Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 1, 2009

Gridiron Tales

Matthew Shepatin tackles NFL history with an emphasis on the stories behind the league's ascent.

Tom Flynn

The NFL's storied past has been the subject of thousands of books since the league's founding in 1920. Any new historical account could struggle out of the gate without a framing that has not long since become clichéd. Greatest teams? Greatest plays? Both are well-covered turf.

Matthew Shepatin takes on the topic from an angle both familiar and unique. In his new book, Then Madden Said to Summerall: The Best NFL Stories Ever Told, Shepatin, a New York-based author and journalist, sets his narrative stage from the comfortable booth of the league's greatest TV broadcast combo, John Madden and Pat Summerall. As America enters its first post-Madden NFL season (Summerall and Madden earlier parted as a broadcast team after the 2002 Super Bowl), it's a timely approach, as well.

Matthew Shepatin. Photograph by Manon Roux.
"The more you know about a game, the more you understand the nuances of that game, the more deeply you will care about it."

Matthew Shepatin. Photograph by Manon Roux.

Gelf recently interviewed Shepatin on his latest effort. The interview was conducted via email and has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Given your title, I'll start with broadcasters. Do you think announcers ultimately impact "the game," that is, success or failure of the game of football? Madden's prominence and the NFL's skyrocketing in popularity have coincided. I wouldn't completely attribute one to the other, or leave out Summerall, for that matter, but Madden's been a huge vehicle in the league's ascension.

Matthew Shepatin: Oh my gosh, the NFL has been blessed to have John Madden around to "promote" the game, just as they were lucky to have Howard Cosell around to help make Monday Night Football must-see-television in the '70s. I also really think you can't underestimate the impact his Madden NFL videogame series has had on the continued growth in popularity of the league. The more you know about a game, the more you understand the nuances of that game, the more deeply you will care about it. If the football field is Middle Earth, Madden is our Tolkien.

Gelf Magazine: Interesting analogy given that Tolkien was a renowned linguist and Madden was anything but. Speaking of Cosell, how did he set the stage for the success of guys like Madden?

Matthew Shepatin: How many sports announcers in history can you say were also A-List celebrities? My mom didn't know sports but she knew Howard Cosell. I think that's because he had an incredible gift for finding the emotional center of any sporting contest. Millions of Americans cared about Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath even if they didn't care about boxing or football—Cosell made them care. He showed the public why these athletes were such riveting personalities—and he did so by engaging them and somehow getting them to engage back. He could take a sporting event and turn it into a great Greek drama, or a wild circus, or a battle for civil rights, or a moment of national mourning.
Cosell's legacy is that we expect our sports broadcasters to do more than simply call the game but to also find the emotional center of the athletic competition. With that said, the pressure on broadcast teams to find the "heart of the story" sometimes results in painfully overwrought coverage. Sometimes the US Open isn't an epic parable of blood, sweat, and tears with noble gladiators and vanquished heroes but rather an entertaining tennis tournament in Queens.

Gelf Magazine: Agreed on the US Open coverage and the sometimes trite punching up of what can be hollow drama. What was so enjoyable about Madden was he'd say, "Look, here's a guy…" which is not a good intro into overarching analogies. His phrasing kept the game in context and he struck some of the same chords as Cossell using a completely different vernacular.

Matthew Shepatin: Madden was not about overarching analogies. In fact, he once said, "I think comparisons are odious." He had a knack for describing the action plainly and having it come out almost poetically.

Gelf Magazine: Switching gears, you break the book into discreet segments on position players, coaches and others. The end of each chapter is punctuated with an interview. I found those to be among the most compelling parts of the book in that they were the most diverse. Jerry Rice, Phil Simms, and Tony Kornheiser were included in those you interviewed, and provided some very different glimpses into the game. How did you settle on your interviewees?

Matthew Shepatin: I wanted to get a cross-section of perspectives on the game. In terms of players, I spoke with Frank Gifford, who was the glamorous football star during the golden era of the NFL—the late '50s and early '60s. Then you have Jerry Rice, the iconic, record-setting wide receiver who was such an integral part of helping make the 49ers the Team of the '80s. And, finally, Phil Simms who led the New York Giants to their first ever Super Bowl victory in 1986, taking home the MVP honors. Since then, he's emerged as one of the most insightful announcers in the NFL. I also chatted with Tony Kornheiser, who brings a perspective to the game—acerbic, playful and unfiltered—that's unlike anybody around. Sal Paolantonio is a reporter's reporter. The breadth of his knowledge is ludicrous and he's not afraid to call it like he sees it. I really enjoyed speaking with Mike Haynes because, as a Hall of Fame cornerback, he was able to give me insight into the wild and woolly Raiders of yesteryear but also, as the NFL's vice president of Player and Employee Development, talk about how the league sees its role and how it deals with thorny issues such as the return of Michael Vick. Finally, I spoke to NFL Films Senior Producer Greg Cosell (Howard Cosell's nephew), who has probably studied more game film than just about anybody alive. He sees the footage the rest of us don't get to see. Needless to say, this gives him an entirely different way of breaking down games. All in all, I think the diversity of the interviewees—as well as their frankness—contributes to the book. It helps paint a fuller picture of the NFL than is often presented.

Gelf Magazine: Who was the most interesting, or surprising, out of that group to interview?

Matthew Shepatin: I found them all to be extremely interesting. One of the things I hoped to accomplish with the book is to reveal a side of famous players and coaches that we don't normally get to see. And I tried to carry that theme into the Q&As. Here's Jerry Rice: a legend of the game, the greatest wide receiver of all-time. But I was interested in the Jerry Rice behind the mythic stature. Who is this guy? What drove him to the very best? What would we be surprised to learn about him? In his case, for instance, I was fascinated by how much of his success he contributed to his tireless training regimen. He truly worships at the altar of routine. We like to think that our winners are touched with this ultra rare mojo which allows them to reach heights of greatness that others—despite their immense talent—can never attain. But to Rice, his greatness came as much from self-discipline—from the calluses on his feet—as it did from self-belief.

Gelf Magazine: With Rice, his work ethic was what made him great along with his skills. I just read in Sports Illustrated about a similar work ethic in Steve Smith of the Giants. We just see the players on Sundays, but don't see the thousands of hours they spend getting onto an NFL field. Any Rice-like guys you see out there today in particular?

Matthew Shepatin: Well, I think Peyton Manning is known as a guy who prepares tirelessly. I recall watching him throw the same pass to Marvin Harrison over and over again during pregame warm-ups. Clearly, Manning is a believer in putting in the back-breaking, repetitive work in order to gain an edge over his opponent.

Gelf Magazine: The Bills are planning on taking that approach to a team level by attempting the no-huddle offense full-time this fall.

Matthew Shepatin: I'm really interested to see how the Buffalo Bills' no-huddle attack will pan out. I actually like the strategy for them, and here's why. Many of the teams they'll be facing will have superior rosters. However, if they can be the superior-conditioned team, there's a chance that by the fourth quarter they could steal an underdog victory. Worked in Hoosiers. Worked for the Miracle on Ice team. But the only problem is that I don't get the sense that Dick Jauron is Herb Brooks, or Gene Hackman, for that matter—which means that the Bills might be sucking wind themselves before they wear out the team their playing. But I'm hoping that the Bills have been running secret, Jerry Rice-style workout regiments and that once the regular-season begins, their no-huddle assault will create all kinds of havoc against league heavyweights like the Patriots and Dolphins. Maybe if they came out with that commitment to "go non-stop mental" for four quarters, those matchups will develop into all-out dog fights. And then TO can do some funny, grating, over-the-top TD celebration that pisses off the world and thus restores balance to the universe.

Gelf Magazine: You've covered a broad swath of players/individuals in representing the history of the game, and, as mentioned, broken it up into segments. Was it your intention to write chronologically at the outset and the player comments/histories moved you in a different direction? How did you settle on an approach?

Matthew Shepatin: The NFL started with a couple of investors sitting around a car dealership—they didn't even have chairs to sit in—and now it's a billion-dollar global industry. I was curious how the game has evolved so dramatically over time and what I found so interesting was that you couldn't point to one or two key individuals. Rather, it was a collective effort among players and coaches and executives, some of whom played at the same time, but many others who were from different NFL eras. I wanted to show the unknown, or lesser-known, contributions made by the legends of the game. How George Halas saved the game by bringing college stars like Red Grange to the league. Or how Paul Brown was the first coach to call plays from the sidelines. Oh, and how he also introduced the face mask, which I'm sure was much appreciated by the players. Tom Landry is known as the iconic, fedora-wearing coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but many people don't know that Tom Landry is the Godfather of the Blitz—and that he developed his radical defensive schemes as a coach… for the archrival Giants! Cool stuff like that.

Gelf Magazine: I enjoyed the descriptions of the buttoned-down Landry, a sharp contrast to the clothes-askew, wild-haired rantings of Madden when he was a coach. Did you find a commonality among great coaches? Most baseball managers, for example, generally stay within a band of behavior centered around a baseline of a staid, plotting strategist.

Matthew Shepatin: I think that no "type" makes for a great coach. If you try to be a hard-ass like Vince Lombardi and that's not who you are, then you will eventually lose the respect of your team as they tune out your high-decibel rants. And here's the thing: Lombardi did crack the whip—and I mean crack the whip—but he also would invite players over to his house for cocktails after the game. He didn't treat each player exactly same. He gave them what they needed—maybe for one guy that's more discipline, maybe for another guy that's more confidence—to get the best out of them. Landry was buttoned-down but he also cared deeply about his players and was adamant about letting them know that football was important, but not as important as family and faith and how you conduct yourself as a man.
People think of Bill Walsh as this nice-guy coach—but he could make a guy feel sick to his stomach for not executing on the field. He might not do it by yelling at him in front of his teammates but rather by letting the player know in private how much he's let him down—calm but equally devastating, and equally effective. Because that guy will go out and fight his heart, he'll work his butt off—not because he's been yelled at, but because he wants to redeem the faith that his coach has placed on his broad shoulders.

Gelf Magazine: Landry playing and coaching for the Giants and then building the Cowboys up from scratch was a great story. The league is full of rivalries but his trumps most as he went on to so thoroughly dominate the Giants. That must have been a tough pill for the Giants as they floundered for 15 years.

Matthew Shepatin: The NFL has some of the greatest rivalries and, yes, it's personal. I cannot wait for the Green Bay vs. Minnesota game. That's already a serious grudge match. But with Brett Favre, Mr. Green Bay, now leading Minnesota, both teams really should be gunning for each other. And don't forget that this could be Aaron Rodgers's chance to, once and for all, step out of Favre's shadow—what better way to ascend to the throne (made out of cheddar?) than to knock off the once-beloved Wisconsin icon. As for Favre, he's been quoted as saying that, "This is not about revenge." But here's a free tip, kids: If somebody tells you it's not about revenge, it's about revenge.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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- Sports
- posted on Sep 02, 09
Sports Nut

Great interview. I think Shepatin gets to the core of why we love sports so much, it's not just the scoring, but the drama behind the game.

Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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