Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pete Axthelm: The Ax

Lebron James. Why'd he play so poorly against the Celtics? What does it mean for his legacy? Will he ever win a title? What team will he play for next year? I don't know and I don't care. But good grief there was no escape from Lebron-mania the other week. Day after day, hour after hour. Has sports media ever been so all-consumed by anything like this? I thought the Peyton Manning Super Bowl stuff was bad. But it was nothing compared to this Lebron thing. Everybody with a sports platform offered their answers to the above questions with utter certainty although they couldn't possibly have known the answers. The questions aren't currently answerable. I've never seen or heard anything like it. ToO summarize it all in a quick visual, just imagine a bunch of gums flapping and spittle flying in front of a giant screen of endless Lebron highlights.  

We're not big hoops fans here at Past Interference. The National Football League, the greatest sports league that has ever existed or ever will exist, will always be our primary focus. So why am I even bringing up Lebron James? Because the whole Lebron saga brought into focus for me just how different the sports media world is now compared to my youth. Not necessarily worse. Just different.

Today we've got a number of shows on TV featuring sportswriters arguing with each other. These are ostensibly supposed to be "America writ large" as they say. You know, "we're just like you and your buddies sitting around and talking about sports". But there's one big difference. You actually like your friends.  And you enjoy talking sports with them. Compare that the experience of watching these shows featuring people who, apparently, don't like the folks they're talking to and don't enjoy talking about sports at all. One of the worst offenders is Skip Bayless. I don't get why he goes on ESPN in the first place. When athletes are caught up in scandal, it irritates him to no end. If a player gives a disappointing performance, Bayless is irritated. If someone disagrees with his opinion, he's irritated. Having to show up on the set? Irritating. And having to watch someone who's so irritable? Yeah, it's irritating.

Now if you don't get enough of Bayless on TV there's always the books he cranked about the Dallas Cowboys. He got himself in trouble for this one where he disseminated unsubstantiated rumors about Troy Aikman's personal life. Of course Bayless defended himself by claiming Barry Switzer was the one spreading the rumors and Bayless was just writing about what mean 'ol Switzer was doing, in the process showing just how badly the "ethics" our hopeless political media have infected our sports media. I didn't read that book. I'd already soured on Bayless after reading his earlier book on Tom Landry

An author couldn't be more condescending about his subject if he tried. The book's not completely without merit. But the way Bayless talks about Landry, one of the greatest coaches of all-time, is just...yeah, it's irritating. As you may know, Landry had a bit of a reputation as a reserved, straight-laced, unemotional person. Or as Duane Thomas ungenerously put it, a "plastic man". As you may also know, Landry was a devout Christian in life and apparently could speak of his faith quite movingly to groups of fellow Christians. To Bayless, Landry walling himself off from his players instead of holding their hands and sharing the Good News somehow represents hypocrisy of the highest sort. To us normal people it's obvious that Landry, a consummate professional, knew his job wasn't to minister to his player's souls but to get them to win as many freaking football games as possible, something incidentally that he did just about better than any football coach who ever lived. To Bayless, 270 wins, 20 straight winning seasons, five Super Bowl appearances and two championships aren't enough. Right.

Believe it or not watching Bayless is actually a joy compared to the chore of seeing one Jay Mariotti in action. Bayless may irritate, but at least you get that he might occasionally respect the opinions of the people he's debating on TV. Not so Mariotti. Has there ever been anyone this smug? With every smirk, with every shake of his hand, with every gesture, Mariotti communicates nothing but his utter contempt for everyone who disagrees with him. In other words, he's dismissive. And when confronted with the spectacle of someone that dismissive that often you do what? That's right.  You dismiss them! And I know I'm not the only one.

Like I said it's a different world now. When I was a kid if you wanted sports commentary you didn't get it from TV.  The first guy I remember popping up on television to offer commentary on a sporting event rather than call the event was Jack Whitaker. CBS would always drag him out to give us some high-minded verbiage on golf and horse racing. To me he was just a boring old guy in a loud jacket waxing eloquent about stuff I could have cared less about but, to be fair, I was a kid and hardly in his target audience of golfing grandpas. But Whitaker was a rarity.  If you wanted sports commentary you got it from magazines and newspapers. I was lucky. My hometown paper, the Miami Herald, had Edwin Pope writing for them.  A man thrilled by the best in sports and disgusted by the worst. He was insightful, respectful, perceptive. Clearly not someone cut out for TV work at all.  I also got lucky with magazines too; my dad subscribed to Newsweek for years. As a kid the dull dry articles about high finance and world affairs held no appeal for me, bo-ring, but Newsweek had one of the best sports columnists around, maybe the best sports columnist around, Pete Axthelm. He could really write. Just amazing stuff.

I don't know which sportswriter gets the credit for making the first official historic leap to television commentary but the first sportswriter I personally remember making an impact on TV was Axthelm. NBC hired him for their NFL studio shows and when they let him go ESPN snapped him up. I know it's hard to believe but back in Axthelm's heyday ESPN Gameday was only on for an hour and featured just Chris Berman, Tom Jackson and Axthelm. The Ax certainly didn't look like somebody cut out for TV work. He was pudgy and balding and looked like everybody's uncle. While quite witty he wasn't there as a joketeller like we saw years later with Monday Night Football's aborted Dennis Miller experiment. Axthelm knew his football.

I remember after Dan Hampton retired from the Bears Axthelm matter-of-factly stated that while other Chicago defenders might have gotten more press in a few years it was going to be Hampton quietly entering the Hall of Fame (Ax was right). Another time, after the underdog Dolphins were humiliated at home in a late 80's Monday Night Football game, Axthelm sadly and correctly noted that this was the kind of game that the Dolphins used to win. But the funny stuff he said is what has stayed with me. When the Steelers were making a playoff run a decade after their dynasty ended Axthelm pointed out how those old Steeler greats had names that seemed practically scripted: Jack Ham, Lynn Swann, Mel Blount, Mean Joe Greene, and he wondered if the Steelers could win now with guys named Bubby and Weegie

When Green Bay and Tampa Bay were both horrible in the Eighties and played each other twice a year, Axthelm famously nicknamed the series the "Bay of Pigs". Berman loved that one and used it all the time. My own favorite Axthelm on-air moment was probably his most legendary one. As I've written about before, back in the 70's and 80's it was not uncommon for NFL placekickers to hail from foreign lands. Often a land where futbol is far more popular than football, such as Mexico. And in 1987-1988, three different Mexicans, the Zendejas brothers, Luis, Max, and Tony, each kicked for NFL teams. But none of the brothers turned out to be models of kicking consistency and for awhile every single week one of them was missing a critical kick that cost his team the game. As the misses mounted Axthelm began slamming the brothers every week until he finally snapped and ranted in mock exasperation: "Enough with the Zendejases. Luis , Max, Tony, Julio, Willie and Waylon. How many are there? No more Zendejases!" It was some funny stuff. Axthelm picked the pointspread winners every week and no doubt the misses hurt his picks. More than that they probably cost him some actual money.  A lot of money. 

You certainly don't have to read between the lines of this tribute column to figure out Axthelm had a serious gambling problem.  So his "mock" exasperation with the Zendejas Bros and their missed kicks was probably all too real. I said before that Axthelm didn't necessarily look like somebody made for TV and TV wasn't necessarily made for Axthelm either. The few minutes he was allotted on TV each week couldn't possibly have been enough for him to fully explore his subject the way he could in his columns or his books. And the time he spent working for the networks no doubt cut into his writing time. Axthelm wrote several books in the 1970's, including his classic The City Game, but I don't think he wrote any other books after he became a television fixture. The frequency of his columns dwindled as well. It's understandable though; I'm sure he made a lot more money from TV than from writing.

His writing, his TV work and his life all ended when he died at age 47. From liver failure. Which suggests gambling hadn't been his only problem.

All these years later I still miss seeing him on TV. Nowadays it's all a blur of yelling and arguing and people talking over each other and "controversial" opinions and attention grabbing and ignorance and stupidity. I can't tell you how much I'd like to have Pete Axthelm's eloquence and wit back.


sptrfn said...

A memorable comment from Axthelm came during the 1987 season, when he said on NFL Live that Steeler QB Mark Malone could play for the Celtics because he perfected the bounce pass. Hilarious.

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Anonymous said...

yes, loved him

his picks were great too

Anonymous said...

pete was my grandpa, this was great and interesting for me to read. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know who the guy is with Pete Axthelm...holding the beer) the picture?

Anonymous said...

It's Billy Carter, president Carter's beer swilling brother.