Nick Underhill is a Patriots’ beat writer for The Athletic. In the past, he’s covered the Patriots for MassLive and the Saints for The Advocate. He took the time to answer some questions from The Big Lead about how he got to where he is now, which Patriots to keep an eye on as the summer progresses, and more.
Liam McKeone: Hi Nick, thanks for taking the time. In your own words, how would you describe your journey as a journalist, and how did you get to where you are now as a writer for the Athletic?
Nick Underhill: I wasn’t an excellent student growing up, and, quite honestly, I was aimless for most of high school. My senior year, one of my English teachers, Mrs. Iobst, sent this essay I wrote about going to a baseball game with my dad to the local paper. They liked it and asked me to write some features on athletes at my school for them. I’m still not sure I knew at the time that this was the thing I was going to do for the rest of my life, but I enjoyed it, and it was cool to feel like I was good at something.
I didn’t immediately go to college. I worked a bunch of odd jobs — attendant at a car lot, janitorial, plastic shop, landscaping, concrete — and for a while figured I’d settle into something and just do that for the rest of my life. That’s what everyone around me did, but I had this bad habit of not showing up to work. I hated every single one of those jobs, and I’m not the kind of person who is good at forcing himself through bad things. So, I eventually went to college, initially as a non-degree student (remember, I was aimless in high school) and decided to pursue journalism.
While I was in college, I worked for the student newspaper and hooked on with a Scout.com website, where they paid me $500 to cover the Erie SeaWolves. That’s $500 for the whole season. All they wanted each week was a notebook and a feature, but I attended every game and soaked up everything I could from the guy working the beat. I loved it. I used those clips to get out-of-town papers to hire me to cover their NBA D-League teams when they came to Erie that winter. Those were the early days of the league, and there was a surprising amount of places still willing to pay for coverage.
One of the papers was the Springfield Republican and MassLive.com. I worked a bunch of games for them, and the next spring I saw an ad on SportsJournalists.com about how they needed someone to cover the Red Sox during the first two weeks of spring training for them. I reached out, lied and said I’d be down in Florida for another reason, and could handle that for them. They gave me the job. I bought a flight out of my own pocket, paid for my own hotel, and went down to cover the Red Sox.
Looking back, it was a crazy move to make, and I would tell anyone considering doing something like that they are insane and allowing someone to exploit them. The younger version of myself wouldn’t have listened. I was desperate and hungry. My time was being spent answering phones at my local newspaper and praying they would send me out on an assignment. When they did, the stuff I was getting was cross-country skiing and golf. I felt like this was a chance to get some decent clips. I was willing to pay for them.
So, that ended, and I went back to covering the SeaWolves and answering phones. Around May or June, MassLive.com asked me to fill in as their Red Sox blogger while the other guy took some time off. I accepted. Things went well, and a couple of months later, they asked me to start blogging about the Patriots. I jumped on the opportunity. With that connection, I started driving from my home in Pennsylvania to Foxborough for games. It was nine hours one way, which, admittedly, is a pretty rough commute.
I did this for a few weeks, including an away game in New York, before they eventually had me move out there. I was a freelancer, but they promised me a certain amount of money each year and ended up exceeding that pay each of the first two years. The third year, I was hired on full-time when MassLive.com began to move to the forefront of the operation.
After four seasons covering the Patriots, I had the opportunity to head down to New Orleans and work for The Advocate, which recently purchased The Times-Picayune. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The paper was terrific, and I feel fortunate to have covered Sean Payton, who is a teacher at heart and was always willing to answer my questions about how and why things work they way they work. The fans and the people there are unbelievable. The decision to leave was only difficult because it meant leaving them.