On The Sidelines with LT. Sal Paolantonio
ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio rubs elbows with the biggest names in the NFL. But his climb to the top echelon of sports journalism began on the deck of a navy frigate.
by Dan Fazio
The New England Patriots’ locker room was quiet in the moments just after Super Bowl XLII, the atmosphere heavy with the subdued emotions of a football team whose dream of a perfect 2007 season lay dashed on the field outside. The heavily favored Pats — the first NFL team to go undefeated in the regular season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins — had just lost to the New York Giants in the waning seconds of one of the most stunning upsets in Super Bowl history.
ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio had the difficult task of interviewing the losing team.
“Talking to Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi after losing to the Giants, losing a chance to finish the season undefeated, was like talking to your brother after he just lost his best friend,” Paolantonio said. “There was a connection of emotions there that was so profound and moving. I will never forget it as long as I live. And I will never forget that they agreed to talk to me and share their feelings and thoughts after such a difficult loss. It tells you what kind of people NFL players really are.”
Paolantonio knows plenty about NFL players. During his 14 years covering the NFL for ESPN, Paolantonio documented the Terrell Owens saga in Philadelphia during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, reported on the Ray Lewis murder trial and scrambled to cover the acquisition of Michael Vick by the Eagles in August. He’s covered numerous Super Bowls, earned six sports Emmys for his contributions to “SportsCenter” and “Sunday NFL Countdown,” and has authored two books about football.
Today Paolantonio hosts the “State Farm NFL Match-up Show,” featuring Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hoge. But his climb to the top of sports journalism world really began on the deck of a U.S. Navy frigate, where he served during the late 1970s as a gunnery officer. The Queens, N.Y., native credits his service on USS Ouellette and USS Haleakala during the height of the Cold War for teaching him lessons he would use during the rest of his career.
“I learned discipline, the power of team work, the importance of preparation in any job you undertake: Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance,” he said. “I learned a lot about how to get along with people, and the power of the ocean, and met some great people around the world. I made friendships that have lasted a lifetime.”
Paolantonio had already earned a bachelor’s degree when he decided to join the Navy, continuing a long family legacy of service to America. But patriotism wasn’t the only reason he answered the call of the sea.
“I just didn’t feel ready to get a job as a reporter,” Paolantonio said. “I didn’t feel qualified to take the pulse of anything. I hadn’t seen or done enough. So, I went to sea. Best career decision I ever made in my life.”
Paolantonio urges transitioners to use what the military taught them. “Remember what you learned,” he said. “Don’t forget those you left behind. Bring that sense of community with you.”
Paolantonio takes every opportunity to salute active duty and prior military. “Whenever I do local radio or TV appearances, I recognize the contributions made by veterans,” he said. “After 9/11, I was involved in several local events to help and honor veterans and first responders. I always say to my listeners or viewers, there is no way you can know the sacrifice service members make on a daily basis – missing their spouses and their children, giving up the comforts of living in America – to serve in uniform.”
G.I. Jobs caught up with Paolantonio to talk about what he knows best: football.
GIJ: What is it like to interact with legendary NFL players like Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice and Tom Brady?
Paolantonio: All three of them have the same three distinct qualities: they are gentlemen, they are intensely competitive, and they are very smart. And they all know the game and its history inside and out. They all prepare harder than any other athletes that I’ve been around. And they have great relationships with their teammates.
GIJ: Is it difficult to deal with the more controversial players like Terrell Owens?
Paolantonio: Of course it is. Owens is a very complex man. His personality is elusive. His motives can be unclear. But he is a superb wide receiver – if he had Rice’s mental approach and ability to get along with his teammates, he would be considered among the best of all time.
GIJ: What is it really like in an NFL locker room after a game?
Paolantonio: The winning locker room is a wild ride of euphoria. Here are grown men who have been pushed all week toward a common goal and they achieve it. There is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride and kinship. Nothing like it.
The losing locker room is much more compelling. The players are quiet, thinking of what went wrong, what they could have done better. There is a cathartic introspection, a longing to turn back the clock to that one play, that one pass, that one kick, that one mistake that might have been the difference.
GIJ: You covered the Terrell Owens saga for ESPN when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Do you believe the media and fans place too much emphasis on individual players today in the NFL?
Paolantonio: No, the players are the game.
GIJ: Which player or coach are you most intrigued by? Why?
Paolantonio: Bill Belichick. I write about him in my book, “How Football Explains America.” He is a fascinating character – a unique blend of genius and daring, but flawed at the same time. Winning three Super Bowls in five years is unprecedented. But so was his decision to flout the NFL rules prohibiting the videotaping of defensive signals that landed him in trouble. Someday, Belichick will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but some of the selectors will vote for him reluctantly because of Spygate. It’s a nasty blemish on a brilliant career.
GIJ: Describe your most memorable experience as a journalist.
Paolantonio: Super Bowl Sunday, 2002. At the Superdome in New Orleans, America was honored after 9/11. Paul McCartney sang “Freedom” pre-game, and then a list of the 9/11 victims scrolled on a big screen and there was a long, moving standing ovation for those who lost their lives, those who were serving our country and for our great nation.
Adam Vinatieri kicked the game winning field goal for the Patriots, who beat the heavily favored Rams. And as he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft said, “Today, we are all Patriots!”
GIJ: You wrote “The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches, and Moments in NFL History.” In your opinion, who is the most overrated player in the NFL today?
Paolantonio: Tony Romo. $66 million. No playoff wins.
GIJ: Which team was the most overrated team going into the 2009 season?
Paolantonio: Tough to say. I think certain teams that did well last year will have difficulty this year, because of strength of schedule and losses of personnel or coaches: The Cardinals, the Falcons, the Dolphins and the Ravens will have a tough time getting back to the playoffs.
GIJ: Who is the most underrated player in the NFL right now?
Paolantonio: Eli Manning. Four years in the NFL, all four years in the playoffs.
GIJ: Which team is your dark horse pick for the 2009 season? Why?
Paolantonio: New York Jets. Rex Ryan has brought the swagger back to that team. They will get after the quarterback, run the football and play smart.
GIJ: Which young player today do you believe shows the most promise?
Paolantonio: Matt Ryan. Will win multiple Super Bowls in Atlanta.
GIJ: You also penned “How Football Explains America.” Why did football supplant baseball as America’s sport?
Paolantonio: I have a chapter in How Football Explains America called “How Football Explains West Point.” In that chapter, I talk about football’s connection to military culture in our country, tracing the roots of great coaching to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In the book, I also explain how football has grown through many other aspects of American culture – from jazz music to television to Manifest Destiny.
I don’t argue that football has supplanted baseball. Baseball is still our national past time. Football is our national cultural obsession.
GIJ: Do you believe the use of steroids/performance-enhancing drugs is a problem in the NFL today? How big of an issue do you think it is with the fans?
Paolantonio: The NFL does a better job of any other sport in policing the use of illegal substances. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is really no nonsense on this issue, and that permeates down to the players. I think fans want their sports to be real and clean.
GIJ: What have you not yet accomplished in your sports journalism career that you would like to achieve?
Paolantonio: Stay at ESPN until I retire.