September 25, 2016

Interview With Lesley Visser

This column originally appeared in the November 25th, 2009 issue of Patriots Football Weekly.

Visser no stranger to Pats success

By Bruce Allen

“Hi, I’m Lesley Visser, I know Will McDonough.”

With those eight words, Lesley Visser, the longtime CBS sportscaster voted this past summer as the No. 1 Female Sportscaster of All-Time, would approach players, coaches and officials during her first season on the Patriots beat. The year was 1976, and the 23-year-old Visser was working for The Boston Globe, yet was not allowed in the locker room, and her team-issued press credential flatly stated “No Women or Children allowed in the Press Box.” Oftentimes she would have to wait in the parking lot to interview players. There wasn’t even a ladies room available to her. Dropping McDonough’s name was the only “in” that she had until she could establish herself.

Despite her distinguished career, I sometimes feel that Visser isn’t always properly appreciated by the public for being the true pioneer that she is. In an age where more and more women are seeking careers in sports media, Visser set the standards by which they all measure themselves. Thus, having the chance to chat recently with the very gracious Visser was a great privilege.

Both her remarkable life and career began right here in Massachusetts. Born in Quincy MA, sports and football were in Visser’s blood from a young age. As a little girl, she dressed as Celtics guard Sam Jones for Halloween one year, and asked Santa for a pair of shoulder pads one Christmas.

In 1966, Visser attended her first professional football game, when the Patriots took on the Oakland Raiders at Fenway Park. The 13-year-old Visser managed to get down to the Raiders sideline where she saw future Hall of Fame center Jim Otto up close. “He was the biggest human being I’d ever seen,” she remembers, “and my eyes grew as big as his double 00’s.”

She had the goal of being a sportswriter when she grew up, and as an English major at Boston College, she obtained an internship at The Boston Globe through a Carnegie Foundation grant. Joining the paper full-time following graduation in 1975, she immediately started making her mark in a male-dominated field.

It started that bicentennial year of 1976, when Visser became the first woman assigned to an NFL beat when the Globe sent her out to cover Patriots on a daily basis.

“The first day of training camp, I think I brushed my teeth in the parking lot of Bryant college.” She recalls her biggest fear in those first days on the beat: “Working with people like Peter Gammons and Bob Ryan and Bud Collins, I was terrified I’d let the Boston Globe down with their historic decision.”

Dropping McDonough’s name became her “Magic Credential,” as she puts it. McDonough, the most respected football writer in the country, even spoke to Billy Sullivan on her behalf, telling the Patriots owner that she would work hard, and asking them to be forgiving of her mistakes.

Mistakes? She made a few, some of which pain her to this day. She recalls one incident early in her tenure when she was doing a story on Sam Cunningham, (Visser says that Sam was much more famous than younger brother Randall.) and included some notes at the end of the story. The Patriots were banged up along the offensive line, and she asked coach Chuck Fairbanks who would start at tackle, Tom Neville or Bob McKay.

In the Globe the next morning, Fairbanks was quoted as saying, “Neither one can play the position”. Visser relates: “I got a call at 6 am.  ‘Are you out of your mind?'” It was Fairbanks, shouting on the other end. “I said EITHER one can play the position!”  Visser still shakes her head at the recollection. “I wanted to move to Bimini. Instead, I flew down to Miami with the team – as all members of the media did back then. I heard about it the whole flight, and, OK, maybe the whole season. I think Dave Smith and Vince Doria, our legendary editors at the Globe, remind me of it to this day.”

All in all, she says that “The Patriots were great to me” and that first season in Foxborough was a memorable one, the team went 11-3 before losing a heartbreaking playoff game to the Raiders on the infamous Ben Dreith “roughing the passer” call on Sugar Bear Hamilton, the Patriots tackle who Visser says had watched game film with her that year, giving her an even deeper understanding of the game.

Though he was just a Patriots season ticket holder at the time, Robert Kraft had a big impact on Visser’s career even back in the 1970’s. Kraft owned the Boston Lobsters of World TeamTennis, and was the first person to let Visser into a locker room in any sport. She adds that Kraft “has been so supportive of women in this business, an advocate for more than 30 years. I’m happy to report that the struggles of Schaefer stadium are now the glories of Gillette. It’s no coincidence that the Patriots are the model, the envy of the NFL.”

With her history with the Patriots, it only makes sense that Visser’s favorite memory from her long career covering sports involves the franchise from Foxborough, MA.

“One of my most favorite memories in all of sports was Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans.” She proudly recalls “I was on the field when Adam Vinatieri drilled it through the uprights, and as the confetti came raining down, I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is the team I grew up with, the team that gave me my biggest opportunity, and now I’m here for their most shining moment.'”

Visser had moved on to television with CBS in the early 1980’s, and made history there too, working almost all major sporting events the network covered, including the NFL, where she became the first woman to host the postgame Super Bowl Championship trophy presentation. She stayed at CBS until 1994. She then moved on to ABC/ESPN, where she become the first woman on the announcing team of Monday Night Football, as sideline reporter. She returned to CBS in 2000, and has remained there ever since. She currently is a reporter for The NFL Today, and writes a column for CBSSports.com. In July of this year, Visser was voted the No. 1 female sportscaster of all time by the American Sportscasters Association.

Also this summer, Visser became the first woman to serve as a color commentator on an NFL TV telecast, during a Dolphins preseason game. Visser says of the experience “It was an enormous challenge, but I was careful to stay within my experience. I’ve never been in an NFL huddle, so I never said anything I couldn’t possibly know –  I think that philosophy has helped me for 35 years. I don’t assume, I ask.”

Visser’s distinguished career covering the NFL led to the ultimate honor. In 2006 she became the first (and only) woman to be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as recipient of the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. Among those congratulating Visser that day was Jim Otto, “Pretty good,” he said, “for a little girl shivering on the sideline.”

Visser says that “Being honored as the first woman in the Pro Football Hall of Fame made me glad I went through all the ups and downs. I have a genuine respect for sports, I’ve always said it’s the most meritorious business in America. It doesn’t matter where your father went to college or how much money your mother has, if you hit the jumper or sink the putt or kick the winning field goal, it’s because of your talent, your will and your skill.”

Fittingly, talent, will and skill are all qualities that Lesley Visser possesses in abundance.

Interview With Jason La Canfora

This column originally appeared in the July 29, 2009 edition of Patriots Football Weekly. La Canfora is now with CBS Sports.

La Canfora Hits The Ground Running At NFL Network

By Bruce Allen

Since the NFL Network was launched in 2003, viewers have become accustomed to seeing and hearing from the well-connected and enthusiastic Adam Schefter, who seemed synonymous with the network. Schefter however, was unable to come to terms with the network on a new contract this offseason, and ended up joining ESPN.

His replacement at NFL Network is 35-year-old Jason La Canfora, who spent the last several years covering the tumultuous Redskins beat for the Washington Post. La Canfora started at the network in June of this year, and has had to hit the ground running, stepping into the role vacated by Schefter. Gracious enough to speak with Patriots Football Weekly recently, La Canfora says he was “humbled and thrilled” when he found out that the NFL Network was even considering him for the position, which he describes as a “life-changing opportunity.” With the newspaper industry facing very difficult times at the moment, the decision to jump to NFL Network was an easy one, though he notes that the move made so much sense for he and his family that he would’ve made the same choice “in any economic climate, regardless of the issues facing newspapers.”

When asked how the transition from the newspaper to world to the world of network television is going, La Canfora answers: “I’m getting a better feel for what my schedule is going to be like, what an average work day feels like, etc, but once camps open and then the regular season begins, well, everything will change. It’s just incredibly exciting to be doing something new, working on a schedule outside of what a typical newspaper NFL beat feels like, getting to exercise new muscles in terms of information delivery.” The reception he has gotten from his new co-workers has been so welcoming that he says that “it really feels like being part of a family.”

A native of Baltimore, La Canfora will continue to make that his home base, even as he jets around the country in his new job. Despite growing up in Baltimore, he is a rabid Boston Red Sox fan. How does a kid from Baltimore end up part of Red Sox nation? “It’s kind of lame, I agree, but I promise I am not a bandwagon, jumper.” He explains: “I was sitting out at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in the mid-80s with my Roger Clemens jersey on. Sadly, The Rocket’s ascent was a big part of why I was drawn to Red Sox nation, and since he’s left I’ve never been able to stomach the man. But his 20 strikeout game was a big deal for me – I was 12 at the time – and the Sox obviously went on an amazing run that season and I shed many a tear during the ’86 ALCS – my dad ran upstairs, while I was crying into a pillow – to tell me about Hendu’s homer. And then Games 6 and 7 of the World Series, well, I still can’t watch highlights of Ray Knight and Mookie Wilson and Jesse Orosco throwing his glove in the air without feeling ill.”

His cheery, bespectacled exterior belies a competitive, sometimes combative nature. While covering the Redskins, La Canfora drew the ire of team owner Daniel Snyder and GM Vinny Cerrato for his candid reporting on how the Redskins franchise was being run. Cerrato blasted La Canfora on his radio show, and La Canfora shot back at the organization. According to DCProSportsReport.com, the incident “led some Redskins fans to regard LaCanfora as hostile to the team.” The site notes though, that La Canfora was, in reality, “only hostile to the incompetent and hyper-sensitive team management.” Ironically, now that he is with the NFL Network, 1/32 of his paycheck will be coming from the Redskins. La Canfora says he doesn’t view it that, way, but rather approaches this job as he would any other reporting job. He says “Eric Weinberger, the executive producer of the NFL Network – and someone I am very grateful to for giving me this opportunity – told me that he was interested in me because of the kind of journalism I have produced, and that the expectation would be that I continue to dig deep and look for the best information possible to serve our readers and viewers at NFL Network and NFL.com. He adds: “As with everything else, fairness and accuracy must carry the day, and my goal is always to provide all sides of an issue, inform as best I can, and fans will form their own opinions.”

Finally, asked for his thoughts on what to expect from the Patriots this season, he responded: “I think they are the team to beat. I have so much respect for that organization, the way they build a team, how shrewd they are, how they value draft picks, the overall sense that no individual is bigger than the collective – save for Bill Belichick, perhaps, as it should be.” Any potential weaknesses fans should be concerned about? “I don’t see much glaring in terms of what they lack. The running game will be under scrutiny as will some additions to the secondary, but I thought that Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs were two of the best values out there as veteran corners, and both ended up with the Pats. The passing attack could be as explosive as it was two years ago, and I love how the defense has transitioned, especially with Mayo now in the middle. To me they go into the season as favorites.”

Interview With Fran Charles

This column originally appeared in the December 22nd 2010 issue of Patriots Football Weekly.

Charles Admiring Pats From Afar

By Bruce Allen

On Sunday evenings, when you flip over to the NFL Network for a recap of the day’s games around the NFL, you’re greeted by a panel of former players Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin and former NFL coach Steve Mariucci, who weigh in on each game and on how things are developing in the standings.

Leading this trio through the program is Fran Charles, a veteran TV anchor with ties to Boston. Back from 1995 to 1998, Charles was the weekend sports anchor at WHDH-TV, and was also active on local sports radio programs as well.

After moving on from WHDH, Charles has covered boxing for HBO, Golf for USA Network and the NBA on NBC. However, when he arrived at the NFL Network in 2006, he knew he had found a home. “Football has always been my first love, so NFL Network is the perfect place for me” he says.

Part of what makes his job enjoyable is being immersed in football every day, and being able to learn from some who have accomplished so much in the game. “I thought I really knew football before I arrived at NFL Network, but quickly realized once I started showing up for work day in and day out, I still had plenty to learn.” Citing some of the former players he works with on a regular basis, Charles says: “To have the opportunity to be around players like Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, Sterling Sharpe, Kurt Warner, Michael Irvin, Marshall Faulk, and Warren Sapp on a daily basis is invaluable.”

Working with former stars with the stature of those mentioned does present some challenges. Charles cites the need to sometimes push the analysts “to make sure all the great stuff I learn from them makes it on air so the fans can soak up that knowledge as well.”

Showing an awareness of something that viewers often complain about when it comes to sports recap shows featuring former players, Charles notes another challenge noting that sometimes he has to “push these players to do more than just laugh and joke on camera – but talk intelligently and educate viewers about the most popular game in the country.”

Working at the NFL Network has other fringe benefits. Because of his position, he is included in EA Sports Madden NFL 10/11 as himself. Charles originally thought his role would be animated, and was surprised to learn it was actually in HD quality video. He notes that his kids long ago got over their dad being on television, but being a part of Madden is “scoring me big points with 10-and-under crowd in the Charles household!”

Charles touches on why the NFL is so popular right now, noting “it’s a great time to be so close to the game because literally, teams can go from worst to first in back to back years, giving fans hope they won’t have to wait an eternity for a chance to compete for the Lombardi Trophy. If you just look at what the Cardinals, Saints and Bears have accomplished in recent years, these are all teams that have had recent struggles and still found a way to make Super Bowl appearances. It’s awesome to see.” He then tips his cap the local franchise here: “Not every organization can run as smoothly as New England and expect the kind of excellence the Patriots have achieved year in year out – which is a thing of beauty as well – especially in the salary cap era.”

As mentioned previously, Charles worked in Boston for three years during the 1990’s, including the year the Bill Parcells-led Patriots went to the Super Bowl to face Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. Even then, Charles could see that the Kraft family was looking to build something that would endure over the long haul.

“It was more than obvious the Kraft family was building something special with the Patriots for all New England fans,” Charles says. “Of course we (at WHDH) covered the Patriots Super Bowl after the 1996 season extensively, and the dye was cast on the type of players and atmosphere that would set up the franchise for years to come.” He adds, however, that winning three Super Bowl Championships, and nearly posting an undefeated season in 2007 was something few could’ve predicted.

The subject turns to the current rendition of the Patriots, and Charles has been watching them closely. He warns against putting too much stock in preseason prognostications.

“Yes they’ve exceeded expectations – but expectations are just that – expectations. You never really know how a team will do until it hits the field.” He goes on to talk about the unit that some feel will hold the Patriots back in the postseason: “There’s plenty of talk about New England’s “young” secondary and no-name defense, but that unit continues to do just enough. Even though statistically the Pats D has given up a lot of yards – you have to look at WHEN those yards were accumulated and whether they were really relevant to the outcome.”

When it comes to the Patriots offense, Charles is effusive in praise. “The bottom line is this – Tom Brady is having an MVP type season that’s MORE impressive than the year he had in 2007 because the offense is not nearly as high powered as it was during that record breaking year and Brady’s finding a way to get everyone involved. Plus the Pats will rarely beat themselves by making foolish mistakes – they play such SMART football which is always crucial once the post season arrives.” He notes that it’s taken a little while for some of his colleagues at NFL Network to come around to the 2010 Patriots. “In the first half of the season few people here believed in the Patriots, but as the wins continue to pile up – the pendulum has swung.”

Hey, if the analysts at NFL Network are coming around on the Patriots, we might just have something here.

Interview With Mike Freeman

This article originally appeared in the September 29th, 2010 issue of Patriots Football Weekly.

CBSSports.com’s Freeman Tweets It Like It Is

By Bruce Allen

Ask a Patriots fan who they like as a national sports columnist, and I don’t think Mike Freeman would be near the top of that list.

Come to think of it, I really don’t know who that honor would go to, but I do know it would not be Freeman, who has made a name for himself as a contrarian and pot-stirrer over the course of his career, most recently at his current employer, CBSSports.com.

In the past year, Freeman has written two columns highly critical of Patriots receiver Randy Moss, who has been a frequent target of Freeman’s criticism over the course of his career. Last season, Freeman claimed to have charted every Moss play during the game against the Atlanta Falcons, and claimed that on “a significant number of them” Moss didn’t put forth any effort. Freeman called Moss “one of the laziest” receivers in the NFL.

Following the opening game of this season, after Moss spoke about not having a new contract with the Patriots and wishing to remain in New England, Freeman weighed in again on Moss. He first acknowledged that the last time he wrote about Moss, the feedback from this region wasn’t positive. “It seemed the entire New England area wanted to Thelma-and-Louise me off a cliff.” he wrote, and added “Patriots fans sent me some of the nastier e-mails I’ve ever gotten. The New England organization was furious with me. When I covered a Patriots game the following week a close writer friend said he couldn’t talk to me in front of Patriots officials for fear of retribution to him. He was serious.”

His column then went on to talk about how far the Patriots go to protect and baby Moss, and that he repaid them by throwing them under the bus. He predicted that Moss will go into a shell at some point this season.

When I approached Freeman about being interviewed for this piece, he was a little wary of PFW’s association with the Patriots, but agreed to answer a few questions via Twitter direct message, joking “it’ll be your first Twitter interview.” And so it is. (If you’re so inclined, you can follow Freeman at @realfreemancbs.)

Prior to coming to CBS, Freeman had worked for some of the biggest names in the newspaper business, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe and Florida Times-Union.

After a couple of back and forths, (in one of which he stated that college fans were much more brutal to him overall than Patriots fans were.) Freeman knew what I wanted to talk about “You’re circling too much. Do this Muay Thai style, not MMA style. Come right at me. I know you want to ask about Moss.”

OK, So I did.

Just why does he have such a problem with Moss, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game? “Many longtime NFL writers outside of (New England) are huge admirers of his talents and not-so-huge admirers of his antics.” Freeman then added “I’ve covered the sport for 20 years and never seen a guy with so much ability simply waste it. He could have been better than Jerry Rice.”

Freeman noted that in both of Moss’ previous NFL stops, things got ugly at the end. Is there the potential for the same thing to happen here in New England, or can the presence of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady stop that from happening? “I’m not sure anyone can control Randy Moss but if anyone can, it’s Belichick.” Freeman says. He then adds “He’s underrated in how he motivates players.”

The rest of our conversation may come as a surprise to those of you who have a certain image of Freeman. He was very complimentary of Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.

“Belichick is the best coach in the history of the NFL.” He declared. “I’ve written that and stick by it and I think the Spygate stuff was bull—-.”

Whoa. A national media member making that statement on the record? Amazing. So what exactly was, um, “bull” about it? “The reaction to it. Anyone who covers the NFL knows every team does what Belichick did. Every team.”

You’ve heard fellow coaches such a Jimmy Johnson make that statement, but a member of the media? You’re not going to find many, at least on a national level that are willing to say that.

Freeman also said “I admire Belichick’s intellect and how he appreciates and respects NFL history.” He then committed another act of treason to his fellow media members: “I don’t care that he can be crusty with the media.”

Are you warming up to this guy yet? What are his feelings on ownership?

“I also think Kraft is as good an owner as I’ve seen. What he’s done to transform that organization (and stadium) is amazing.”

Freeman has a unique perspective on the transformation here in New England. He was an intern at the Boston Globe, and covered the Patriots way back in the early 1990’s, prior to the Kraft family buying the franchise. He remembers what the team and stadium were like at that time.

“There are only a few organizations in sports history that have come from the depths like (the) Pats. It’s a testament to Kraft and Belichick.”

Coming back to the current edition of the Patriots, it is hard to find a consensus on what they are, and how good can they been. Freeman told me that the “National perception is playoff team” but that he had slightly higher expectations for this year.

“My title game prediction is Baltimore-NE. You have a healthy Brady, you have a chance.”

And that is even with Randy Moss.

Interview With Michael Silver

This column originally appeared in the September 24, 2007 issue of Patriots Football Weekly. 

Silver carving a new niche at Yahoo!

By Bruce Allen

If you’ve read Sports Illustrated over the last 13 years, you’ve likely read a feature by Michael Silver, the Californian sports writer who this season has found himself a weekly guest on WBCN’s “Sylvania Patriots Pregame Show.” Silver, who in conversation seems to typify everything New Englanders think about Californians, (everyone is “Dude,” he’s passionate about surf and sushi) in fact actually provides a nice national voice to the program, which at times sorely needs the perspective.

Silver himself is embarking on a new period of his career, as this summer he left Sports Illustrated, where he had worked since 1994. He is now the lead NFL writer for a little web startup that you might’ve heard of — Yahoo! The web portal has made a serious commitment to its sports section, (sports.yahoo.com) luring in the recent past not only Silver, but also veteran print writers such as Jason Cole and Adrian Wojnarowski, with more high profile hires on the way.

The move from Sports Illustrated to Yahoo! this summer wasn’t an easy one for Silver, who observes: “It is definitely an adjustment, but a very cool one to make in 2007. I still go to games on Sundays and write all night, and I still write during the week, but it’s a different, more immediate, more opinion- and analysis-driven reality, and I like that.”

When asked further about the appeal of moving to the web-only format, Silver had an interesting take on it: “I had 13 great years at SI, but something hit me during this past Super Bowl,” he says, “I was up in the middle of the night writing the main story for the magazine and had some great stuff on Peyton Manning and the Colts that I couldn’t wait to get out there, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I can’t wait till this comes out … on Wednesday or Thursday, in people’s mailboxes.’ Suddenly, that didn’t seem right.”

Silver rates getting to watch his kids play soccer on Saturday mornings now as one of the biggest perks of the new job. He travels to NFL games each week, but the timing works much better now. Part of the new gig involves going up against old friend and colleague Peter King at the start of each week. While King is filing “Monday Morning Quarterback,” Silver is posting “Morning Rush” — a quickfire look around the weekend action, coupled with a ton of reader feedback, and thus far, no weekly Starbucks experiences.

Without knowing the situation, one might think that Silver left SI to perhaps get out from under the shadow of King, but he insists otherwise.

“Believe it or not, one of the coolest things about this is that I get to go head-up with Peter on Monday mornings, partly because he’s a good friend who has been so amazingly helpful in my career, and partly because he’s The King,” Silver said. “He not only has owned Monday mornings on the web for a long, long time, he created the template. It’s his fault — and part of this was our SI write-all-night ethos at work — that I’m writing eight zillion words instead of a tidy 1,500. Not only is he great at it, but give him a lot of credit for recognizing the importance of the Internet very early on and running with it.

“When I was deciding whether to stay or go, Peter understood what a great opportunity the Yahoo gig was, even though we both wanted to keep working together. He said, ‘A lot of people are going to tell you you’re crazy if you take this, but you know what? They’re completely missing the point.’ Then we got sad and said, ‘Who are we going to talk to all night on Sundays now?’ And then it hit us: We’ll still IM and talk in the middle of the night, because we’re the only idiots who’ll be awake.”

In one of his final assignments for Sports Illustrated this spring, Silver wrote about former Oklahoma University and Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer, portraying him in a much more favorable light than anything you had likely read before. Switzer also now finds himself in a new medium as part of the Fox “NFL Sunday Pregame Show,” teaming up to do a segment called “Grumpy Old Coaches” with someone who has been both a friend and a critic, his predecessor in Dallas, Jimmy Johnson. While critics might think that Switzer will have little to offer in the way of football commentary on the show, Silver has a different opinion, noting that he saw the first installment of the segment, and liked it, but thinks that it will get much better. He also inserts a Patriots connection into his observation: “Barry is a great, natural, unpretentious storyteller with more material than I could ever convey, and he and Jimmy go way, way back. They need to tell stories like the one where they were both in drag along with a bunch of Chuck Fairbanks’ other assistants — they hit the town thinking they were going to get fired, dressed as chicks, and got drunker and drunker, and comedy ensued.”

That might not be a mental image most of us wish to contemplate, but Silver cites the story as an example of Switzer’s strengths. He says Switzer “isn’t one of those coaches trying to hog the spotlight. He believes that great players and assistants are why games are won, for the most part, and he’ll tell you that without any hesitation. And he doesn’t take himself, or the game, so seriously, and that’ll translate well to TV.”

Silver is a guy who clearly doesn’t take himself too seriously either, and that also seems to be working out pretty well for him. Taking the chance to leap from a storied print magazine to one of those new-fangled Internet companies might seem like a risk to some, but for Silver it seems like a perfect fit.