An overpowering absence
This space should be empty today.
The requirements of daily newspapering demand that all white space be filled in each edition, and for many years filling this portion of it was the weekly task of my friend and colleague, Will McDonough. He filled it the way Dick Butkus filled a hole and the way Jim Brown hit the hole. He filled it better than anyone else who ever tried.
For the past few years, it has been my job to follow him, and I did, but I did not replace him. Some things are not possible no matter how hard you work at them, and one of them was to replace Will on the subject of pro football. It would be like replacing Jerry Rice or John Elway. It could not be done, so you merely stepped in and did the best you could, which was never quite good enough, to be honest, although he would never say that.
Unless you were wrong about something you wrote, of course.
"Let me tell you what's gonna happen," he'd say. Then he'd tell you what was going to happen. And then it would.
It was a great privilege to work next to Will, who died Thursday at the age of 67. It is an honor to type in the same column space he occupied for so long because he was without a doubt the most influential pro football writer of his time, if not of all-time. I would argue that the latter mantle fit him best, which is why this space seems empty today, as does the entire world of pro football.
These have been difficult times for the game he loved. Not long ago Johnny Unitas, arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, died. Barely a week ago, arguably the greatest teacher of the passing game, 91-year-old Sid Gillman, who like everyone else in pro football was a friend of McDonough, died at his home near San Diego. Now it is Will, a loss so difficult it left one of his closest and loudest friends, Bill Parcells, nearly silent.
"He was one of my best friends, and you can count them on one hand," a downcast Parcells said from his home on Long Island Friday. "A real friend is somebody who knows all about you and likes you anyway. That was what Will was to me.
"I first met him when I was an assistant coach with the Patriots in 1980 and we just hit it off. I don't know why. We just did. He was a special guy. He transcended journalism, the football business, and everything else. We were able to be friends and stay friends without ever compromising each other. This is a sad, sad day."
In Alameda, Calif., 72-year-old Al Davis, the leader of the Raidahs and a man who has been close to McDonough since the dawning of the American Football League, sat in his silver-and-black-tinted office preparing to watch the day's practice film. Before he got to that, though, he thought of his friend now gone and shook his head in sad disbelief.
Davis met McDonough when they were both in their football infancy, as was the AFL.
Davis was a 31-year-old assistant coach under Gillman, working for a team then called the Los Angeles Chargers. McDonough was a 25-year-old sportswriter covering some team called the Boston Patriots that nobody in New England really cared about, because in those days this was New York Giants country.
Davis and McDonough became friends over the years, and like many of the people involved in the early days of the AFL, they remained friends to the end.
"I've always been attracted to great people in their field," Davis said. "There is a special mystique about them that can inspire you. Sarah Vaughn. Sugar Ray Robinson. They give you the will to be great by being around them. Will McDonough, to me, was like Sid.
"I've had to give a lot of eulogies lately, and I've come to believe time stops for the great ones. They have a cloak of immortality. I'm thankful Will and I crossed paths. I feel so bad. You just want to say, `Goodbye. We loved you. We'll be coming along soon."'
Davis always has been a renegade, and eventually that made him the arch enemy of another close friend of McDonough (do we see a trend here?), former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Davis would go to war many times with Rozelle and the NFL. Will was always in his corner yet able to stay close to Rozelle as well, a bit of nifty footwork worthy of Barry Sanders.
On Friday, another of McDonough's dearest friends and someone often at odds with Davis reflected on that, acknowledging the difficulty of it all yet how deftly McDonough pulled it off.
"We had an understanding that there were certain people and subjects we just didn't discuss," said Joe Browne, the NFL executive vice president of communications and public relations and a loyal liege of first Rozelle and now Paul Tagliabue. "We'd end up getting into arguments every time we tried, so eventually we avoided it because we knew we had so many other things in common. We both loved pro football and we both loved the NFL."
When the Super Bowl is played this year, Will McDonough won't be there -- for the first time in 37 years. He was one of only seven living writers who had attended every one, so a small piece of the game's history was chipped away last week.
There is talk of having some sort of a memorial service there or at the annual owners meetings in March that Browne claims McDonough was the first to ever cover full time.
This year, there will be a hundred or more writing stiffs standing in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel outside of Phoenix trying to buttonhole some owner or general manager for a tidbit of information between closed-door meetings. It's a good place to see and be seen, and a lot of information changes hands that week, so McDonough will be missed there as well, though not in the hotel lobby. The only time he would be seen there was passing through with his tennis racket to go play with some GM who wouldn't even nod at the rest of us or with his golf clubs on the way to a round with a couple of coaches who would generally rather use their clubs on the rest of us.
If there is a service at those meetings, there's really only one place to do it. On the tee box at No. 7 or maybe the green at 18, where McDonough most often could be found pocketing a few dollars from some unsuspecting coach or GM while pocketing a lot of information as well.
"He wanted to win at everything, but he could handle it if it didn't happen," recalled Tom Coughlin, former coach of Boston College and the Jacksonville Jaguars who is in the running to take over the Cincinnati Bengals. "He was always coaching you. I remember we were partners once at some golf tournament and he says to me after a few holes, `Get off the steroids, will you, and just swing easy and we've got a chance to win this thing.' He always had that needle out.
"He was athletic as hell. He had a unique swing that worked for him, whether it was on the golf course or doing his job. A lot of times he was doing both at once. No matter what was happening, he was always under control. He stayed within himself. You'd outdrive him by 50 or 75 yards and at the end he'd have a 5 and you'd have a 6 and he'd say, `Get off the steroids and relax.'
"Will had a way of taking a shot at you the same time he was taking a glass of your wine. I remember he came down one year, it was 1996 or 1997. He was staying with us and we were out on some boat on the Intercoastal having a glass of wine. He looks at the bottle and says, `Yeah, 1997, that was a good year.' He's on a free boat, drinking free wine and taking a shot at the guy handing him the bottle. I loved that about him."
When Coughlin was fired by the Jaguars at the end of the season, he got two phone calls from his friend at a time when most of the journalists calling were not doing so to be helpful. They didn't speak immediately and McDonough made no demands, just saying everything would be fine and to call when he felt ready to.
When they finally did talk, it was two friends discussing the past and the future, not someone asking questions while the other reluctantly tried to answer diplomatically. That, too, was part of McDonough's magic over the years. People trusted him.
"During the season we'd talk once or twice a week," recalled Buffalo Bills president and general manager Tom Donahoe. "I took advantage of him as much as he took advantage of me when it came to gathering information. He was always in the know. When they said Will McDonough called, you answered quickly.
"I always felt I could tell him things that were delicate and he wouldn't expose me. I'll miss those calls."
People like Donahoe and Coughlin and Parcells talked to him because they knew he understood what so many in the news business and in the football business seem to have forgotten: that ours is at its best when it's a two-way street. It's not just give and it's not just take. Definitely not just take.
"There was something in Will's nature that made you want to tell him things," recalled Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "That's why people would open up to him. Now, if you made a mistake or you were wrong about something you did, he'd blast you, but he'd be fair about it. Then he'd be sure to come around, which you can't say about everybody in this business."
When Accorsi first met McDonough, he was a 28-year-old PR guy with the Baltimore Colts. Don Klosterman, the team's general manager, instructed Accorsi to go to a local hotel and pick up someone named Will McDonough and another writer from Boston and take them to Loyola College to play tennis and wait until they were done. When he got to the hotel, an embarrassed McDonough was waiting.
"He kept saying I didn't have to do this," Accorsi recalled with a laugh. "We were just talking about that a few days ago. He kept apologizing all the way to the tennis courts. When I told him I'd wait for them, he spent 15 minutes trying to get rid of me. He was embarrassed to be treated like that, but I was happy to be there."
Most people who were around McDonough came to the same conclusion. They were happy to be there. Maybe not in the moments when he was lambasting them or correcting them or coaching them, but when that was over, they'd usually learned something, and one of the things they learned was that they still had a friend.
He had a favorite expression if he was at odds with you. As the heat would rise, as it sometimes does among colleagues in this business who have sources they rely on that might see things differently from someone else's sources, he'd say, "The difference between us is you think and I know."
One of our most uncomfortable moments together came in just such a circumstance in 1996, the year the Patriots drafted Terry Glenn. McDonough had been assured by his sources, which included Parcells and, he thought, owner Bob Kraft, that the team would take one of three defensive linemen on the first round: Duane Clemons, Tony Brackens, or Cedric Jones, depending on who was available. I had information from other sources that it would be Glenn, the talented but mercurial wide receiver from Ohio State.
When the morning paper came out, the Globe had its two football writers saying opposite things. When I got to the stadium in Foxborough, Will was there with a smile on his face.
"So who lied to you?" he said, the needle firmly in place.
We could talk to each other that way, sometimes loudly, sometimes not, because we respected each other and he was Irish and I was Portuguese and we understood an occasional nuclear attack between us was neither personal nor fatal to our friendship.
"Maybe somebody lied to you," I shot back.
That was the end of it, but there was a tension between us that morning as we waited. It wasn't personal, but it wasn't the best cup of tea we ever shared, either. We both knew what we wrote was what we'd been told, not something we'd just conjured up. So we waited, drinking tea next to each other until the announcement came. When it did, Will looked stunned for a moment and then he turned and disarmed the situation as only he could.
"You finally got one right," he said and we shook hands.
Then he went off to yell at Kraft, who had decided the night before that it was necessary to back his personnel chief, Bobby Grier, over his coach but he was fearful of telling McDonough because of the close relationship between him and Parcells.
We laughed about that day a few times, which was part of the beauty of being his friend. If there was disagreement, you might hear, "You think and I know," but if it came down on your side rather than his (which happened about as often as the dawning of a new millennium), he respected that because he understood he wasn't the only guy working. He was just the guy who knew the most at the end of the day most of the time.
One of my fondest memories of him, though, was only peripherally about the work we shared for so long. It was sitting next to him in the press box in New Orleans last January as the Patriots drove down the field for the Super Bowl-winning field goal. Whenever we'd sit together at games, we'd tell old stories about games most of the people in that press box didn't remember. Mostly he'd talk and I'd listen.
On that evening, we were calling plays in low voices, directing Tom Brady where to throw the ball, not that he needed our input.
We'd both picked the Rams to win the game, Will by a little, me by a lot, but as the team we'd covered together for nearly 20 years worked the ball down the field, it was kind of funny. We were both sitting there, softly rooting against our pick. We wanted to be wrong for once.
When Adam Vinatieri kicked the field goal that made the Patriots Super Bowl champions for the first time in their history, we both stood up without thinking and high-fived each other. It was a reaction, not a planned celebration like you see on TV. Maybe realizing it wasn't the most professional thing we could be doing, we then sat down and started writing about what we'd just seen, which was the most professional thing we could do.
But at that moment when Vinatieri's kick split the uprights, we weren't just two sportswriters on deadline. We were two guys who liked each other and liked football and liked the fact that the hometown team had beaten the odds and proven us wrong. Frankly, we were two guys from New England happy to see the local team pull off the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
Then it was time to forget all that and go to work.
"He had the ability to write in the language of the people, and he knew people," said Coughlin. "He understood people and he understood how to do his job."
He understood it well enough that, when the end came last week, everyone else understood one thing.
"He was the most influential NFL reporter in the history of modern football," Browne said. "Who had more influence than Will? You'd come into the office, and one of the first things you'd hear would be, `Did you see what Willie wrote?'
"His column on Sunday was a landmark. He was always breaking news or writing something from an angle that all the other papers would be writing about 24 hours later. When he started out, print dominated this business. It's not true any more, but Will was still dominant. There'll be a large void at the Super Bowl this year."
Certainly there will be, but maybe the Man Upstairs decided that the last Super Bowl was enough. Will had seen his team win it all, something he never thought would happen a lot of years. Once he'd seen that, he'd seen everything.
As big as the loss is to pro football, though, there'll be a larger void at this newspaper and in this space on Sunday, where it reads "Pro Football Notes." Will McDonough was the Jim Brown of that position.
Everyone else is in the running for second place.