By Evan King
When I arrived for my first day of college in Maryland, my roommate showed up decked out in Ravens gear. His mother had also quilted some purple curtains for our room. “You don’t like football?” he asked, noticing pretty quickly that I didn’t know a damn thing he was talking about. “Eh, never got into it,” I said, which was soon to become my standard response.
My indifference toward football, and to sports in general, hasn’t made my life easier as an American male. No one is mean about it—the stereotypical bullies are generally cool about it after high school. But after a while, having close friendships with football fans (seemingly most people these days) becomes almost impossible because my ignorance is too much of a strain. Even my scholastic sport, cross-country, is full of football fans like my college roommate. If I’m being perfectly honest, I have always pretty much resented football.
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While you can pick your friends, you can’t pick your family. In a family of sports fans, at best you’re going to be left out of a lot of conversations, at worst you’ll be practically disowned. I’ve had the better of the two treatments from my very open-minded family, and I can’t express my appreciation for this enough, especially given my uncle’s profession.
Peter King, as you all know, is one of the foremost football experts in the country. For me, he’s always been Uncle Peter—thoughtful, generous, goofy, and endlessly energetic. When he asked if I would like to be an intern on The MMQB’s tour of NFL training camps this summer, I couldn’t say no. I had to see him in action, even if I wouldn’t have any idea about what was going on. Besides, I had nothing better to do, and what better way to see the country? We’d be going as far south as Tampa and as far west as Chicago, all on the road.
I knew it would be fun for me. Peter manages to keep things in perspective; he doesn’t see sports as the most important thing in the world. I find this fascinating, considering his career and the obsessive nature of football fans, especially the ones who follow him. He once told me, “One of the things that’s wrong with this world is people think that I’m important.”
At the Patriots’ camp, Peter asked me, “Does it mean anything to you that Tom Brady is standing right there?” My answer could only be that we came here to see Tom Brady, so how could it be so remarkable? I’m not gonna be surprised to see the band that I paid to go to the concert of.
He enjoys the game, but has expressed on several occasions over the years his incredulity at the demand for the minute details and extensive scope of his reporting. Why should people study such an unimportant thing? Why should they take their fandom to a practically academic level? Peter has told me about the early days of his reporting, when professional football wasn’t such a massive industry. He speaks as if the eighties were a more reasonable time, and it’s not just nostalgia speaking. My uncle is personally fortunate that football became so big, and I know he thoroughly enjoys the game, but he also has the ability to talk about anything with earnest curiosity. It’s the reason why he’s so successful, and it makes a conversation possible between him and me.
I knew this trip was going to be fun. I also knew it was going to be grueling and boring on an almost mystical level.
As expected, for me anyway, much of this trip was an exercise in uselessness. Driving a van full of sports journalists from city to city, I might as well have been driving a bunch of Finnish mathematicians; there weren’t many conversations I could add much to. Peter would bring the conversational attention of the crew to me every once in a while. “Evan? What are your thoughts?” Maybe he did it out of pity, maybe for amusement.
But this was a business trip and I had to do the few things that I was qualified to do. This was fine with me, but a couple times I failed to do even this bare minimum, forgetting to grab a gas receipt here and there and—I say this with a heavy sigh—actually running out of gas on the way to Atlanta at 1 a.m. Peter and another writer had to walk about a mile round-trip to get a gas can and get us going again. It’s an ordeal I’m never going to live down, a classic “you had one job” moment. (My editor tells me I should make a Bill Belichick joke here, but the reference is lost on me.) For much of the first part of the trip I couldn’t help but feel like disinterested, nepotistic dead weight.
And the bottom line was that I had no capacity to appreciate the celebrity volume of this trip. I knew this was how it would be; people like Joe Flacco were simply names I had heard a lot. Before the trip started I imagined that my nonchalance might add a certain level of professionalism that made The MMQB look good, but no. The rest of the team, seasoned sports journalists, already had that and more—and they didn’t look like deer in the headlights while doing it.
At the Patriots’ camp at the beginning of the trip, Peter asked me, “Does it mean anything to you that Tom Brady is standing right there? Like, what if you saw a U.S. senator walking down the street, or President Obama?” My answer could only be that we came here to see Tom Brady, so how could it be so remarkable? “When I walk by the White House, odds are Obama’s gonna be in there right?” I added. “I’m not gonna be surprised to see the band that I paid to go to the concert of.”
But in a different sense I could grasp the significance of what I was witnessing up close. These players had fulfilled an almost impossible American dream; millions of high school kids around the country put their hopes in football, and most fail to reach this level. It really is a cruel dream we put in the heads of youth. These pros I talked to were the tallest, fastest, and most massive men in the country. A couple of times I found myself in their way as they jogged off the field, a starved cat in a bison stampede. The seemingly divine presence of these athletic demi-gods was not lost on me.
What really struck me about them, however, was their even temperament. For the most part they were nice people. Even after running around in pads for two hours in 97-degree heat they were perfectly cheerful as they answered my tiresome questions. (Peter put me to work as a reporter asking poll questions.) NFL players, I found out, will let you telemarket them and smile as you do it. Maybe they just have to keep up appearances in public, but I could swear a good number of them genuinely enjoyed the conversation.
I got a sense of the big NFL personalities in more remote ways. I won’t forget watching Cam Newton at practice, screaming a long, drawn-out, “YEAAAAAAAAAH!” in approval every time a ref threw a flag or something, generally being extremely cocky. I witnessed the real psychology of the sports world through transcribing my uncle’s interviews. The players were as well spoken as anybody, and tremendously articulate when it came to their mental lives. The level of optimism expressed by these guys was second to almost nothing barring a political campaign speech. They have to be their own cheerleaders.
Speaking of cheerleaders and theatrics, many of the teams we visited employed the whole of their game-day spectacles during practices. The Jaguars, the Titans, the Ravens all walked onto their fields with fireworks. There were commentators, too. Practices, whether in stadiums downtown or in camps in far away suburbs, were better attended than some major league baseball games. Americans just can’t get enough football. The amenities were all there: bathrooms, water bottles, food trucks. And all this to watch them practice. It really was amazing.
I never got over watching these celebrity athletes do the same warm-up stretches as my Division III cross-country team. They ate the kind of food you’d probably see in a college dining hall, all together as a team, despite the millions of dollars coursing through their individual careers. I saw some humanity in all this, in a way you can really only see up close. Maybe I’ve met football halfway now, who knows?
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This is about as much as I managed to absorb on the football side of the road-trip experience. As my uncle has probably always suspected, I really couldn’t care less about the game. But I’m not here for social criticism or thinly veiled self-pity. Hell, Peter has already nobly accommodated my apathy.
I enjoyed getting my fill of geography, seeing the cities, and watching the changing landscape go by our windows. But my most profound experience was witnessing Peter and his team at work. They might be the only people left in the world who don’t hate their jobs, aside from the players, of course.
Kalyn Kahler, Peter’s social media manager, shoulders the burden of being plugged in 24/7 in addition to booking all of the hotels, rental cars and flights (and later doing the expense reports). She’s there when Peter accidentally puts his phone through the washing machine (an indirect consequence of me running out of gas the night before); it fell on her to negotiate the tangled web of complications that surrounds replacing a company phone and its data, all this while writing her own stories and doing social media, never even cranky.
Tim Rohan, a new staff writer—the one who walked a mile with Peter to get more gas—already seems to have friends in every city like Peter, and he charismatically makes more at every camp. You can just tell he’s enjoying the hell out of it. He doesn’t even drink coffee.
Other writers came and went, joining us for different parts of the tour. The MMQB team may not be chronicling the fate of the world, but who cares? You can get on your moral high horse about which professions make a difference in the world, but the important thing for people is happiness. It’s inspiring to watch people do skilled work, and do it happily and passionately. There is inspiration to be found in the sports world, even for the real world. Of this, I am a fan.
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