Around the newsrooms of the Wall Street Journal, where I used to work, the saying was that the New York Times could do two things for a reporter that the Journal couldn’t: make him or her rich and famous. That said, however, not every Journal minion yearned to make the jump to our main journalistic rival.
I was a prime example. During my tour with the paper in New York (1966-69) I received a feeler to join the Times’ metropolitan staff, and while I was flattered I turned it down without moving past the hand-holding stage.
One of my reasons for saying no was geographical: going to work for the Times would have wedded me to New York, and while I enjoyed my stay in that wonderful, messy city I didn’t wish to make it my family’s permanent home. The other reason, I confess, was a reluctance to test the unknown. I’d been with the Journal for about five years at that point and felt that my abilities were being recognized and appreciated. I was loath to have to prove myself to a whole new cast of editors.
I never regretted my choice (well, hardly ever), but it had nothing to do with my estimation of the Times. It may have been IA to the Journal’s 1 in quality or vice versa (the ranking depended on whom you asked and when), but the Times was and is a great newspaper by any measure. Now that I’m retired it’s my main window to the world. I pay upwards of $800 a year for a subscription and believe the money to be well spent.
I don’t buy the Times primarily for its sports coverage; I get the paper’s national edition, which is thin in that department. Further, I’m not much interested in the doings of Mets, Jets, Nets or the other New York teams that consume much of its space. True to its mission, though, the Times applies some real journalism to sports, delving into subjects and issues most papers merely scan if they mention at all. If you want to be informed about the National Football League’s actions (or inactions) on player concussions, reading the Times is a must. Ditto about the long-running athletics scandals at Florida State University and the University of North Carolina, medication abuse in horse racing and the chicanery in FIFA, soccer’s world-governing body. Compared with those of the Times, most other sportswriters are kids wearing propeller beanies.
The best piece I’ve read in quite a while on the NFL, and on the costs of playing there, was in the Times’ on December 18. It was by staffer Bill Pennington about Chris Snee, a New York Giants’ offensive guard who’d retired at this campaign’s start after a 10-year run in the league.
Snee was not the sort of player most fans notice. About the only times the TV cameras focus on offensive linemen is when they incur holding penalties and he didn’t get many of those, never much rising above the anonymity of his position despite two Super Bowl rings and four Pro Bowl selections. He’s best known as the son-in-law of Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ head coach, and for being a kind of iron man, missing just one start in an eight-year span (2005-12) before injuries ended his 2013 season and led to his leaving the game.
But behind Snee’s indestructible façade was a medical history that might make an Iraq War veteran flinch. The physical toll the NFL exacts starts before some players take the field. Like many football big men, Snee wasn’t naturally big, and it took year-round weight lifting and gorge eating for him to maintain the 300-frame required to be an offensive lineman in the league.
That subject was familiar to me because in 1994 I did a piece on Jay Hilgenberg, the center on the Chicago Bears’ 1985 championship team whose 13-season NFL career had just ended because of a heart attack he suffered at age 35. He blamed the attack in large part on playing the strenuous sport about 50 pounds above what he considered to be his natural weight of 230 pounds. “I didn’t eat until I was full, I ate until I was tired,” he said ruefully. Snee told Pennington pretty much the same thing. “To keep my weight over 300 pounds I basically had to eat something bad for me all the time,” said he.
Snee’s list of medical procedures includes full-scale surgeries on both hips and three on his right elbow, arthroscopic surgeries on his knees, regular epidermal shots for bulging back discs and cortisone injections with foot-long needles to lubricate sore joints. He carries in his cell phone a picture of a dinner plate filled with the bone fragments removed in his last elbow surgery; I didn’t know there was that much bone in the joint. He still can’t straighten the elbow, and, at age 32, his weak hips make walking down stairs “unpredictable and hazardous.” He’ll need hip replacements eventually.
All that was in addition to the normal banging around every NFLer experiences in season. “The first couple of years in the league, the day after the game would be fine,” said Chris’s wife, Kate. “Five years after that he wouldn’t feel good for a couple of days afterward. Ten years in, he’d be miserable for a full week.”
Snee considers himself lucky that he sustained only one concussion he knew about, although he’s probably aware that the cumulative effect of lesser blows to the head might lead to problems down the road. He’s lost 55 pounds since his July retirement and says he feels better all around. He’s running two miles a day, something that would have been impossible six months ago, and enjoys playing with his three sons, aged 11, 8 and 4.
The holder of a degree in accounting from Boston College, he’s pondering his employment future, although his last Giants’ contract, signed in 2008, paid him $40 million, meaning that if he exercises normal prudence making ends meet never should be a problem. He told Pennington he was glad he played football but also is glad he’s done.
“I’ve had stress for the last how many years?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m not pushing myself now.”
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