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JERRY GREEN’S TRIUMPH — AND THE LESSONS HE LEAVES FOR FANBOYS
Today’s sports media don’t want to rock the corporate boat, but an ex-Navy officer did that and more, becoming the lone journalist to cover the first 56 Super Bowls in a streak that defined his will
Back when sports was covered by consummate journalists — and not by fanboys climbing into bed with leagues, teams, athletes, agents and sportsbooks — Jerry Green showed me the power of commentary. I was 20, thrilled to be in the Detroit News sports office as an intern, and Green had opined about the shocking death of Thurman Munson, captain of the New York Yankees.
“A cantankerous lout,” he described Munson in his moodiest moments, not an incorrect characterization even after he’d perished in a plane crash at 32 while practicing landings.
Amid a long day of angry readers ringing phones, some of which I dared to answer, the sports editor admonished Green for insensitivity in his column. His name was Bob Sieger — hardly the rambling, gambling man rhapsodized in song by his near-namesake, Bob Seger — and Green didn’t want to hear it.
“Fire me, Bob!” he shouted.
Months later, it was Sieger who was leaving the building after 45 years of newsroom service, carrying a tape player into retirement while blasting the Johnny Paycheck dive-bar classic, “Take This Job and Shove It.” And Jerry Green? He just kept covering sports as a hard-core columnist, one who knew the Fords could build cars but were mostly unfit custodians for Detroit’s NFL franchise. And he just kept covering Super Bowls — year after year, roman numeral after roman numeral, memory after memory, bus ride after bus ride — until he arrived in Los Angeles last February and realized he was the only media person alive who’d worked all 56 league championship games. Now 94, in failing health, he won’t be traveling to Arizona for Super Bowl LVII.
“The streak is over!” he wrote this week on the News website, more than four decades after telling his boss to shove it. “To me, a proud honorable streak. Hard work. A bit of notoriety, lots of deadlines — and dead ideas.
“I’ve never seen a Super Bowl on television. Now, I plan to watch Super Bowl LVII on television in my apartment. I’ve never watched one of those heralded halftime shows. I might watch one.”
Rihanna might serenade him if she knew, maybe give him a spot under her umbrella. Commissioner Roger Goodell was quick to pay tribute, telling the News, “Jerry Green is part of the very fabric of the Super Bowl. A Super Bowl legend, he is the last writer to cover all 56 games thus far. From the humble beginnings of this championship game to today, Jerry has chronicled the NFL’s story every step of the way. We will miss seeing him in Arizona, but we will always be grateful for his outstanding writing in bringing stories of our game, teams, and players to millions of fans for more than half a century.”
Yet through the pleasantries, when the NFL failed or the Lions or another local team screwed up, who reliably formed stern judgments in print? I’ll remember Green for holding the sports industry accountable, a lost art in the 21st century. The old U.S. Navy officer never hesitated to rock the big boat, grasping his responsibility to readers.
Would I call someone “a cantankerous lout” in an obituary piece? Perhaps not, though I know numerous creatures in sports and media who match the description. What Green taught me was the importance of being one’s self when people want truths, of not being afraid to voice an opinion even if it isn’t professionally safe or politically correct or, in today’s parlance, woke.
People ask why I continue to write columns after ditching the newspaper business years ago, rightfully disturbed about its ongoing demise. I continue for the same reasons Green continued: I love to write, and I’m good at it, and the columns I write need to be written. I don’t miss the print racket, enjoying my best years of life since leaving it behind in a Chicago fire. But like Green, my fascination with sports hasn’t waned. Athletes face expiration dates. So do coaches and executives. But writers? Thanks to some smart people at the News, who kept sending him to the Big Game long after he retired from the paper, Green became the Tom Brady of his profession, give or take 50 years, defying time and media disruptions all the way. He still exhibits longevity even when attached to an oxygen tube.
“In all truth, keeping my memory into my mid-90s has been a blessing. I hate this," he told a News reporter this week at his Bloomfield Hills home, alluding to the tube by his nose. “I hate the walker, I hate the wheelchair, I hate having to switch glasses when looking at the (computer) screen and reading my notes. It's a real nuisance, but I believe I'm very much blessed being able to sit here and chat.”
I am blessed to have worked with Green, an authentic sports columnist back when columnists mattered and sold subscriptions. The difference is striking between today’s young writers and my younger self. I was in awe of Green and his fellow News columnist, Joe Falls. These days, the newbies are hellbent on showcasing smug intellect — Pablo Torre says his ESPN content is available only where “smart” podcasts are found; Bomani Jones called himself “high-minded” in a New York Times interview — and don’t realize they’re chasing off bored readers and listeners. Do Torre and Jones ever wonder why their daily ESPN show, “High Noon,” was canceled before the first sunset? There’s too much posing and literary masturbation out there — storytelling, they call it — when people generally aren’t into bullshit artists or long-form pieces. They do want passion, and Green and Falls brought it, Jerry as the edgy smart-ass and Joe as the easy-to-read Everyman. What a shame that a site such as The Athletic, which purports to represent the future of sports journalism, can’t even accept constructive criticism much less drive readership with daily opinion.
Back in Green’s prime, media people always were available by mail or phone. I’ve always been accessible via e-mail, voice mail or direct message. It might be easier to access President Biden at the White House than reach someone at The Athletic. Seems the upper-ups don’t like harsh feedback, though two-way communication is the lifeblood of democracy, much less any media shop. I’ve never been a fan of dumb-downing message boards, but I wanted to commend writer Andy McCullough for his recent piece on Major League Baseball’s expansion prospects in Las Vegas. When I tried to comment under his story, a red exclamation point popped up.
“Something has gone wrong. Please try again later.”
I tried again a day later. Same thing.
I shifted to another story in The Athletic, a suckup-and-slobber effort by Adam Jahns, who covers the Chicago Bears as a beat writer. In full-blown drool over new team president/CEO Kevin Warren, Jahns made the mistake of buying the Halas Hall line that Warren was point man for a successful U.S. Bank Stadium project in Minneapolis, where he was COO of the Minnesota Vikings before his run as Big Ten commissioner. “His crowning achievement …” Jahns wrote of Warren and the downtown stadium. As columnist Jim O’Donnell corrected in the rival Daily Herald — with basic legwork, research and newsgathering — Warren was NOT front and center during a multi-year construction process. I tried to correct Jahns on the message board.
“Something has gone wrong. Please try again later.”
I tried again a day later. Same thing.
It took a while, but I realized what was happening. I’ve been blocked. Hmmm. Years ago, because The Athletic doesn’t list e-mail addresses for editorial personnel, I alerted two Bay Area staff writers that they might want to issue mea culpas. Tim Kawakami and Steve Berman both had assumed in stories that Reuben Foster, then a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, would be convicted of domestic violence. When his accuser recanted her story, all charges were dropped by a judge. My message was posted that day.
The next time I tried to send a comment, this week, was when my praise for McCullough was interrupted by the vaunted red exclamation point.
Does the New York Times, which trumpets a rightful claim as one of the world’s foremost news sources, realize its recently purchased sports site is censoring fair-minded observations about its writers? Eventually, Kawakami and Berman issued corrections/apologies. If Jahns could be better informed about Warren, he could correct himself, too, and serve his readers better. But if The Athletic blocks what it doesn’t want to know — and I’m not some troll, with 8,000 columns, 1,700 ESPN TV shows and countless radio programs in a long career that has taken me around the world — how can a subscriber help Bears coverage improve? The editors should welcome feedback, not run from it. But then, The Athletic’s own media writer, Richard Deitsch, is a shill for the TV networks and major sportscasting figures. An $800 billion industry isn’t being covered at The Athletic; it is being promoted and served. Put it this way: No one at the site would be allowed to describe a dead sports figure as a “cantankerous lout.”
If it sounds like I’m longing for the old days, just know they also were the best days. Yes, they were — as Green knows. He was there, at poolside in Fort Lauderdale, when Joe Namath guaranteed a victory in Super Bowl III. Just as I was there, on Chicago’s west side, throughout a summer when Michael Jordan was preparing his return to basketball — as the rival Tribune yawned and ignored the story, its sports editor wondering if they were splitting an atom inside Hoops The Gym, then refusing to credit the Sun-Times by name when we broke the comeback story.
Showing up for the biggest moments is what this business is about. Who knew Green had 53 left after the small scrum with Namath? Those who don’t understand the rigors of the media business might say it’s more impressive to live until 94. I’ll take The Streak. I’ve seen too many people worn down by the grind, on the verge of death, to downplay the triumph of the ultimate lifer. I thought I was a grizzled vet with 26 career Super Bowls. Turns out I’m a pup.
But with props to Jerry Green, I’m no fanboy, either.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.