There is a whole world of nicknames, labels and code words writers and broadcasters invent for athletes based on what they not only do on the field of play but also behind the scenes in the locker room. Some names arise out of respect or admiration for deeds performed during a game – others come about as a result of boorish, apathetic, indignant, odd or angry attitudes exhibited by athletes while being interviewed. Through out the years I covered sports, these labels never came out in a sports story or sports feature.
During my career, I was a TV beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Bucs, Anaheim Rams and Los Angeles Raiders, as well as the short-lived USFL Pittsburgh Maulers. I was at every home game and covered the teams on the road in many cases. I also reported frequently on the Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Penguins, NASCAR, PGA, LPGA, ATP and WTA sporting events and many, many other professional, amateur, collegiate and high school sports. This article will focus mainly NFL and Major League Baseball locker room recollections.
Now, let me first say, the personalities I am about to mention did their body of work from about 1979-1998. Since my career no longer involves sports reporting, today’s athletes will not be mentioned. However, some athletes that have gone on from participating to commenting on sports may get a mention. Also, if you are looking for some sensational locker room confidentials, sorry, no dirt.
Anyone who has ever covered sports, knows there is a lot of down time from the moment the game ends to the time you are allowed in the locker room to talk to the athletes. The PR types like to refer to it as the “cooling off period.” It is generally about 15 minutes or longer from the time the last athlete walks off the field until the doors are opened and the media is allowed to enter. There are some variables, however. If the coach thinks his team played terribly, the doors may stay shut longer to give him more time to rip into his miserable failures. Depending on the coach, there are also different ground rules for interviewing. Some will only allow themselves and athletes they have selected to be interviewed. Others, throw open the doors for access to all team members.
Protocol, at least in the NFL (National Football League), is that the head coach holds his post game news conference with the media first. Then, the sports reporters are allowed into the locker room to gab with the players. Let’s be real. The coach pontificates (sometimes grudgingly) for about 15-20 minutes himself. So, if you total that up with the “cooling off period,” a sports journalist doesn’t really get to probe the post game psyches of petulant or poignant players for about 45 minutes to an hour after the game has ended.
That is important in the labeling of athletes and brings into focus the winner in my first category, “First In and First Out.”
“First In and First Out – Raghib “Rocket” Ismail – wide receiver and kick return specialist for the Los Angeles Raiders. This guy was named the Rocket because he was a blur if he got behind the secondary on a pass reception or found the wedge on a kickoff return. Let me tell you, the guy was the same way in evading locker room interviews. He rocketed his way to the locker room as soon as the gun sounded, and you could not catch him with a fishing net. Same way in the locker room. In the two years I covered the Raiders, I never talked to him once. Talked to him? I never even saw him in the locker room. I don’t think the guy even took a shower. He earned the award “First In and First Out.”
“Most Quotable and Most Honest” – Terry Bradshaw – four-time Super Bowl winning quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Would answer any question no matter how ridiculous with humor, anecdotes, laughter and never made an excuse for his mistakes. Was always one of the last ones to leave the locker room.
“Most Talked About Trophy” – Dented Coke Can in the Steelers locker room trophy case. As the story goes, in the locker room after a bad game (or practice, memory fails me a little at this point) Steelers All-Pro Linebacker Jack Lambert apparently got a little too critical about the efforts of place kicker Roy Gerela. Gerela reached the melt down point, grabbed a Coke can and heaved it all the way across the locker room nailing Lambert in the noggin. For his incredible athletic accomplishment and accuracy, Gerela received raucous cheers from his teammates, and the can ended up in the trophy case.
“Biggest Pan-Handler” – Lynn Swann – Steelers Super Bowl MVP wide receiver. Swann was a big supporter and sometimes participant in the Pittsburgh Ballet. One day after practice, he would not give up on harassing a rookie TV reporter to buy a $20 Ballet ticket, until the embarrassed and humiliated sportscaster finally caved in.
“Spookiest Eyes” – Howie Long – Raiders All-Pro Linebacker. After a game, it is intimidating enough to approach a guy who is huge and makes his money knocking guys around on the football field. But, when you asked Howie a question, he would stare at you with eyes that were downright scary – huge, non-blinking, with just enough white space between the lids and the iris to make you think he was about to put an unbreakable voodoo spell on you. I’ve got to say, he never jumped off his chair or was threatening in the least bit in his answers. It was just the persona.
“Most Interviews Accepted” – Steve Garvey – Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman. Garvey was the one guy on the Dodgers team that no matter the score, no matter the outcome, no matter the weather, no matter the standings, always made himself available for interviews. The interviews were not always the most riveting or informational, but he did put himself out there. Of course, he also got a reputation among the scribes who covered him as “Most Vanilla” and “Most Predicatable.”
“Most Honest Answer” – Tunch Ilkin – Steelers offensive lineman. Ilkin now does broadcasting work for the Steelers but in his days as a big, menacing lineman, he gave one of the greatest, most honest and funny answers I have ever received to a question asked. It was during the time when George Brett had just torn apart a visiting locker room, smashing a commode with a baseball bat over something that infuriated him during a game. I asked Ilkin, whose Steelers had just lost a very tough game in the last moments, if it was enough to make him consider “going Brett?” His reply, “No man, I just spent three hours out on the that field taking turns smashing heads with the guy across the line from me on the other team. The last thing I want to do now is fight. All I want is a cold shower.”
‘Biggest Money Maker for One Moment” – Tony Pena, Pittsburgh Pirates catcher. Prior to a game in Pittsburgh, I was doing my entire sportscast as a live-shot at Three Rivers Stadium on the field during our nightly newscast. I had uttered no more than two sentences, when Pena in the guise of chasing a fly ball, crashed into me knocking me completely out of the TV frame. A little ruffled and somewhat rattled, I managed to laugh it off and continue with the sportscast. Pena later told me someone had put him up to it as a prank, and we laughed about it. But, I had the last laugh. A tech back at the station was rolling videotape and saved it. He asked me If I would mind him sending it to a new network TV program starring Steve Allen called “Bloopers, Bleepers and Blunders.” I said, “Why not?” The show accepted our entry and since I was a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, i received a check from the show in the amount of $900 when they showed my 12 seconds of shame. It showed a few more times after that in re-runs, and every time it did, I got paid.
And that is my short list of player locker room labels. In future columns, I may touch on some more. When you spend 28 years covering professional sports, you take a lot of memories with you.