Peter King made his name as a football writer at Sports Illustrated, where he worked from 1989 until 2018, writing, among other things, the weekly column, Monday Morning Quarterback. MMQB eventually became a standalone website, which King founded and edited. In 2018 he moved to NBC sports, where he writes a weekly column called Football Morning in America. His books include Inside The Helmet, Football: A History of the Professional Game, and Monday Morning Quarterback.
As a fan, this is one of those times of year where all kinds of stories come out. This player looks amazing, the offence looks great, but does that mean the defence looks bad and so on. From your experience, what kinds of things should fans listen to at this time of year, and what things are just noise?
Well, I think every team has two or three major issues. My first pre-season stop is Denver. They’ve been looking for a quarterback for four years, since Peyton Manning walked off campus after they won the Super Bowl, and they have failed. You’d think that John Elway could find a quarterback, but as of yet, he has not. We’ll see what happens with Flacco and with Drew Lock.
I will watch Joe Flacco practice twice and I’m pretty sure he’s going to look very good because in practice usually quarterbacks are going to look very good. It’s funny, in Jared Goff’s rookie year, I saw the Rams’ practice, and I thought Jared Goff was absolutely terrible, the day I saw him. But it’s almost anecdotal because you’re just not seeing enough. That’s one of the big things: you shouldn’t draw too many conclusions based on seeing one or two training camp practices.
Before we move on to talking about books specifically, I want to put a question to you that I’ve heard you put to coaches on a few occasions. Given where we are with football at the moment, with concussions and other health risks, what’s your view about the value of football and its place today?
I guess I would look at it in this way. I think most people at this point know the risks inherent in playing football and if they choose to play, it’s sort of the same thing as people who choose to play hockey – they should know the risks about concussions in hockey. And people who box or do MMA should probably know that there is a risk that isn’t necessarily the case in volleyball, or baseball, or some of the sport where your head is not a part of the contact.
Further reading: Inside the Helmet review
One of the most interesting things I did when I ran the MMQB at Sports Illustrated, was a couple of years ago when we ended up going to eight markets in the United States, eight metropolitan areas and over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we went to a youth football game, a high school football game, a college football game, and a pro football game.
Everybody on the staff split that up and I did the first one. I went to the Bay area in Oakland, and the first thing I did on Friday night was go to a city football game. This one team, Mission High School in San Francisco, had two coaches. You see high schools now that have 10 or 12 or more coaches but this team had two. They have 36 players on the team and all but two came from single parent households. A lot of these moms were looking at these coaches as the father figures in their kids’ lives.
In the inner city, football has a bit of a different meaning to a lot of people
And I’ll never forget this one mom, I was sitting with her for a while watching this game and her son was sort of a scatback running back. And I said, “Aren’t you a little worried about him? You’re hearing all these things about concussion. Aren’t you worried about him and what he might be like mentally, when he’s 50 or 60 years old?”
She looked at me and said, “Honey, I’m just worried about him making it to his 18th birthday.” In the inner city, football has a bit of a different meaning to a lot of people and a lot of parents, a lot of families involved. To some of them, it’s a way out. To some, it’s an activity that’ll keep their kids from doing bad things, perhaps.
Look, would I be shocked if football went away sometime in the next 30 years? I wouldn’t be shocked, but I’d be surprised. A couple of years ago I was in Dallas and I opened the Dallas Morning News on a Saturday morning and an entire page of this broad sheet newspaper – in the smallest of type, like you’d see with stockmarket results – covered 1,100 scores from the Friday night, Texas high school football games. 1100 scores!
You go to Mesquite, Brownsville, or Amarillo, Texas, and you tell all those people we’re not going to have football anymore. And see what happens. It’s probably not going to be taken very well. Then again, I can’t predict the future. Those are just a few little snapshots I would give you.
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Those are good points – especially about understanding the risks and consent. In the era when the NFL was simply denying that concussions were an issue, there was deception going on, but when people understand what they’re signing up for, it’s a different matter, isn’t it?
I think so. I just did a podcast about what is going on in the helmet business, as it relates to head trauma. There’s a new helmet company in Seattle called Vicis, that is doing some remarkable things to curb head trauma. That is forcing the more established companies to up their game and build a better helmet, basically. Those things are also at play here and sort of moving in the right direction.
Let’s move on to books. Of the books you’ve written, have you got a favourite?
I really liked the pro football history book I did for Sports Illustrated. It was a bonus for subscribers and it allowed me to go to Canton, Ohio, and get lost in the archives of the Pro Football Hall of Fame at a very formative time in my writing career. I was seven years into my career, and two years in Sports Illustrated by that time.
I think history in the United States probably isn’t as popular as in some other countries in the world because we don’t have much of it. And it’s the same thing in pro football. For example, when Don Hutson retired the NFL was 25 years old. Now, it’s hard for me to accept that Jerry Rice was a better receiver than Don Hutson. I just don’t believe it. In those first 25 years of the league, Don Hutson had three times as many catches, for three times as many yards, for three times as many touchdowns. His career touchdown record lasted 44 years. You can only look at how a guy played in his era of football. You’ve got to pay attention to that. You just can’t then say, “Oh, look at Jerry Rice, he’s great.” Or, “Look at Patrick Mahomes, boy, he’s going to be one of the all time greats.” Let’s let his career happen. Let’s let it breathe a little bit. And let’s remember that the league is a hundred years old, not 23.
What’s your writing process like? And is it different when you’re writing a book from your journalism?
I have not written a book in a long time and… I’ll tell you this, I absolutely loved writing Inside The Helmet. When I saw that you tweeted about that, I thought, “Oh my God, somebody remembers this book!” This really was one of my favourite books. I did a chapter on the running back and I got Barry Sanders to sit down with me and to tell me exactly what he thought of his job and how he did it. I got Roger Craig to do the exact same thing. And you know, at one point that year, I remember it very, very well, that I was able to really get into sort of the zen of running.
Johnny Holland goes through this day of trying to catch the uncatchable Barry Sanders and you feel like you’re there with him
And I just thought it was so much fun because one of the things that I’ve tried to do in my career is show people things they don’t normally see. A few years ago I did a week in the life of an officiating crew and I was able to spend one week with Gene Steratore’s crew and to be with them on game day and actually see how they did their job, day in day out. How much study they put into it, blah, blah, blah. And what was so interesting about it was, I just said to myself, “I’m in uncharted waters and I’m gonna end up telling people so much about this game.” I like writing things that haven’t been written before and I’m not aware of somebody really doing a deep dive into what the lives of these officials are really like.
If you can tell people things about the game that they don’t know or haven’t read before, that’s what I enjoy doing.
Inside The Helmet still stands up. It’s an interesting read today…
You were right. You said in your review that you felt like I ignored line play and you’re absolutely right. I wish that I had a chapter about offensive line versus defensive line, I really do. And it’s funny: I tried to do it! I won’t tell you who I tried to do it with, but I thought I had an agreement with a left tackle at that time to take me into his world, so I could spend a good chunk of a few days with him, before and after the game. But at the end of the day, his team said no and I was so far along in the process that it was too late for me to arrange a replacement. I do absolutely feel that that is a hole in the book that I wish wasn’t there.
I did wonder. It does feel truncated. But I loved getting inside the head of players and what they’re thinking because so few people get to play the game at that level.
You know what was really fun about this one? If you remember the Barry Sanders chapter, there’s a Green Bay Packers linebacker named Johnny Holland. Johnny was somebody who I’d gotten to know a little bit and I went to him in training camp that year and said, “If I could get NFL Films to wire you before a game against Barry Sanders, could I use it in this book?” I asked Steve Sabol and he said, “Man, we would love to wire a guy who’s playing Barry Sanders.” It worked out well for everybody. NFL Films got a good piece out of it. That’s my favourite chapter of his book, where Johnny Holland goes through this day of trying to catch the uncatchable Barry Sanders and you feel like you’re there with him.
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Bill Belichick might not be happy with an embedded writer
That sounds great. Is there a football book that hasn’t been written that you would like to read? Not necessarily one you’d write, but one you’d like to read.
Yes, I think it’s a year in the life of Bill Belichick and the Patriots. The same way, if I wrote about college football, I’d want to be embedded with Nick Saban for eight months. I think there’s something mysterious about Belichick and the way he works and wins. That is the great untold story about the NFL right now and this era of NFL football.
Do you think he would ever let anybody in?
I mean, he’s so secretive, but he is also, from what I gather, a scholar of football history…
No question. I was in… Let’s see, 2004 I think it was. He had a home in suburban Massachusetts and he allowed me in to see his football library. And it was really a phenomenal thing. We walked through there, we looked at all the titles and it was a fascinating thing to go through that and to just see him comment on various titles.
I think that it’d be fantastic to read. But the other thing about Bill is that he likes to have control over what gets out about what it is they do. He lets NFL Films in to do a lot of things, but I don’t think he lets everything that NFL Films see get put out in public either.
Tim Layden, as a chronicler of anything, is one of the greats in our business right now
Could you imagine him doing a Bill Walsh style, Finding the Winning Edge kind of thing, when he’s ready to step away?
I think it’s possible. I could see Belichick allowing somebody to be in there for eight or 10 months, but at the end of the day I can’t see him waving goodbye and saying, “Hey, good luck with the book.” And have a book come out a year later. It’s hard for me to imagine. I think he would want to have some sort of control over the process.
What are your favourite football books and why?
I really, really liked A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman. Obviously, I think anybody who’s in my job needs to read that. I absolutely loved Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden, which I think is really an underrated book. I think Tim as a chronicler of anything is one of the greats in our business right now. And I’m not saying that he’s unknown. People know who Tim is, but in my opinion, I think he is not appreciated nearly enough for some of the great things that he’s done over the years.
I liked War Room by Michael Holley, where he looked at the Patriots at their draft. I really, really liked Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work by Michael MacCambridge. I think he demystified Chuck Noll more than he had been at the time. Dan Rooney cooperated with him a huge amount. And when I say cooperated with him, I mean he opened up the Steelers a lot to Michael MacCambridge, that we hadn’t really seen before.
And I think probably the two others that I’ve liked a lot… I love the Bill Walsh book as you say. I think that was a really, really smart book. And the reason that I think it was so well done is because, if you look at that period of football, there were a lot of attempts to do real insight stuff about the 49ers but that was the best one because Bill Walsh really wanted it done.
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George Plimpton [right] talks to Alan Alda [left] on the set of the film version of Paper Lion
And then the one that I think probably gets forgotten a little bit, and it shouldn’t, is Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer. It wasn’t Ball Four, obviously, but it really told you and taught you a lot about about Vince Lombardi that you didn’t know.
That’s a great list. I’ve just interviewed Michael MacCambridge actually…
Did he talk about his new book on the Kansas City Chiefs?
He mentioned that he’d just finished it.
It’s kind of a coffee table book with big photos, but as opposed to how many coffee table books are just pretty things with type filling some empty spaces, this has some great stuff in there that is really, really enlightening. I think people will enjoy that one.
That’s one to look forward to. Anything he writes is always great.
You know what is great about MacCambridge? He’s such a reporter. He’s an elegant writer too, but his reporting is so good and so rich. He really combines the two disciplines so well, reporting and writing.
After reading the Plimpton book, I just thought football was one of the coolest things on earth
Can you remember the first football book you read?
Oh, you know what? I feel terrible about this. The first football book, I read is Paper Lion and I can’t believe that I forgot that one because that has to be on the list. That’s gotta be on my list.
I got to meet George Plimpton when I was in college at Ohio University, and I remember being starstruck and thinking, “This is the guy who wrote Paper Lion. This is the guy who went to training camp with the Lions.” One of the great things about that book is that you really got an idea about how hard football is. And how complex it is. And so I love that book. I truly, but that’s the first football book I ever read. I read it when I was about 12 years old, I think.
At the time when I was a young, very young boy, baseball was first, second, and third in my life. And growing up, my father was a baseball pitcher and a great day for me was sitting and watching a Red Sox game on TV and have him explaining a lot about why things were happening in a game. But after reading the Plimpton book, I just thought football was one of the coolest things on earth.
It is a great one to start with. The thing that always sticks with me about that book is when he takes his first snap and he takes the ball and then he’s on the ground like there was no time in between.
All of a sudden, man!
And it makes you realise that for a normal person, that’s exactly what would happen. It would just be a blur. The last question before I let you go… Turning to non-football books, what are the five books you would take with you to a desert island?
Well, that’s a good, good question. I guess, if I were to take five books, and I’m sitting here right now looking at my bookshelf, I’ll tell you the books that I could read again, because that’s really what this is, isn’t it? Here are books that you feel like you could read again.
I’m a very big fan of Richard Ben Cramer, and I thought his book on Joe DiMaggio was phenomenal. So I would take that. Let’s see… Oh, I know what I would take. I would take The Soul of America by Jon Meacham because I think he just embodies a kind of riveting history and riveting writing. He’s like MacCambridge, in my opinion; a really, really good writer and a guy who can kind of make history sing. Those would be two.
Another book I would take, that I’d really like to read again, is a book called The Last Boy, by Jane Leavy. It’s about Mickey Mantle’s really strange life and she did just a fabulous job of digging into the life of a very, very mysterious American athlete. When I was growing up he was idolised by more people in America than John F. Kennedy. That book is just really fabulous.
Then I think another one is Billy Martin by Bill Pennington, who writes for the New York Times. And the reason why that is so interesting to me is that it delved into the mind and the very, very strange behaviour of a smart yet tormented human being, which is what Billy Martin was. He was a tormented human being, even though he was an excellent baseball manager.
And then I think probably the last one, it’d be hard for me to give you one, but I’ve read every book that John Grisham ever wrote and it’s… The unfortunate thing is John Grisham probably works on these books for 10 months and I get it in my hands and in 36 hours I put in aside because I finished it. I just drop everything. And I just read one of his books. It’s hard for me to pick one because I think so many of them have just been incredibly riveting. So if you would give me a compendium of John Grisham, I’d be a happy guy.