Chicago Bears
Walter Payton

In a game played by men, Walter Payton played like a god. Or so was the allure that he presented. Not the biggest of athletes, Payton didn’t redefine the running back position in the way that Jim Brown did, nor did he set records that would stand the test of the time. But more importantly, he exemplified the most remarkable characteristic in a human being — heart and soul. Payton did carry a genuine heart, and having once grooved on Soul Train, he also carried swagger. He’s the man your parents want you to model your life around, and one the NFL has honored as the marker for every seasons Man of the Year award. But as we look back on Payton’s life, we begin to understand that no man, nor any god in the canon of antiquity, was perfect. His story, like so many others was cut tragically short and was immortalized as a result.

Born in Columbia, Mississippi in 1954, Walter Payton was well-accustomed to racism, but never paid it much attention. Columbia High, where he’d attend, didn’t even desegregate till his junior year, but instead of reverting to the growing cries of ‘black power’, he’d begin to bridge the culture gap on his football team through casual jokes. A precursor to the prankster we remember him as today, he had a certain carefree charm that could fix any day. On the football field, though, he was a force to be reckoned with. He’d go on to play at Jackson State, an HBCU where he’d flourish into the fourth overall pick by the Chicago Bears in the 1975 NFL Draft.


Many players close to Payton would sometimes characterize his demeanor as childish, maybe even charming. However, sweetness is perhaps the best way we all remember him. He’d joke with teammates, one time shouting, “your sweetness is your weakness!” then writing it on the blackboard before every practice. He amused some and annoyed others.  The moniker would fit better than a series of names from ‘Bubba’ to ‘Little Monk’, as Payton biographer Jeff Pearlman would account in the aptly titled book, Sweetness.

"Never die easy."

“After a lifetime of imperfect monikers that never quite worked, here was one that fit perfectly. The smiley, goofy, soft-spoken Payton was a sweet person. The cutting, dashing, swiveling Payton was a sweet runner.” Regardless of the fun and games, this wasn’t the mighty Bears of old — even worse than we know them in the present day. For all intents and purposes, the Chicago Bears were a dumpster fire in the ‘70s, a laughingstock that was a shell of its former self. Pearlman added that the Bears would go from a team whose history was “the early history of the game itself”, to “a forgettable second-tier club.”


Payton was drafted precisely to fix that. His first game, however, would be a disaster as the Bears had no offensive line, no leadership, nor any care from the team to fix it. With eight carries, Payton would log zero yards in his first game, which would result in a brushfire by the Chicago media. His early seasons would largely mimic that of the Bears—forgettable, with a conveyor belt of coaches that were more concerned about their drinking than winning.


Nonetheless, players, such as linebacker Larry Ely, began to notice the sheer talent and work ethic that Payton would show in each practice, starting with his athleticism. “When he got tackled, four…five…six people would have his legs, his neck, his arms, and he’d bounce back like a rubber ball to the huddle. How in the world did his ligaments and muscles take the pounding and bounce right back? You looked at him and wondered how any human being could be blessed with such a body.” This drive would fit right into his playing ethos: “Never die easy.”

Like Columbia High, the Bears were also bitterly divided between the races. Payton would intervene in his usual jokester way, sometimes to the chagrin of his teammates. Rookie quarterback Bob Avellini would note that Payton was a “nice guy, without a doubt, but childish. We’d be working out in shorts and he’d pull your shorts down. Maybe it’s funny the first time. By the fifth time, it’s not.” This childishness would become a prevalent theme within his life, as his hidden insecurities would continually resurface, such as his constant need for approval. Avellini recalled a game where Payton’s backup would log in a “forty-yard gain, and everyone was clapping. But Walter was pissed. He turned to me and said, ‘Those are my yards.’”


Having once chased and broken Jim Brown’s iconic rushing record, sometimes the Bears could not count on Payton when needing to stop the clock. Instead of running out of bounds he would simply keep pounding to pad his own stats. He “could be selfish in some very ugly ways,” recalled another team member. This selfishness would hark to his famous outburst in Super Bowl XX, where he felt he was snubbed a touchdown, despite a handful of players, including the giant teddy bear in William “Refrigerator” Perry, who logged arguably the most memorable score during that game. On one end, it would make sense that Payton, who literally battered his body and carried the franchise for eleven years till that point, would seek the validation of a Super Bowl touchdown. However, on the other end, as Bears coach, Mike Ditka would reassert: “I can understand [the whining] if you play golf or tennis or billiards. You’re one-on-one with the world. But we’re a forty-nine-man sport.”


Payton indeed was a phenomenal runner, with a certain fire that could seldom be extinguished. But what he was running from, still continues to puzzle the football community. There always seemed to be a void that he could not fill, not even his twenty-three year marriage to Connie Norwood could bring a semblance of balance. While the running back never partook in drugs or heavy drinking, his drug of choice was fast cars, shopping, hunting, and fame. Contrary to public opinion, Payton, too, succumbed to a vice that taints many star athletes—adultery—as he’d meet a young woman by the name of Angelina Smythe at a 1984 auto show.

"Payton was the clichéd celebrity—surrounded by admirers, yet alone."

He’d regularly call her to fill the emptiness of his marriage, that was far past a physical lust, but an emotional hunger too. For his marriage with Connie was strictly “mechanical” in that he certainly provided all that his wife and kids needed, but would spend the majority of his off-time elsewhere. Payton ended up impregnating Smythe, who he’d in-turn cut off in secrecy by signing a $50,000 trust along with child support. Despite constantly showing love to his two kids, Jarrett and Brittney, Nigel was not so lucky.


It was evident to his small circle of true friends, that Payton suffered from severe depression, that on occasion could have easily ended in suicide. Despite the numerous fans that donned his famous 34 jersey, or the acclaim from his peers, no one really knew Walter Payton, the man. Not even his wife, who upon the death of her husband, refused to believe the truth of Nigel Smythe. Connie had a fixed narrative of the entire marriage, where she always believed that Walter was a devout Christian—which he once was—but the emptiness that came with his fame—tainted that reality. Friends would urge Payton to seek therapy, in which he’d play off—heroes didn’t need therapy. It’s a tragic tale to a genuinely good man who did a great deal for his fans and community. Make no mistake, Walter Payton was a great player and a great man, one that was constantly giving back to the community, by supporting children’s literacy programs and would further help these groups through the Walter Payton Foundation. But often times, even the greatest of men fall to unfortunate mistakes.


Toward the later years of Payton’s life, he sought to instill lessons within his kids that may combat the corruption that comes with money and fame. Especially with Jarret, who he’d have working summers at Payton Power, where Jarrett would tirelessly toil away for minimum wage. Walter wanted his son to learn the merits of hard work, much like he learned growing up in Mississippi. Even with race, Payton took the high road. The most prominent incident being his father’s tragic death in 1979, where Edward Payton was wrongfully arrested by police under the suspicion of driving under the influence, thrown into jail and died a few hours later due to a rare aneurism. Walter was understandably called on by civil rights leaders to hold the white officers accountable, but he would steer the other way.

Tragically himself, Walter Payton passed away on November 1, 1999 due to a rare liver disease that stunned the world. Like a fallen hero, he now lives through the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, which seeks to help underprivileged communities along with providing awareness for organ donations. Despite being deeply depressed himself, Payton never shuttered to show adoration to his fans and critics — embracing them in moments that he understood could have a lifetime of difference. In more subtle ways, he also stood up for civil rights, by helping integrate his high school and pro teams.


Like all imperfect idols — from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, Tupac to Amy Winehouse—we will never truly know Walter, as his legend has been suspended in time, never to see the light of redemption. So every year when we witness the new Walter Payton “Man of the Year”, let’s remember the little we did know — the good, the bad and the ugly — and remember none of us are perfect, and if we have another day, how can we change that for the better?


(01) Art by Billy Kheel

(02) by NFL

(03) by Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

(04) by Ed Wagner/Chicago Tribune

(05) by CBS Chicago

The Legend of Pinto Ron

Buffalo Bills
Pinto Ron

Every city likes to claim it has the best fans in the world. It’s almost strange to find a club that doesn’t market itself in this way. Buffalo, I’d argue, is an exception. There has to be something in the air, in the wings, something, that sets their fans apart from all else in the NFL. Bills fans are as passionate as they come—despite having never won a championship. Not to mention, having gone to the Super Bowl four consecutive years….and losing all four. Ponder that for a second…imagine your team going to the big dance four straight years and losing each one. Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s perhaps the only streak of its kind in all of sports, one that would break even the most loyal of fans.

Despite this all, the Bills Mafia, as they like to call themselves nowadays, persevere and support their team as if they were defending champions every year. To understand this fervor, I sought to find a true Bills die-hard who could properly unearth the roots of this passion. Enter Ken Johnson, an almost mythic tailgater who has experienced this history every stretch of the way. Known the country over as “Pinto Ron,” an accidental name given to him in a 2000 interview, Johnson hasn’t missed a game in person since 1994, or as he says, “in real time—radio, TV, internet or person—since 1982.” He adds that he’s been to the “the last 423 consecutive Bills games no matter where they are.” Attending the last 423 consecutive of anything would be an impressive feat, let alone a pro football game.


Johnson isn’t alone—the Bills have a strong fanbase all across the country, one that’s willing to back their team anywhere in the tens of thousands. The reasons for this lie in the city’s booming past. “Buffalo used to be a big city. Now it’s a small city, because Buffalo was a steel city. It was complete steel, up until about the ’70s. 50% of all the residents worked at the steel mill, or businesses that supported the steel mills.” The steel industry slowly disappeared after the ‘70s, which caused many of its residents to migrate to growing cities like Houston, Charlotte and Dallas.

“When it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.”

“You know, they may have left Buffalo, but they didn’t leave Buffalo behind. So they continue to be Bills fans—I’m talking rabid Bills fans.” There really isn’t an away game for a team like the Bills, not when you can pack a stadium with over 25,000 of your own fans, like they did in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans in 2019.


People change cities all the time, so what makes rooting for the Bills so special? Johnson claims that part of the loyalty has to do with the general mentality of the Northeast Corridor. A hardened spirit that’s present in cities from Buffalo and Cleveland, to Philadelphia and Boston. “During winter, we spend a lot of times in our houses. When you’re in your house, what’s the focus of your attention? Generally, the TV. So people just gravitate towards their sports teams to break up the monotony of winter. You just make the habit of it and become a fanatic.” Now you need to understand that it doesn’t just snow up there, it snows a hell of a lot—almost half the year. It’s just one the many elements that contributes to the persevering attitude ingrained in its current and former residents. An attitude that former Bills head coach, Mark Levy would proudly tell his team, “when it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.”


Just like Buffalo’s steel-working past, the Bills were once booming in the days of coach Levy, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly and that high-octane no huddle offense known as the “K-Gun.” Well, booming, at least up until the Super Bowl. Jokes aside, the Bills won a record 101 times in the ‘90s, the most of any team in that decade, and that’s definitely something to be proud of, considering the great teams that included Jimmie Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys, George Seifert’s San Francisco 49ers and Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos.

As a veteran tailgater, Johnson and his crew have been “up to shenanigans” as he says, since 1985. Sed-shenanigans include using a toilet bowl as a beer cooler; pots, pans, hub caps—anything really—to grill on the hood of his Ford Pinto, a once-family car turned into a dedicated tailgating whip. Other customs include getting doused in ketchup and mustard before games to offering anyone brave enough to take a shot of 100 proof cherry liquor out of a bowling ball. A lot of people want in on that shot, in 2019 alone, he went through 145 of those bottles. All of these bizarre traditions developed organically and serve as a precursor to the table-slamming frenzy of today’s Bills tailgating.“There was a couple of kids, who actually just got out of law school (to tell you the truth), who wanted to figure a way to get on Deadspin. So they did the table crashing and made it on the site and kept doing it with different outfits, and switching people, so it seemed like different people doing it.” Couple the viral movement of the Bills Mafia and the fans have made it known that they are the show, not the players, not the results.


When asked what his favorite moment was, Johnson amusingly remembers the 1991 AFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Raiders. The Bills were up 42-3 at halftime “and you’re sitting there in the stands, with an entire half of football left to play, knowing that the Bills are going to the Super Bowl. That whole second half was just a giant party inside the stadium. No one cared about the game anymore.” Fast-forward to the present and head coach Sean McDermott has a young motivated Bills squad looking to those teams of the ‘90s to combat decades of disappointment. However, speaking with Johnson and you really just forget about the anxious chase of winning a title. If titles are the cherry on top, it paints an interesting picture on how much players and fans forget about all the good stuff beneath. Memories and experience are what championships are all about and they aren’t just formed in one game or one season, the Buffalo Bills are perhaps the best fanbase in the league to teach you that.


This article featured as part of the series, SUPERFANS, in SPIRAL Issue I.


(01) Images Courtesy of Pinto Ron

Tom Brady’s Dark, Glorious American Dream

New England Patriots
Tom Brady

Because we’re millennial sports fans who grew up in suburban New England, few subjects have unified my hometown group chat like Tom Brady, whose Patriots career was a constant in our lives from ages ten to thirty. When Tom won, it felt like we did too. But over the past few years — even before he left for Tampa Bay — Tom began to polarize the chat.


“Very torn about this game,” one friend texted of Brady’s first game against the Patriots. “Want the Pats to turn things around but also want to drink the tears of the Tom haters.”


“Tom is insufferable,” another wrote. “It feels like in comics where the superhero becomes the dark version of themselves and is twice as powerful.”


I agree that there seems to be a dark-arts quality about the quarterback these days. We’re running out ways to explain his career that don’t include barter with the devil. What happened to Tom Brady?

It’s dusk in Tampa, and Brady is at the wheel of his Bugatti Veyron, cruising to his $29M bayfront estate from Raymond James Stadium, where he spent the afternoon laser-blasting the Chicago Bears, 38-3, and founding the 600 TD club, a threshold no one else may ever reach. His lithe body is swathed in custom fabrics, sinewy hands and gaunt face tanned by the Floridian sun. At home he’ll be greeted by his bright, smiling offspring and luminous wife, who, in addition to being considered one of the world’s most beautiful women, is also twice as rich as him. Palm trees strobe past a darkening sky. Life is good, but Brady is ripshit pissed.


“FIFTY FUCKING POINTS!” he fumes. “It was right there to have! How did we not score fifty?!”


It’s a good question. At the absurd, breathlessly cited age of 44, Brady has three more championships than the next-closest guy on the list, and he owns the career passing yards and touchdown marks, the two most prestigious records for his position. He’s the consensus Greatest of All Time quarterback in a culture pathologically obsessed with the distinction of individual greatness, and his resume gets him an interview for greatest American athlete period — up there with Jordan and Tiger, Serena and Phelps.


Still, Brady isn’t satisfied. To this day, he famously practices, prepares, and competes like an undrafted rookie on a non-guaranteed contract. An ad campaign for Hertz’s new fleet of rental Teslas features Brady plugged into a charging port — the joke being he’s a robot.


“The reality is that I’m very human,” Brady insists in a recent interview, which is exactly what a robot would say.

It’s not just Brady’s play that that seems immortal. A heavily-upvoted tile-collage posted to Reddit with the caption “I think Tom Brady may be a vampire” compares the QB’s team headshots across the years. His face does appear to change, but not from age. He morphs from a sort of doughy, goofy (but still handsome) 20-something with a bad haircut into a sentient Ken doll — lineless and gaunt and eerily symmetrical.


The game for Brady seems to have shifted. As the title of his 2018 docuseries, Tom vs. Time, suggests, this is about more than winning football games. Like some power-hungry villain in a cautionary myth, it seems that Tom Brady wants to live forever. Brady’s ruthless ambition is fetishized by fans and media alike, but it’s getting increasingly cringe and unrelatable to an alienating degree — at least among my friends. How is he doing it? And what’s this guy’s deal? It seems that Brady doesn’t think he’s very good, and he’s haunted by the life he narrowly avoided.


To the question of how: Brady has co-signed a whole book, available in paperback on his website for $20.00 USD, that details his preferred answer. He’s built an entire health coaching/fitness gadget business on the bet that we’ll buy his story — that his freakish longevity and youthful sheen are thanks to a cutting-edge health and wellness regimen that includes eating lots of vegetables, drinking plenty of water, doing fitness band workouts, receiving frequent massages, and — you might want to sit down for this — getting a good night’s sleep.

“I don’t think my body’s going to give out. I really don’t.”

No doubt these things have helped. But Brady’s formula is mostly common sense, and it’s hard to believe that his peers, fellow elite contestants in the sport equivalent of Squid Game, aren’t taking basic care of their bodies too. There must be more to the story.


Many have pointed to Brady’s relative injury luck — but relative is the operative term here. Upon inspection, Brady’s medical record looks like a script for Saw 10. The first half of his career was plagued by chronic issues to his throwing shoulder, which he had surgically repaired in 2004, and for which he spent a cumulative 116 weeks on the injury report. The famous 2008 ACL tear that robbed him of the chance to avenge 18-1 has kept his left knee in a brace ever since. He’s broken his right foot in two places, lacerated his right hand, and, as of a 2020 survey by ESPN, amassed 152 weeks listed as injured for 16 different body parts.


In May 2021, it was reported that Brady won his seventh ring on a torn meniscus, which he repaired with offseason surgery. And that’s just what got reported. Brady told Howard stern that he played the 2005 AFC Championship Game with a sports hernia that caused his testicle to swell to the size of an orange. Who knows how many undocumented concussions he’s sustained?


Still, Brady belligerently asserts that his body will carry him as far as he wishes. “It’s not going to be physical,” he recently predicted of his eventual retirement. “I don’t think my body’s going to give out. I really don’t.”

To address the elephant in the room: Because football is an especially violent game and viewership hinges on star players’ health, the NFL is notoriously lenient on the issue of performance enhancing substances, so it has a vested interest in doing things like notifying players of their testing dates far enough in advance that they can get clean in time to pass. There’s precedent for stories of star players linked to illegal substances being magically swept under the rug — Ray Lewis’ 2012 dalliance with deer antler spray, the 2015 HGH shipment that Peyton Manning blamed on his wife. Julian Edelman, Brady’s close friend and summer training partner at the QB’s remote Montana hideaway, was less lucky, but still pretty lucky; he received a PED suspension in 2018, a four-game wrist-slap that paid off with fresh, roid-infused legs later that season for a Super Bowl MVP trophy.


It’s entirely possible that Brady cycles in the offseason to stay on top of his game; in a sport so harshly competitive, who could blame him? But this amounts to speculative rumormongering. There’s no off-the-field smoking gun. The answer seems to be a matter of skepticism, and it comes down to how cynical you are about the winners in the game of American success.


There’s an easy but rarely made argument that pound-for-pound, Tom Brady is NOT the GOAT QB. His rivals uniformly outrank him across major rate-based indicators. Peyton has 5 League MVP awards to Brady’s 3 (though Brady may gain a notch this year). The single season passing TD record is Peyton’s, not Brady’s. Both Peyton and Brees have thrown for more yards in a single season than Brady, and both have greater career per-attempt yardage and touchdown figures. Brady is 20th in career completion percentage, 25th in touchdown percentage, and 29th in yards per pass attempt. At the level of the single pass, game, season, or even stretch of multiple years, there have been better QBs. What’s allowed Brady separation — apart from the size of his trophy case, of course — is sheer time. Maybe a part of him knows this.

“If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by,” writes the Ancient Chinese writer and general Sun Tzu in his military treatise, “The Art of War,” a known source of inspiration for the Belichick-Brady Patriots. Brady is the undisputed GOAT of waiting by the river.


A theory: Tom Brady is the less the product of his special body or technique than the inevitable outcome of a culture obsessed with creating him: the death cult of American success, which always finds and anoints a winner. If that sounds extreme, here’s Brady himself, salivating over the rigors of the NFL season:


“It weeds the people out. It weeds the weak-minded out. It weeds the physically weak out. The tough guys rise up.”


Brady would know. There’s a whole documentary about how he almost never got a shot to play in the league, “The Brady Six,” named for the six quarterbacks selected before him in the 2000 draft, and the round he was finally picked. In a now-famous interview shot, Brady wipes away tears as he recalls finally being taken at pick 199. The image has been gleefully immortalized in memes by his anti-fans, but lost in the spectacle of Crying Tom Brady are the words he speaks in that moment:

“I was like, ‘I don’t have to be an insurance salesman!’”

He frames his excitement in negative terms, exulting not in the job he got, but the one he narrowly avoided. Part of being picked, for Brady — part of high-status success for anyone in any domain of our world — is the powerful relief that comes with the chance to spend your life doing something you actually enjoy. This is rarely talked about, because it’s both obvious and painful: how few of us get to obey the old wisdom to “do what you love”, forced instead to sell our time in exchange for the right to live.


The Brady Six takes the implicit position that Tom Brady is Goodness and Rightness incarnate, reducing the six QBs taken before him to punchlines in his conquering legend. A favorite target is Giovanni Carmazzi who, despite going three rounds before Brady, never started an NFL game. “Givoanni Carmazzi does not own a television,” the narrator coolly reports. “He describes himself as a yoga-exercising farmer.” The camera frames a long close-up of a goat chewing on cud. “He has five goats.” The message is clear: Because he took his small football fortune and went to live in the country, thus betraying the sacrosanct assumption that winning NFL games is the meaning of life, and because he doesn’t watch TV, Gio Carmazzi is a loser who deserves to be ridiculed. Brady is the GOAT; Carmazzi herds them.


Sports media uniformly accepts this view, but in reality, there’s no value difference between being a seven-time Super Bowl Champ and a goat-farming yogi. If anything, it’s easier to argue that Brady’s life path, with its high-carbon yacht-and-mansion lifestyle, is a worthier subject for criticism than Carmazzi’s quiet, low-impact existence.

Rather than exceptional virtue, Brady’s relentless workaholic perfectionism seems to stem from a deep sense of insecurity:


“I was a backup quarterback on an 0-7 freshman team. I was seventh on the depth chart at Michigan. I was the 199th pick and the fourth-string quarterback for the Patriots,” Brady explains. “And I know there’s someone out there that’s trying to take my job. And I always said, ‘if I ever get a shot in pro football, I’m never getting off that field.’”


Maybe Brady’s career owes as much to his internal qualities as the external forces that shaped them, and far from God’s most special boy, Brady is the predictable output of a cutthroat algorithm that rewards the darkest impulses of the American psyche: ruthlessness, domination, winning at all costs.


This, I think, is the real tragedy of Brady’s public persona: Because the specific fear of losing your job (and the general fear of inadequacy it connects to) is almost universally relatable in our social order, Brady could have been a much more relatable, humane figure to many people — an humanitarian icon in the mold of Ali or Abdul-Jabaar. Instead, the QB espouses a partial, narrowly self-interested worldview, as in a recent interview with Jim Grey, parroting simplistic “bootstraps” rhetoric about personal responsibility. Even though Brady can’t forget that he was this close to being just like everyone else, it seems he can’t remember it either.

All of which would perhaps be fine if the stakes of Brady’s career were confined to the NFL stadium. Football is, after all, just a game — one I can’t help but love. There’s no doubt that Brady is a master craftsman in the mold of the Shokunin, and that the way he plays quarterback — the acuity of his mind, the grace of his form — is sport transcending to art. And it’s clear, from watching Brady, that he takes a beautiful joy in football, assuming the monk-like wisdom of children at play. My friends and I will always respect and remember fondly this aspect of who Brady is.


But his influence isn’t limited to football, because the cult of celebrity has lavished Brady with a fortune he’s determined to grow; enough is never enough. In a recent press release disguised as a Wall Street Journal profile, Brady announces his next business venture, an eponymous sportswear label that aspires to be “the finest sports brand in the world.” Because what the world needs right now is more athleisure. In the years to come, Brady’s fortune will doubtless compound. Contrary to past comments decrying processed foods as “poison for kids,” Brady now takes checks from Subway, whose subs an Irish court recently determined are too sugary to qualify as bread. He’s now a Musk-like booster of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, poetically symbolized by his new Twitter avatar: Brady’s face with laser eyes. The image surely hews closer to the truth than he’s aware.

"Stranger things have already happened."

There’s a very possible alternate universe where Tom Brady became an insurance salesman and was forced to endure the quiet, unglamorous triumphs and humiliations of the lives of us mere mortals. In an equally likely other world, given what we know of his associations, Brady becomes next in the line of celebrity puppets for an ideological apparatus that seeks to replicate the brutality of football in the broader world. Some quick arithmetic: Let’s say Brady plays five more years, then builds his influence for another decade more. That puts us at…Brady 2036: Make America GOAT Again. Stranger things have already happened.


I guess what I’m trying to say is maybe we should praise winners a little bit less and uplift losers a little bit more. Maybe we should be a little less cutthroat, and a little more kind. Maybe if rather than entertainers or athletes, we glorified, say, goat farmers, we’d live in a world that wasn’t burning. Aside from his undeniable mastery of craft, maybe there isn’t that much to admire in Tom Brady. Maybe he’s painfully human after all.


This article featured in SPIRAL Issue II: Future. 


(01) All Artwork by Luca Schenardi

Trading Tribes

Los Angeles Rams
Philadelphia Eagles

I became an Eagles fan on October 5th, 1992, when Philadelphia hosted the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. I stopped being a fan on October 19th, 2015, when the Eagles hosted the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. The story of my fan journey is filled with football highs and lows, love and hate, heroes and heartache, Ja Rule getting booed, the failed “Dream Team”, and ultimately, I’m left still searching for a Super Bowl to call my own. The upside though, is that I didn’t eat horse sh*t. I’ll explain that later…


Days before my 11th birthday, I fell in love with Randall Cunningham. The Eagles were 5-0 and Randall was back. A lot of people today forget that he only played one game in 1991, due to a devastating injury in the first game of the season. In ’92, he would go on to win Comeback Player of The Year, and I remember staying up late on a school night early in the season and being transfixed—‘Who was this dude?’ He was THE MAN, that’s who.  He scored the first touchdown of the game, rocking the clean all white uniforms, running all over the Cowboys…and who doesn’t love to watch Dallas get their ass kicked on national television? I was all in. Fly Eagles Fly. Randall was my guy…

None of this would be surprising except for the fact that I grew up in the heart of New York City. The Giants were fresh off of two Super Bowl victories in the last five years at the time, and my Dad is as “Old School” a Giants fan as there can be. To this day, he’ll tell stories of training with the team when he was in high school, back when they practiced at The Polo Grounds. His father, famed New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons, arranged for my Dad to kick field goals with Pat Summeral. To his credit, my Dad was a great kicker, never missing an extra point in high school and playing D-1 at The University of Pennsylvania. Years later, when we watched Scott Norwood miss a field goal for the Buffalo Bills at the end of Super Bowl XXV, I remember knowing in my heart that my Dad would have drilled it. What a great feeling for a kid to have. “Never soccer-style, always straight ahead!”—his kicking words to live by. That’s one of my first sports memories, and despite the deep family and geographical connections, I never could bring myself to rooting for the Giants.


In fact, it’s BECAUSE of my father, that I adopted a hated out-of-town rival as my own when I started rooting for the Birds in ’92. My Dad, the consummate New Yorker, happens to be one of the biggest Boston Red Sox fans on planet Earth. He quotes a French philosopher named Blaise Pascal when trying to explain his allegiance to the Red Sox, being that he’s lived his entire life in Manhattan.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

- Blaise Pascal

My Dad left my high school graduation early to see Pedro pitch in the Bronx and he wears his Sox cap with pride as he takes the D-train up to Yankee Stadium when Boston is in town, despite the entire subway cars chanting, “Lyons Sucks! Lyons Sucks!” on sight. I’m not original when I say that my Dad is my sports hero, so rooting for the out-of-town team was something I aspired to, like a badge of honor.


As I began to fall in love with the game, despite never formally playing it like he did, I was afforded some outstanding football and memorable moments over the years as a fan because I rooted for the E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles! Once the Cowboys dynasty of the 90’s came to an end, the Birds were seemingly in it every year, thanks to star players like Randall, a lot of guys named Brian—like Dawkins, Westbrook, and Mitchell—and of course, Donovan and T.O. There was “4th and 26” and Vick on Monday Night. There were NFC East titles and primetime wins. But looking back, there was always an air of darkness and sadness around my love of the Eagles, and not just because they couldn’t win it all. Before games were readily available on mobile and the Sunday Ticket, I remember sitting in many a sports bar alone, rocking my lime green Ricky Watters jersey amidst evil stares from New Yorkers and Cowboys fans as I sat in the corner watching a random Eagles vs. Jaguars game. Cowboys fans are everywhere.


I spent $400 I didn’t have in 2003 for upper deck seats for the last game at Veteran’s Stadium. The 700 section, Bucs vs. Eagles for the NFC Championship. It was grey and cold and I wore five layers and was still frozen. I drank nine beers and after Brian Mitchell almost ran back a kick to start the game, the Birds shat the bed in one of the most crushing losses in franchise history. Joe Jurevicius scored two touchdowns and Ronde Barber had a big pick late. Ja Rule performed at half time and got booed. It was awful. I think there’s footage of Warren Sapp rocking a Ron Jaworski jersey or something walking off the flight back to Tampa. I was too hungover to remember. Glad there’s no footage of that.

When the Eagles did finally win an NFC title game to go to a Super Bowl after losing 3 in a row, they were matched up with the New England Patriots. Tom Fuck*ng Brady. We knew how this movie was going to end, but watched T.O. try and save the day anyway.  I was living with my friends from high school in our first apartment out of college—an abandoned jeans factory beneath a brothel in Koreatown. They had always tolerated my Eagles fandom, but never really understood it or supported it. Watching Donovan struggle to play hurry-up in the 4th when the Birds were down late was agonizing, and I remember them not really knowing what to say. What a sh*tty and forgettable night.


Another 10 years went by, including a move to Los Angeles, where I originally stuck with them, and would wake up early to catch the 10am kickoff for Eagles games. I traveled up to the old Candlestick Park with my friend Mustafa, a die hard Eagles fan, to see them destroy the 49ers once. That was fun, I guess. Then there was that a**hole Riley Cooper. F*ck Riley Cooper. I remember watching the Birds lose to the Cardinals in another NFC title game they should have won, while sitting next to Jamie Kennedy and Ron Jeremy in a media lounge at Sundance. Again, being an Eagles fan was always depressing for all those years, despite the team’s success.


Once I started dating Mariah, who I would eventually marry, I started to really question this part of my life. My relationship, not with Mariah, that was easy, but with football, and specifically, being an Eagles fan. I was embarrassed in front of her when I would explain to people my loyalty to the Eagles. The energy was too heavy, and she could tell this wasn’t who I really was. So could I. The partners we choose in life have a way of doing that for us, they help us become who we are meant to be. Eagles fans pride themselves on a sense of lawlessness that just doesn’t speak to who I was at this stage of my life. It was the fall of 2014. What was I still chasing or trying to prove?

The Birds would go on to win 10 games that season, yet still not make the playoffs. Chip Kelly was giving out smoothies in practice, and that was supposed to be the difference. The next year was no better, and it was during that forgettable campaign, that I was officially done with this part of my life. Being an Eagles fan became a dark cloud over my soul, and it all came to a head one fateful night in Philly at ‘The Linc’.


I went to a Monday Night game vs. the Giants with some co-workers from The Players’ Tribune. We took the train from the city and then a cab from the station in Philly, already a terrible few hours, and when we arrived in the parking lot of the stadium, I could have sworn we were on the set of ‘Mad Max.’ Trash cans were on fire. People were smashing glass on the ground for no reason. It was horrifying. During the game, I saw a woman throw a beer in another woman’s face, despite both rooting for the home team. The crab fries don’t even have crab and everybody is angry, even when the Eagles are winning.


An hour looking for the car service in the parking lot after, plus another hour in traffic before the two hours back into the city made for another terrible experience pledging my allegiance to a team I no longer cared about.


I was done.

When I went back to LA, the news broke that the Rams were finally going to be returning to California after a generation in St. Louis. This was my out. I could be free! I didn’t care that all the suffering, all the playoff losses and blown NFC title games and failed expectations had left me with nothing. I didn’t care, because I didn’t see it that way. I saw it that I now had everything. I had a team coming to the city where I lived, broadcasting it’s games on the radio station where I worked. They had the #1 pick in the draft, and as fate would have it, the Eagles had pick #2. It was destiny. They had Todd Gurley too and that guy was pretty sweet. This was my moment to bounce…and I did.


I remember driving to the beach in early August. It was a surprisingly cool evening for that time of year, and I brought nothing but a blanket and my Eagles bucket hat. I set up my place on the sand and I sat in silence. I don’t know if it was for an hour or 10 minutes, but I cleared the heavy and dark energy, breathed deep into my existence as a man, fought the evil forces that had captured my football soul, and blacked out.


The courthouse and jail cell in the basement of the old stadium. Reggie White leaving for Green Bay. The antics of DeShaun Jackson. All of this was released. I wept. As I dove into the ocean and submerged myself beneath the water, I knew that when I would reach the surface again, grasping for breath, I would be entering a new world, with clarity and hope. I was no longer an Eagles fan. It was a new chapter in my life…

It was the perfect time too for the Football Gods to orchestrate this shift in the cosmos as the first play in the first pre-season game vs. the still hated Dallas Cowboys, was a kickoff return to the house from ‘Lucky Whitehead.’ How “unlucky” is that?!?!


But I got in at rock bottom, which reaffirmed my lifestyle change, and it felt good that there was nowhere to go but up. I’m happy they went 4-12 the year after Jeff Fisher said on Hard Knocks that he wasn’t trying to go 8-8. Once they brought in McVay, it was party time and it’s been a hell of a ride ever since. Except, I couldn’t have a clean break—no that would have been too easy. I was tempted to see if my new love is true by an improbable Super Bowl run for the Birds only 2 years into my new life as a Rams fan. This was a test from a higher power.

So many people texted me, congratulating me, not knowing of my ceremony at the beach and rebirth at sea. It was a challenge. I even bet the Patriots so there would be no doubt as to where my heart lied. (Tom F*ck*ing Brady crushes me even when I bet on him.) I felt like Hulk Hogan going to the WCW and the NWO. Was there a part of me, that when the Birds ran onto the field to Meek Mill’s “Intro”, that I felt maybe I made the wrong move? I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t. But then after the game, when I saw on my timeline an Eagles fan eat horse sh*t in Philly during the celebrations in the street that I knew in my heart once again, that these were not my people. Just google, “Eagles Super Bowl Horse Sh*t” and see what comes up. If the Rams win a Super Bowl one day, I know I’ll be happy, but I also know that I won’t eat poop.


In some ways I’m even glad the Rams lost the Super Bowl two years ago (again, Tom Fuck*ng Brady) because it’s building character with the fan base out here. Jared Goff wants it more now. If they had just shown up back in town and won a Super Bowl before even moving into the new stadium, I think Angelenos would have taken it for granted. Now Rams fans are settling in for the long haul, and thanks to my friends like Dr. Klapper, I’ve gotten to go to a few games and experience what football is like in LA. It’s the ultimate unifier in a city that is often divided and spread apart for so many reasons. Going to a Rams game is like visiting the “United Nations of LA”, as all walks of life come together to celebrate the city and root for the Rams…and hate on the Chargers. Why they left San Diego I’ll never understand…


I’m proud of the years I put in as an Eagles fan and hold near and dear the relationships and friendships and memories made. Richie B, Miles T, Mr. Best, Camper Z, Segal, and all the other Philly faithful that toughed it out—you have my respect and admiration. It’s a life I’m not cut out for and no longer a part of. And that’s ok. Because now it’s Rams all day…and Jalen Ramsey is the man and those new uni’s are fresh, so we’ll see you at SoFi. Bring it…


(01) by NFL

(02) by AP

(03) by Los Angeles Rams

(04) by Los Angeles Rams

(05) Courtesy of Ben Lyons

Meet the Two Women Shaking Up the NFL

Sam Rapoport
Venessa Hutchinson

Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion Sam Rapoport knows first-hand the challenge of landing a job in the NFL. In 2003, Rapoport, a former quarterback who had recently graduated from Montreal’s McGill University, knew she needed a standout application. She got crafty. Included with her resume was an actual football with a message that read, ‘What other quarterback could accurately deliver a football 386 miles?’  Rapoport landed a marketing internship with the league and began an inspiring ascension that has culminated in her current role of helping open jobs in areas that for much of football’s history had been unofficially closed off to women.


Rapoport’s primary function, which is highly supported by the NFL, is to create a pipeline for women to football operations and scouting jobs. Partnering with Rapoport is Senior Manager of Football Development Venessa Hutchinson who worked in football operations at Boston College and then as a football operations and player personnel coordinator for the Cleveland Browns before helping Rapoport to normalize football.


The two have worked in concert to grow the Women’s Careers in Football Forum, their signature two-day event at the Combine in Indianapolis, into a massive job creation success for women who would have never been able to interface with top football decision makers including head coach and general managers. Since the forum began four years, 98 women have landed jobs with NFL teams in coaching, scouting, strength and conditioning and beyond.


The league has a way to go before it is truly representative of a fanbase in which 47% are female. But since Rapoport and Hutchinson strategically started creating the pipeline, we’ve had a litany of full-time female coaches in the NFL, a woman coach in the Super Bowl, and women thriving in scouting and analytics roles.


I chatted with Rapoport and Hutchinson about the current climate for women looking to break into football operations and why despite the exponential rise in representation, there’s still so much work to be done.

Melissa Jacobs: Sam, I know the Women’s Careers in Football Forum was your brainchild in 2016. Why do you think the league bought into your idea?


Sam Rapoport: We created it in the first two years but it didn’t really come alive until Venessa and I put our heads together and created something now that we believe is absolutely incredible and working well and having impact. But I think everyone understood the concept that there was a bridge missing between an underrepresented group of people and football jobs. So everyone agreed with the need for a program, an opportunity to get people in underrepresented groups whether that be women with this program or HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Careers and Football Forum for HBCU students, to be in the room with people who could potentially hire them. And our clubs started to want it more and more and ask for it more and more so there was continuously more buy in as the years went on.


MJ: Your roster of coaches and team execs who attend seems to grow each year. How hard was it to get buy in at the beginning?

SR: It was a couple who put their hands up at the beginner and we’ll be forever grateful – [Bills co-owner] Kim Pegula and [Washington coach] Ron Rivera said they wanted to be involved. We went from seven clubs in the first year to 26 clubs this year who have participated or interviewed candidates so I give a lot of credit Coach Rivera and Kim Pegula for speaking about this behind closed doors at league meetings, challenging other coaches and owners to get involved.


MJ: What did you two change about the forum to turn it into the powerhouse that it is today?


Venessa Hutchinson: We went from changing the location from the Pro Bowl in Orlando to the Combine in Indianapolis where most of the clubs and people we want to be there are already there so they don’t have to fly or go out of their way to attend. The change of venue was big as was a change to the structure, with breakout sessions led by club executives. Participants got that one-on-one time and leaders got to see who stuck out, who was asking questions. who was really intriguing.


SR: To add on to that you speak to the power of diversity. When you look at Venessa’s background and my background, they are complementary. I grew up at the league office and Venessa’s had experiences in professional football, college football and at a club as well. So I think part of the beauty of our partnership is that she brings her experiences to the table whereas a lot of the time Venessa would challenge me and say that’s a really bad idea. And we have a great working relationship in that sense where I feel like my strength is big thinking and V’s strength is strategic execution and bringing me down to reality at times so I think that Venessa’s breadth of experience in all levels of football helps to speak to what the coaches and GMs are going to want from this in order for it to be successful and I really feel like that’s part of why this has been so successful, bringing the diversity of our backgrounds together for strategic planning.

MJ: How much do you think societal shifts and the empowerment of women – everything from Me Too to now having Kamala Harris as a VP candidate – have played a role into your accomplishments with the pipeline? Are male coaches and executives seeing women in a different light?


SR: For us internally, there was absolutely no struggle to get started. Commissioner Goodell’s been pushing this in different areas for over a decade and [NFL Executive VP] Troy Vincent initially hired my position to work on this. We already had the leadership saying, ‘Absolutely, we’re doing this.’ But I think where it helped is potentially for some people at clubs who are hesitant or had never had a female in their organization, they’re starting to feel the ground shift from under them a little in that this is happening now in every sport. Many clubs now, the majority of our clubs, have females on the football side so if you don’t it’s starting to look like ’why not?’ I think that’s where we have an advantage in what’s going on in society in terms of gender equality.


MJ: You guys facilitating the connections via the forum is obviously huge but it’s the not the only factor to getting a job.  What advice do you guys give to women who are trying to land a job in football?


VH: My biggest piece of advice is do what you can with what you have whether you attend the forum or not. One of those examples is to ask if you’re reaching out to executives, be it on Linkedin or sending a blind email stating there’s a position you want to learn about or someone you have a mutual connection with. Are you working in college football? Strike up a conversation with the scouts coming in and out of the office to get an idea what their job is like. It’s about trying to grow your current network and growing outside of the current role you do have, to expand yourself as much as you can. That way worked for me personally. It’s how you grow your brand, your respect, and makes people who are in a position to hire to call you and say, ‘Hey, we met 3 or 4 years ago, I think you’d be great for this role that is now open.’

SR: To add to that, something that we teach at the forum is that it’s a mix of being assertive and shooting your shot with, and this may sound immaterial, but what is your online presence? When a general manager or head coach or whomever hears about a potential candidate no matter your race, gender or ethnicity, people are going online to see who you are. What does your profile picture look like? What are you saying on social media? Are you cursing on social media? People think because they’re private on social media they can post whatever they want but the reality is our business is so small and insular that you’re probably friends with someone who can tell me a little about who you are.


I think when you’re getting started in this getting rid of the mentality of, ‘Oh, I don’t want to bother her or maybe I shouldn’t reach out because I’m not qualified.’ Forget all that and go for it and while you’re doing that, audit your online presence so people looking at you will have the perception that you are professional and serious about the job, that you’re not overly focused on yourself, saying I’m the first female coach in history or that I’m going to be the first female GM. But moreso you need to showcase your passion for football. Those are very pragmatic and specific but if you can master both you’re in a good position to start to network and ultimately land those jobs.


MJ: At this point, what is the pipeline for qualified women to get YOUR attention, to be invited to the forum and receive your guidance?


VH: To start, we get recommendations from clubs and people we know throughout the industry. We typically look for women who have 1-3 years of experience in football whether that’s coaching high school football, whether that’s working in a college football office, Division I, Division III, whatever it may be. Just someone who has already taken that step to get into the industry, someone who understands what it’s like working in a football office with coaches and players. We look at what areas they’re working in whether that is coaching, scouting, equipment, strength and conditioning, and front offices, areas that are underrepresented on the NFL side of things, We look at those candidates and try and get to know them and go from there.


Before I got here we had a candidate Salli Clavelle, who is a now a pro personnel analyst with the San Francisco 49ers. That was Salli’s story, she had worked in college football, she was a director of recruiting operations at Tulane. She had that 1-3 years of experience, she knew what it was like working in the industry, she had been studying film at Tulane and she became kind of this perfect entry level candidate for a role at the National Football League. We saw Salli’s story and thought we should try copying that a bit.

SR: Yes, we told her, we called it the Salli Clavelle Model. We started to learn what worked based off the success that Salli had and created for herself. We get recommendations from a lot of people, which is important because we don’t have the bandwidth to create an application process. We base it on recommendations and we have a committee of folks who make the ultimate decisions on who attends the forum.


MJ: Are we at a tipping point for women getting these jobs in football operations?  There are seemingly so many new hires these days I can barely keep track.


SR: To me it feels like a tipping point. We used to get very excited when women were hired directly from the forum and we still do. But what we’re seeing now is women not needing the forum to get hired in jobs because the culture has been set that we should include women, all women, in the process of hiring for football operations jobs. We can’t rely on the forum until the end of time to provide the female candidates so we really want it to be spark plug and catalyze the movement, not be fully responsible for it. So It’s remarkable to see and Venessa and I virtual high five every time it happens – where we see women getting hired for coaching and scouting jobs and we’ve never even heard of them.


MJ: A couple years ago when Bruce Arians walked out of your forum, he declared that he was going to add a female coach to his staff, then he added two!  Is it helpful for a coach to say he’s going to hire a woman for his staff in advance of making the hire in the sense that it punctuates the importance of having a diverse staff or can it be hurtful since perhaps an equally qualified man doesn’t have a chance?


SR: I have a really strong opinion on this and Venessa I’d like to hear yours but I think we all need to get more comfortable with demanding balance on our staffs and that takes intentionality. [Tampa Bay coaches] Maral [Javadifar] and Lo [Locust] were not hired because they are female but if Coach Arians is looking at his staff and saying we’re not balanced and we need to be and I need the top female candidates or I need to add black talent to my team, we all need to get more comfortable saying that because once you achieve that you’re optimizing your staff and performing your best.


If you don’t create specific intentional goals when you’re hiring the result will always be homogenous because you just land on ‘Do you know a guy?’ and ‘Do you know a guy?’ in all sports is what’s kept white straight men predominantly in these roles because white men typically know white men. I applaud the intentionality and think we all need to get a little more comfortable with it and to be honest, I challenge myself to be more comfortable with it so we can achieve balance.

VH: I’m 100% with Sam. And I think the great part too about the intentionality is with Coach Arians, every coach on his staff, wherever they go next, they’re very accustomed to having a woman on staff. They see the importance of it, they see the benefit of it and they can go build their staffs the same way. There’s an effect of being in that environment with Coach Arians and taking that intentionality elsewhere.


SR: That butterfly effect is exactly why we may be reaching a tipping point because those coaches are going elsewhere. Look what happened with Sean McDermott when he left Carolina under Coach Rivera, they first thing he did in Buffalo was make sure his staff was balanced. It really spreads that way.


MJ: What about the intentionality when it comes to hiring women of color? Has that been more prioritized in the past year or so?


SR: We’ve always had those goals for the representation of women in our programming and one of the things we learned through a lot of research is that if you execute gender equity programs without an intentionality around women of color, and specifically Black and African American women, that white women are the beneficiaries, that white women are the ones to get the jobs and interviews because there’s the most familiarity with white men.  So we have a strong intentionality on that and internal goals with the bare minimum percentage of all demographics of women within the program. We’ve had those goals and haven’t had a problem.


We’re proud of that element of the program and we’ve talked to the other sports leagues about that same intentionality because I’ve seen time and time again panels of all white women, programs of all white women and the disadvantage that it puts all other women, it’s exponential, and hurts their progress so it’s a critical component to the program for sure.


MJ: You have Calliie Browson who is the Kevin Stefanski’s Chief of Staff at the Browns, Katie Sowers who coached in the Super Bowl and again it seems like every day you guys are announcing another woman who has been hired in a scouting or football ops role. Have you succeeded?




MJ: Sorry, didn’t mean to offend you there.


SR: [Laughing] No not at all, it’s just when we get credit for these things it often doesn’t feel like we’ve reached success yet, we’re not resting on the small amount of success we’ve seen. We want to get so many firsts out of the way – they’re incredible to celebrate but then to move on from them. We have not had a female general manager. We’ve not had a female assistant general manager. We feel like there’s so far to go and that’s why the strategic model around the sustainability and butterfly effect of this is so critical because we want this to infiltrate all levels of football and not just entry level which is where we predominantly focus. V, I really want to hear from you. I feel like we’ve scratched the surface and if we’re in this role for another 15 years, we’d just keep achieving and achieving.

VH: Same. Obviously great things are happening and when we see the number of women getting hired, it’s incredible. But we’re seeing those hiring in the entry level roles and we want to see them work their way up. I think the highest-ranking women are Salli Clavelle and Hannah Burnett at the pro and college scout ranks, there’s a lot higher to go and you want to see them get there. Same on the coaching side of things. There’s still a ways to go. As Sam always says, ‘When her and my jobs are no longer needed, that’s when we’ve been successful.’ When we no longer have to push the awareness and it’s just normal for them to succeed and in high up roles, then the work is done.


SR: I completely obviously agree with that but another part of that is we have a lot of women – women of color – who are in the entry level ranks, certainly on the football side and also on the business side and we really need to see Blacks and African Americans specifically ascend to leadership positions.  It’s something we’re critically focused on and something we don’t feel we’ve had as much success as we could have.


MJ: Looking back on everything that’s been accomplished in the past five years, what are you both most proud of?


SR: Part of the job that’s the most fulfilling for me to the task to ensure that Black women, women of color are getting jobs at the same rate as white women. We’re seeing that and that’s what I’m most proud of with this particular program.


VH: I’m super grateful to work with Sam on this initiative – the amount of flexibility, autonomy, and the brainstorming we’ve been able to do. It’s been one of the greatest experiences of all the places I’ve worked because there’s difference being made. It’s one thing to work for a team and you’re assisting on what happens on Saturday or Sunday but this is a lot bigger than that.