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Books | Sports

September 30, 2008

Another Giants Super Bowl Winner

Already hard at work on a book about Eli Manning, Giants beat writer Ralph Vacchiano lucked out when Manning suddenly transformed himself into a top NFL quarterback.

Michael Gluckstadt

There seems to be an unwritten rule in sports journalism: When a team wins a championship, all of its beat writers get to write a book. Most of these works are the result of sheer opportunism—people cashing in on fans' goodwill. Order your SI Commemorative Issue for the 2003 NFL Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers today!

But Ralph Vacchiano, the New York Giants beat writer for the New York Daily News, had been looking to tell the story of Eli Manning for years. When Manning led the Giants through three road playoff wins and the Super Bowl-winning drive against the previously undefeated New England Patriots, the opportunity fell right into his lap. When Manning led the Giants through three road playoff wins and the Super Bowl-winning drive against the previously undefeated New England Patriots, the opportunity fell right into his lap. When Manning led the Giants through three road playoff wins and the Super Bowl-winning drive against the previously undefeated New England Patriots, the opportunity fell right into his lap. (I'm sorry, I still have to convince myself that it really happened.)

Ralph Vacchiano. Photo courtesy Skyhorse Publishing.
"The end of the first half against the Cowboys, his poise in the absurd conditions of Green Bay, the last drive in the Super Bowl—Eli was brilliant."

Ralph Vacchiano. Photo courtesy Skyhorse Publishing.

Vacchiano's book, Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback—whose title would have seemed like a mean-spirited farce a year ago—is a detailed account of how Manning got to New York and what he did when he got there.

Vacchiano, from Long Island, writes a blog for the Daily News called "The Blue Screen," though he has no idea what Gawker is. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Vacchiano tells Gelf about blogging under fire, what the Giants learned in the final regular-season game against the Patriots that won them the Super Bowl, and his favorite name for the Eli-to-Tyree catch. You can hear Vacchiano and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, October 2, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Is Eli Manning a top five quarterback in the NFL today?

Ralph Vacchiano: He is, which is a testament to how bad quarterbacks are in this league right now. If you consider what he did in the Super Bowl and in other big games throughout his career—even if it wasn't always done consistently—you have to put him in the top five.

GM: It's clear from watching him this season that he's playing with an added layer of confidence. Now you see the guy once described by his GM as "skittish" stepping up in the pocket to throw downfield before a big hit, or yelling at the veteran Amani Toomer for missing a route. He's like a different person. Has the Super Bowl win transformed Eli and his confidence?

RV: Absolutely. I saw it during the summer, too. There was something much calmer about him. For years you could tell that the mistakes of the day would stay with him; he'd be a little bit on edge. This training camp he looked like he was having fun. Even when mistakes were made, there would be a little more yelling between him and the receivers, but there wasn't any tension at all. There is such an enormous weight off of his shoulders that he can feel more relaxed and more confident. He knows that when things go wrong, he has the ability to turn them around quickly.

GM: Obviously, Eli was integral to the Giants winning the Super Bowl, but many would say that the defense played an even bigger role. Why did you decide to write a book focused on Eli and not the contributions of other players?

RV: I had been trying to do this book for three years. I was interested in what goes into making a great quarterback—how guys like Ryan Leaf can miss so badly while Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick, can do so well. I wanted to follow Eli Manning's career, and, through it, study the quarterback position. Of course, for most of his career people thought that was a joke, until he pulled through last season. And—defense or not—the Giants would not have gotten through the playoffs without Eli Manning. The end of the first half against the Cowboys, his poise in the absurd conditions of Green Bay, the last drive in the Super Bowl—he was brilliant.

GM: In the foreword to your book, former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi goes on at length about the importance of the quarterback position. I was surprised to see this considering quarterback wasn't exactly a strong point of the mid-'90s Giants. Can you name the Giants quarterbacks from Simms to Manning?

RV: Well, back in '94 there was the Dave Brown era. Then there were Kent Graham, Danny Kanell, I think Tommy Maddox was even in the mix there. Just some absolutely awful quarterbacks—can't forget the Bachelor, Jesse Palmer. And then the one bright spot was Kerry Collins. But Ernie always knew that it was the quarterback that was holding them back, and that's why he put so much stock into Collins and Eli.

GM: Accorsi's presence is felt throughout the book. How did you get him to contribute so much?

RV: Ernie is just a tremendous storyteller. He's lived an amazing life in and around football. He's also a former sportswriter himself, so he has a pretty good relationship with the media. When I approached him about the book, he didn't hesitate because he wanted to tell the story. He wanted to make sure the story of how Eli Manning became a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Giants was told the right way. It helped that I had known him for a while, but it was the story that got him on board.

GM: Is it an unwritten rule of sportswriting that whenever a team wins a championship, all of its beat writers get to write a book?

RV: I always thought that was the case. I heard that back in 1987: There were a dozen books put out by beat writers. But for some reason it didn't happen this time around. I was the only beat writer with a book. There was Coughlin's book, Plaxico's book, Tyree's book, and mine.

"One of the most impressive things about Eli is that he won't get upset with particular people. He always treats reporters with respect, no matter what they've written about him."
GM: Did you already have a deal in place with a publisher before the Super Bowl?

RV: I had been working on the book for a few years, but once they got to the Super Bowl I had a deal with the publisher, win or lose. I can't imagine what the book would have been like had they lost, though.

GM: The Super Bowl was just last February. How did you turn around this book so quickly?

RV: It helped that I had done research for it for a few years beforehand. Also, it's nice to have a family that supports you enough that they let you disappear for days at a time to work on a book. Every minute of free time I had between the Super Bowl in February and my deadline on May 1st was put into writing the book. I probably could've given it another six months to a year.

GM: Even with the limited turnaround, it's still very well-reported. How much of that reporting was done exclusively for the book, and how much simply grew out of your Daily News coverage?

RV: It was definitely a mixture of both. I did a few extra interviews with Eli or Coughlin, but mostly I would just take a little extra time with the everyday interviews and see if I could find anything that related to the book. I learned more than a few things about Eli and this team while writing this book that I hadn't known from my regular reporting.

GM: Do you have any examples?

RV: Well, for one thing, Wellington Mara didn't want Eli. No one had reported that before; everybody just toed the party line, saying that Eli was the man the entire organization wanted. John Mara told me that Wellington was opposed to the trade, and I was shocked. I even thought about scooping myself in the Daily News.

GM: As a tabloid reporter, do you ever feel that by criticizing a player like Eli, who clearly sometimes take the commentary to heart, that you're beating up on him?

RV: Sometimes. Certainly there were times in his career that I felt bad, and that the pile-on was unnecessary. It's so much work in New York because there are 10 beat writers traveling with the team, in addition to sidebars and columnists—not to mention the TV, radio stations, and ESPN. But it's also part of the job, both his and ours. One of the most impressive things about Eli is that he won't get upset with particular people. He always treats reporters with respect, no matter what they've written about him.

"In newspapers, especially tabloids, space is at a premium and you don't really get to tell a story. You have to worry about headlines and selling newspapers. It was great to have two months and not think of any of that garbage."
GM: At the time, did you agree with Tom Coughlin's decision not to rest his players in the final game of the season?

RV: At the time, I questioned it because it was a meaningless game, and I didn't really think they were going far into the playoffs anyway. Plax's ankle was bothering him all season and Brandon Jacobs was one big hit a way from being lost for the playoffs. But it in hindsight, it gave them some serious momentum going into the playoffs. The whole city got behind them. And of course, they got some tactical advantages against the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

GM: How so?

RV: There was one play that I don't even think I could find if I was looking in the tapes for it. But Kevin Gilbride noticed something with Ellis Hobbs guarding Plaxico on a play where the ball wasn't even thrown to him. He noticed just a little turn of Hobbs's body, anticipating the route to the inside. That stayed with him enough to take advantage of on the game-winning drive in the Super Bowl.

GM: But still Skip Bayless refuses to admit that Coughlin made the right decision to play his starters.

RV: That's why he's Skip Bayless.

GM: Is this the first book you've written?

RV: It is.

GM: How is it different from your Daily News coverage?

RV: First of all, it's about 85,000 words longer. In newspapers, especially tabloids, space is at a premium and you don't really get to tell a story. You have to worry about headlines and selling newspapers. It was great to have two months and not think of any of that garbage. I got to write an entire chapter about a single drive.

GM: Do you feel that the beat writer is being squeezed out of the picture, with instant scores and highlights available on TV and online right after the game?

RV: Actually, I think the beat writer might be the one who is safest from being squeezed out. So many people in the media world get their information from us. Our game stories on Monday mornings are completely done, though. By the time the story is printed, there's nothing in there you didn't know. But for the other news occurring during the week, that's the beat writer digging stuff up, talking to players, talking to coaches, and finding out what's going on. Then you hear that stuff on the radio, read it online, and see it on ESPN, but it starts with us.

GM: Do you have a preferred name for the Eli-to-Tyree catch?

RV: We ran a contest on my blog, which was a huge success for everyone and a giant headache for me, because I had to sort through them all and disappoint 99.9% of the people. I was still getting submissions months after the fact. The poll winner on my blog was "Catch-42," but I preferred "Hail Manning."

GM: Do you have any input with the headlines in the Daily News?

RV: I have absolutely no input, though maybe once or twice I've seen something I suggested in print. It's a huge sore spot with writers, because a lot of times the headlines don't reflect what the writer is saying, which can get us in trouble. It'd be fun to do back-page headlines, and we try to guess them sometimes, but we have no say.

GM: One more thing. Did you actually blog from a burning building? What's the story there?

RV: Unfortunately, there's not much of a story, really. One of my colleagues tried to heat up some tea in the microwave in the press room at Giants Stadium. Somehow—and I really don't know how—the cup caught fire in the microwave, and it took a room full of reporters a good five minutes or so before someone noticed. Of course, once we saw the flames, we did what the media always does when we have a problem: We called the PR department. But I stayed in my seat blogging away the whole time. Had the flames approached my computer I probably would've left, but I don't know if my boss would've let me use that as an excuse to miss deadline.

Related in Gelf

Twice before Gelf has interviewed Vacchiano's Daily News colleagues on the sports investigative team.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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