Behind The Scenes

Sal Pal was a political reporter before tackling the NFL

ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio interviews Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. (Joe Faraoni/ESPN)

Philadelphia-based correspondent Sal Paolantonio is a fixture on ESPN this time of year.

Whether he’s reporting from a game for Sunday NFL Countdown or keeping fans updated on the Eagles’ quarterback situation throughout the week on SportsCenter, Paolantonio always seems to be in the know.

But, most fans probably don’t realize Paolantonio was actually a news reporter before he started working in sports.

In fact, Paolantonio covered three presidential campaigns (1984, ’88 and ’92), three U.S. Senate campaigns, two gubernatorial campaigns and the historic 1991 Mayor’s race in Philadelphia.

He even wrote the biography of Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo.

To coincide with Election Day, Front Row asked Paolantonio about his political past and how covering sports compares to the news beat.

How did you become a news reporter?
After I got out of the US Navy in 1983, I went to work at the Albany Times Union for one of the legends of the news business, Harry F. Rosenfeld, the former city editor of the Washington Post who helped supervise Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s groundbreaking work during Watergate.

Harry assigned me as a government and political reporter, then an investigative reporter. I was assigned to follow a somewhat nefarious Albany-based relief organization during the famine in East Africa. The stories I wrote landed me several opportunities at larger newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, which I joined in December 1985. I wrote about county, state and national politics from 1985 until the historic Philadelphia Mayor’s race in 1991.

What are your memories of the various elections you covered?
The larger than life characters in all those races: Ed Rendell, who was elected mayor of Philly, considered the greatest mayor the city has ever had; Wilson Goode, who was highly controversial; Frank Rizzo, who was as divisive a politician as any in American history. The list is endless.

I remember covering a political fundraiser at the old Palumbo’s restaurant in South Philly. They are showing a Larry Holmes fight live on TV, the room is filled with loud talking and smoke, and the door opens. It was Rizzo, filling the doorway, silencing the room. He said, “Where’s the baked [expletive deleted] ziti? Let’s eat!” The man was Al Capone and [ESPN’s] Mike Ditka rolled into one.

How did you transition to sports?
The Inquirer liked to rotate news reporters into major sports beats. The great Mark Bowden covered the Eagles before he went to Somalia to write Black Hawk Down. I wrote Rizzo’s biography in 1993, and was beginning to look for a new challenge. I was asked to cover the Eagles for a year. I fell in love with the job. Current ESPN news editor Nancy Cooney was one of my sports editors. I tortured her back then — just like now. A year later, ESPN came calling and I left to cover the NFL on TV.

How does covering politics compare to sports?
Covering political campaigns and the NFL — it’s one in the same. Both have their own jargon, their own secrecy. A campaign is like an NFL week: you develop strategy, try to keep it from the opposition and the media, have a contest at the end and declare a winner. Only in the NFL, you do it every week.

Writing about politics and being in the Navy helped me acclimate to covering pro football players and coaches right away. I was used to the idea of secrecy, and developing inside sources and revealing information the other side didn’t want revealed.

How has reporting changed since early in your career?
It’s different now because of social media. Politicians and pro athletes have direct access to voters and fans that they didn’t have in the 80s and 90s. I didn’t even have a cell phone or laptop until I got to ESPN! You gathered most of your information the old fashioned way: in person, or over a landline at your desk.

Do you still have an interest in news and politics?
I’m a news junkie. I still have many, many friends in top Democratic and Republican circles. We talk and email every day. I also read a lot of political books and books about political history.

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