Saturday, August 6, 2011
Brush with greatness: Jim Kelly
If you're going by my definition of what counts as a "Brush With Greatness" candidate, then Jim Kelly doesn't qualify.
But because it's the NFL, which makes life difficult for the media in so many ways, I'm going to say, yes, I had a "Brush With Greatness" with Jim Kelly, and, yes, I interviewed him.
The interview consisted of standing in a room with about 60 other journalists while Kelly stood at a podium. I was fortunate enough to get out a question that Kelly answered. I can't tell you what the question was, it was quite awhile ago.
But this is about as close to a "brush" that you are going to get with an NFL quarterback. Unless you work for a very large newspaper or magazine, or are one of those annoying TV knobs, you're probably not going to get to talk to an NFL quarterback one-on-one, or even in a locker room setting with just 4 or 5 other people around. Training camp is about the only opportunity for something like that. Or if the team is on the road.
Once the season begins, a quarterback is treated as another coach. Their "interviews" are in a room while standing in front of a podium. After every game it's like that. The coach talks in front of a podium, and then you do the "great debate": Do you head into the locker room to talk to a bunch of players or do you hang around the room to wait for the quarterback to make his grand entrance?
Most of the time, I just took off for the locker room. The QB is going to spew the party line 90 percent of the time anyway, so you might as well get something insightful from a linebacker or an offensive lineman. You have a better chance of getting your questions answered, too.
The way teams set up the quarterback interview is one of the ugliest parts of sports journalism. There you all are, firing questions at the QB. A game emerges among the journalists. Who can dominate the conversation for the longest period of time (there's always one of those guys)? Who can ask the most insightful question? There is a feeling of being on your best behavior. Not only are you presenting your question to the quarterback, but you are presenting it to all of your media peers, too. Perhaps that's not the way you should feel -- TV never does, they almost always ask the most vacant questions -- but it's the way I did. What if my journalism professor was there? That was in the back of my head.
Often times, I'd walk out of the room feeling like no questions were answered. That's probably just the way the NFL likes it. And you knew if you had been able to talk to that QB in front of his locker with three other guys, you'd have a nice conversation. Maybe, Mr. Kelly, never the most verbose guy but always likable, would say something that made him seem like a human being.
In the interview room set-up, none of this is going to happen. The quarterback is as bland as possible, the questions are as bland as possible -- or get shot down (possibly by a media representative -- where do you drop off your soul to be one of those?). The ultimate losers are the readers, who continue to follow the league, even though most of the stories are worthless tripe, manipulated by the great NFL puppet master.
In baseball and hockey and any other professional sport that I have covered, the "interview room" is reserved for the postseason. I've talked to a hockey coach while he was pinned up against a wall in a locker room hallway surrounded by five sportswriters. I've sat down in managers' offices. Just him and me across a desk. I've talked to hockey goalies in the worst smelling locker rooms imaginable while practically climbing on his equipment that he had strewn around him, as if a bunker.
Even in college football, I was able to talk to Donovan McNabb in a school cafeteria, just him, me, and a couple college newspaper dudes (I still need to track down a McNabb card). Although restrictions in college football can be very annoying (because this is "war," dammit), you still get the chance to communicate with a quarterback as if he's not The King.
It's much more difficult in the NFL. You have to be lucky enough to get the quarterback when he's on the road -- a later Brush With Greatness will document my encounter with John Elway. Or you have to be female, carry a television microphone and wear leopard print pants (yes, I really knew someone like that).
A lot of this is the product of the NFL's popularity and its "once-a-week-build-up-to-D-Day" format. They created this monster, this is how they cope.
I'm not saying baseball and some of the other sports don't have their problems when covering the teams, I'm just saying that after covering some of those other sports, you still get the idea that most of those athletes are pretty much regular guys thrust into irregular situations. They aren't treated like royalty (A-Rod excluded, of course). Meanwhile, I walked out of there still feeling somewhat human, too.
After my "conversation" with Jim Kelly, can I confirm he was a human being? Well, I can go by all of my world experience and say that based on seeing him numerous times on TV, seeing him in passing at the Bills stadium and other functions in Buffalo, and seeing him play, that, yes, he's definitely as human as you and I.
But based solely on that question-and-answer and nothing else? I have no idea.