Mike Silver covers the NFL for Sports Illustrated. He tag teams the Super Bowl with Peter King. Let’s dive right in, because this interview was longer than a Bill Simmons column. Silver tackles everything: His multiple mug shots, why Warren Sapp and Al Davis wants to beat his ass, why he swaps text messages with Luther Campbell, and why the Philadelphia Eagles (?!?!) are the team to beat in the NFC. And wait, is that a shot at TJ Simers? We couldn’t tell. Ready … break.
Q: Is there an NFL player that you don’t get along with? As a point of reference, think Jim McMahon and TJ Simers.
Ah, the old snot-spit episode. There are certainly players that hate me… where to start? Jake Plummer is not a particularly big fan, and his predecessor in Denver, Brian Griese, detests me even more. Warren Sapp wants to kick my ass, at least if you believe the text-message responses he sends to our mutual friend Luke Campbell, who likes to taunt Sapp when he’s talking to me. The harsh thing is, I actually like Sapp: he’s smart as hell and wickedly hilarious. But he didn’t appreciate it when I wrote about how a lot of guys in Tampa thought he was a major pain in the ass in the locker room. I could go on, but the truth is it’s the bullies who tend to revile me most, because I have this tendency to stand up to them—it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Al Davis coughed up 10 grand after having a cop deny me entrance into the visitors’ locker room after a game at Arrowhead Stadium; he also had me banned from the team’s training facility at various times. Mike Holmgren yells at his players if they do interviews with me and once made faces at me from behind while I was talking to Chad Brown at training camp. He’s a very mature man. Bill Parcells, Bill Polian—so many dictators, so little time. With all of that said, no one has dared spray me with any bodily fluids. And that’s good, because if McMahon or anyone else snot-spit on me in a locker room, there’d be a fight. Granted, it wouldn’t be a very long fight, but I’d rather be knocked out than punked like that in front of the people I’m trying to cover. On the other hand, having been exposed to the writer in question over the years, I’m hesitant to discard McMahon’s perspective entirely. To borrow from Chris Rock’s priceless riff on O.J.: I’m not saying he should have snot-spit, but I understand…
Q: The J-School kids in the house want to know: How does one ascend to the rank of NFL top dog for Sports Illustrated? We want to hear about climbing the ladder and serving your indentured journalistic servitude.
I definitely didn’t take a typical trip up the ladder. In 1994 I was working as a columnist at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, where I’d spent most of the previous 4 1/2 years as a 49ers beat writer before being promoted. (The guy who replaced me was a hard-working scribe named Mark Fainaru… What ever happened to THAT dude?) Early on, of course, I got my ass kicked—I still remember waking up and taking those long, petrified walks down the steps of my apartment in San Francisco, dreading my first glimpse at the Chronicle, wondering how many nuggets Ira Miller had in his story that I didn’t. I kept grinding, and by ’94 I thought I was pretty good—but it didn’t seem as though that many people realized it. This was pre-Internet, so things like this would happen: I’d break a story, the San Jose Mercury News would write it two days later, and then AP would put it on the wire and credit the Mercury News, and it would go out all over the country that way. I’d try to draw attention to myself—doing radio and TV stuff, getting my clips faxed to the team so the PR people would include it in their daily packet—and the haters in the press room would call me a self-promoter, among other things. The atmosphere had gotten so poisonous, and I was coming up on 30. I was in “Peace Out” mode—if it was going to be this miserable, I could at least make more than $600 a week or whatever doing something else that made me equally miserable. So, without telling anyone (other than my wife and parents), I took Kaplan classes and took the LSAT. It’s not like I necessarily wanted to go to law school; my parents have a cool labor-law firm in Santa Monica, and I’d always been knee-jerk against becoming a lawyer, so I hadn’t really given it much sincere contemplation. All I knew was that I needed to shake things up—I’d apply, hopefully get admitted and defer for a year and come up with a book idea or something. Literally a week after I took the LSAT I was in Detroit on assignment (covering a Niners-Lions game and then Rollin’ With Chris Webber, who was holding out from the Warriors) and got a random, miracle call from SI’s then-baseball editor, Mike Bevans. He’d been an editor at Newsday when I’d worked there as an intern the summer after college and we hadn’t spoken in years. He goes, “Are you still working at the Santa Maria Podunk Press or whatever the f— it’s called?” Uh, yeah. He told me to send some clips, and that was cool, because I figured that if I was going to get out of the business, at least I could say I had my shot. From that point on it was like a whirlwind, and the 12 years I’ve been at SI have gone by faster than the 4 1/2 at the Press Democrat. So I guess the much shorter answer would be this: I worked my ass off as a beat writer, took my lumps (and thank heaven I did; I shudder to think about what it would be like trying to cover the NFL for SI without having gone through all of that) and got lucky. That, and the dubious things I had to do to a couple of 80-year-old management types in tweed suits, which I probably shouldn’t go into.
Q: For a week or two there, you had a new, hip, and trendy column mug. Then you went back to the old one? What was that all about?
Admit it—you guys LOVED the shades. It’s a long story, beginning with the would-be mug shots that SI’s Robert Beck took of me at the opening of the Cardinals’ new stadium in August that mysteriously disappeared from his digital camera, but here’s the important stuff: I was recasting my main si.com column (from ‘Open Mike’ to ‘Bring on the Weekend’) and debuting the ‘Rollin With…’ column and wanted a new mug. The photo editors hooked me up with an old Santa Rosa homey, Big Brad Mangin. We met roughly halfway between our houses on a Friday afternoon in a junior college football stadium parking lot in the Bay Area, and it was sunny as hell. Other than trying to cover the Indianapolis Colts, there is nothing I detest more than wearing prescription glasses (non-sunglasses) in bright sunshine, but there I was—you can see me squinting in the mug shot we’re using now in both columns. So at some point we got bored and said ‘screw it’ and I put on my prescription shades and he started snapping. (Sort of the same thing that happens when I’m writing an SI piece and throw in a pop-culture reference, just for fun.) We wanted the tone of ‘Rollin’ With’ to be playful, and I think there’s an element of self-parody that gets lost on some readers, many of whom may also have taken the photo a little more literally than we intended. What happened was the first column posted on the writers’ rail—which is somewhere that in retrospect none of us thought it really belonged—and it was right over Arash Markazi’s column about being a cancer survivor. Before I could even pick up the phone I got an email from si.com’s managing editor, Paul Fichtenbaum, and the sunglasses were pretty much history.
Q: What’s the deal with Peter King? He’s universally-loathed by bloggers. Any clue why people are so down on Mr. Coffee? And tell us a story that’ll make everyone love PK.
First of all, I don’t think people have any idea how funny the man is. His personality really is that big, and he goofs on it as much as anybody. I’ll tell a couple of stories, and people can decide for themselves. A couple of days before Super Bowl XXX in 1995, we were walking through downtown Phoenix and were about to enter a Mexican restaurant. This was when Peter was doing the halftime show for Monday Night Football and was starting to get recognized in public, and a couple of middle-aged guys bum-rushed him and said, “Peter, how are the Vikings gonna do next year?” He could’ve blown them off with a quick answer; instead, he says, “Here are the four things you have to know about the Minnesota Vikings,” and does a 10-minute riff on all things purple. The guys walk away grinning, and Peter looks at me and says, “This ‘Peter King’ s— has got to stop.” The second comes from SI’s annual pre-Super Bowl lunch/planning session, in Atlanta a few days before Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000. I’m always sort of bitchy at those things, since I’m doing the gamer and am under incredible pressure (to come up with original material that will stand up three days after a game that is witnessed and covered by all of humanity), and what I basically want to know from everyone is, “How are you gonna help ME?” Our NFL editor at the time, Mark Godich, is trying to run the discussion, and at one point Dave Fleming, who is now with ESPN, gets a call from his wife and politely leaves the table to finish the discussion. Meanwhile, Peter is fretting over his Inside the NFL column and blurts out, “You know who I’d love to talk to? Ted Cottrell,” who was then the Bills’ defensive coordinator and the hot minority candidate for head coaching jobs. So we order and start talking about who’s doing what, and Peter’s phone rings right as the food comes, which kills him, but then he gets this big smile on his face and says, “Ted? How are ya?” Now, as we sit there gawking, Peter loudly launches into a discussion about the dearth of minority hires and is taking notes and clearly getting great stuff. It was a sight to behold. At one point, in mid-sentence, without even looking over at Fleming, Peter seizes this large, personal pizza from Flem’s plate and takes a Fred Flinstone/brontosaurus burger bite. The tomato sauce is running down his chin and Peter, with his mouth full, is saying, “Ted, that is exactly why the system is so flawed!” Josh Elliott, who at the time was our young reporter at his first Super Bowl, was sitting there with his mouth wide open; the curtain had been pulled back on the Wizard of Oz. And then Peter does the most amazing thing. He asks a question that will surely produce a long answer—“Ted, give me the seven most overlooked minority-coaching candidates in football,” or something like that—and picks up Flem’s pizza again and starts devouring it. On a serious note, Peter is unbelievably great to work with, and that goes back to the way he treated me when he was an SI big shot and I was a punk-ass Press Democrat nobody. When I got to SI he told me, right away: “No matter what happens to either of us, no matter who might be getting dicked around, you and I are never going to let it come between us.” Given that we both have big egos and ample opportunity for getting them bruised—I write the Super Bowl gamers, he rocks the free world—it’s amazing that there is no tension. There’ve been times when I’ve been dismayed at some of the things he gets that I don’t, and I can call him up and whine about it, and he’ll say, “Do you want me to talk to them about it?” Conversely, we can give each other grief, too. When he wrote the infamous passage about his colonoscopy, I called him up and said, “You realize you just wrote a widely read column for an international website about the corn in your s—?” and he laughed for about 15 seconds.
Q: Outside of yourself and anyone at SI, who are your NFL must-reads and why?
Ha, ‘outside of yourself’—you must know me, thebiglead.com, don’t you? There are great NFL beat writers like Tom Silverstein in Milwaukee, Alex Marvez in Ft. Lauderdale, Jay Paris in North County (San Diego), Matt Maiocco at my old paper the Press Democrat, Mark Cannizaro in New York, Jason Wilde in Madison and the other 10 or 20 very good ones I’m forgetting to mention. Who is that New York Times writer who got Laveraneus Coles to talk about having been sexually molested? Karen Crouse? That is stunningly great work. On the NFL there’s Sam Farmer in L.A., Paul Kuharshy in Nashville and Ashley McGeachy in Philly, and my man Jarrett Bell of USA Today. The best sports columnist in the country, and the best dude, is Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times. I think fantasy football is about as enthralling as a Dick Cheney speech—only with a much greater link to reality—but the funniest thing going right now is Vittorio Tafur’s ‘The Fantasy Man’ in the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursdays. And I know I’m not supposed to talk about my SI peeps—and remember, one of them (Dr. Z) is the greatest football writer of alltime and another, who we’ll get to in a moment, is pretty much living up to his last name—but when all is said and done my colleague Jeff Chadiha will probably be better than any of us.
Q: It’s no fun being a beat writer, but if you could cover any team in the NFL right now, which team would it be any why?
To clarify, it is hard as hell to be a beat writer, but it is fun to break stories while covering a team that absolutely devotes itself to trying to limit access and withhold information, which is why I’d cover the Raiders if I could. And when said operation is imploding, there are that many more stories to break. I’ll tell you one thing—Jerry Porter would be rapping like 50 Cent right now, or I’d die trying.
Q: Lots of stuff floating around the web about how NFL writers have shady relationships with agents, which leads to scoops. Surely you are familiar with how writers will opine glowingly about an agent’s lesser client (who sucks), in return for a scoop about said agent’s big client. This is troubling, but the nature of the beast. Any thoughts?
That’s an interesting topic, and I’d like to think that somehow, subconsciously, I’ve largely avoided bro-ing out with agents for that reason. There are two or three I’ve socialized with at times; it’s usually because we’ve connected and not driven by any obvious need on either side. I probably should make a bigger effort to talk to agents, but for whatever reason I tend to spend my time doing other things. That said, because the NFL has become increasingly difficult to cover for those of us in the print media, good agents can be very, very useful when it comes to arranging interviews—and arranging the away-from-the-facility access that I typically seek. But if you ever see me write a story or giving a gratuitous shout-out to someone who clearly doesn’t deserve it, look up the guy’s bio: He probably went to Cal.
Q: Our list of NFL frauds thus far: Philly, St. Louis, San Diego, and
Baltimore. Who are we missing?
First I’d take Philly off the list—I haven’t been the biggest McNabb fan over the years, but this season he looks different to me, the interceptions he threw to Ronde Barber notwithstanding. Before T.O., and after the T.O. thing blew up last year, he always seemed to press and try to do too much at big moments. Now, to me, he looks loose and in command, and the Eagles’ other skill players are stepping up. I think Chicago will get homefield advantage, but Philly, in my mind, is the team to beat in the NFC, because of the quarterback. So to answer your question, I guess I’d put Chicago (ultimately), Minnesota and New Orleans (though I’d love to be proven otherwise) on the list instead of the Eagles.
Q: How many Cincinnati Bengals will be arrested Super Bowl week in Miami? We’ve set the over under at three.
I’ll take the under, but only because the cops will be too busy protecting Lamar Thomas from an angry public and posing as hookers on Biscayne Blvd.