John Keim announced yesterday that he accepted a job with the mother ship, ESPN, to cover the Redskins on a daily basis. It's hard enough to believe that this is the fifth season Ken and I have been running Hogs Haven, but that pales in comparison to John Keim, who has been covering the Redskins at an incredible level since 1994.
Being a huge non-fiction fan, I'm constantly reminded of how our past shapes us. For this reason, I was very curious to know more about Keim's path from Ohio native to nationally respected journalist. It's cliché to say that a fan base is "passionate," but when it comes to the Redskins, I really can't think of a better word, especially when considering how we handled the Zorn era, RGIII draft trade and the initial response to his playoff injury (THE FIELD!!!!!). Through good times and bad, Redskins fans scream their opinion, myself included at times. One thing I've noticed myself doing in those super low and super high times before voicing my opinion is taking a step back and waiting for John Keim to post his thoughts. As we talked on the phone for an hour, it was very clear he's able to get a foundation for what is going on within the organization without calling out names - a fine line to walk for all journalists.
In our hour long conversation, we talked about his first gig covering Gary Williams and Ohio State basketball when he was still a student, his first game at RFK, the worst and best seasons covering the team, the Spurrier era, and the current times of journalism in a social media era.
Let's start from the beginning. You grew up in Lakewood, OH, right outside of Cleveland. Were you like a Grant Paulsen that did journalism as a kid?
Keim: No. I was always playing sports. Football, basketball, baseball. I figured someday I'm going to be the guy playing for the Browns or Indians and then you have the realization (laughing) that I'm not. But I knew I wanted to stay in it somehow. I had an older brother that was five years older than me that was going into sports writing as well, so at some point in high school I knew that's what I wanted to do It wasn't until my senior year in high school that I took a journalism class. I ended up winning some award that I applied to my stuff at Ohio State. That's when it started. My journalism teacher was very good and encouraging and when I realized I could do this as career.
So you played high school football?
I played three years because I missed my sophomore year after knee surgery. I started a year and a half at safety on varsity. In high school you can be a 5'9" 165 lb safety and be okay. On defense, I was the second smallest starter and I actually took pride in that. It's a lot of speed, so that overcame the size.
After his junior year at Ohio State in 1988, Keim got an internship with the Willoughby News Dealer. That was a truly fun experience since they gave him freedom to write on what he wanted and his family was in town to read his work.
The story on his first pro sports game is a gem:
I covered the Indians game and I was in the press box, and the press box window was open. Foul ball comes back. I didn't think it was going to make it through the press box. I thought it was going to go over us. At the last minute I see it's coming in but it goes right through my hand, and hits the back wall. Someone else picked it up and I got booed by the other writers. That was my first trip to a pro game.
And that was the time in Indians history when there were more media than fans, right?
(laughing) Yes, it was the old Cleveland Stadium.
I remember the first time I had a minicamp credential. I prepared questions, but then a person I didn't know I'd have to ask questions to came through and I began fumbling with the microphone. Did you have nervousness the first time you went into a locker room?
I covered Ohio State basketball for three years so I had a ton of access. That was when Gary Williams was there. I got along well with Gary. I had really good access. I was in his office all the time. It was just he and I. Now, if they lost, the appointment might be cancelled, but if they won a big game the night before my scheduled interview, I'd be in his office for at least an hour, just he and I.
Along with a 12-pack?
Haha. No. And no co-eds either. That was the first taste of big time. That was major college athletics. Different from pro stuff, so I became more accustomed to it. When I first started interviewing players, I'd write down every question a piece of paper because I didn't want to forget it, and inevitably, those are the only questions you'd ask because you were afraid to forget to ask one. So I remember that more so with college than going to the Indians.
So your move to Washington?
I went to Washington for the old Journal Newspaper. My girlfriend, now wife, grew up in D.C. and her dad lived there so she wanted to move there. So, I said ‘OK, I'll look for a job there.' That's where I hooked up with the Journal Newspaper covering high schools. You just kind of slog your way through and they eventually wanted to cover the Redskins full-time. My wife and I got engaged and married in the early 90s and she had a good job so we didn't want to move just yet, and then when I started covering the Redskins, we said, "OK, let's see this through."
On what his media experiences were like in his first year covering the Redskins in 1994...A short three years later he put out a Redskins book with Redskins writers David Elfin and Rick Snider.
They had an auxiliary press box at RFK and that's where I would sit because I wasn't part of the regular press corps or anything like that. I just remember seeing the guys in the press corps working as I was leaving-because I would leave and write my stuff the next day. I just remember thinking that's where I want to be. In that press box. So, that was a huge deal for me.
The day of their first pre-season game I was going to cover I had appendicitis. I woke up with horrible pain. I tried to fight it. Tried to fight it. Eventually I went to the doctors and they said "You have to have surgery today." The nurse is telling me this and she see tears forming in my eyes and she's telling me, "Oh, don't worry. This is routine surgery." I was like, "No! No! This is my first game. You don't understand. This is what I want." I didn't care about the surgery. I knew I'd be fine. It upset me that I was going to miss the first home game I'd cover. My wife laughed at me because that night before I went into surgery I had a yellow notepad and I was listening to the game on the radio taking notes. Because I didn't want to miss anything. I didn't have a DVR...eventually the drugs kicked in and the notes stopped.
And in 1994 the city was still buzzing off the Super Bowl wins...and Heath Shuler was just drafted.
Yea it was. It's funny to look back. Because it's your first year you have no context of things. I remember being at the first week of practice and some veteran writers completely wrote him off right away. I was stunned, wondering what are they seeing that I'm not. They're saying "This guy will never be a good quarterback." But when you've done it awhile you can spot things and players start talking, too. And they were absolutely right.
What was the access to Jack Kent Cooke like back then?
It was good. It was good if you had a relationship with him. He'd call other writers and correct grammar. He used to have horse racing conversations with Rick Snider. He was very eccentric at that point. He was more accessible than what you have with Dan right now, but they're at different points in their careers, too. Back then I had no blueprint since the Journal was new covering the Redskins. I wish I had people to steer me because we were learning on the fly. I wish I had been more aggressive to get to know him. A few people there had a great relationship with him.
Are you able to do that with Bruce and Dan now?
No. Dan felt burned and became more of a recluse almost. He's visible but he doesn't really need to go beyond that now. It's probably better to stay in the background. Bruce will say hello and all that, but it's not the same. Mike handles everything anyway, so he's the guy you need to work to get to know. With Dan, it's not going to happen right now. He might respect you and all that, but it's not going to be the same sort of relationship. It's not like Cooke was going to lunch with guys but he did talk to them.
Was there a big moment for you covering the team where a veteran writer helped you along?
There's a lot of people. One thing I‘ve always liked like about being on this beat are there are so many talented people in the room that work really hard because it's a competitive market. Eventually you start learning from them. Rick Snider has been a really good mentor for me. Paul Woody. Warner Hessler, who died several years ago. David Elfin did a good job. They really paved the way for me on how I learned. Dan Daly. Richard Justice, David Aldridge, Jason La Canfora, Jason Reid. That's a lot of talent. It was good for me to see how Mark Maske and Mike Jones go about their job. Rich Campbell and Grant Paulsen...all those guys. If you can't learn something from everybody in any point in your life then you're not going to get better.
When I came in I was the young kid, and now I'm one of the older guys. But you can learn from the young guys and their approach and their energy. Listening to how David Aldridge would ask his questions and get information. I could see the way Richard Justice could pursue trying to get a nugget of information about a guy who was seemingly irrelevant. I was like, "Wow, that's how you have do it." If you want to be at a certain level you have to care about everything. I saw that from all those guys. I was lucky to be surrounded by guys that I can learn from.
We then went into a lengthy discussion on how to report scoops while maintaining relationships and keeping a good rapport with the team. Ken and I have been able to foster a small handful of relationships with players over the years and Keim brought up a great point that it's important not to get too close to players since that will affect one's ability to stay unbiased and report on their performance.
Keim also made clear that there are certain things worth reporting and certain things worth keeping for background information which affect the tone of the article and the direction the writer takes it.
So, how do you know what voice to write in when you know the team is really bad like in the Zorn era? Guys like Jason La Canfora rubbed Skins fans the wrong way but was very direct in what he saw. Then some writers always paint a rosy picture.
That's a great question. I love Jason. He and I might come with the same opinion but he'll put it in a Jason way. He's very much Jason. He wanted to tell it the way it is. If I think there are problems with Jim Zorn being in charge, then I need to report that. I will report why they are optimistic and what concerns I have. It's hard. Being honest is the most important thing in this beat. I remember with Spurrier, I was at a dinner party after his second game during his first year and I was like "This is a joke!" People were astonished that I made up my mind that quickly and I gave them five examples which were just off the chart different. You have to let it play out and be willing to say "I thought this but it was this." With Zorn you just knew he was over-matched and with Spurrier that he shouldn't be in the NFL. And not to use just my opinion, talk to others around the league who know a lot more than I do. That's what I rely on. They signed Albert Haynesworth. I'm going to talk to a GM friend and an executive over here and get his thoughts on it. That's what I rely on for concerns. You can't be 100% brutally honest, but you need to be honest with your readers.
What were the five signs that Spurrier was a joke?
Little things. When he came in, he didn't know anyone on the roster. Schottenheimer could tell you about everyone. Book-end tackles, blah, blah. With Spurrier it was, "I'm just going to see how it goes." There was no homework that went into it. I like Steve, he was a good guy. In camp, he wouldn't be paying attention to practice to all the things going on. He'd be on the side showing kickers how to bounce the ball on the ground and catch it behind your back. How he conducted himself with the draft. To a degree it's okay, but as a head coach, you need to know what's going on. Personally, I liked him. He was entertaining. Even in the preseason games, the first year, Pittsburgh blew them out in the first half, and in the second half they had this great fourth quarter and came back - I think they even won. In the postgame presser he was confused why no one wanted to ask him about winning the game. He couldn't understand what was going on. He didn't have a clue to how the NFL worked and you could see that.
What season was the most fun to cover the fun and the least fun to cover?
Most fun was last year because of Robert. The excitement level he brought to the franchise and the different offense they ran. Just how different and unique what he brought to the table and how defenses were going to react. The winning streak. It was not your typical season. You like different storylines and angles, and this kid comes in with all this hype and backs it up. There were so many twists and turns. From a pure viewing standpoint, last year was most fun. The offense is so unique and the games enjoyable to watch. When you're older, you appreciate when you're at the beginning of something special. I remember first watching Champ Bailey and saying, I'm seeing a Hall of Famer up close.
Least fun: Oh, Sean Taylor's year...the year he died. If I only said that, that is enough. Whether or not you had a good relationship with him, you are talking to people who are close to him. And then you go in and see his locker. It was an eerie, eerie feeling. So you have that and then they make this incredible run and then Joe retires. And then it takes a month for the coaching search which is just an abysmal amount of time to cover a search. As a writer, you're always afraid every minute that something's going to happen that you're going to get beat on. It was an emotional rollercoaster. For many reasons you never want to repeat that season. It's enough to say that a guy died--a star player none the less, but then all the other stuff on top of that was exhausting. It was horrible for the Redskins.
What was it like covering the Mike Nolan Vanilla Ice Cream story?
Oh God. (laughing). I thought that was the case of the owner not necessarily knowing things or how to handle things. That was one of the early mistakes Dan made where he acted more like a fan than an owner. Mike handled that pretty well. I had heard a couple times where they had to be talked out of firing him after the game. I don't think Dan would be doing that now certainly with a Joe Gibbs or Mike Shanahan in charge. Dan might deny it, but I'd like to ask him if he regrets stuff like that.
I remember Snyder telling me a few years ago that if an owner as young as him tried to buy an NFL team today he'd vote against it.
You have to give people a chance to grow in what they do. If a player looks really bad early on, then you have to give him a chance. With Dan you're going to learn lessons along the way. The first five years you'd never see him not in a suit. The last five years you almost never see him in a suit. You can see there's a change in him over the years. If you win, then some of the stories become humorous anecdotes of the past, but if you keep losing then they become why you're losing.
Lastly, what is your take on the rise of blogs, social media, and writers with unpolished backgrounds like myself getting credentialed at NFL Events?
It's not a black and white thing. I recognize the value of blogs that are kind to me. You guys link my stories a lot and that helps spread my reach. There are a lot of things I'm appreciative for and there's enough room for multiple voices. It makes you work harder to stay relevant and use your advantages. I'm out here with all these relationships so I need to use them. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I enjoy that aspect and being in this market and it forces you to stay sharp.
Most of the people like yourselves have conducted themselves in a professional manner. That's all you want. But there was a period a couple years ago where you have some people out there who establish a different, friend-like relationship where players go, "this guy is saying this about me why can't you?" Because we have different roles here. There needs to be a cutoff. I read blogs regularly for my Cavs, Indians, and Ohio St information so I recognize them and enjoy them and see the need for them.
Thanks again to John for his time. As John said, an important part of any job is always being in a position to learn and grow. That certainly happened for me in putting this article together. Best of luck at ESPN...glad to hear you're still part of the Redskins media.
A funny story about the black and white picture of John Keim above, that was the picture used on a book cover for a Browns' book he authored. When he was flying to Dallas one time he forgot his drivers' license and was able to board the flight using the book as identification. No chance that would work in current times.