If you’re a fan of digging and probing and reporting at its finest, you have to love ESPN’s Michael Rothstein.
In a strict sense, the veteran scribe covers the Detroit Lions, but that’s sort of like saying, oh, Rickey Henderson was once a speedy leadoff hitter. Rothstein’s work is all over the map. He does the deep dive. He does the injury update. His features are lovely, his profiles revealing. To be honest, he’s sort of buried on the Lions beat, in that non-Detroit NFL fans probably miss some of ESPN.com’s absolute best work.
Hence, his status as the 307th Quaz.
Today, Michael talks about surviving the recent ESPN carnage; about whether the Lions are better off without Calvin Johnson and how he approaches assignments in the hard-to-crack NFL. He once had a dog named Magic, he makes a pretty unconvincing case for Garry Templeton’s Hall of Fame candidacy and his Bar Mitzvah was sort of a mess.
JEFF PEARLMAN: Michael, last week ESPN laid off a ton of reporters, and I’m wondering what this was like for you. Were you nervous? Did you know you were safe? And how did it make you feel?
MICHAEL ROTHSTEIN: Absolutely there were nerves and fear. How can there not be? It’s human nature because you don’t know what is going to happen. I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate to still have a job at ESPN. As far as that day, I’m not going to get too much into specifics. I will say throughout that entire day and still now, thought more about the people who were losing their jobs. So many people I know were part of the cuts – including my first beat partner at ESPN, Chantel Jennings, and one of the people who was instrumental in hiring me, Jeremy Crabtree. That’s not even going down the list of people I’ve worked with and have become acquaintances and friends over the years. They are all talented and, more importantly, good people.
J.P.: I usually don’t go overly conventional, but I’m gonna go overly conventional: You cover the Detroit Lions. Last year, after losing one of the Top 5 players in franchise history, they improved from 7-9 to 9-7. I don’t get it. Was Calvin Johnson’s loss at all an addition? Can that argument be made?
M.R.: Ha, this a very conventional question. Despite Detroit’s record this season, I wouldn’t say the Lions losing a generational talent like Calvin Johnson ended up as an addition. Anyone who says that is discounting how good Johnson was. The short answer is the argument can be made, sure, but it’s not one I agree with.
Johnson’s retirement did forced Matthew Stafford to read defenses and throw to the open guy. It might sound like a simple concept, but when Johnson was on the field, there were times where Stafford felt he could throw to Johnson even when he had double (or triple) coverage on him because it was still a favorable matchup. Along with a full offseason for the best name in sports, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, to put together an offense, Detroit changed what it did after Johnson retired. The Lions went with short passes instead of throwing deep because they had a game-breaker in Johnson. The Lions just didn’t have that type of player this year in their receiving corps. Marvin Jones has speed and hands but was too inconsistent. Golden Tate works best when you get him the ball off a short pass and allow him to miss. That’s been his game since I started covering him his freshman year at Notre Dame.
In the NFL, half the games teams play are tossups. Unless a team is New England, how a team fares in those six-to-eight games makes the difference between 10-6 or 9-7 and 6-10. In 2014 and 2016, the Lions won the majority of those games. In 2015, they didn’t and started off the year 1-7, costing the team’s old general manager and team president their jobs.
J.P.: I hate dealing with the NFL, because there are just so many overly protective, super guarded PR people limiting media access to the bare minimum. So … how do you tolerate it?
M.R.: It’s actually something I’ve never really thought about because of how I came up in the industry. Before covering the NFL, I covered colleges for about a decade. I spent four years covering Notre Dame under Charlie Weis—where access wasn’t terrible but wouldn’t be considered open—and four years covering Michigan football, where access was just poor. There were times covering Michigan where I would be going to a press availability not knowing who I would be talking to with no control who I would be interviewing. This sounds like whining, but it definitely hurts in preparation.
In my four years covering Michigan football, the school went from having reporters stake out the parking lot after games to try and interview players (seriously—I ended up chasing former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson across a parking lot for an interview once) to all podium after a game and having no say in players I’d be talking with. Whenever I get annoyed by something, access-wise, in the NFL, I think back to that.
In the NFL, you’re dealing with adults and other than a handful of players, pretty much everyone is at least somewhat accessible. I’ve always maintained—and I’m guessing you probably agree—that telling good stories often starts with the relationships you build.
When I was really young, maybe still in college, I read Dick Schaap’s autobiography “Flashing Before My Eyes.” I grew up watching and reading Schaap. He was someone I looked up to as a kid when I decided I wanted to get into this. In the book, he talked about how he tried to collect people. That thought stuck with me. It’s pretty much how I’ve approached my job ever since.
Collect people, learn about them and what makes them who they are and convince them to open up to you to tell their stories. Glover Quin, Travis Swanson and, after a lot of digging, Matthew Stafford did this year. None of that happens if there aren’t relationships built.
I went off on a tangent, but it’s the long answer for how I tolerate it.
J.P.: Without naming names (unless you want to), do you ever feel like you can see the mental impact of football’s brutality on players? What I mean is, do you ever notice a slurring or slowing of speech, a lessening of sharpness, etc? Even if it’s slight?
M.R.: I see it more when I talk with players who are no longer playing the game instead of ones inside an NFL locker room. Rare is the player willing to discuss how brutal this game is on the mind and body while they are playing. It’s what made me appreciate a player like DeAndre Levy, who the Lions released this offseason, that much more. Levy openly challenged the NFL about CTE research and admitted he thinks about CTE and whether or not he might have it. He just turned 30.
A former NFL player I’ve gotten to know a bit through the years was the one who really opened my eyes to how brutal this game is mentally. I had already known about some of the effects of concussions, but he had a stroke at age 32. It’s not clear if football is what caused it, but you don’t often hear of 32-year olds suffering strokes. Or at least I haven’t.
I’ve definitely had players tell me they forget things and that they wonder if their days playing football are among the reasons why. I’ve had other players ignore the potential ramifications of what they do—and that’s something that just doesn’t compute with me.
Other than Levy, one of the players that was the most open about brain injuries and football was Rashean Mathis. I talked with him for about an hour about it early in the 2015 season. Among the things he told me was he would do everything he could to steer his son away from playing football—and that he thinks the league and the players need to do a better job of understanding the risks and educating parents of future players. That season, he suffered a concussion. It wasn’t diagnosed for over a week. He eventually landed on injured reserve because of it—and having already played a decade in the league, retired after the season.
When I was a kid I really wanted to play football. But my parents—my mom, specifically—forbade it. Pre-teen and teenage me was angry. Adult me understands why she chose to make that decision. NFL players saying similar things made me realize, all these years later, that my body is thankful for that decision. I played sandlot football with friends and other sports (poorly) instead.
J.P.: Along those lines—you’ve seen what this sport does to people. I mean, one veteran after another with brain damage, with no knees, with ALS, with … on and on. Do you think we, the sports media, should feel any guilt over our coverage of a profession some compare to big tobacco?
M.R.: That’s a tough question, Jeff, but it’s something I’ve definitely thought about. There have been days when I’ve finished up work and said to myself, ‘I’m watching these guys literally destroy themselves.’ And that’s sometimes a really difficult thing to wrestle with, especially as you get to know players and spend time with them for stories, learning about their families, their pasts and their goals beyond football.
On the professional level, there is at least compensation, but I remember interviewing one player after his college career was over—he didn’t end up making it in the league—and he couldn’t remember how many concussions he had. Sure, he got a college education, but the damage he might feel later on in life he won’t have compensation for.
It kind of goes back to the question before, but that was really sobering for me. As sports media—and I think my employer and others do a good job of this—we should be shining lights on what happens to players later on in life. How they struggle not only with the transition from leaving football to regular 9-to-5 life but also the health problems they end up suffering from.
One thing I think might happen more often is what happened with Calvin Johnson. He played nine years. He made a bunch of money and then walked away while he still could. I had dinner with him in December and he was showing me his fingers—some were not able to bend how your fingers and my fingers bend. His ankles hurt a lot. He deals with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Those are things that are likely not going away. Walking away with his relative health was important to him and I think you’re seeing that more and more each year. Players just don’t discuss it while they are playing.
J.P.: I know very little about you—New York native, Lions writer. Soooo … how did this happen for you? Soup to nuts—what was your career path?
M.R.: That’s a question I ask myself from time to time. So not-so-brief resume: Grew up in East Meadow, New York and realized pretty early on playing sports on a high level was never going to happen. But I was always fascinated with writing. When I was a kid, I would use a typewriter to start movie scripts based off the Bad News Bears. In sixth grade, at Woodland Middle School, we had an assignment to write a book. Most kids wrote something simple. I don’t know how long mine was, but it had a plot centered around the United States and U.S.S.R. hockey teams, the Cold War ending during the Olympics and what would happen if there were long-lost relatives playing for each team. My parents, who were big supporters of mine from the beginning, actually had it illustrated. I was a kid, so I didn’t quite get the political ramifications, but I got an A.
I meandered through East Meadow High School, where I wrote for the school paper (and was fired because I wouldn’t apologize for a column I wrote about how senioritis was a good thing …) and had two big influences there: Paul Gott and Dr. Franklin Caccuitto. They helped refine my love of writing. I always loved learning and had a penchant for being annoying with questions, so it seemed like a fit.
Then I went to Syracuse, where I thought I wanted to be on TV. Quickly I found out anchoring wasn’t in my future because I was horrific with head turns from Camera 1 to Camera 2. Just picture an awkward T-Rex doing it and that was me. I also discovered I liked being able to sit down with people to learn about them instead of getting in-and-out in a 45-second VOSOT. I was lucky, because I had two strong professorial mentors—John Nicholson and Mel Coffee. They really pushed me.
I was at what I consider the best student paper in the country, the Daily Orange, and really got my education there. The staff we had was insane. I met two of my closer friends and early mentors there—Greg Bishop and another Quaz participant, Jeff Passan—who happen to be two of the most talented writers in the country. Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Saslow, who might be the best journalist under 40 in the United States, was two years behind me. The staff was so talented (Chico Harlan, Darryl Slater, Chris Snow, Chris Carlson, Pete Thamel, Connor Ennis, Dave Curtis, John Jiloty and Ron DePasquale were among the people I worked with for at least a little while in my time at the D.O.) and they were all influences.
I had no true journalism internships in college. I worked at Z100 in New York in promotions for a summer at the height of the boy band and Britney Spears/Jessica Simpson/Christina Aguilera/Mandy Moore boom. It was the most fun I’ve had in a job. I also worked at two summer camps as a counselor, including one where one of my campers was Matthew Koma, who has won a Grammy for the song ‘Clarity.’ When I was done with school, I applied everywhere around the country for a job hoping to find … something. That something was a job in Victorville, California—in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I was there 11 months, covered everything from Little League to minor league baseball and grew up a ton.
I wouldn’t be where I am now had Chris Simmons not hired me to go work in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Those two years made everything else possible. Chris was my biggest mentor and had a reputation for creating good journalists. He made me hundreds of times better as a reporter and also 1,000-times better as a man. He taught me how to really report and develop sources and gave me the tough love I needed. When jobs came open at his place after I left, I always told any young journalist to apply. He could have been an editor anywhere in the country but chose to stay there. Chris died last year and showing how much he influenced the writers he worked for, people flew in from all over the country for his funeral. In the back of my head I still ask myself when I’m working on a story what would Chris say.
From there I went to cover Notre Dame for four years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I covered football and basketball. It was my first real exposure to big-time sports, broke a few stories that won national awards and picked up another mentor in Ben Smith, who taught me the importance of humility and empathy in my writing. I also met some of my closest friends and sounding boards in the business: Brian Hamilton, Adam Rittenberg and Pete Sampson. After four years, the Ann Arbor News was folding and they started AnnArbor.com. They wanted someone to cover Michigan basketball, so I took the chance on a startup. I covered Michigan basketball and football for two years before a connection I made while covering Notre Dame called me to ask if I would be interested in going to work for ESPN. That, to both 10-year-old me and 30-year-old me, was a no-brainer.
I got hired to cover Michigan and did that for two seasons along with bringing my creation in Indiana, the National College Basketball Player of the Year poll, to ESPN. In the spring of 2013 I had heard about NFL Nation starting and it seemed like an intriguing new challenge. I expressed interest to my bosses and they let me interview and was fortunate enough to get hired. Been doing this four years now and it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve gone back to my TV roots on occasion—including fulfilling my childhood dream of being on SportsCenter—and work with some amazing colleagues, from my bosses now (Chad Millman, Mary Byrne, Chris Sprow, John Pluym and Roman Modrowski) to the other 31 people who cover NFL teams in our group. I learn from them daily. ESPN also gave me one of my biggest supporters, Gerry Matalon, and I’ve been extremely grateful for all of the advice he’s dispensed.
I’m definitely a work in progress – both on television and as a writer—but I’m always curious to see what’s going to happen next. But I try to never forget how fortunate I am to be in this position. Worked hard to get here, but got so much help along the way—and I’m sure I forgot to mention some of those people. It’s why I try to be as open and accessible as possible to young journalists coming up. I’m all about paying it forward. (Speaking of which, if you’re a young journalist with questions, feel free to reach out. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org).
J.P.: So I stopped covering baseball at SI because, after a while, I just stopped giving a shit. It got boring, repetitive. Your job is to live and breathe football. Detroit Lions football. How do you avoid fatigue? Do you avoid fatigue? Can you still get up for Theo Riddick’s ankle surgery?
M.R.: Like anything else, there are times I get burnt out. The last few weeks of a season, whether it’s heading toward a playoff run, a coaching search or the unknown, starts to wear on you because you’re on almost 24-7 from late July until January. It’s not a physically demanding gig, but mentally it’s grueling. What I’ve really tried to do is to go find things that interest me within football and then write about it. Sometimes, that leads to me writing about silicone wedding rings or what’s more frightening, a bear or a hippo. Or, I’ll go to Madison, Wisconsin for a weekend to write about the world of Tecmo Super Bowl gaming. That keeps it interesting.
I also like the competition. Dave Birkett, who covers the Lions for the Detroit Free Press, is a friend and one of the best beat writers in the country. Trying to beat him keeps me going because I’m very, very competitive—another gift from my parents.
There are days that can feel like forever and points where it gets boring and repetitive, but that’s when I go off and try to find something totally different to write about. That centers me. I’ve also started unplugging and traveling abroad in the summer, most recently to Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, and working out daily. Even in-season, every day I try to make sure I do at least one thing solely for myself, even if that’s going on a three-mile run. That helps keep me fresh.
J.P.: Does the ability to write with touch, detail, depth, precision, insight matter as much in this era of quick turnarounds as it did, say, 10 years ago? I mean, I graduated college in 1994, and it was all about trying to craft. Is there still a place for that?
M.R.: There are days it doesn’t feel like it does, but yeah, it still matters. It’s a constant news cycle filled with 140-character updates and Facebook Live and Instagram and sometimes writing 10-to-12 times a day. But a good story is still a good story and if you can tell one, there’s absolutely room for that. I look at the stories I’ve written that have resonated with people and they have been, for the most part, stories I spent real time with. As someone covering a beat, it’s just harder to find the time to do those stories now because of the constant demands of the news cycle.
People like Wright Thompson, Seth Wickersham, Don Van Natta, Dan Wetzel, Mina Kimes, Charlie Pierce, S.L. Price, Lee Jenkins and Chris Jones, if they write something, I’m reading it. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer and in the business. But when I hear athletes mention Mina’s story on the Bennett Brothers on a conference call with Detroit media, it tells me there’s room for it. The quality of writing from a multitude of people has never been better in my opinion.
J.P.: I’m gonna throw a slider at you—why do you think so many athletes and entertainers have tattoos? Is it merely peer pressure? Does it have to do with ego? Is it just coincidence?
M.R.: I don’t have any tattoos and have personally never seen the appeal, so I’m not the best person to answer. But I’ve asked athletes about this before and for some, it’s about art. For others, it’s about remembering where they came from and carrying those people with them. I know plenty of non-athletes, like my brother, an EMT, who have a bunch of tattoos. He does it because he likes it, although it made for easy mocking when he got Left Shark on his arm after the Katy Perry Super Bowl halftime show. So really, I think it is more coincidence and personal preference.
J.P.: I feel like all journalists have a money story—that one crazy thing that happened on the job that will be your party go-to tale for decades. What’s yours?
M.R.: Oh man. There are a lot, including when I dressed up as a minor league baseball mascot named Wooly Bully, some epic road trips and forgetting what city I’m in. I’ve never really been threatened by an athlete or a coach or anything like that. But this one stands out, not for the actual incident but the prank pulled on me by Passan after. He’s still proud of it. I need to preface this by saying the parking lot on Michigan’s athletic campus has really poor sightlines when you’re pulling out of spaces.
When I was covering Michigan, the school had hired a new athletic director, Dave Brandon, who was the former CEO of Domino’s. On his first day on the job, I was pulling out of a space in the parking lot and he was driving his car through the lot. Through a combination of not being able to see him and being distracted by a tip I had gotten, we got into a fender bender. Luckily there was really no damage other than a scratch or two on either car, but not the best first impression you want to make.
Brandon was cool about it with me although word had quickly spread what had happened. The Michigan sports information directors had fun with it for a few weeks, as did my bosses, but the person who benefitted the most was Passan. Later that night, he called me from a blocked number pretending to be a personal injury lawyer representing Dave Brandon because he had heard about the fender bender.
Needless to say, I freaked out for about five minutes or so before I realized it was him. And Passan was good, getting me worked up and paranoid at the same time. He also taped the conversation and decided to send it to some of our friends. They sent it to some of their friends and, well, it spread pretty quick. One Michigan SID told me he still has it and listens to it a couple times a year. There are still times, six or so years later, when I get asked about it. It was one of my more gullible moments but a classic story.
J.P.: I think one thing young sports writers have to confront early in their careers is the intimidation factor—walking into a clubhouse and not being nervous. Did you have that at first? Did you need to tiptoe before you walked? How did you break it (if so)? And what advice would you give?
M.R.: I totally had that and it took a long time to get over. Every job I’ve had, those first few days or weeks there’s that sense of nervousness. That, to me, is part of any new situation. In every job I’ve had, I’ve definitely tiptoed first. It takes time to get to know people and a beat, so I think that’s OK. I often think of it as the early stages of dating – you’re nervous at first trying to get a feel of who the woman the other person who is a complete stranger, but eventually there’s a familiarity and comfort level. It took a little bit, but the nerves eventually go away.
My advice, especially for younger journalists, is do your research before you go into a locker room. I would look at rosters to see if there were any connections I had with guys in there, either if I had covered their school before or lived in their area of the country. Then I would use that as an icebreaker. It’s a way to both get them off of the conversation of football or basketball and into something else that immediately humanizes you and gets them to remember you. That’s better than rote questions players are asked over and over (and often get annoyed by). Otherwise, you’re just another nameless face. That’s not only a good initial locker room tool, but one that leads to better reporting and just becoming a better conversationalist in life.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL ROTHSTEIN:
• Three memories from your Bar Mitzvah: 1. There is, sadly, video evidence of this: I fell off the chair during the Hora. One of the dancers put her hand up for a high-five. I connected—and then fell on my butt on the floor in front of my dad. His face was priceless and for years, my brother would play it for whoever came over. My parents wanted to send it to America’s Funniest Home Videos, but they chose to save awkward 13-year-old me the embarrassment; 2. I was so bad at reading Hebrew and the different tropes that I only did four Aliyahs; 3. We had the centerpieces of my theme—movies—as decorations in our basement for years. I always loved acting—at least the concept of it—so it was something I wanted to do but have yet to try.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): owls, Haason Reddick, chicken soup, Taylor Dayne, The Notorious B.I.G., Marlon Brando, pastrami sandwich, “The Silence of the Lambs,” Billy Sims: Pastrami sandwich (on gluten free bread, because I’m celiac), The Silence of the Lambs, chicken soup, The Notorious B.I.G., Marlon Brando, Haason Reddick, Taylor Dayne, Billy Sims, owls.
• The world needs to know—what’s it like covering Zach Zenner?: He’s one of the more intriguing players I cover. He might be the smartest, too. He wants to go to med school after he’s done playing football and has done medical research during the last two offseasons, including during spring ball last year. Zenner’s just an honest dude who is very matter-of-fact with what he’s doing and his approach to everything. Most of all, he’s always willing to talk and is pleasant to deal with. As a beat writer, I’m appreciative of that.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes and no. I’ve never been close, thankfully, although there were a couple of times in prop planes where things didn’t seem to be going too well. I didn’t puke, but I definitely knew where the barf bag was. If I don’t fall asleep before the plane hits cruising altitude, I do get this split-second concern of ‘What’s going to happen here?’ I don’t have a fear of flying—I enjoy it, actually. But for a second it’s kind of like the last scene of the movie ‘Say Anything,’ when Diane Court and Lloyd Dobler are on the plane waiting for the seatbelt sign to go off. Once that happens, I feel much better about things.
• One question you would ask John Amos were he here right now?: ‘The West Wing’ is my all-time favorite television show—I’ve watched it through multiple times and am doing so again with listening to the West Wing Weekly podcast. Plus Aaron Sorkin is an inspiration to me as a writer, so I’d ask John Amos what it was like to be part of that cast as a recurring character working with Sorkin and Martin Sheen and how often did he try to ad-lib Sorkin’s dialogue?
• Five most talented football players you’ve ever covered?: I’m going to restrict this to guys I actually covered as a beat instead of a one-off. Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Ndamukong Suh, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Denard Robinson (in a close one over Matthew Stafford).
• In exactly 14 words, make a case for Garry Templeton, Hall of Famer: Umm, a 16.2 career defensive WAR and an NL-best 211 hits in 1979.
• Three things we need to know about your childhood pet: 1. He was a white Westie named Magic, after Magic Johnson. I got him days before Magic announced he was HIV-positive. That was a devastating moment to 11-year-old me; 2. He was a friendly dog, although he mostly got attached to my dad because he was the one who walked him. He ended up living 15 years and I still miss him; 3. He helped me get over my fear of dogs. When I was in elementary school, a large dog chased me into the middle of North Jerusalem Road, a busy road in my town. While I was like Frogger around cars, the dog eventually tackled me. It left me scared of dogs for a few years until Magic. Now, I love dogs.
• How was your senior prom?: Not all that memorable. I went with Kristen Zbryski, who was a grade older than me, as friends. It was a good time, but getting close to 20 years ago. I more remember the boat ride around New York City after and the trip to Wildwood, New Jersey the couple days after that.
• What are the four words you way overuse?: Gluten, Meh, Literally, Worst