Interview With Jim Wexell - By Neal Coolong
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|We've seen our share of negative opinions in regards to Pittsburgh's Super Bowl XL run. Carson Palmer's knee, Mike Vanderjagt's missed kick, officiating...NFL fans are setting the bar even higher for excuses and complaints about losing a game.
Fortunately, there are a few still left in the media who are willing to look past the jaded, myopic sniveling of fans outside Pittsburgh.
Jim Wexell is a freelance writer who has covered the Steelers for several years, and has been involved in the Pittsburgh media scene for over 20 years. Recently, he penned a bluntly real and honest column for Steel City Insider (http://steelers.scout.com/2/533847.html) calling out Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren for his "sob story."
Steelers Fever columnist Neal Coolong tracked down Wexell, and exchanged e-mails with him, discussing everything from the state of players in the NFL to his thoughts on the conservative right to the thrill a reporter gets in breaking a story. Wexell's tell-it-how-it-is style abounds as he hides behind nothing, and points out a few things you may not have known.
SF - OK, well, let's start out with your background. Where are you from? College? Have you always been a Steelers fan, or is you covering them merely a coincidence?
JW - Covering them is a coincidence. I was born in Chicago and my father was killed when I was an infant. My birth name is Jim Buckley, but my mother remarried and we began moving around at the whim of G.C. Murphy Co., which had its home headquarters in McKeesport.
I was a Bears fan as a kid and moved to Pittsburgh, more specifically Irwin, in the eighth grade. I went to Norwin and then Pitt and joined the Irwin Standard Observer under Vic Ketchman in 1984.
I covered HS sports and Pitt for a few years and rose to sports editor in 1995 when Ketchman left to work for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He'd forged out the Steelers' beat on our paper so I naturally followed that path.
The Steelers put me on their team plane for away games and I thought I was king of the world. But the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review had bought our paper a few years earlier and they don't pay squat, nor would they promote me within their organization.
"We need you where you're at. It's a key position for us," they said, so in October of 1998, after not receiving any help from the Trib for this "key position," I resigned to become a freelancer.
I was bombarded with all kinds of work from friends in the business. One key job was RealPittsburgh.com. George Von Benko hired me and my work in the internet was underway. Steelers Digest also hired me right away, as did two to three suburban newspapers, not to mention the Post-Gazette on the advice of Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac, so I covered HS sports for the P-G for a number of years.
Since then I've written a couple of books and did some work for a radio station. Oh, for marketing purposes, the books are "Tales From Behind The Steel Curtain" and "Men of Steel." The latter will be released in August.
As for whether I'm a Steelers fan, I say I'm not, but it's hard not to root for people I've gotten to know over the last 11 years.
SF - "Tales From Behind the Steel Curtain..." That sounds ominous! Am I going to buy that book, read it and be horrified at all the negative stories we never hear about the team?
But that brings up a good question. You've been covering the Steelers and have been in journalism for quite a while. How do you feel about the stereotypical athlete of today? Obviously, we're bombarded by stories of guys like TO, or Pac Man Jones and other players who allegedly get themselves into bad situations. Do you feel this kind of reputation is par for the NFL's course, or do we just not pay attention to the stories of the good guys?
JW - The "Tales" book is a formula book put out in every NFL, MLB, etc. city. The "Tales" behind the 1979 Steelers weren't "negative", unless you consider fiery and interesting Jack Lambert stories "negative." I'm not a big fan of phony innocence.
How do I feel (about athletes like TO)? I'm bored by T.O. stories. Everyone's had a jerk like that on their team at one point or other. Pac Man Jones deserves every bit of negative press he gets because, unlike T.O., he's a menace to society. T.O. is only a menace to a team dumb enough to bring him in. As for reputation and "par for the NFL's course," these are ferocious people we're talking about here. Many of them would've been put in jail or killed long ago if it weren't for sports. Most "good guy" stories are dull because they're poorly done by hacks.
SF - Very well put. I agree completely that NFL players - and professional athletes in general - are simply extraordinary people, and you have to think the mindset of someone with that ability is not going to be the same as the average person.
The NFL has symposiums and conferences in place to teach players coming into the league what to expect. I think the league does what it can to try to stem the drugs, domestic violence, and various other crimes that seem to be common in the NFL, but ultimately, players are being paid millions of dollars to be as brutal as possible. It's not logical to think that type of mentality (fearless, invincible, immortal) won't translate in some way to life outside the game.
(Editor's note: Former Redskins running back and Super Bowl record holder for yards in a game Timmy Smith was sentenced to federal prison on charges of attempting to distribute cocaine while this interview was being conducted.)
Two things about this: 1. Do you think, in a way, the off-the-field incidents that occur fuel the NFL public relations machine (or to be cliche, do you believe "any publicity is good publicity" in the NFL)? As far as Steelers Fever is concerned, we still have people posting opinions on here about Ray Lewis' incident a few years ago. 2. As a writer, what influences you when pursuing these stories? I'm sure you've covered a few at least. Are you excited in being able to break the big story, or do you have a sense of apprehension, almost like "here we go again..."? Does covering the negatives of pro football wear on you?
JW - I don't believe in "any publicity is good publicity" because I think it's just something for losers to latch onto when they're, well, losing. Do they fuel interest in the NFL? Heck no. People are interested in the NFL period. If Ray Lewis is in the news, people will form opinions of him. I must admit, I felt like vomiting when, after his post-murder appearance in Pittsburgh, a crowd had gathered to praise him in the corner of Three Rivers Stadium. The only other incident I can think of is Seattle drafting Jerramy Stevens, an alleged local rapist and convicted drunk driver who crashed into a retirement home. The Seahawks made this loser the centerpiece of their Super Bowl game plan and then, after he dropped just about everything thrown to him, they blamed the refs for the loss, but that's another story.
As for the second part of the question, I love breaking a story, whether it's for the home team or against it. All reporters do. That's why I'm amused at these right-wing nuts blaming the media for Bush's collapse. This is America, the land of capitalism, and journalists are chasing the big buck, too. It's absurd to think reporters aren't excited about breaking news. As for covering the negatives, I cover the Pittsburgh Steelers, so they're aren't many. I just want to put in a good day's work. The only topic that bores me is the "he said-he said" that goes from locker room to locker room almost every week before a big game. Sometimes it's amusing; like Joey Porter at the Super Bowl. But other times it's just a reflection of lazy sports writing.
SF - Yeah, I agree. It is kind of lazy (says the writer interviewing a subject through e-mail). [AHEM!]
Speaking of Seattle... I linked your column regarding the reactions to the Steelers Super Bowl win in my recent column on this site. Have you read it at all?
I fully expect a "no" answer. You can be honest, it's OK.
Have you received much feedback one way or the other on that column? I wrote a sarcastic piece after Pittsburgh's win over Cincinnati in the playoffs last year, and received quite a few negative comments. How do you feel the Bengals and Seahawks will fare this season? It seems the popular opinion is they are the front-runners for Super Bowl XLI.
JW - No. Sorry, I have not read your column. I roasted the Seahawks for crying about the officials and now they're mad at me. They're whining about my reaction to their whining.
Seahawks in the Super Bowl? Are you kidding? Last year was it for them. Here's a team that drafted criminals like Ken Hamlin, Josh Brown and Jerramy Stevens, and all three of them cost them in the Super Bowl. Now they've paid $50 million for Julian Peterson. Do you know what his Wonderlic was coming out of Michigan State? Five. They have no character and will fade away.
The same could be said of the Bengals, but they have a quarterback. Since that quarterback will be shaky early, and they have not improved their defense, and they will not be able to replace their criminal,
SF - You're not liking Seattle's chances, which is refreshing to hear. You seem to be a pretty strong supporter of the "character guy" theory in football. How much of an impact do you feel a positive locker room influence and a lack of a criminal background has on a successful team?
As far as the Steelers go, do you think the losses they had in free agency will damage their chances of repeating? Kimo is up in years, and I can understand his release, but I am a little concerned with the loss of Chris Hope. Do you think Ryan Clark and/or Anthony Smith will be able to handle that deep safety/center field position this year?
JW - The character issue is monstrous. How many lousy teams have you played on in your life? And how many of those teams were lousy because the leaders and/or best players were jerks? I've been on plenty. In football, it's so important to have strong character when things go bad.
The Steelers are a perfect example. Character is being cited now as the backbone to last year's team. Darren Perry said his teams in the 1990s were great and had good character, but this current team is great and has great character. The difference in the two teams is a Super Bowl win.
As for replacing Chris Hope, I know he wasn't a favorite of Bill Cowher's, and I know that he was a strong safety who didn't play the run great, or a free safety who didn't play the pass great, but he was a well-liked member of the team, and frankly it can't be taken away from him that he's a guy you can win championships with.
While I may understate his importance, I do worry about a replacement, since I remember Travis Davis well. The scary part is that neither Ryan Clark nor Anthony Smith has great speed, so I worry about that. However, I've never believed speed was that important at that position. It will be interesting to watch, and you are right, that is the one position of worry this season.
SF - Wow...a Travis Davis reference. I remember that guy. Pittsburgh really seemed to have a tough time in those late-90s to early 2000s in bringing in quality replacements. It's not so much they weren't successful - obviously 99 and 2000 didn't fare so well - but their depth was a major concern. There was really nothing in the secondary, with guys like Davis, Lee Flowers, Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington. But it was the guys they brought in with high draft picks who never panned out that signaled a string of bad seasons - Scott Shields, Jeremy Staat, Troy Edwards.
You mentioned Darren Perry's comments about chemistry from his years to today's team. What would you say was the main philosophical difference in the draft and free agency between then and now? They obviously improved, but did you see a difference in decision-making from then to now, or was it merely just an issue of experience in personnel choices?
JW - I don't know the difference, but Tom Donahoe was replaced by Kevin Colbert in 2000. Also, Bill Cowher had some years behind him by 2000. Maybe he learned a few things about players.
(Editor's note: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Steel City Insider reported that rookie WR Santonio Holmes was arrested for disorderly conduct on May 27 in Miami, Florida.)
SF - Well, I'm sure you know about the arrest. We talked about character issues, and you had said you don't have to worry a whole lot about covering negative stories because the Steelers are relatively free of such issues. What is this going to do to Santonio (it doesn't really sound like it is much of a charge), and how do you think the Steelers will respond?
JW - I'm sure Bill Cowher will sit down and have a talk with him. This isolated incident isn't a big deal, until paired with the fact that Holmes has three children with two different mothers and at 22 he's still not married to either one of them. That had to be an issue in the draft, and probably one of the reasons he dropped in the draft. NOW, this incident is even a bigger deal. Now you're worried that your employee will be distracted. Fact is, he was in Florida visiting two of those children when his arrest occurred. The more I think about it, this is a BIG deal.
Not only was he in Florida visiting two of his children, the key part of all this is the time he was arrested. Speaking for myself, I'm not going to be in Miami Beach at 3 A.M. looking to improve my push for Sainthood. I would imagine Cowher will give him his introduction Chin-Flash upon his arrival at training camp. But I do believe in Cowher's ability to motivate, and all the best motivators in the world need is a cause. I think Santonio inadvertently did the Steelers a favor by giving Cowher a specific incident in order to reel them back in after a successful season.
Thank you very much for your time. You've been great, and I'm glad I had a chance to get the opinions of a writer in-the-know. Keep up the good work, I look forward to reading more of your columns this season.