve heard many people say, “How can a player claim his life is so bad at times, when it seems so good (money, fame)?” and “They make all that money so why are they fighting for extra benefits/compensation?” and “They should just stop complaining and play.” People who say these things are the ones who think players shouldn’t have a voice when the issues of how to properly treat a human being arise. Football is plagued with these minds.

Not one person on this earth would refute compensating an injured construction worker, EMT or electrician who bust their ass everyday to make a living. Those are careers where the likelihood of injury is high, and the person knows it. No matter the monetary discrepancy between those professions, each would and should be compensated swiftly if hurt on the job. So, what makes a pro football career any different? Nothing. They know the risk for injury is high. They go to work. They work. They constantly get hurt … they continue to work. When it’s over, they hurt. They’re damaged. Many seek compensation for their disfigured bodies, and most don’t receive it. I don’t think anyone would want to think about their boy going through that. It‘s just different because, unlike junk food, football isn’t bad for the consumer or fan …. it’s bad for the employee. The game is too fun to watch to begin thinking about the damage being done to someone’s brother, nephew, son, father or best friend. It’s like being able to eat all the bad food you want for as long as you live, but someone else is going to get fat and die early and you don’t give a rat’s rump. The least you could do is lobby for their liposuction once they’re done sacrificing. I have a hard time dealing with these realities.

Should we ban all junk food and force everyone to eat healthy all the time? No. All we can do/have been doing is educate people of the dangers and teach “balance.” Given all the disturbing evidence, should we ban football and force young boys to do less threatening sports? No. The game is an outlet and meal ticket for millions of boys in America. Like McDonalds, football isn’t going away, nor should it. All we can/should do is continue to monitor the practices/rules, thoroughly educate the young’ns of the long-term dangers, then give them a chance to weigh the elements and decide.

So, if my son wanted to play youth football, would I let him? No. Not until high school. If he wants to follow in dad’s footsteps, I’ll explain to him why I think he’s too young to start ramming his head into people, but I’ll be more than willing to coach him up and train him until he’s a freshman in high school. By that time, I feel he will be more physically prepared, have learned enough about the long-term dangers, and old enough to make his decision. From that point, I’ll just have to be his support and pray for his safety like my parents did for me. Go be a warrior, son—get fat.

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J.P.: I always hear NFL officials talk safety, safety, safety and protection, protection, protection. But, having played in the league, do you feel like teams are genuinely interested in a player’s well-being? Do they want to know if you’re hurt? Or do they prefer one shuts up and plays?

P.W.: f you are talented enough to make it to the league you learned a long time ago to play through pain. That’s not something that has to be said much around the league because everyone at that level is tough and performs hurt. But, it was always implied to young players when I first got to KC. I can’t speak for all, but I developed that mindset in high school. Some may have been conditioned before high school or after. Mine started as soon as I fell in love with the game. In my experience, I felt the coaches, for the most part, were genuinely concerned with a player’s well-being. They’re the ones who are around us the most and in large instances they were players themselves, so they understand the mindset. They’re in a weird limbo. They know we’re tough men and they allow us to be tough and play, but they also want to make sure they protect us from ourselves—especially when you’re talking head injuries. That’s the vibe I got from my coach. Some apply more pressure than others.

The real pressure comes from the “higher-ups.” The businessmen who control the team are the ones who are disconnected in that regard because you are simply an investment. Also, the majority hadn’t played a high level of football and are making too much money and have too little time to be concerned with a player plagued with an injury. In any case, you’ll feel the heat. From a bad ankle to vertigo and everything in between, you know you’re always under a microscope and any chink in your game will be magnified. “Can’t make the club if you’re in the tub.”

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J.P.: You were undrafted, and somehow made it. How big a stigma is that to overcome? I’ve always heard teams feel much more devoted to draft picks, and will do everything they can to make sure they succeed before turning to free agents. True? Not true?

P.W.: The highest hurdle to overcome is the “small-school” label. A lot of good smaller-school players don’t have enough buzz created around them so it’s harder for them to get the opportunities to prove themselves against higher competition.

I was fortunate enough to get invited to play in the Texas vs. Nation All-Star game in ‘09 after my senior year at Eastern Illinois. Practicing for and playing in that game gave me the chance to showcase my skills to the scouts against more “elite” competition and I performed well. The secret to overcoming any stigma is not buying into it. If you know you’ve got game and you belong it doesn’t matter how someone labels you. Just show up and take heads off. The “free-agent” label is a much smaller hurdle and doesn’t carry as much weight. If you’re a free agent, then that means you’ve already got your foot in the door. That’s all you can ask for in life—an opportunity. No doubt the odds are still against you because the fact is, the team is more devoted to the draft picks because they’ve invested more money/years into them and those are the guys the fans are most eager to see play. If you think about the odds too much, you’ll probably fail. Acknowledge what you’re up against, devise a plan to beat the odds, then carry it out with everything you have and let the cards fall. Simple and effective strategy.

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J.P.: I’ve known many retired athletes, and they seem to really struggle with life after pro sports. You were a member of the Chicago Rush of the Arena League in 2012, but haven’t played since. You’re only 28—how has to real-world adjustment been for you? Do you feel restless? Wayward? Do you watch the NFL on TV and think, “Man, I wanna go back”?

P.W.: When the truth sets in that football is a thing of the past, for many players (especially young ones on the brink of their pro careers), their world feels gone. It’s easy for people to say, “It’s just a game, get over it.” Those are the people who haven’t found or aren’t living their passion in life … they are incapable of understanding. They need to understand it isn’t that simple. One of the definitions of “passion” is “the intense feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.” To put in all the work it takes to become, say, a doctor, medicine and saving lives have to be your passions. The same goes for court judges who are passionate about the law, famous musicians and their deep passion for music and so on. Unless people with these occupations had their license revoked for malpractice or have developed a crippling handicap, they will always be free to live out their respective passions in some way—old or young.

A “failed” young NFL career is different because it takes that same amount of intense enthusiasm to attain your exclusive goal, but it‘s certain one probably won’t thrive once he’s “made it,” and once you’ve had a taste of that level, it’s hard to continue your passion at the lower levels because the pay-to-physical-damage ratio isn’t worth it. The drop-off to other levels in football suck, so many (who realize) are forced to stop playing cold turkey. Do all musicians and medical students make it to world-class status? No. But, there are hospitals and clinics that pay very well for a med student to apply and be content. The drop-off is still sweet. Musicians will always be able to perform or express themselves through their instruments. Once you’re done in the league you’ll be damned if you go bust your body up more for free (semi-pro) or peanuts (AFL/CFL). A player has used the game for an outlet and expression (because that’s how it all starts) his whole life. Abruptly remove that and a storm is likely to brew.

A lot of crazy things were happening all at once toward the end of my football career. When you read down a couple questions you’ll better understand, but I developed a health condition in Kansas City which ultimately led to my departure from the team. Five months later, I suffered a significant knee injury in Spokane, Washington when I played briefly with the Shock. After being traded to the Rush, I was pretty much a shell of my former self. I still produced stats and made some plays, but I was running hot. I hit a hard wall and got really sick just before they released me. I came down with pneumonia, but nursed myself back to health. A few other AFL teams were interested in signing me, but I was done. I couldn’t do it. Especially at the AFL level where the player transaction rules, or lack there of, was a circus. Physically, I couldn’t go on.

When I refused the other offers I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders—although I know in my heart if an NFL team had come calling I would have signed in an instant. It pissed me off then, but today I’m so blessed no team called because you best believe I would’ve went after that money. That’s when I was convinced the money was the top priority. It can’t be in football. If it is, you’ll be forced to turn on your “Eff-it” switch and ignore your body and destroy it for the wrong reasons (yes, there are plausible reasons, but I‘m running out of room. Another time, Mr. Pearlman). The reality was my career was coming to an end, and that‘s a big pill to swallow for a young athlete standing in the crossroads of his NFL desires. That’s when I was shaken out of my dream. The restlessness and anxiety quickly set in. “Now what?” The last 13 years I’d been playing a game. It wasn’t long into my restless state I caught a nice pick-me-up when the head coach at my former high school reached out and asked if I could come speak to the boys or maybe even coach a bit. I never really saw myself as coaching material, but I decided to go back and check things out. It turned out to be just what I needed to lift my spirits. I quickly embraced the idea of taking these boys under my wing and the first couple months felt OK. But I was too fresh out the game to feel normal again. I was still disturbed about my illness. I was bitter about how I was released. I was still battling injuries with no treatment available and still frustrated at my agent and teams. And yes, if a game came on I was turning that shit off. I was resentful and I still felt lost. It’s bizarre having your passion ripped out of your life in a flash and seeing it dangled in your face everywhere you look. “Hey! Did you see the game, Sunday?!”

“No, Fuck off.”

Five months pass and I’m still in my rut when I got the news about what happened with Jovan Belcher. The news crushed me—crushed everybody. But man, I was flattened. Just utterly destroyed. This, on top of all the other challenging adjustments and unknowns, made life take a turn for the worse. Four months later in April I get news my childhood friend, Steven, died under similar/suspicious circumstances. There’s not enough time or space in this Quaz for me to explain how I felt in late April of 2013. I literally ran out of tears by June. But, I’ll show you how God works …

Having being clouded by aimlessness, frustration, sadness and ailments, there was no way for me to understand what was being built ahead of me. Being too unhealthy to play ball forced me back to the Chicago area where I was shocked to realize how long I’d been away from my parents and how much time I lost back home. They were older and it wasn’t until I was seeing them on a regular basis that I was forced to appreciate what I’d done in my career and had to focus on developing a stronger relationship with them. On top of that, thanks to the coach reaching out, I was forced in a position to mentor these young players, and as the months went on, coaching them became a means of therapy. I couldn’t let my outside problems negatively affect how I coached them. I was aware how they looked up to me so I genuinely had to be upbeat and positive.

Not a day went by where I hadn’t thought of my friends who’d tragically passed away (including my good friend and college roommate, Trent, in July, 2010). After more than a year of dissecting tragedy in my head I came to the conclusion that there are silver linings in every event in life. Tragedies, as horrible as they are, ultimately force the ones impacted by them to slow down and value the people and blessings they may have taken for granted. I learned there are more important things in life than being hell-bent in your career no matter how strong your passion burns in your heart. So, today I do not feel restless or wayward. I’m a proud coach/mentor/counselor who is helping to turn our school’s football program around while quietly working on several other projects and ambitions. I enjoy watching NFL football again, and I would not go back—even though I’m in the best shape of my life thanks to juicing and T-25.

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J.P.: This might sound odd coming from a white Jewish guy, but I feel like, were I an African-American college football player, I’d view fans and coaches and boosters very warily. I’d wonder their motivations; their thoughts. They cheer for me—yet until college desegregation they wouldn’t let me play for their teams. They say I’m great—but would they want me dating their daughter? They’re often multi-millionaires, but once my athleticism and/or eligibility fade, they don’t toss a dime my way. Pierre, am I being dumb here? Is there sense to this?

P.W.: Na, you’re not being dumb at all. You’re being an aware individual. That’s an awkward reality every elite black football player faces at some point. There have been times where I had to attend a special dinner or party and just laughed to myself thinking those same thoughts … wondering what’s going through their minds as you have to sit and make small football talk at the table. I‘m confident there are many out there like how you describe, but I’ve never thought way into it, tricking myself that every white booster, coach or fan was racist. I was always respectful and cordial, but never too concerned with how anyone viewed me. If they had a problem, it’s their vice. Good luck with that.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your football career? Lowest?

P.W.: The greatest moment of my football career had to be when I received a scholarship to play at Eastern Illinois University. I’d been receiving some attention from several schools, but most of them were only offering partial scholarships or preferred walk-on positions. It was my senior year in high school and we just finished playing our first game of the season. I believe it was that following Monday I got a call from a guy named Derek Jackson, who was Eastern’s defensive line coach at the time. The call surprised me because I hadn’t heard anything from Eastern. Hell, if I hadn’t made it down state for track the prior year, I wouldn’t have even known Eastern Illinois existed. Well, he introduced himself and began to explain how they wanted to offer me a full scholarship to play. I was speechless. He said he was actually scouting the offensive lineman I was playing against and I stood out. I wasn’t even on their radar. Lesson in life: Always go hard in anything you do because you never know who’s watching. After I hung up the phone I ran in the kitchen to tell my mom the news. It felt so good. I was going to a university for free. That made our lives a lot easier.

The lowest moment in my career, hands down, was how I departed with the Chiefs. Not a lot of people know how it all went down. So, it’s the week of the third preseason game in 2011. I was having my best training camp to date. I knew the defense well, and my body felt good. On Monday night of August 22, I was at my apartment eating dinner. It was a normal night and I felt fine. I set my alarm to 5:30 and went to bed. I woke up at about 4 am and felt an enormous pressure in my abdomen and figured I had to take a dump, so I got up to do my business. I sat down on the toilet (yes, I’m about to explain, in detail, my poop session) and tried to go. Nothing. I push a little harder. Nothing. As the minutes went by the pressure got worse. I push, I push. Nothing. Not even a fart for some relief. Now I’m getting worried because 10 minutes have gone by and I just want to finish and go to sleep. Now it’s 4:30 and at this point a baby rabbit could have put my turds to shame. I knew I wasn’t going back to bed because of the pain so I decided to get an early start to the day. I walk into the facility at around 5:45 and at this point my abdomen hurts worse than before. Still, it wasn’t hurting so bad to the point where I thought to panic. I figured I was constipated. I asked the trainer for some gas relief medicine, swallowed them down, got taped and dressed then proceeded to the bathroom stall. I put up another valiant effort with no results.

The start of practice was nearing, so I had to wrap it up and try later. As I stood up, it felt like a knife was being jammed from the inside out of my intestines along with pressure four times worse than earlier. I nearly collapsed and started sweating profusely. I knew I wasn’t right. Practice was starting in 10 minutes, camp is almost over, and these last two games were the most important for me to date. I had no time to think about it, so I left the bathroom, grabbed my helmet and walked outside. Once I got on the field I started jogging to the usual warm-up spot and with every stride, the vibration irritated my stomach. It was miserable. I don’t know how I made it through practice, but I did.

After practice I quickly shower, change and drag myself into the training room to see the doctor. After some preliminary assessments, he suggests it may be my appendix and  recommends I go to the ER. He drove me there and when we arrived I was almost fully incapacitated. After they run the tests the doc tells me I have Diverticulitus. “Diza-ficka-whaa?!” Google it. He tells me I’m the youngest patient he’s seen with it and he doesn’t know how in the world I was able to practice and blah blah blah. He says to take antibiotics and go on a liquid diet. I’m blown away. My head is spinning. “What of my career? The Rams game is in 3 days! What are the coaches thinking? I can’t even move! How long is this gonna take? Am I gonna die?! What the hell is happening right now?!” It all happened so fast. As a result, I missed the game and fell hard on the depth chart. The next week I was far from 100 percent, but I put in too much work to go out like that. I pushed on and practiced anyway, hoping to show them there wasn’t anything that was going to keep me from making the team. It didn’t work out. Man, I tell you that was hardest moment in my career. It ripped me from football (not really a bad thing after 13 years total) and killed the momentum in my career. Today, I’m aware that it was a blessing in disguise because I gained a brand new appreciation for health after that experience. Now I take better care of myself and I’m much healthier and more fit today.

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J.P.: We spoke at length when I wrote a long piece about your good friend, the late Jovan Belcher. Looking back at your career, as well as at Jovan’s passing, why do you think guns are so prevalent among pro athletes? Is it a problem? Not such a big deal?

P.W.: The answer is simple. First, you get picked up by a team. Second, you attend the many mandatory meetings where they brief you on the city and all the craziness that has happened to players before you. Everything from identity theft and stalking to home invasions and extortion. They spend so much time preparing you how to maneuver through your new life as a “target” and what you must look out for. The meetings are absolutely essential but they do something to most players. The meetings put players’ guards way up and you’re compelled to find solutions to feel safe, naturally. These new realities that you’ve never had to worry about come very fast once you’re in the NFL, so the quickest way to security is getting strapped.

Think about it. You’ve never lived in this city before. You move into the neighborhood and you stand out. People know who you are, they know when you’ll be out of town during the season and they know you‘re making great money. You feel like all eyes are on you because they are. It’s always in the back of your mind and the stuff does happen, so why would you be so arrogant and think it can’t happen to you? Better to be safe than sorry.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 1.42.50 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH PIERRE WALTERS:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Aw man, yeah. I forgot where I was flying from, but we were trying to land in Chicago. There was a big thunderstorm directly above the airport and the pilot had to circle the place about four times before he could land safely. It was the worst turbulence I’ve ever been in. It was terrifying and the muscle relaxer had worn off.

• Best piece of advice you ever received?: I received a lot of great advice from many strong men from my dad to coaches who were like extended fathers, but the first that comes to mind is from my favorite hip-hop artist. “If you lie make sure the trail is gone, and don’t expect a happy ending unless you’re in a nail-salon” — Joe Budden

• Who wins in a MMA match between you and Floyd Mayweather? How long does it last?: I win. It‘ll take about 30 seconds to walk him down and finish him. He’s 5-foot-8 and about a buck fifty? I’m 6-foot-5 and 235 with giraffe legs. My front-kick is hellacious.

• Five all-time favorite books?: Over the years I hadn’t done much reading to give you a solid five favorites, but I’m proud to say I started up recently and I’m forming a collection. I enjoyed Forrest Griffin’s “Got Fight” and I’m finishing up Jeffrey Marx’s “Season of Life”—which I’m thoroughly enjoying (I still have to thank Coach Gary Gibbs for that one). Next on my line-up is Nate Jackson’s “Slow Getting Up,” and then I‘ll start “Sweetness,” written by some no-name. For the fifth book, I gotta go back to grade school and say Goosebumps: “Night of the Living Dummy III”

• Why do you think women are so drawn to athletes?: Naturally, like most men, most women are attracted to an athletic, in-shape body. If that’s one of your fixations as a woman, where better to start looking than the athletic department? But, of course the main reasons are the hopes for financial security, living fast and the excitement of being a trophy to a player so she can make her girls jealous. Certainly, the “stand-up” women don’t fall under this umbrella … that’s just the scallywags and jersey chasers.

• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $5 million to move to Las Vegas for a year and work as her personal physical trainer. However, you have to work 365-straight says, live on a diet of Coke Zero and baked potatoes and change your last name to Tollbooth. You in?: Eh. It’s tempting, but I couldn’t do it. Money isn’t all too important to me these days and I don’t drink pop. I wouldn’t want to go that long of a time from seeing my parents again. Plus, my cat and I have separation anxiety from one another. Yeah, I said it …

• Five best football players you ever faced?: Ryan Perrilloux, Willie Colon, Philip Rivers, Sean McGrath (he had a stint at EIU), and Brandon Albert.

• Three ugliest NFL uniforms, three coolest NFL uniforms: Ugliest: Raiders, Broncos and Chargers. Coolest: Ravens, Bears and Chiefs

• Should the Washington Redskins change their name?: Absolutely. Times have changed. Either change the name, or give every other team racist names and we can all make a joke out of it. “Tonight, on Monday Night Football we’ve got the Jacksonville Jigaboos versus the San Diego Wetbacks! And later, the Cleveland Crackers will face off against the undefeated WASHINGTON REDSKINS!”

Michael Sam is about to enter the NFL. How hard will it be for an openly gay player?: It’ll be tough on him for sure, and he may lose a bit of stock/money because of his bravery. But I applaud him for not allowing himself to be oppressed out of fear. For him to announce his orientation with conviction shows he’s a confident man. As long as he produces and gets sacks (heh-heh), he’ll stay in the league.

Michael Sam

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 11.36.10 PMMichael Sam is my new favorite football player.

I don’t have a close second.

In case you missed the news, earlier today Sam—a graduating senior at the University of Missouri and an All-American defensive lineman—told the New York Times and ESPN that he is gay. In and of itself, in 2014 that sort of thing isn’t such a huge deal. I have gay friends, you probably have gay friends. Blah, blah, blah. Yawn, yawn, yawn. Yet this isn’t about me, and this isn’t about you. It’s a young man—just 24—preparing to become the first openly gay player in the history of professional football.

That ain’t no joke.

Sam isn’t Jason Collins—at the end of his career, ties already established. He isn’t Greg Louganis or Martina Navratilova—stars in individual sports. No, he’s a kid who’s about to be drafted into the NFL; a kid who said, “To hell with it—I’m done hiding  …” whether his stock crashes or not. Much like Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, the NFL isn’t exactly the land of openmindedness and inclusiveness. Yes, it’s diverse, as far as black-white and Southern-Northern goes. Yes, many of the players reacted to Sam’s announcement by Tweeting positive wishes. Yet, beneath it all, Michael Sam will not have it easy. “Faggot” and “Queer” are common putdowns for those perceived to be weak. Beneath piles—where shadows overtake light and spectators can’t see clearly—knees are hit, ankles and turned, elbows are thrown. Sam will, without question, takes shots others won’t.

He’ll also be the uncomfortable non-secret in locker rooms. Some teammates will avoid him in the showers. There’ll be whispers and chuckles. Religious teammates will damn him a sinner. Maybe to his face, maybe not. But the words, they will speak.

And yet … I get the feeling this man can take it. He’s clearly intelligent and insightful. He braved coming out to his college teammates, and was encouraged by the aftermath. He seems to know he’s a trailblazer; seems comfortable carrying that torch.

I’ve never seen him play, but I expect my son to be wearing his jersey next season.

With pride.

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Trey Wingo

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Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows I’m not shy about calling out ESPN when something irks me. From the Barry Bonds reality show to the killing off of Playmakers, the nation’s leading sports network can certainly make some perplexing moves.

Bringing forth Trey Wingo, however, isn’t one of them.

The host of NFL Live (as well as an occasional SportsCenter co-host), Wingo is—for my money—one of the absolute best in the business. His knowledge is impressive, his style straightforward and devoid of excessive goofiness. In many ways, he reminds me of some of the classic sportscasters I used to watch as a kid—Sal Marciano, Jerry Girard, Len Berman. Deliver the information, deliver it in a pleasing way … and allow the details to speak for themselves. In other words: Be a pro.

Here, in the 112th Quaz, Trey addresses his funkadelic last name and his rise to ESPN stardom; the joy of football Sundays and the one question he’d feel compelled to ask Melissa Manchester. You can follow Trey on Twitter here, and (obviously) see him regularly on ESPN.

Trey Wingo, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Trey, so you’ve been at ESPN a long time, which allows me to ask this question: How are you not absolutely sick of sports? I left Sports Illustrated after less than six years because the day-to-day of athletics was sorta melting my brain. How doesn’t it melt yours? How do you still care about Bronocs-Chiefs, or Eli Manning’s QB rating, or—dear God—Tim Tebow? How are you not burnt to a crisp?

TREY WINGO: Well, first of all you’re assuming I have a brain that could be burnt to a crisp. The only other thing I can say is that I love what I do … truly. I’ve always been a huge NFL fan. It’s been my favorite sport as long as I can remember. As a kid I used to have these Super Bowl parties where I’d sit down with notes and break down the games like I was a scout or something. And when my father and I couldn’t talk about anything, we could talk about football—so there’s that, too. One of my favorite memories as a teenager was me and my friend Sam driving to Shea Stadium in December of 1980 in a snowstorm to watch the Saints play the Jets. Sam was/is a huge Saint fan … and that was their only win all year. We still laugh about that trip to this day—calling it “bedlam.”

J.P.: Back in the day, sportscasters were sportscasters. They did the televised report, went home, did it again the next day. Nowadays, it seems many of you become celebrities. There are endorsement opportunities, video game cameos, etc. As a journalist, I’m sort of uncomfortable with seeing Chris Berman pitching grub; Erin Andrews dancing with the stars. It just seems … wrong. Am I off here? Am I confusing one thing for another? Or is there something to be said for just doing the sports, and doing it very well?

T.W.: I can’t say if you’re off or not—that’s how you feel. But I don’t think this is something new … Howard Cosell used to do Fruit of the Loom commercials. I think that’s a decision everyone makes for themselves. I think perhaps it feels different now because there are so many opportunities for so many people thanks to cable, etc.  But I am certainly all for free enterprise. I think everybody has to decide what they’re comfortable doing, but the bottom line is that our main gig is to do the sports we cover justice and do them to the best of our ability.

Osi+Umenyiora+Trey+Wingo+Visa+Signature+Brunch+Q77KY0mURWTxJ.P.: When I was thinking about this earlier today, I grouped you in my head with Bob Ley, a man who can do little wrong in my book. You guys don’t rely on catch phrases, gimmicks, nonsense. You’re smart, straight-ahead, professional. I’m wondering, though—when you were coming up, out of college and through the ranks, was there pressure to be goofy, catchy funky, etc? Is it something a broadcaster has to avoid?

T.W.: Well, first of all thanks for that. I consider Bob a great friend and am proud to call him a colleague. Bob and I spent a lot of time together on SportsCenter in the days after 9/11 and those are days I’ll never forget. As far as catch phrases go … it’s really whatever works for you. However I think many people would certainly say I’ve done my share of goofy stuff. Just recently when the news came out the Bears were using helmet cams during their OTAS to see if it could provide them with any useful tape. In the segment we did on it I wore a helmet with a helmet cam on it the entire time, and we inter-spliced helmet cam video in to show people what it would look like. Plus I did ride the Romocoaster a couple of years ago … that wasn’t exactly highbrow.  I think you try and do things you think the viewer will like and give them some information at the same time. On good days you can do both in a creative way.

J.P.: Your dad, Hal, was a founding editor of People Magazine. This fascinates me. What do you recall, growing up the son of a journalist? What memories stand out? And how much of an impact did that/he have on your career choice?

T.W.: I knew my dad had a different job when we lived in Hong Kong for three years when he was the bureau chief for the Vietnam War for Life Magazine. He would go sometimes weeks at a time into the bush and then come back with amazing stories. I always found his career interesting and certainly it shaped in some way the kind of things I wanted to do. When he was at People once every few months I’d take the train into work with him to the Time Life Building and follow him around at the office. It was very cool to see the editors work with the staff on how to put together the magazine each week. And his stories as a reporter for Life before that were epic. Talk about how times have changed: They once sent my dad and a photographer to Alaska to discover the 49th state and basically said, “Stay for a month and see what you can come up with.” How great is that?

J.P.: What separates the crap from the good from the great sportscasters? Is it natural skill? Work ethic? What?

T.W.: I’m still trying to figure that one out day by day. I think you have to have an inclination to do what we do, but I can also tell you when I look back at some of my earliest tapes, I wonder how the hell did anyone hire me. Repetition breeds success, as Malcolm Gladwell so expertly pointed out in Outliers. Very few people are so gifted they can do this right away. It’s like playing quarterback or hitting a golf ball: reps reps reps. Ben Hogan was asked the secret to his swing and he said, “It’s in the dirt”—meaning hitting a bazillion balls on the range. That being said I’ve lost a bazillion golf balls despite my best efforts. So natural talent does count for something.

J.P.: From start to finish, what are your Sundays like during the NFL season?

T.W.: Honestly? They’re awesome. Up early, watching all the games, taking notes all day, Tweeting about games and writing scripts. What’s better than that? Sunday is the payoff for all the stuff we do all week on NFL LIVE. It’s like a 17-week Christmas.

J.P.: I know you grew up in Connecticut, I know you (oddly) attended Baylor, I know about your pop. But how, really, did this happen? There are 1,000,001 aspiring sports journalists who wish to follow your path. Well, Trey, what was your path? How did this happen?

T.W.: I still don’t know. My first job out of school was as a page at NBC in 30 Rock (insert Kenneth joke here). I made a tape, sent it out—amazingly got hired … went from Binghamton, N.Y. to Allentown, PA to St. Louis, Mo. to here. The weird thing is that while I was in St. Louis I got a call from ESPN about a job and I hadn’t even sent them a tape. The hard thing to tell people wanting to get in this business is that there is no “correct” path. It’s a very subjective thing. You can’t really say “Do this this and this and you’ll get this.” The best advice I can give is be persistent and only take no for an answer if they threaten to arrest you for stalking.

SB-Trey-Wingo-R_jpg_445x1000_upscale_q85_display_imageJ.P.: Trey, I’m gonna throw an oddball at you. Last night the wife and I watched a lengthy documentary on the pink ribbon breast cancer phenomenon, and how all these corporations use pink ribbons to show how much they care—when, really, it’s about profit. You are a member of the celebrity board of the Ronald McDonald House—a charity many people love and admire; a charity that does great work. Yet McDonald’s also sells some of the planet’s least healthy food, under-pays employees, magically appears in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, feeding the population enormous sodas and twice-fried nuggets. My question, Trey, is whether one should be skeptical of the motives of enormous corporations also doing good things, or whether we should just be grateful for the good—no questions asked.

T.W.: Again, I think that’s up to the individual. Let me share my reasoning with you. When we lived in St. Louis our best friends lost one of their kids to cancer at the age of 7. When he was at his worst, they stayed at the Ronald McDonald House while he was going through his treatments. I’ve seen the good they can do and the help and support they were able to provide. Both my father in law and my father dealt with prostate cancer, so that’s why I’ve worked with prostate cancer foundations. I work with The V Foundation because my mother is a proud breast cancer survivor, my father in law passed away from pancreatic cancer and my aunt passed away from leukemia. The V Foundation is an absolute good, and I’m happy to do whatever I can for them.

J.P.: As you mentioned earlier, on September 11, 2001, you and Bob hosted the day’s lone SportsCenter. What do you recall from the experience?

T.W.: First word—surreal. The attacks happened as I was driving into work, and for the first half of the day everyone was trying to figure out what we were going to do, and what we should do. Eventually we decided to go on and report the stories and how it impacted our genre, sports. I think that was the right thing to do.  Bob and I actually spent that entire week doing shows together. We still talk about it quite a bit.

J.P.: I’ve recently made the argument that talking about/debating sports is significantly more interesting than watching sports. Agree? Disagree? And why?

T.W.: I’ll go with debating sports while watching it for 400, Alex. Look, for a guy who covers the NFL Draft for a month where, you know, nothing actually happens, of course I think debating sports is fun and interesting. It’s great fodder. But nothing beats watching something unfold. A few months ago we watched  Game 7 between the Leafs and Bruins go into overtime. Really, I’m not sure there are many things better than that. Edge-of-your-seat stuff.

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 1.07.04 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH TREY WINGO:

• Dumbest comment anyone has ever made about your unique last name?: “Why did you name yourself that?” Clearly … I DIDN’T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT.

• What does it feel like—really, really feel like—to screw up on live TV?: When you’re starting out? Like you’ve just witnessed your own funeral. Now you just sort of laugh it off, admit you goofed and move on.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Tom Mees, Bryn Smith, Caldor, Papaya King, George Jones, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Grantland, Kree Harrison, newspapers on print, J.R. Richard, saltine crackers, red wine, Linda McMahon: Not even remotely possible, but The Possum could crank out some ballads, couldn’t he?

• If we give you 25 carries in an NFL game, what’s your statistical line?: 1 carry, -3 yards and sports hernia.

• Five greatest sportscasters of your lifetime?: Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Pat Summerall, Chris Berman and Champ Kind. WHAMMY!

• At ESPN you guys are called “The Talent.” What would be the ideal moniker, if you’re called in to make a new one?: Person on TV whose face comes into the picture box at your house. Too long?

• Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds—Hall of Fame or not?: Yes.

• One question you’d ask Melissa Manchester were she here right now?: Why can’t I cry out loud?

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yep. In 1990. The plane tried to land at Westchester Airport for about 40 minutes before we got on the ground. Wind was howling, crew was saying nothing. That’s how we knew there was an issue. The sense of uneasiness for everyone on board was palpable. It took me about three years to feel good about being on a plane again.

• How many hours of TV per day do your kids watch? And are they still excited to see you on the tube?: A couple of hours. I got a text from my daughter who’s in college yesterday that said “i see you on tv.” Best part of my day.

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Media Day

I’ve never attended Super Bowl Media Day, but I’ve covered enough big sporting events to know that, for someone who cares about journalism, it really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really sucks.

Media Day isn’t actually for journalists, or reporters. It’s for the boobs with press badges who LOVE football and LOVE the players and LOVE being able to ask Alex Smith two questions. If you work in the business long enough, you actually come to know more boobs than non-boobs. Or, put differently, for every one Tom Verducci or Howard Bryant or Grant Wahl, there are 1,000 people like this—handed a mic, a wacky nickname and a credential. This guy (I’m using him as a representative of all media boobs) knows nary a thing about reporting, or probing, or digging. He actually doesn’t want the lengthy one-on-one sitdown, because he wouldn’t know what to do with it. There’s comfort and security in numbers, and Media Day provides (if nothing else) numbers. It also provides free food, free trinkets, a free trip to New Orleans and—best of all—the chance to say to friends, “Yup, I covered the Super Bowl” and “I was talking to Gino Gradkowski the other day, and he told me …”

Back when I was a regular at the World Series, I loathed the whole scene. I loved baseball, loved the details and intricacies. But getting smacked in the skull with a camera? Having my interview with Reggie Sanders interrupted with “Reggie, what does this team have to do to pull it out …”? Watching Chris Berman and Stu Scott peacock around the infield? Sitting waaaaaaaaay in the back so the guy from Good Morning America can have his prime spot? Being brushed aside so the hottie from MTV can ask Tramaine Brock to list his five favorite types of donuts? No, thank you.

I’ll just stay home.