ESPN’s Mike Reiss on his career, covering the Patriots, and dealing with Bill Belichick

"You want to ask the question that the fan would be asking at home."

Mike Reiss is a reporter for ESPN, covering the New England Patriots.
Mike Reiss is a reporter for ESPN, covering the New England Patriots. –Mike Reiss

Ask Mike Reiss what his top NFL moments are and he can’t list just one. It’s understandable: the author and Patriots beat reporter for ESPN has covered the team for more than 20 years, a career that began with Patriots Football Weekly in 1997 and included a stop at the Boston Globe and Boston.com, where he tirelessly fed his blog, Reiss’s Pieces. 

Reiss remembers a time when Patriots games were barely televised and he was just a young kid, fascinated by box scores, who’d attend games with his father, Roy. 

Boston.com sat down with Reiss to talk about his career, and what it’s like covering Tom and Bill. 

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Boston.com: Did you know that you wanted to go into journalism from a young age?

Reiss: My dad [Roy] was a sportscaster  and we were a big sports family. I used to run to the end of the driveway to go pick up the Boston Globe and I would devour the box scores…My dad suggested to me, “There are other ways to be involved in sports [without playing]” and before I even had my license, he was like, “why don’t you go down to the local newspaper [Metrowest Daily News] and see if they need someone to help.”

 So, that’s how I got started…before I had my license he was driving me to my shifts.

What about sports captivated you back then?

The Celtics in the 1980s [had] Larry Bird, Kevin McCale, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, that was the team that I loved. The Patriots were good, but they weren’t always on TV so it wasn’t like it is now. The Red Sox were good, but they broke our hearts in 1986.  I used to love to read Will McDonough, Dan Shaughnessy, Bob Ryan… anyone who grew up in the [Boston] area, they were the guys. I just loved reading the [Boston Globe], particularly on Sunday. I would open it up, read all the notes columns. 

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So, after you graduated from UMASS Amherst, what was your first reporting job?

In 1997, my first job was with Patriots Football Weekly, the team [owned] newspaper. I had applied to newspapers across the country, and I kid you not, got 200 rejection letters.  My brother had a friend, who had a friend that was like, ‘If you know anyone let me know!”

What do you think about the way the media covers the Pats today?

It’s a lot of coverage. That first day of training camp this year, I think there was over 100 credentialed reporters. There’s no shortage of media to consume, so I think it’s one of the most intense beats that’s out there. 

What do you think makes your coverage unique?

I’ve been doing it for a while now, so over time you develop a relationship with the people that are reading [your] work. I think having that history creates a connection with the reader and that they can trust me. Nothing is more sacred than the trust you have with [them]. 

One piece of advice that [longtime Boston Globe reporter]Will McDonough always said was, “Always show up. You never know what’s going to happen.” When a player has an event, by showing up and showing them that you’re invested, that’s a fundamental of our job. 

What’s your best Tom Brady moment?

Last Christmas Eve, they played the Bills and the next morning we were taping something at the stadium for TV.  I had my daughter and son with me and as we’re getting out of the car, in the middle of the road, this black car with tinted windows comes gliding up towards us and the window rolls down.  

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All of sudden you hear, “Hey guys.” It was Tom Brady. He starts having conversations with my kids, asking them about their activities and what they’re going to get for the holidays. I know how much family matters to [Brady] and I like stories like this because they’re outside of the press conference. They reveal a little more about the person that you’re covering. 

What about Bill Belichick? How do you get through to someone like him, who might be more reserved?

When we talk about the way the team is covered, it’s changed. When I started, there were less [media] around, so that process is different than it is now. Just try to do your job, like he always says, and hope to earn [his] respect. 

Why do you think he’s so closed off?

This is just a theory, but the main thing he cares about is winning games and the media doesn’t align with his goals. So, he does what he’s required to. 

What is one of your favorite moments with him?

During the 2006 playoffs in the Divisional round, the Chargers were loaded, but the Patriots pulled out the game. Afterwards, [Belichick] was walking through the tunnel. We had just happened to be in the same place, and I might’ve asked, ‘What’s your reaction to this?’ and his emotion was so real. He was like, ‘this team has so much heart! So much guts! I’m so proud of this team!’ and it was real.

What is your first memory of covering the team? What do you remember?

How nervous I was to ask my first question to Belichick  in a press conference. I was at the MetroWest Daily News and I was trying to write something different. So, I was like, “Bill, um, about Leonard Myers – what makes him a possible candidate to be a contributor?”  I remember trying to get that question out was the hardest thing ever. My hands were shaking, heart was beating fast.  I think he could tell that someone was trembling right there and was probably happy I made it out before having to use the bathroom [laughs]. 

Who on the team is the most fascinating to you? 

I think Belichick. You see glimpses of a different person at times, like last night in the Patriots Hall of Fame celebration for Rodney Harrison, he gets up there and it was different. 

How many more years do you think the team, and Tom Brady, have?

Tom says he wants to play until he’s 45, and in my Patriots beat reporter notebook, I say one of the top rules is: Beware if you’re going to bet against Tom Brady. 

What do you think it’s like being the backup QB to Brady?

I think it can be intimidating. For Jimmy Garoppolo, I think he had the confidence to handle that. That’s not easy. I think Jarrett Stidham has the same approach, and Danny Etling is a great example. He’s putting the team first, willing to sacrifice maybe what his dream was, to be an NFL quarterback. 

Who do you think is the most interesting player that’s been on the team?

Randy Moss. In 2007, we [did] a feature story on him at the Boston Globe. I went to Charleston, West Virginia, and I watched him in his [hometown]. He never lets people in, but to watch him around kids was absolutely fascinating. He’s like a different person. I thought, why is that? What I learned is throughout his life, which was not an easy upbringing…he loves kids. He’d be better to answer, but I think it’s innocence and they’re not looking for anything from him, the lack of agenda. The [kids] were people that could [he] could be [himself] around.  

Of all the stories I’ve written, that was one of my all-time favorites. 

Any fun facts about anyone currently on the team?

Joe Thuney is fluent in multiple languages, and is working towards another degree. He’s a really impressive guy. And, in the spring I was at a lacrosse game with my son and Stephen Gostkowski shows up with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup, puts his lawn chair out, and his son was playing for the opposing team. And, what I learned in that moment is that he loves living where he lives, I won’t say where, but it’s because it most reminds him of the South. It’s quieter. 

Who on the team is difficult to deal with?

The players are generally good, that’s part of the culture they’ve created. Inevitably there’s going to be some players you don’t mesh with. Brandon Browner and I had a moment that was very uncomfortable – I had tweeted about how many penalties he had, and he let me have it afterwards. I don’t think we talked, might’ve been the whole season. I try to tell the players, I’m just trying to do my job as fairly and as accurately as possible, and there might be times that you don’t like it.

What about an on-field story?

Well, it’s hard to beat the Super Bowls. But, in the 2007 regular season finale, when they beat the Giants to go 16-0, there were two back-to-back plays where Brady threw a long ball to Moss. They were going for the record of most touchdown catches in a season, and [Moss and Brady] just couldn’t make the connection. Then they went back to it on the next play, and it was the record-breaking touchdown. That was the one time where the hair on the back of neck was standing up, and I was like, “Oh my. We are witnessing history,” and in more ways than one. I remember that vividly. 

What about with social media? Rather than watch the game on TV, people are tweeting and the highlights are on Instagram? How do you keep up?

[Media] has really evolved. When I started, you needed to tell people what happened. Now, I look at it and say why did it happen? That’s incredibly invigorating to me. 

I’ll give you an example: the Super Bowl. It was 3-3, and the Patriots are struggling to move the ball. Everyone knows it, everyone is watching it. Then, all of a sudden, they bring out a different personnel grouping with one receiver, two tight ends, a full back and a running back. It’s the first time they’ve done that in this game and they spread the field out. The Rams are like, well how are we going to match this? So, they put out their big defense, and the Patriots just pass and pass. They pass to Gronk, and touchdown!  Everyone saw that, but why? How did they get down the field?! 

To me, that today is what breaking a story used to be. That’s the chess match of what we saw – that was Josh McDaniels’s brilliance to say, we’re going to go with our big personnel to get [the Rams] to put their big defense on the field, but we’re going to spread it out and throw it. That’s the stuff I really get excited about. 

So, to be someone from New England, and to cover the Patriots, what does that mean to you?

It means everything. Covering sports in New England matters, and you want to do something that matters to people. I wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else. It fires me up. I love sports as a vehicle that connects us. It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you’re from, if you’re into that team, it breaks down all the barriers. 

Great advice I got from John Dennis, who was a sportscaster with my dad is: when you get a press pass, that is a privilege that a lot of people would want. You want to ask the question that the fan would be asking at home. You know, what was Bill Belichick thinking benching Malcolm Butler?!

Predictions for this season?

If you’re not going to pick the Patriots, then who are you going to pick? They’re as safe of a pick as anyone, and what impresses me about them is they always talk about establishing their level of performance. In Boston, with what we’ve seen with the Red Sox, it’s hard coming back after a Super Bowl or winning a World Series. How do you handle that? That impresses me, the way they wipe the slate clean. 

I predicted an 11-5 record and to win the Super Bowl over the Seahawks.

I’m curious: What would your opinion about the Pats be if you weren’t from New England?

[Laughs]. They would be to me what they [New York] Yankees were to me as a kid. We hated the Yankees because they were winning everything, and that’s basically what the Patriots are [today].