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Role reversal — football player Coby Fleener interviews sports reporter Peter King

By Coby Fleener | 4 May 2012

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Football reporter Peter King's sports writing career began when, in sixth grade, he started penning accounts of sports games in his neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of NBCSports.com)

Coby Fleener is Stanford tight end who was selected by the Indianapolis Colts last week in the second round of the NFL draft. He took a sports reporting class at Stanford and wrote this article for the Peninsula Press. Fleener can be reached on Twitter at @CobyFleener.

When sportswriter Peter King wanted to speak with then New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells outside of his regularly scheduled press conferences, Parcells brushed him off.

“I go to work real early, and I haven’t got much time after 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning,” Parcells said, “but if you want to come before that, I’m more than willing to try to help you.”

The next morning, King showed up at Parcells’ parking space at 5:45 a.m.

“He was shocked,” King said, “but he gave me 45 minutes.”

From that moment, Parcells realized that King was serious about covering the Giants, and he began to call him “Relentless.” The nickname stuck.

More than a quarter of a century later, in an interview with HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Parcells said of King, “He wanted the story, but he would not compromise everything personally to get it… I found him to be a very trustworthy person.”

This combination of drive and tenacity has propelled King into becoming a leading voice among America’s pro football writers. He covers pro football for Sports Illustrated and serves as an on air NFL reporter for NBC’s Football Night in America studio show.

King has always had an abundance of determination. In 1988, he was in Seoul, South Korea covering the Summer Olympics for Newsday when he learned that Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson had tested positive for steroids. At the time he had a small, young South Korean woman with him as a translator, who told King she desperately wanted to get a green card to come to the United States. King explained to her that they needed talk to the man who took Ben Johnson’s urine sample.

When they got to the building where the sample collector lived, King recalled, “It was this fortress that had four South Korean soldiers in front of it with machine guns.”

He told his interpreter, whom he estimated to be about 4-foot-8 and 80 pounds, that they could not take “no” for an answer. Apparently inspired by King’s willingness to continue even in the presence of the machine guns, King says she began “screaming at these guys, ‘I have the most important reporter in the United States and he demands to see this guy right away!’” King stood in amazement as the man they were looking for came out for an interview shortly after. He never found out if his interpreter got her green card, but he got his story.

Starting Early

Growing up in Enfield, Conn. King was one of four kids. His father was an iron worker and his mother a homemaker, so the family didn’t have a lot of money. As a boy, he grew up idolizing Boston Red Sox left-fielder, Carl Yastrzemski. Each year the “family vacation” consisted of a two-hour car ride to watch the Red Sox play at Fenway Park. King said, “That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

In between the family’s annual trips, King played sports: football in fall, basketball in winter, and baseball in spring. His father’s love for sports and his mother’s belief that writing and reading were invaluable led King to read the sports sections in the newspapers his father brought home each week. At a young age, King realized that he was passionate about sports but already had a backup plan in case he wasn’t the next left fielder for the Boston Red Sox.

“If I couldn’t play left field for the Red Sox when I was grown up,” he said, “I was going to write about playing left field.”

King’s journey as a sports journalist (as well as an editor and publisher) started in sixth grade. He and a neighborhood friend started their own newspaper. They wrote about sporting events and neighborhood news. The boys gave the newspaper away for free, and this is when the realization struck that people actually wanted to read what he wrote. “Wow, people are reading what I’m writing!”

King continued to write through school. He wrote for his high school newspaper and covered news for the Ohio University student newspaper before starting his journalism career with the Associated Press.

In March of 1980, King became a general assignment sports reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer before becoming the Cincinnati Bengals beat reporter. From there he went to Newsday and eventually to Sports Illustrated, where he has been since 1989.

For The Love of the Game (and the people around it)

King’s love for sports has shown throughout his career. He has impressed colleagues and competitors alike with his work ethic and zeal for his job.

ESPN’s Rick Reilly said, “You get the impression that he wishes he didn’t have to sleep because he wants to keep working. He enjoys his job that much.”

In fact, every Sunday night, that is what King does. In order to finish his weekly column, “Monday Morning Quarterback,” which is read by three million people, he writes all through Sunday night and into the wee hours of Monday when he publishes the column online.

Those who know him best say that King’s nearly child-like giddiness about being paid to write about sports gives him an edge over his competitors. King agrees.

He admits that his way of looking at things is different from most sportswriters of his generation: “I can look at say, Week 14 of an NFL season… and I can say, ‘Wow, there’s five games here that I really can’t wait to see!’ I’m 54 years old now. A lot of people who are my age… they sort of roll their eyes… they’ve been there, they’ve done that, they’ve seen it all, and they don’t get that excited anymore. I love going to these games.”

Don Banks, a colleague at Sports Illustrated, marvels King’s delight in starting a conversation, “You’ll never guess who I just talked to on the phone for 47 minutes!”

That enthusiasm, Banks said, is “pretty rare in our business because the longer we do this, it’s human nature, you get a little cynical . . . This becomes what you do for work, and it becomes a little mundane at times.”

King admits to being competitive. He recalled a long-ago moment when he told a teammate on his high school baseball team, “If God told me that, if we won, I would only have five years left to live, I would take that.”

King brings that same dedication to his current work.

King also has a natural curiosity. During his time covering the New York Giants, he said he was one of 19 daily reporters on the beat. In order to distinguish himself and separate from the pack, he needed to dig beneath the surface to find interesting angles.

What’s most impressive about his reporting arsenal is his wealth of contacts. He seems to know everyone in pro football.

“You’re only as good as the size of your rolodex… and he’s got the biggest rolodex,” said Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, who has covered the NFL for more than 30 years. “It’s who you know and what you know, and nobody does it better than Peter.”

King’s job takes him to all 32 NFL clubs, and he talks with a wide array of management, coaches, and players. When interviewing players, King tries to view them as people rather than celebrities on the television screen. After the Patriots’ loss to the Giants in this year’s Super Bowl, wide receiver Wes Welker’s post-game interview affected King. The wide receiver had dropped a pass that he should have caught and felt as if he had let down his team.

After that press conference, King said, “I have incredibly high regard for Welker. I don’t have respect for guys who don’t take it very seriously and are in it for some other reason than to try to, when they’re out there, be absolutely as good as they can.”

Perhaps King doesn’t recognize that he, like Welker, is trying to be absolutely as good as he can at the craft he loves.

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