Stories from 29 years covering the NFL for the Daily News

Stories from 29 years covering the NFL for the Daily News

This is my final column for the Daily News after 29 years. So much is running through my mind: Simms, LT, Banks, Tiki and Eli, Parcells and Coughlin and Herm and Rex, Curtis, Revis, Vinny and Keyshawn, the incredible courage of Dennis Byrd, Wide Right, the Helmet Catch, Deflategate, Spygate and the 24-hour HC of the NYJ.

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It’s been a blast.

This is my final column for the Daily News after 29 years. So much is running through my mind: Simms, LT, Banks, Tiki and Eli, Parcells and Coughlin and Herm and Rex, Curtis, Revis, Vinny and Keyshawn, the incredible courage of Dennis Byrd, Wide Right, the Helmet Catch, Deflategate, Spygate and the 24-hour HC of the NYJ.

Even with a buffet of stories and characters from which to choose that rivals the buffet in the Coaches Club at MetLife — the PSLs are only $25,000, well worth it — I need to start with full disclosure about my Friday football picks. I won the Daily News championship in my final year — me and Elway, Peyton, Strahan and The Bus all know the glory of going out on top — and it was by no means my first championship, by the way.

Here’s where I come clean.

When my son Andrew turned 13, Jewish law said he became a man. So, I turned my picks over to him 10 years ago. He made them when he was in middle school and when he was in high school. He would text them to me in the middle of biology class. When he went away to college at Michigan, I would email him the spreads and he would email me his picks. His mother was not pleased even if his picks were consistently better than mine.

Okay, now I feel better, but let’s keep this our secret.

So, as I end one journey and get ready for new adventures, which starts with my new book on the Dallas Cowboys coming out in October, take a trip with me down memory lane:

* * *

The Jets had just beaten the Patriots in the old Foxboro Stadium in 2001 in the first game after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Later on, it would be known as the start of the Tom Brady era after Mo Lewis literally nearly killed Drew Bledsoe with a vicious hit near the sideline late in the fourth quarter.

I was standing on the opposite sideline next to Ian O’Connor, my former Daily News buddy who was then working at the Journal News in Westchester. When Brady ran on the field, we looked at each other and said, “Who is this guy?”

After the game, I was talking to Vinny Testaverde at his locker. The Jets won, 10-3, but the game was secondary to the intense patriotism and emotion. Testaverde walked to two posters taped on the wall five feet from his locker and asked me to come over. It listed the names with the pictures of the missing first responder heroes from the NYPD and FDNY.

Testaverde pointed to a picture of Ronald Kloepfer. He was listed among the 23 police officers who put “the safety of others before their own, went to the burning Towers of the World Trade Center to aid their fellow New Yorkers. They have not returned.”

Vinny was clearly moved. He was instrumental in fighting back against the NFL’s initial plans to play on the first Sunday after 9/11. He was from Long Island and was adamant the games could not be played.

“I know a Ronnie Kloepfer,” Testaverde said. “High school teammate.”

Kloepfer was a senior wide receiver when Testaverde was an underclassmen QB at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park. “It’s just sad,” Testaverde said.

The next day, I received an email from Kloepfer’s family thanking me for writing the column. A few days later, I received an email from NYPD Sgt. James Durkin. He had read about Giants quarterback Kerry Collins establishing a charity for the victims’ families. He had taken up a collection among the officers and wanted to donate the money to Collins.

I gave Durkin my phone number.

“I would like to give the check to Kerry myself,” he said. “Can you help?”

I called Pat Hanlon from the Giants. He arranged for Durkin to meet Collins after a Saturday practice. He brought the check along with his little boy, who then became a lifelong Kerry Collins fan. Durkin and I became good friends.

* * *

If you are going to do this job, you can’t be sensitive.

Late in the 1994 season I received a call from a source who was very close to Joe Montana. Joe Cool was finishing up his second year with the Chiefs, but had tired of the hard-driving Marty Schottenheimer, was beaten down by all the little injuries and had made up his mind to retire after the season.

“His decision is final,” the source said. “Go with it.”

It was the back page of the Daily News the next day.

“One thing,” the source had said. “Joe is going to deny it.”

Joe, of course, denied my story the next day, but I was prepared for it. Every media outlet took Montana at his word. My phone rang. It was my source. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Joe is retiring.”

Four months later, Montana retired at an outdoor celebration at Justin Herman Plaza in downtown San Francisco. That September, I was on a Monday morning flight from JFK to San Francisco. Montana had taken a job on NBC’s NFL studio show and was on the flight with his wife Jennifer. I was pretty friendly with Montana from the Super Bowls and the times I went to the 49ers facility.

He was sitting across the aisle from me.

The first thing he said after hello: “Sorry for trying to kill your story last year. But you know I could not admit I was retiring with the season still going on.”

“It’s okay. I knew I was right,” I said.

“So did I,” he said.

* * *

Life is so unfair sometimes.

One week I was talking to Dennis Byrd comparing notes about our daughters. The next week, on Nov. 29, 1992, Thanksgiving weekend, he was lying paralyzed on the field at Giants Stadium after Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg stepped up in the pocket and Byrd rammed head first into the chest of teammate Scott Mersereau coming from the other direction.

Byrd was such a genuine guy. Such a good guy. His injury was heartbreaking.

His amazing recovery to walk again was the most incredible story I ever covered. He was a true profile in courage. He lost his career in a freak accident on the field in 1992 and lost his life in 2016 on an Oklahoma highway when a 17-year-old was driving the wrong way and slammed into the car Byrd was driving.

How great a guy was Byrd? A bunch of us were talking to him outside the Park Avenue Synagogue following the death of Jets owner Leon Hess in 1999. Hess had been so kind to Byrd and his family after he was paralyzed. For the two weeks he was in Lenox Hill Hospital and the two months he was in Mt. Sinai, Hess visited Byrd every single night.

Every reporter’s nightmare is to do an interview and realize your tape recorder didn’t work. Byrd talked to us for 15 minutes after the funeral. He was emotional and insightful. I looked down and my tape recorder didn’t record. I had not taken any notes by hand.

Byrd saw the look on my face. “What’s wrong?” he said.

I told him I screwed up. He grabbed my arm and pulled me off to the side.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s do this over. Just you and me. Ask me some questions.”

* * *

The Giants were playing the Cowboys in a pretty big midseason game in 1993. I arrived in Dallas early to do some stories. I was walking around the locker room when Jimmy Johnson came up to me. I left the Dallas Morning News in May of 1989, a few months after Jerry and Jimmy executed their hostile takeover, so I knew him a little bit.

“Come with me to my office,” Johnson said.

He was ticked off the Giants were still complaining that Johnson ran up the score in the Thanksgiving Game the previous season. Big Blue lost, 30-3, and with the score 23-3 and nine minutes remaining, Johnson went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Giants 30. Later, when rookie Dave Brown made his NFL debut in relief of rookie Kent Graham, the Cowboys welcomed him with some blitzes.

Johnson wanted the coveted back page of the Daily News to send a message to the Giants. I was happy to get him there.

“A classy football team doesn’t cry and whine about somebody beating them up,” he said.

He saw my eyes light up. He knew he was feeding me exactly what I wanted and I didn’t even have to ask a question. “I don’t want whiners on our football team,” he said.

Johnson got the back page. He got the game, too, 31-9, and the Cowboys went on to win their second consecutive Super Bowl.

In this now ultra-paranoid world of NFL coaches, they just don’t make them like Jimmy anymore.

* * *

The Jets lost, 45-3, to the Patriots late in the 2010 season and now were going back to Foxborough for the divisional round of the playoffs. Rex Ryan ripped Brady before the playoff game for showing up the Jets by over-celebrating a meaningless fourth-quarter TD pass.

As the Jets locker room was five minutes from closing five days before the game, Antonio Cromartie was standing by himself. I asked him about Brady’s antics. He said that’s the kind of guy Brady is.

This was a layup for me. Okay, I said, what kind of guy is he? I sensed something good was about to come out of Cro’s mouth.

“An ass—,” he said. “F— him.”

Another classic Back Page
Another classic Back Page
That is called tabloid gold.

Brady’s response?

“I’ve been called worse,” he said.

The Jets won the game.

* * *

In the summer of 2015, it was all about Deflategate. Would Roger Goodell suspend Brady? How many games?

Late on a Friday afternoon in May, I was talking to a source very familiar with Goodell’s thinking, as they say. He told me Goodell was convinced Brady had cheated. My source agreed with him. I did not. We went back and forth a few times.

Halfway through the conversation, there was no doubt in my mind Brady was going to be suspended. It was breaking news because up to this point it had been a guessing game what was going to happen.

“How many games is Brady going to be suspended?” I asked my source.

“Not sure yet,” the source said.

The source wasn’t saying he was not sure if Brady was going to be suspended. The issue was how many games.

The NFL spent the weekend denying my story. Then on Monday, it announced Brady was suspended four games. After many battles in the courtroom, he finally served the four games at the beginning of the 2016 season. At the end of the season, he was lifting his fifth Lombardi Trophy and fourth Super Bowl MVP award.

* * *

I could occasionally be wrong:

– I thought Bill Parcells made a mistake signing Curtis Martin to a six-year, $36 million restricted free agent contract in 1998 and giving up first- and third-round picks as compensation when New England didn’t match the offer sheet. Martin already had nearly 1,000 carries in his first three years and was coming off abdominal surgery. He had missed the Patriots last three regular season games and two playoff games with shoulder and groin injuries. But Parcells loved the back he drafted when he was in New England and called him “Boy Wonder.”

On the day my column appeared criticizing the signing, I came home to three messages on my answering machine — no cell phones yet — from Parcells’ secretary Linda. “Bill needs to talk to you,” she said with increasing urgency with each message.

I called him right back.

“Bill, what’s up?” I said.

“Why don’t you like me?” he said.

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“You criticize all the moves I am making,” he said.

“Why do you care?” I said.

Parcells is one of my all-time favorites but it was my job to have an opinion. Obviously, I was not always right. Fun fact: When Martin, the classiest player I’ve ever met, was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2012 and Parcells made it in 2013, I gave the opening presentation to the other HOF voters at our annual meeting.

That wasn’t the only time I was wrong…

– I said the Jets should draft Matt Leinart in 2006. Oops.

– I wrote Coughlin should be fired after the 2006 season when I felt he lost the team. He won the Super Bowl in 2007. I wrote late in the 2011 season that the Coughlin era had run its course. The Giants then finished 9-7, barely made the playoffs, but beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl again. I sensed a pattern. I wrote again in 2015 he should be fired but the Giants finished 6-10. This time, he was fired. I used to get emails asking why I didn’t like Coughlin. That was just not true. I actually like Tom a lot. Hey, we’re both Syracuse guys.

– I’m sticking by my story that Matt Patricia was the Giants’ first choice. But I spent some time with Pat Shurmur at the league meetings last week. He’s the right guy for the job.

* * *

Final Thoughts:

I can’t mention all the people working inside at the Daily News who meant so much to me. But I have to make special note of just a few. The late and great Vic Ziegel was the sports editor who hired me in 1989 and brought me home from Dallas. Thanks again, Vic. Nobody improved my columns and stories better than Teri Thompson. Bill Price loves the Rams and the Mets, so we had one team in common and they play at Citi Field.

I’ll end with my Daily News football friends: Rich Cimini, Hank Gola and the late Paul Needell. The best teammates ever. Those were the days.

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