Okay, one final post about my recent trip to the biannual meeting of the Pro Football Researchers Association at NFL Films.  One of the keynote speakers on the evening was Sal Paolantonio, and he gave a great talk.  Here were a few of the highlights.


First of all, I’d like to mention that my first impression of Sal Paolantonio was formed years ago when I saw him as one of those random talking heads on ESPN.  I’m ashamed to admit this, but I remember having a little fun at his expense.  You see, he had been assigned by ESPN to cover Terrell Owens, and at the time Owens was all over the news.  He had just signed agent Drew Rosenhaus and was suddenly convinced he was underpaid, so he went on the attack, complaining about his contract and throwing Donovan McNabb under the bus for losing the Super Bowl.  Good times.  (Sadly, the two men recently broke up.  I was almost in tears…okay, not really.  And yes, the phrase “in tears” and Terrell Owens could set up another joke…but that’s too easy.)

Terrell Owens crying

Okay, so it’s never too easy.

Anyway, Sal Paolantonio was the guy ESPN thought should have the task of following T.O. around and reporting on his wild antics.  And man, he took the job seriously.  He was on ESPN all the time, and that became kind of a running joke with my friends and me.  “Sal Paolantonio here, reporting live outside the Popeye’s in West Philly, where T.O. is trying to decide what to have for lunch.  Sources tell me Owens is torn between the Cajun battered fries and the red beans and rice…”  You get the idea.  It was a running joke where we’d pretend poor Paolantonio was reporting on every menial event in T.O.’s life, since that was pretty much what ESPN had devolved into at that point.  (When ESPN gets a hold of a topic, it really runs it into the ground…hey, there’s Brett Favre!)

Later, Sal Paolantonio got the job hosting NFL Matchup on ESPN, and that’s pretty much all I knew about him going into the PFRA meeting.  Turns out he’s a fascinating guy with an interesting background.  Paolantonio came from a military family, earned a history degree, and did several tours in the Navy.  In other words, I never would have made those jokes to his face.  But that pretty much goes without saying.

He then became a political reporter for several newspapers, eventually landing at the Philadelphia Inquirer.  He told a great story about how he inherited the job as the Eagles’ beat writer.  One day, the editor of the paper decided to send Mark Bowden, who was working the Eagles beat, to Bosnia.  Sal said, “Long story short, Bowden gets sent to Bosnia, writes Black Hawk Down, meets Jerry Bruckheimer, and makes 25 million dollars!  And I’m stuck covering the Eagles!”

Sal Paolantonio’s Books

It was incredible listening to Paolantonio’s talk and realizing what a student of history he is.  He’s extremely knowledgeable about American history, and that really helps guide his writings on sports history.  He mentioned that he came across a book entitled How Soccer Explains the World, and it’s no surprise he noticed that book, since it’s essentially a book that uses the sport of soccer to take a look at globalization and the global economy.  That type of tying real world issues to the world of sports is something Sal Paolantonio, as a history major, is quite adept at doing.

So Paolantonio said during his talk, “Soccer explains the world?  Maybe so, but it sure doesn’t explain America!”  His response to that topic is basically how he came up with the idea for his book, How Football Explains America.  Paolantonio combines his knowledge of American history and his knowledge of sports to make a number of fascinating points.

Sal PaolantonioFor example, he points out how interesting it is that football, a sport created by Americans, is essentially designed to conquer territory and advance (or conversely, to defend territory).  It’s one of those things that makes football an unusual sport and distinctly American.  He also takes a thought-provoking stance on the interaction of football and television.  It is often said that the advent of televised sports has helped the NFL’s popularity, but Paolantonio argues that it is in fact the popularity of football that has helped shows like 60 Minutes, which gets a boost from following the NFL in the fall months.

In conclusion, it turned out that Sal Paolantonio is much more than just an ESPN talking head!  Make sure to check out How Football Explains America…it’s an excellent read.  As someone who writes sports books myself, I sympathized with him when he mentioned how hard it is to sell a football book.  “Men watch ESPN and women read…that’s the bottom line,” Sal Paolantonio said.  But his book has sold over 100,000 copies, so I think he’s doing something right!  Be sure to check it out…and thanks for reading.

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