When You're a Jet
Sports reporter experiences life on the other side of the field
By John D. Solomon
If this were any other day of the year, the journalists assembled in the auditorium of the New York Jets training complex in Hempstead, Long Island, would be waiting to interview players.
John D. Solomon is a New York-based journalist.
This day, we were the players.
The National Football League team had invited local journalists to participate in the inaugural "Jets Media Challenge" touch football game. Though technically a public relations event, things became much more interesting when Jets Head Coach Herman Edwards came to the podium. "Guys, we still have one job open for this season's roster," he announced with a big grin. I was going to take him at his word.
My competitive football career had ended 25 years ago after my 8th grade season. And though I like this journalism thing I've been up to for the last five years, I wouldn't mind making a comeback. My colleagues had similar ambitions. They were already discussing the $216,000 minimum annual NFL salary for rookies.
After dividing the 35 "players" into a green and a white team, the Jets coaches led us through some offensive and defensive plays they had diagrammed on overhead slides. These Xs and Os may have been familiar to the regular beat reporters. But as a freelancer who usually covers off-the-field sports business, law and policy issues, I was nervous about remembering these plays during the game. I was relieved when our coaches said they would bring a cheat sheet onto the field for us to follow.
These coaches are men accustomed to working with the finest physical specimens in the world. Now, they were charged with molding a motley group of weekend warriors--though our group did appear to be a relatively in-shape sampling of the press, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-40s. John Discepolo, the local Fox 5 sports anchor, had even played college football, as a kicker at nearby Hofstra University.
A lanky 6 feet 4 inches, I would look undernourished next to real Jets players. But I was the biggest guy on our team. So the coaches assigned me to "the trenches" on the offensive and defensive lines.
Before stepping on the field, we were required to sign a legal waiver in which each of us "acknowledges that participation involves risk of physical injury and death." That ominous caution was made even more foreboding by Jets team doctor Elliot Pellman. "I implore you now. If any of you have any medical conditions, please speak to me and I will escort you out the door." No one took the out.
When the game began, the temperature was a sweltering 85 degrees--I thought the real "media challenge" might be making it through a full 40-minute game. The first play was not auspicious. Anthony "Fooch" Fucilli, a Madison Square Garden Network reporter, caught a pass and, while trying to elude a defender, tore a knee ligament. He exited the field on a stretcher. I'm sure the Jets' legal staff immediately rechecked that everyone had signed the waiver. I felt terrible for Fooch, but as a journalist, my initial thought was how the injury would affect the first-person story he was planning.
Lining up at defensive end, I wanted to impress the coaches. After the snap, I quickly counted out the requisite "one one-thousand, two one-thousand" before going after the opposing quarterback, New York Post beat writer Mark Cannizzaro. As I tried to chase him, I was knocked off balance by ESPN Radio reporter Peter Schwartz, the only person in the game bigger than me, and landed hard on my back.
To add insult to mild injury, Coach Edwards ruled that I rushed Cannizzaro before fully enunciating "two one-thousand" and penalized my team 5 yards. I protested the call, even asking for an instant replay review since the Jets were videotaping the game. No luck. "You can second-guess me all you want when you're in the press box, but not here on the field," Edwards scolded. Not the impression I was going for.
Most of the action, mine included, resembled typical pick-up touch football in the park--sloppy. All despite the coaches' best efforts to get us playing respectable ball. Interestingly, our mistakes were as often mental as physical. A receiver wouldn't follow the diagrammed play or a defensive back would cover the wrong man. It underscored the importance of strategy, tactics and technique to what is sometimes viewed as a game of pure brawn.
To ensure that we all survived to the end, the coaches thankfully substituted players almost every play. On the sidelines, water boys kept us gasping media folks hydrated. (Since my 8th grade league didn't have the luxury of water boys, it took me some time to discern between the water and Gatorade bottles. None of this came easy!)
With time running out, I had one last chance to save my ticket to the show. I jumped up and blocked a Cannizzaro pass. If I could grab the deflection, I would have an easy run for a glory touchdown. Alas, I wasn't quick enough and the ball fell though my hopeful fingers onto the turf. Nevertheless, my team won – 29-21.
So much for the great opportunity to show my stuff. But maybe the coaches saw some raw potential that they could work with. At the post-game cookout, I approached Coach Edwards to feel him out about that open job. No offer, but I did get a big laugh: "The job is still open."
Nonetheless, Edwards accomplished his real goal for the game--building a closer relationship between the relatively new Jets management team and the local press. Of course, the coach realizes touch football diplomacy only goes so far. "If we go 4-12 this season, today isn't going to make our press coverage positive," he said. "But we think that the more that the media knows about what we're doing here, the better for everyone."
The Post's Cannizzaro says he has more perspective for running a few yards in another quarterback's sneakers. "I don't know how many times a quarterback has explained an interception by telling me, 'I didn't see the defender,' " he says. "Now I know exactly what they've been saying."
Personally, I'll be more understanding the next time a defensive lineman can't hold onto a sure interception.
And if all this new empathy doesn't work for the Jets, there's always blackmail.
"If you guys criticize us too much this season," Running Back Coach Bishop Harris deadpanned as he pointed to the video cameras, "we can always pull out the tape of you playing."###