Neil Reynolds is the host of Sky Sports’ NFL coverage, as well as having his own podcast and a regular column on the NFL website. He’s covered the NFL since the early 1990s and his first book, Pain Gang, was published in 2006
What’s the season like for you? Are you just constantly working?
I have a funny lifestyle because I spend August to February pretty much working seven days a week, and then from February to August, working probably three days a week. So it’s feast or famine. I’m always preparing for Sky shows and podcasts or writing for NFL.com. It’s full-on in the season, then in the off-season I still tick over, do stage shows around the country, write my own season preview magazine… I manage enough NFL stuff during the off-season but not such a hectic rate as in the regular season.
Does it take some getting used to then? I imagine you’re probably kind of into a routine.
You do get into a routine. Friday’s a big prep day for going off to do your research. And then Saturday, when my daughter’s going off to dancing, I’m sitting there with my notes in the car park. Then obviously you go into the shows, then after the shows you’re writing about the games. So yeah, you’re like a very, very happy hamster on a wheel. The wheel just keeps turning.
I’ve seen interviews where you talked about getting into the sport in the 80s in the same way that I did, with that Channel 4 highlights show. One of the things I did after a few weeks was go to the library and find those Channel 4 football annuals. Were you reading anything when you started to get into the sport?
Yeah, so I would get those books as well, written by Ken Thomas. Every Christmas I’d get one of those and it was exciting. You just wanted to lap up any bit of information you could. I remember my older sister and her boyfriend at the time, went to Florida on holiday and she came home with some season preview magazines and, oh my goodness! I was made up! Books played a big part in that early on. I’ve read a lot of football books over the years. They used to be at home and then I found I was using them so much when I worked full time for the NFL, between 2000 and 2006, that I took them all into work and then they ended up in this meeting room. It became known as the ‘Neil Reynolds Library’. Then they restructured and I got laid off. I had to drive in because I had so many books. I couldn’t take them all home on the train.
It’s good that you managed to reclaim the Neil Reynolds Library.
I couldn’t get it installed at home though, because I’ve got three kids. So the Neil Reynolds Library has been relegated to a couple of sad boxes in the loft unfortunately.
We were lucky in the 80s, that there were at least three monthly magazines, a weekly magazine.
Yeah, I grew up with Gridiron Magazine, Touchdown, First Down. I was very fortunate to work for a couple of those. Gridiron I worked for, just out of college. I was only 19 in 1991 when I started writing for Gridiron. I did some work experience for First Down in 1991. Then I went away, got qualified as a journalist and worked on a local newspaper, but I always wanted to get back into American football. So I ended up being a full time writer for First Down from ‘97 to 2000. Which was cool for the fan in me.
What’s the first football book you remember reading? Would it be one of those Channel 4 annuals?
That would be one of them. There was a book I remember reading very early on, called The Fireside Book of Pro Football by Richard Whittingham, and it was just filled with great historic stories. I love the history of the NFL and actually through reading that book, got into writing the history feature for First Down every week for three years. Also, because I love the history side of it, I ended up writing my own book, Pain Game: Pro Football’s 50 Toughest Players, published in the US, looking at the toughest players, physical and mentally.
And then there was a book about the Raiders called, You’re Okay, It’s Just A Bruise. It was by the team doctor [Rob Huizenga] and that was quite an eye opener into the world of professional football. It was a quite cynical look at it, you know, tape them up and get them back out there. Quite funny as well.
I was going to ask you about Pain Game, tell me how that came about.
This was really a little bit delusional of me. Around 2005 or 2006, I was clearing some old football stuff in the loft and found a proposal I’d sent to a couple of publishers in America when I was like 18 and had no experience at all. It was about pro football’s toughest players, I’d written a sample chapter, and I thought, do you know what? I’m in a much better position now to try and pitch this book. It was exactly the same idea. I even used one of the same sample chapters. I’d tidied it up and the first publisher I sent it to in the US came back and said they liked it. It was amazing to have that experience.
‘I gave my list of about 50 players and they just gave me 50 home telephone numbers.‘
I wanted to do it in America, to see if I could get to the point where something I do from this side of the pond is recognised and bought over there. It did all right. I still get the odd royalty cheque! But the best thing about it was, I was able to speak to genuine legends of the sport. Y.A Tittle, Chuck Bednarik. Chuck Bednarik thought I was Australian. And he couldn’t quite get his head round the fact that this guy was ringing from England and writing about him.
I have really good contacts at The Hall of Fame, and they basically just said, “Who do you need to speak to?” I gave my list of about 50 players and they just gave me 50 home telephone numbers. You know, I’m sitting there while Dick Butkus is eating his cornflakes. And Dick Butkus is like, “I haven’t really got time right now,” and I’m like, “Okay, can we do it a little bit later? Another day?” He’s like, “Yeah, absolutely.” And he went, “Just out of interest, what are you going to ask me?” And I was like, “Probably about this and this.” And then he started answering the first one. Forty minutes later – and I’d pressed record on my machine by now, just in case – I got the full interview.
I did a long interview with Joe Montana and then because we then had a relationship, about two, three years later, I did a sit-down interview with Joe Montana at his house in San Francisco. So that was a pinch yourself moment. I think some of those guys once they’re out of it, they miss talking about it. I think they enjoyed going down memory lane for a little bit. I was happy to drive the memory lane bus for a little while.
What was the writing process like?
It was pretty easy because I was telling 50 different stories. I know from friends who’ve written books, you can be waiting on an interview and you can’t necessarily finish a chapter, or it might not flow. But I could write chapter 38, then go back and write chapter eight, then write chapter 15. What I did at First Down was historic pieces so this was in my wheelhouse, as the Americans would say. The process for me was collect as many interviews as I could, and obviously if I’m interviewing Chuck Bednarik, I’m also asking him about other guys in the book. So, the whole thing, I wrote in about three months. The whole process, interviews and writing the book.
‘I think Jeff Pearlman’s one of the best, if not the best, in the business.‘
Have you thought about doing another book at some point?
I have. I do have a few ideas. I speak to the biggest names in the NFL and I get great insights from them. I’ve had a couple of people say, you should do one that goes inside the NFL. What’s training camp like, what’s it like to get cut? What’s it like to win the Super Bowl? What’s it like to lose the Super Bowl? And then another one is, people always ask about the travelogue side of it, when I travel around training camps and all of that. My profile now compared to when I actually had a book published is much bigger, so I should be looking at it. I was a writer first. I moved into broadcasting through radio and then into Sky Sports, but writing is what I love to do. I don’t think I’ve written my last book. I just don’t know when the next one will be.
Tell me about your favourite football books.
I really enjoy Jeff Pearlman. I read Football For A Buck, which was interesting. Gunslinger was one of my favourites, because it shows that you can have a complete story of somebody without actually speaking to the man himself. He doesn’t speak to Brett Favre, but instantly you get the gravitas of that book because he explains that he’s spoken to 400 people who played with, coached, or are related to Favre.
I enjoyed the Walter Payton one. I don’t think Walter Payton or Bears fan would have loved every element of that. It didn’t paint Walter in the best of light at times. But I think Jeff’s one of the best, if not the best, in the business. I remember last year, when there was talk of dysfunction behind the scenes with the Patriots, and Belichick and Brady not getting on, and did Belichick want to keep Garoppolo? I remember putting on Twitter, “This has got a Jeff Pearlman book written all over it.”
I love Paper Lion by George Plimpton. I was thinking of one of my favourite books and it would have been one of the first ones I read as well. It was brilliant because also you realise how an average one of us would look if we stepped into a huddle. Not only would we not be able to make the throws, we wouldn’t even be able to turn quick enough to hand the football to the running back. That’s what happened to George Plimpton.
‘I feel like I need to know more about Belichick’
That moment stuck with me. He takes the snap and the next second he’s on the ground and it’s like nothing has happened in between.
I think what happens is, when you watch outstanding athletes against other outstanding athletes, the margin doesn’t look that different. Outside Wembley stadium this year, in the tailgate party, we did a little bit of show and tell with Tony Boselli. He was showing us how he blocks, and he did this punch to my chest and it shook me. I said to him, “I thought you were going to stop my heart then! What percentage was that for you?” He went, “That was about 5%. Do you want 20?” I went, “I do. Just out of curiosity, but I don’t think I can risk it. So let’s say no.” You realise we are dealing with very, very different human beings. If he’d given me 100%, I’d have been flat on my back, that’s for sure.
Still on the subject of football books, have you got an overlooked or forgotten gem?
Yeah, Tim Green was a defensive lineman in the NFL for a number of years and he wrote a book called Titans, which was a novel about a star quarterback who gets himself into gambling trouble with the New York mafia. I really liked it because it was a thriller, but it had football in it. I like reading thrillers so that combined with American football was really good.
What books would you take to a desert Island?
I’m quite a lazy reader. I like to read stuff really quickly. I would definitely take a James Patterson book. I really enjoyed the one he wrote with Bill Clinton, The President Is Missing. And I’d take a book I have at home, but I’ve never got to. It’s a story of World War II, and that’s something I want to know more about. My son plays for Great Britain American football team and I went to a game last year in Holland, in Arnhem. Me and my dad drove, and my dad’s very interested in the war. Everywhere we were going, through France and Belgium and then into Holland, my dad was telling me about the war and I was like, “I need to know more about this.”
Then I would take Ian O’Connor’s book about Belichick. I haven’t read it, but I feel like I need to know more about Belichick. I want to know if it will tell me anything that I don’t know. I’m fascinated by him because I think he’s got a lot more to him than we ever see in press conferences. So that. And then the last one, just so I can remember what it was like to be a kid, I’m going to take a Roy of the Rovers annual.