- Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPN Staff Writer
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My tenure as a Dallas Cowboys beat writer, which began in the summer of 1995, was only about two weeks old. Maybe three.
In other words, I didn't know what I didn't know.
But after listening to many of my colleagues, as well as friends and some sports-talk radio chatter, I decided to ask the coach with the thick shock of white hair and the distinctive, husky voice a simple question following the Cowboys' afternoon practice.
After Joe Avezzano delivered some final instructions to a few players and watched others field punts, I approached him.
"Why is Kevin Williams returning punts?" I asked. "You need him at receiver and if he gets hurt returning punts then you guys are going to be in trouble."
First, Avezzano glared at me. Then he stared through me.
Finally, he bellowed.
"What kind of [expletive] question is that? Can you show me the [expletive] stats that show punt returners get hurt more frequently than any other [expletive] player?
"This is [expletive] pro football. Players get hurt all the [expletive] time no matter what they're doing."
A situation like this had never come up for discussion while I was enrolled at Ohio State's journalism school.
The good news, at this point, is that it was a one-on-one interview, especially since he wasn't finished.
"I can't believe you [expletive] media guys," Avezzano said. "Where do you come up with this [expletive] stuff? Who told you that or did you make it yourself.
"Never mind. I don't want to know. It's only going to piss me off."
First, I stammered. Then, I stuttered.
Eventually, Avezzano must've pitied me. After his initial angry burst subsided, he spent 10 minutes or so explaining why the Cowboys wanted Williams to return punts. He discussed the pros and cons and provided far more detail than I needed about why there were no substantive statistics that showed returning punts put Williams in additional jeopardy.
I've told that story countless times over the years to journalism students, colleagues and friends. Avezzano and I laughed about the story more times than I can remember.
Yes, we chuckled about it last season when there was so much chatter about whether Dez Bryant should return punts because he might get hurt.
It'll never happen again.
Not in this lifetime, anyway. Hopefully, one day, we can share a laugh in heaven.
Avezzano died Thursday in Italy, when he had a heart attack while exercising on a treadmill.
He was 68.
You won't be surprised to learn Avezzano, who earned three Super Bowl rings in 13 seasons as an assistant with the Cowboys, was coaching the Italian Football League's Seamen Milano.
That was Avezzano -- Avvy to his friends -- a coach to the end.
Every coach describes himself as a teacher, and that's technically what they do. What made Avezzano different is that he liked to share knowledge about special teams with the media.
In other words, he enjoyed teaching the media about football. There were haters who called him a self-promoter, but those people didn't realize he understood the big picture far better than most.
Avezzano wanted to help reporters do their jobs better. He wanted them to ask better questions, enabling them to write more sophisticated stories.
Ultimately, better stories would lead to fans learning more about the game.
Too many coaches today don't get it.
They believe their philosophies and schemes are secrets best shared only with their players and heads of state. They revel in passing out misinformation, or providing as few details as possible.
Avezzano shared enough information to keep reporters informed, while keeping premium information that might affect winning or losing to himself.
More important, he never took himself too seriously. Avezzano gave himself permission to have fun.
Heck, he made being a special-teams coach a cool gig. And he made reporters such as me better -- even if he had to cuss me out to do it.
No coach ever cussed me out more than Avezzano. Most of the time, he was smiling when he did.