HE STAKED OUT DOUGHNUT SHOPS TO TALK TO PARCELLS, GOT BEHIND THE SCENES WITH FAVRE AND MANNING AND COUNTLESS OTHERS, AND CREATED A DISTINCTIVE PRESENCE THAT BECAME APPOINTMENT NFL READING. AS PETER KING MOVES ON FROM SI AFTER 29 YEARS, FOOTBALL'S BIGGEST STARS AND HIS JOURNALISM COLLEAGUES REFLECT ON HIS IMPACT ON THE GAME, THE PROFESSION AND THEIR LIVES
In the spring of 1980, less than a year out of college, Peter King took a job as a cub sports reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer. A couple years earlier, King had sat for a head shot. In it King is wearing a plaid shirt, bulky glasses and a massive afro. His expression is part smile and part grimace, as if he can't wait for this to be over. He has places to go, people to talk to, stories to write. "You can see how eager and enthused he was," says Mark Purdy, an Enquirer columnist at the time. "What that mug shot says to me is, Let's go."
King went, all right. At the Enquirer he began covering the Bengals in 1984, and then he moved to Newsday in New York on the Giants beat. Throughout that time he was getting inside the game by talking to its most prominent figures, past, present and future—and building a reputation as a go-getter. Bill Parcells gave him a nickname: Relentless.
PETER KING: "Every day in the summer of '84, it was two-a-day practices for the Bengals. At least half the days I stood next to Paul Brown [Bengals team president and legendary former coach of the Browns]. That was such an incredible learning experience—picking the brain of Paul Brown. One day I said to him—we're in the middle of nowhere Ohio, it's 89° with 80% humidity every day, we're standing out there for four hours every day—I said, 'How do you do this every day? Doesn't this ever get to you? The tedium or the heat?' And he got really angry. He said, 'Young man, this is our lifeblood!'"
MARK PURDY: "You're around Paul Brown, who was one of the inventors of modern pro football. He invented the face mask, for chrissakes!"
BILL PARCELLS, former Giants coach: "He was eager and very interested in the subject matter. Quite interested in the nuances of organizations and how they're run. Then the player acquisition and strategic elements of the game. Then, I think more so, he was interested in the personalities, this game for maladjusted people.... You could throw him in that maladjusted category as well."
PETER KING: "Every day I would show up at [Giants] camp at 7:15 a.m. in the coffee room. All the assistant coaches—Ron Erhardt, Belichick, all the coaches—would come through, get coffee, maybe read the Daily News, and then go to work. Parcells would come in and give me these looks and not say anything. By the fourth day he just said to me, 'Who the [expletive] are you?' I just said, I met you the other day, I'm Peter King, I work for Newsday. And he said, 'I know that, but what are you doing here [this early]?' I said, 'Well, I'm just trying to get my feet on the ground with this job. There's 19 papers that cover this team every day. I'm a competitive guy, and I want to be good at this.' He just walked out."
BILL PARCELLS: "I was a creature of habit, especially if we were winning. I wasn't tempting fate. So I would go to the same places, and I'd take the same route to the stadium. He would know where I was going to be, and once in a while, he would show up there."
BOB GLAUBER, Newsday: "Peter was driven. He would meet Parcells at his doughnut shop at six in the morning!"
BILL PARCELLS: "He knew I got to work early, and he would be outside the gate at the parking entrance under Giants Stadium. He'd be waiting there."
TIM LAYDEN, senior writer, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: "The first time I met Peter, he was in the press room at Giants Stadium, talking on two phones at the same time. One in each hand."
PETER KING: "In those days there weren't a lot of people who covered the [entire league] as a beat. I soon realized I could call the p.r. guy of the Bears, and he would get me Buddy Ryan on the phone."
ADAM SCHEFTER, former Broncos beat writer: "I remember him telling me one time, every week he had a goal to call five different people—people he hadn't spoken to."
PETER KING: "I rode in the car with Parcells after he won his first Super Bowl. It was at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The Giants' hotel was in Orange County, and Parcells had to be at a press conference the next morning at 8:30. He was going to be alone in the car with this security guy for 20 or 30 minutes. I asked him [if I could ride along].
"He was so excited. The NFL security guy, Charlie Jackson, was driving. I was sitting in the front seat, Parcells was in the back, and he's asking, 'Charlie, was Ditka as excited as I am? Was Ditka this excited last year?' He just couldn't get over it—he had just won the Super Bowl."
KING HAD a knack for such stories, for taking readers to places they'd never been. That caught the eye of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. In June 1989, managing editor Mark Mulvoy hired King to bolster the magazine's NFL coverage.
Mulvoy wanted him to write a column called Inside the NFL—three to four pages at the back of the magazine, with notes and nuggets from around the league. But his role gradually expanded as he proved he could get access to pretty much anyone in the NFL.
MARK MULVOY: "Peter's real strength was insightful reporting. His Rolodex in those days was unmatched. He knew everybody. He knew the owners. He could tell us what the hell was going on in the inner workings of football."
BRETT FAVRE, Hall of Fame quarterback: "I played 20 years, and I want to say 15 of them, Peter was part of it, to the point where, I want to say, he was just like family. It was not uncommon for Peter to come to town and just come over to our house. He took naps right there in the lounge chair in our living room. He'd take his shoes off, and he'd have on socks with holes in them. We'd either ride to the stadium together, or two nights before the game we'd go to eat, him and me and my youngest daughter, Breleigh. We'd ride around and tell stories and listen to music. He was working, and I had a tendency sometimes to forget that. I think that's what makes a good media person—you almost tend to forget they're working. Peter had that way about him."
PEYTON MANNING, five-time NFL MVP: "I don't know if the term off the record exists much anymore, but it certainly did with Peter. You could tell him things off the record, and it would stay that way."
BOOMER ESIASON, former NFL quarterback: "Every coach in the NFL would allow him in their office. Every coach in the NFL would allow him in their draft room. Every coach in the NFL would allow him to go out to practice. Why? Because he has the most valuable asset any reporter could acquire, and that is the absolute unabashed trust from the subject that he is covering."
STEVE YOUNG, Hall of Fame quarterback: "Not all writers love the game. They cover it, but they don't love it. And I think Peter's love of the game came through. Players felt that. You can feel when somebody cares about the game. The questions are way more interesting and thoughtful."
PETER KING: "After John Elway's last game, I was in a helicopter with him and [Broncos coach Mike] Shanahan, going from their hotel in Fort Lauderdale to a press conference in Miami the morning after [Super Bowl XXXIII]. You could just tell that Elway was going to retire. I always tried to get somewhere after a game with somebody who really mattered. If I could."
IN 1997, Steve Robinson, managing editor of CNNSI.com, asked King if he would write a column for the site—spill his notebook and write whatever he had leftover from his INSIDE THE NFL column. Thus MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK was born.
STEVE ROBINSON: "A lot of people's first reaction was, 'Oh, c'mon, nobody is ever going to read this much.' But they did! And they do! It wasn't writerly in the sense of a finished story for the magazine. But that's not what the Web is about. It's not about dotting all of the i's and crossing the t's and making sure you don't have any dangling participles. It's about creating a recognizable voice that people warm to and go to. Because they have an awful lot of choices."
SEAN PAYTON, Saints coach: "Growing up, we didn't have access to all the NFL highlights. We got that on Monday night at halftime, and Howard Cosell would cover the week in football. When you were younger, it was a school night, so it was, 'You can stay up for the halftime highlights, and then you're going to bed.' And then eventually we had ESPN, and Chris Berman would cover the games, and he'd bring together the week in football. Peter did the same thing in his column. He brought you what's going on in the last week in the NFL."
MIKE SILVER, former SI NFL writer: "He also understood the first-person element of the Internet. 'You know what? I'm going to write about my daughter's field hockey games. F--- it.' All the things we were taught not to do at journalism school and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED."
PEYTON MANNING: "He would take these training camp tours every summer. He'd go see a number of camps, and then he would come to Indianapolis or Denver, and he and I would go sit on a golf cart or a bench. After he would interview me about how camp was going or that season's expectations, it would be my turn to interview him about all the places he'd been. He wasn't revealing any private information, but it was a great way for me to keep up with all that was going on around the league."
ADAM SCHEFTER: "I can't tell you how many times I'm reading the column and I'm going, 'Goddam, he's out in front on this.' Or: 'He knew this detailed explanation on that.'"
MIKE FLORIO, founder of Pro Football Talk: "I don't know how you could [write that column] for 17 straight weeks in-season, for all the information that comes out of the games. To have a sense of what's interesting, to talk to the right people, to take it all and distill it into 8,000 words that are mostly written on the fly? It's really an impressive task."
AS THE column took off, King's profile grew. In 2009 he received the Dick McCann Memorial Award from the Pro Football Writers of America, joining the "writer's wing" of the Hall of Fame. In 2010 he was named Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association, the first of three such awards. Readers naturally gravitated to King when there was a big NFL story, and in those instances he would try to take the reader behind the scenes as much as possible. In some cases critics said King was too close to his subjects, or too close to the league office.
MIKE FLORIO: "There's a certain balance that you have to strike if you want true access. If you want to be in a position where you can get this coach, that GM, that owner on the phone—you have to have a willingness to ... I don't necessarily want to say 'compromise,' because I don't mean it in a pejorative way, but you have to know how to rein in how far you're willing to go to criticize someone actively in the sport you're covering. Otherwise, they're going to tell you to go to hell when you try to get them on the phone. I think Peter balances that as well as anyone. He still is critical—there are people who won't talk to him. Bill Belichick won't talk to [Peter]. He's still mad at him about Spygate from 2007."
MIKE SILVER: "I just think, if you try to do something on that scale—wrap your arms around the league and its history and its legacy, every week—you're going to have people think you've become this, or you didn't do that well enough, or you should've been more true to this. I just hope that none of that [criticism] lasts. He did something momentous and novel and uncharted, and he did it at an insanely high level, and he almost never stopped."
BY 2013, King had long established himself as one of the country's preeminent football writers—and it was time for something new. Paul Fichtenbaum, Time Inc. Sports Group editor at the time, offered to build a website around King, dedicated to football 24/7: The MMQB. King could hire a team of writers and editors, direct the coverage and be in complete control.
PAUL FICHTENBAUM: "He wanted to creatively challenge himself. It was important for him to do something that was different and new, that he could shape."
ED WERDER, longtime NFL reporter: "I thought it was something that I might like to get involved in, and he pretty much told me right away that he wasn't hiring all of his friends, that he had a different vision for it. He was going to use it to create opportunities for journalists he thought deserved a bigger platform."
CHRIS STONE, Editor in Chief, Sports Illustrated Group: "He had an idea, if we're going to build something truly different, we need to think about bringing in truly different voices."
JENNY VRENTAS, senior writer, SI/The MMQB: "When Peter started The MMQB in the spring of 2013, he gave us one assignment going in: brainstorm 10 ideas that no one has ever done before. That's a daunting task, given that no sport in America is covered as thoroughly as the NFL. But that was Peter's vision for The MMQB: to be different.
"On the flight home from an off-site retreat, he told me how important it was to him to have more women and more people of color on staff. You could take that two ways. No one wants to be hired because of their gender or race. But that's not what Peter was saying. He was saying that he was a white male, working in a predominantly white and male industry, and once he got the chance to hire a staff, he wanted to change that."
KING IS leaving SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on June 1, 2018—29 years to the day since Mulvoy hired him. King turns 61 in June. He wants to cut back on his work, spend more time with his family and step aside so the young writers he hired at The MMQB can flourish without him casting a shadow. He will continue writing his column with NBC Sports.
MARK MULVOY: "At SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in the '70s, Dan Jenkins was the marquee talent. And then you had Frank Deford in his prime. Then Rick Reilly, he was the face of SI. But clearly, since the turn of the century, it's been Peter with his MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK column. You're talking about a guy, for 15 years or so, he's been the face [of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED]."
CHRIS STONE: "I really believe he is one of the five most important figures in SI history. Peter almost alone kind of ushered SPORTS ILLUSTRATED into the digital era, with his willingness to embrace digital. He didn't just say, 'I'm going to be part of the Internet.' He created something that was an Internet media phenomenon."
ADAM SCHEFTER: "Peter would be on the Mount Rushmore of football writers."
PEYTON MANNING: "When you think of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED you think of Peter King. I know I do. It'll be hard to not see Peter King and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED tied in one."
"YOU CAN SEE HOW EAGER AND ENTHUSED HE WAS," SAYS MARK PURDY, AN EARLY MENTOR AT THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER. "WHAT THAT MUG SHOT SAYS TO ME IS, LET'S GO."
For an extended version of this story, with more anecdotes and reminiscences from Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, other NFL stars, SI staffers and Peter King himself, go to SI.com/Peter-King-history