Editor’s Note: For four days of Super Bowl Week earlier this month, Shane Newell, a graduate student in Stanford’s Journalism Program, chauffeured Peter King, editor and lead columnist of Sports Illustrated’s spinoff football web site, the Monday Morning Quarterback (TheMMQB.com), as he served as pool reporter for the Denver Broncos practices at Stanford Stadium in advance of Super Bowl 50. In exchange for driving King between his San Francisco hotel and Palo Alto and San José, Newell was granted access to him, observing King at work, and interviewing him about his 35 years as a sportswriter and about whether he might leave the MMQB when his contract expires in March.
Mile 1:Peter King of Sports Illustrated sits in my front passenger seat, his makeshift newsroom for the next four days. It’s as if we’ve been shot into orbit together in my 2012 white Ford Mustang, in this case orbiting the freeways, side streets and toll roads of the San Francisco Bay Area, all the while King working interviews on his iPhone or typing on his laptop which he places, appropriately, in his lap. After 30 years and more on the beat, King is the nation’s preeminent multi-platform sports journalist covering the National Football League, reportedly earning about $1.2 million annually.
As a onetime newspaper football beat-reporter who seems to know everyone in the NFL from head coaches to long snappers, King has built his own brand as an NFL insider writing his Monday Morning Quarterback column online, appearing in studio on NBC’s “Football Night in America,” and sending out tweets to his 1.68 million Twitter followers, and now he says his three-year deal with SI is set to expire. He tells me that he is considering all options and that he might even leave SI, and that he wants to make his decision by next week, but at the moment he is on his iPhone in my passenger seat, this time interviewing Eagles Coach Doug Pederson.
Using a reporter’s notebook turned sideways, the blue-eyed, New England-born King, 58, takes notes with his Montblanc pen as my Mustang rolls down San Francisco’s crowded morning streets, less than a mile from his hotel. It has been a few hours since it rained, and as the puddles begin to dry, we head for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Anticipating that former Packers quarterback Brett Favre will be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame later in the week, King wants to ask Pederson – a former reserve quarterback – about what it was like to play as a backup to Favre, best known today as the white-haired Mississippian endorsing razors and jeans on television.
“Weren’t you with [Favre] on the golf course the day he found out about his dad?” King asks Pederson, referring to the day Favre’s father passed away.
King is left handed, and holds the iPhone in his right hand as he takes notes with a black-and-silver pen. He’s got a watch on his left wrist and a teal Fitbit fitness tracker on his right. His hair is mostly gray, but there’s a prominent white tuft in the middle of his hairline – at roughly the 50-yard line.
Coaching the Eagles, King tells Pederson, is “one of the hardest jobs in the NFL.” Then he asks, “Why do you say ‘I can succeed here where others might have failed?’”
King is in San Francisco to cover his 32nd Super Bowl, a sort of homecoming since the first one he covered was Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium in January 1985. That day Joe Montana’s 49ers defeated Dan Marino’s Dolphins 38-16, and King was a 27-year-old football writer with the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Since 1989, King has covered the NFL for Sports Illustrated, and, more recently, the MMQB, a website that delivers his 11,000-word weekly column to three million unique visitors per month, he says. His transformation from a print reporter to one of the Internet’s and television’s most authoritative voices on pro football took time, hard work and a 1997 decision that forever changed his career.
“He has developed important contacts who trust him with the truth,” said Ed Werder, an ESPN football reporter who worked alongside King at cnnsi.com in the late 1990s.
With his Pederson interview complete, we pull into a Starbucks parking lot in Pinole, about 20 miles northeast of San Francisco, and King gets behind the wheel so that I can interview him and take notes in the passenger seat. Sometimes he starts driving in second-gear, skipping first, saving a shift. We are bound for Napa where King will lunch with Carmen Policy, former president of the San Francisco 49ers, and the topic will be the Hall of Fame candidacy of Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the former 49ers owner who once was Policy’s boss. King is one of 46 members of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
“I have to determine whether I’m going to continue in my role that I’m in right now at The MMQB,” King tells me, “or whether I might go do something else.”
I wonder: Why would King turn away from the football brand he has built as a journalistic heat-seeking missile once called “Relentless,” by former New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells, who admired King’s tenacity on the Giants beat?
“Part of what I think about is, ‘Should I do something else?’ ‘Should I try some other thing?’
“Maybe, ‘Should I try to do more television than I’ve done?’”
“There are times when I say, ‘This has become a monster and I really should sort of scale back,’” he says of the column. He pulls all-nighters every Sunday evening during the NFL season, finishing his MMQB column in the wee hours. King does most of his reporting on the phone from New York. He spends a month each summer visiting NFL training camps, and says he travels about twice a month during the regular season for reporting. He watches most NFL games on Sundays from NBC’s studio in Stamford, Conn.
The column consumes his thoughts. He says, “Part of me says it’s just way too much work.”
He is thinking out loud now.
“It is too much work, and it is a real weight on my shoulders every week, but when I finish writing (the column), I feel like this is sort of a good contribution to people’s intelligence about pro football.”
King mentions other reporting challenges he finds alluring. He says he told his wife Ann that he might like to cover the 2020 presidential election.
“I don’t know if I could be any good at it,” he tells me as we approach Napa, “but I think it would be fun.”
King then talks about his dream of covering a full major league baseball season.
I wonder how many times King has written a story about a star free agent looking for his next big contract. Now, he is the star free agent. Covering baseball or politics, he wouldn’t have the personal history or access that he’s got in the NFL, America’s most popular professional game.
Later, shifting again, he says there is a chance he might move to NBC full-time, bringing his NFL column to NBC’s web site and doing more television work for the network.
Listening, I wonder if it’s the fatigue of a long season that has him talking about leaving SI for new challenges, or if it’s just Peter King being Peter King, and asking himself tough questions.
I reached Sports Illustrated Executive Editor Jon Wertheim. He declined to comment on King’s future.
As my Mustang rolls past Napa County vineyards and heads to San Francisco, King moves back to the front passenger seat.
He has served on the Hall of Fame selection committee for a quarter-century, and he tells me that he’s considering how much longer he should keep that job.
“I don’t think it should be a Supreme Court appointment,” King said on Dan Patrick’s radio show earlier in Super Bowl week. “I just don’t. I think that people have heard my arguments on certain players for years. So, time to listen to somebody else’s arguments. Maybe I’m wrong.”
I think, King is telling me that he might give up his role at Sports Illustrated and as a Hall of Fame voter.
And it’s only our first day together.
Mile 110:It’s almost noon on Wednesday, and King is on his iPhone asking where he can enter Stanford Stadium, home to the Broncos’ practices for the next three days.
I ask King about one of his recent columns, “An Open Letter to Players,” in which he wrote about keeping the game “clean” and playing with “honor” in the wake of a vicious playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. In one malicious play during that game, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict barreled into Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who flopped backward to the turf with a concussion, ending his postseason.
“There’s nobody right now,” King tells me, “who can say with absolute certainty that football as we know it is going to exist in 2066.”
I ask if football’s concussion crisis is the reason he is thinking of covering baseball or politics.
“Whoever covers the game from now on,” he says, “has to do it with one eye on the safety of the game, the future of the game … and the number of people playing the game.”
His ringing phone interrupts King’s answer to my question. It’s Jared Goff, quarterback from Cal who has declared for the 2016 NFL Draft.
“Do you watch enough football to know and to say in your heart, ‘I think I’m the best quarterback in this draft?’” King asks Goff.
There is speculation that the Cleveland Browns, who have not won a championship in the Super Bowl era, will draft Goff with the second-overall pick.
King to Goff: “What are the aspects of your game that you think are the best right now?”
I ask King how many NFL contacts are stored on his iPhone. He says he isn’t sure. He hands me his iPhone and I finger-swipe a half dozen times and as the list scrolls downward the names go on and on. (Under the letter ‘T’’ I notice Tony Dungy and Tommy Lasorda, apparently listed by their first names.) Best I can tell, King has hundreds of contacts, an NFL writer’s gold mine.
“I doubt there is anybody in the league, including the commissioner, owners, general managers and head coaches, who Peter King could not get on the phone,” says Kevin Byrne of the Baltimore Ravens, a publicist in the NFL for the past 35 years. Byrne describes King as a “marvel” with “high-energy.”
Kurt Warner is on King’s iPhone list of contacts. A Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams in 2000, and now a part-time football analyst, Warner says he occasionally uses the MMQB column as source material when he appears on television.
“If you come across an article and see he wrote it,” he says of King, “you take time to read it because you know it will be well done.”
At times over the past few years King has been criticized for his NFL opinions and reporting.
“I’ve made some mistakes and I’ve admitted them,” he says, “and I deserve to get beaten up.”
He cites the story of Ray Rice, a former Baltimore Ravens running back who was captured on video two years ago hitting his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator. On Feb. 19, 2014, four days after that incident, TMZ released a brief video showing the startling image of Rice dragging his fiancée out of the elevator.
On July 29, five months after the first video was released, King reported that “the NFL and some Ravens officials” had seen security footage of the altercation between Rice and Palmer.
But later, on Sept. 8, King stepped back from his report in an open letter to MMQB readers after the league said it had not seen the footage.
“The source said league officials had to have seen it,” King wrote. “This source has been impeccable, and I believed the information. So I wrote that the league had seen the tape. I should have called the NFL for a comment, a lapse in reporting on my part. The league says it has not seen the tape, and I cannot refute that with certainty.”
If the NFL had seen the tape before issuing a two-game suspension to Rice, it would have raised questions about the league’s judgment, and whether the penalty measured up to the severity of Rice’s actions.
Tommy Craggs, Deadspin editor at the time, was among King’s critics.
Deadspin, a sports website owned by Gawker, has frequently criticized King with headlines such as “Peter King is a Goddamn Embarrassment” and “Peter King Sounds New Depths of Stoogery With Open Letter to NFL Players.”
“The access has compromised whatever skepticism [King] might have had,” Craggs tells me. “The access made him a lot more sympathetic to the point of the view of the powerful people he’s talking to.”
Another criticism emerged in August 2015 when King owned up to a reporting mistake stemming from “Deflategate” — the controversy in which the New England Patriots were accused of using deflated footballs in a playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. After a reporter from The Boston Globe wrote about it, King used an unnamed league source that provided inaccurate information about inflation measurements.
“Clearly, this story, along with the Ray Rice story from last fall,” King wrote in his Aug. 24 column, “has made me question sources and sourcing in general.”
Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of communications, brushes aside Craggs’ criticism. Aiello terms King “a real pro.”
“[King] will make a mistake here and there, but he’ll own up to it,” Aiello says. “He’s honest and fair.”
Aiello has known King for nearly 30 years, and the two exchange texts or emails about once a week.
“No one,” Aiello says, “is more respected, and no one works harder.”
It’s 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, less than 100 hours until kickoff in Santa Clara.
As the pool reporter covering Denver’s practice, King is responsible for interviewing head coach Gary Kubiak and submitting his notes and observations to the massive horde of football reporters. Only one pool reporter is allowed access to each team’s Super Bowl practices.
With his eyes glued to the MacBook screen in the passenger seat, King writes in stops and starts, the same movements of my Mustang as we navigate afternoon traffic. We drive along Sand Hill Road, a tree-lined stretch of road populated with venture capital firms catering to Silicon Valley’s elite.
Click. Click. Clack. Click.
The crunching keys are the sole source of sound until the seatbelt alarm screeches: King forgot to fasten it a few miles back.
It is mostly silent as King, a yellow media pass hanging from his neck, finishes writing his notes. I notice the gold wedding ring on his left hand, representing more than three decades of marriage to Ann, just as King files his report.
Mile 185:King stands in front of the hotel where the Panthers have just held a press conference near the San Jose Convention Center. Now he wears a size 8 blue-and-yellow Golden State Warriors cap and tells me that he wants to make a stop at In-N-Out Burger before heading to Stanford Stadium.
Though one of his daughters lives in San Francisco, it’s been more than four years since King savored the 1,065-calorie Double-Double burger and fries indigenous to the West Coast.
“Is it a double thing?” King asks the In-N-Out employee standing near the entrance of the drive-thru.
“The Double-Double No. 1?” she replies.
“Yes, please,” King says.
“Would you like onions?”
He munches heartily and happily as the smell of two freshly-grilled hamburger patties fills my car.
A sportswriter’s life.
King slams the car door after the second Broncos’ practice.
“Peyton Manning was on fire,” he tells me. Manning was 24-for-28, completing three passes for more than 30 yards.
How does he know that? He wrote down every pass attempt.
But that’s about all that I can read in his notebook as most of the words are indecipherable.
It’s been nearly 20 years since King met with a Sports Illustrated editor to talk about a medium called the Internet. His editor, Steve Robinson, asked King if he could dump out his notebook every week for cnnsi.com, a joint-venture between CNN and Sports Illustrated.
In 1997, King’s main focus was to report on the NFL for Sports Illustrated, but as time passed, he devoted more time to his notes column. It started at 800 words per week, and has since ballooned to 11,000 words on some Mondays.
“I never thought that it would grow to this level and be this big,” he says.
It is the centerpiece of his brand.
Mile 244:Our journey nears its end after the final Broncos practice on Friday. Dressed in a long-sleeved red MMQB shirt and his Warriors cap, King prepares his final dispatch from Stanford Stadium.
“I’m a bit pressed for time,” he says, and he asks me if I know of a fast-food joint with a drive-thru on the way back to San Francisco. I suggest the In-N-Out in Daly City, and he loves the idea of savoring two Double-Doubles this week, and so we make the stop.
His career is one of transformation and reinvention. Born to a homemaker and iron worker in Springfield, Mass., King became a print journalist. Then he adapted to writing for the Internet and began appearing regularly on TV, he says, with virtually no training for the visual medium.
If he does remain with MMQB, King wants to see more videos and podcasts being produced on the site.
Don Banks, a Sports Illustrated colleague and long-time friend who spent King’s 50th birthday with him at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, says, “He’s fearless about facing the new and figuring it out.”
At one point, King tells me, “I am not a great writer, not even close.” Then he emphasizes, “I’m not Rick Reilly or Tom Verducci or Gary Smith . . . I’m in Double-A, they’re in the major leagues.” There is seemingly a whole industry of sports journalists covering the NFL, dispensing information about the league. With his Sports Illustrated platform, and brand of inside reporting, King leapfrogged that crowd long ago.
We pull up to the curb in front of King’s hotel, returning from our four-day orbit. King hops out and closes the door, as cars mass in my rear-view mirror.
As I head back toward Stanford, passing the In-N-Out we had just visited, I think about how the MMQB column embodies the best of King’s indefatigable reportage and his playful spirit. There is hard-earned football insight and news, but also humor in the form of the “Beer-nerdness” and “Coffee-nerdness” sections that explore his love of drinks, and “Ten Things I Think I Think” and “The Adieu Haiku.”
Over the next few days, Brett Favre and Eddie DeBartolo Jr. would be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Broncos would defeat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50, and King would get the post-game interview with Peyton Manning that he craved. Then, fueled by adrenaline and coffee, King would write his MMQB column while the rest of Santa Clara slept, posting it on Twitter at 3:37 a.m.
Shane Newell can be reached at email@example.com.