Friday, August 3, 2007
A trip down memory lane
By John Clayton
The ride to Canton is an easy one for a native Pittsburgher. I've done it many times.
However, the ride I'm about to embark on will be the wildest and most satisfying of all. After 35 years of covering the NFL, I will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, not as a visitor or a voting board member. The Pro Football Writers of America voted me as this year's McCann Award winner, meaning my name goes in the Hall of Fame for what I've done as a writer covering the sport I love.
There is no better honor for a person covering football. Apparently, my peers thought enough of my work to give me my most special moment in this business. I can't thank them enough.
If you are questioning the fact I've been covering the league for 35 years because my appearance might not show my age, I thank you, but it's true. At 18, while in high school, I freelanced for the St. Mary's Daily Press in Pennsylvania. That opened the door to an approved press pass to cover the Steelers in 1972 and more than two dozen jobs -- many covering the Steelers -- through my four years in college.
A loyal sort, I've had only three full-time jobs in two cities. I spent 11 years at the Pittsburgh Press. I spent 11 years at the Tacoma News Tribune. I've been with ESPN full time since 1998, but prior to that worked part time for ESPN for about five years.
But enough boring résumé stuff. It's time to travel back in time and recall some of the wild experiences I encountered along the way.
1. Witnessing history right away: It doesn't get any better than the start. At 18, I witnessed the Immaculate Reception. My seat at Three Rivers Stadium was in the auxiliary press box, which was the baseball press box in the end zone. Behind me was a longtime public relations director for the league. Franco Harris ran toward that end zone to score the most remembered play in NFL history. Seeing Harris catch the ball and run away from the Raiders created pandemonium throughout the stadium. The scene was chaotic. For a while, no one knew what the officials were going to call. What was my response? "Isn't there a replay?" I turned to the public relations person and wondered. "That looks like an illegal catch." In those days, a pass that bounced off one offensive player to another was illegal. In the end, Harris got his touchdown and I won points with the league for at least being objective.
2. Unique vantage point: Near the end of games, not including Super Bowls, reporters can go onto the field and watch the final few minutes. By doing so, I was able to watch Joe Montana's high pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone from the Cowboys' bench. That's right, I watched how "The Catch" affected the Cowboys. As Montana started the drive, the Cowboys' players along the sideline didn't believe he could drive the length of Candlestick Park to beat them. Each short completion drew catcalls from the Cowboys. But as Montana started gaining chunks of yards, the trash talk turned to intense concern. Cowboys players implored the defense to stop Montana. Then, he made the incredible pass to Clark for the score. The Cowboys were floored.
3. Bitter rivals: Nothing in football matches the intensity of the rivalries. Those Oakland-Pittsburgh games were classics. Raiders-Steelers games had a unique mood. From the hits of Jack Tatum and George Atkinson to the pounding done by the Steel Curtain defense, the games were unbelievable. The Raiders were filled with talkative players. Trash-talking carried from the field to the newspapers. Few rivalries can match this one.
4. The best defense ever? The artistry of the Steelers' fourth Super Bowl win, a 31-19 victory over the Rams in 1980, completed the incredible transformation of one of the greatest teams ever. The Steelers were built on defense, but their best defense never made the Super Bowl. That was the 1976 team. Nothing I've seen, including the 1985 Bears, matched that defense. The Steelers blew out Baltimore in a playoff game, but lost Harris and Rocky Bleier to injuries. The next week, Pittsburgh lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.
5. Bum vs. the media: A rivalry that was understated was the Oilers-Steelers. Those were some of the most punishing games I have ever seen. They were football's equivalent of Ali-Frazier. Many bodies still ache from those games. Oilers halfback Earl Campbell hit linebacker Jack Lambert hard. Safety Donnie Shell delivered some of the toughest hits ever on Campbell. But the best part of the rivalry was head coach Bum Phillips. Phillips once banned me and a Washington Post reporter from getting interviews of Oilers players at the team facility. I called the league, and the next day Phillips apologized, saying he'd never had any problem with the media. At that moment, quarterback Dan Pastorini threw Houston Post reporter Dale Robertson through the door of a trailer. Robertson and his curly, blond hair landed at my feet with Pastorini vowing to kill the reporter. Phillips looked at me and said, "Except for this."
6. Unforgettable year: My favorite Hall of Fame class is the one from 1992. In a hotly contested vote, Al Davis, John Riggins and John Mackey were among the four who went into the Hall. That was a maverick class filled with legends who went against the grain. It was at that meeting when I first marveled at the mind of the late Will McDonough, who carried pro football coverage from the Boston Globe to the network television stage. McDonough fully took me under his wing at that meeting. For years, he was the reporter after whom I tried to model my career. I miss him dearly; his presence made that class special in more ways than one to me.
7. A call to Chuck: The 11 years I spent covering the Seahawks were remarkable. First, I was able to link up with Chuck Knox, a Pittsburgh native who should be in the Hall of Fame. Knox was the master at turning around bad franchises. He understood the value of a great running game for getting a team to the playoffs. Then came owner Ken Behring, who eventually chased away Knox and led the franchise into a period of futility. Behring wanted to move the team to Los Angeles. I'll never forget standing by the fence of the team facility in Kirkland, Wash., as a handful of fans tried to stop the moving trucks. Sources in the league office kept telling me the owners wouldn't approve the move. I kept telling Behring's people it wasn't going to happen. Told you so.
8. Covering a lot of ground: In 2000, ESPN's John Walsh asked me to add ESPN.com duties to my slate. As part of the adjustment, ESPN gave me the chance to see every team and be part of a "Clayton Across America Tour." There are no records to verify it, but I believe I'm the only reporter to see that many teams in that short a time. Note to my bosses: I'd love to do it again. After seeing 31 teams in person -- Houston had yet to enter the league -- I had everything about the upcoming season in perspective. I came out of the 28 days on the road saying Baltimore and the New York Giants could be the surprise teams. They met in the Super Bowl. That was around the time when dot-coms started to change football coverage. Now everything is instant. Stories are posted with lightning-quick speed. More information is available and at a faster pace for a football fan than ever before.
9. Coryell's lasting impact: There should be a place in the Hall for Don Coryell, the former Chargers coach. His impact on the league continues as more and more teams use the Air Coryell passing attack. He started it at San Diego State in order to create an easier system for some junior college players who might be slow at picking up more complicated offenses. Air Coryell was special for me because the more the Chargers won, the more chances I had to spend January on the West Coast, a great treat for a Pittsburgh guy trying to escape the cold. The San Diego "Super Charger" song that played after scores still gets me excited.
10. Never a dull moment: In 1985, the fun was seeing the Bears. Being a rhythm-and-blues funk guy, I loved the Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle." Being a big fan of defense, I loved how the Bears denied opponents the chance to do anything on offense. Jim Finks, a personal favorite at general manager, put that team together. Wacky Jim McMahon stories never were tiring. It also was fun dropping into the office of Buddy Ryan, the Bears' defensive coordinator. Like every other writer who visited him, I asked how he got along with Mike Ditka. Theirs wasn't a tight relationship, but Ryan said they got along fine. Once a week, Ryan would drop the defensive game plan on Ditka's desk. If Ditka had any questions, Ryan would tell him where to put them.
Many tales have been lost in the passage of time and travel, but all I can say is that it's been quite a ride.
ESPN.com's John Clayton, who has covered pro football for 35 years, is the 2007 recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award. The McCann Award, which is named after the first director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is presented by the Pro Football Writers of America in recognition of long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.