Front Row caught up with senior writer Kevin van Valkenburg and contributing writer Scott Eden about their respective features on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in ESPN The Magazine’s Super Bowl Preview Issue on newsstands today.
What did you find most challenging about reporting and writing your respective features?
– Kevin van Valkenburg on
KVV: Brady is hard to write about for several reasons, the main one being that he’s famous in a way that exceeds the fame of any other player in the NFL. Peyton Manning was the only other player who was close. My mom knows exactly who Brady is, and has opinions about him. When you’re writing about someone who is that level of celebrity, you have to understand a lot of people already feel like they know him. You’re going to have to work hard to say something they haven’t already heard. In some ways, I’m not writing about Brady as much as I’m writing about what he represents. He’s a lens that says something about how you view sports.
SE: The biggest challenge may have been Matt Ryan himself. Or, I should say, the contemporary high-profile professional athlete. Ryan was amiable, chipper and did subject himself to approximately 20 minutes of my probably stupid questioning during the week leading up to the Falcons’ first playoff game. But Ryan is such the consummate professional that he is — like I say in the story — a kind of parody of the bland, noncontroversial, non-substantive modern high-profile pro athlete. He has suppressed his personality in the name of being good in all phases of his game. I think I did detect, though, an extremely subtle but sardonic humor lying somewhere beneath the surface.
What did you learn about Brady and Ryan from writing this piece that surprised you?
KVV: The way that Brady embraces new age philosophy is really interesting. Just the fact that a kid who grew up in a very Catholic home now has a statue of Ganesha in his locker was fascinating to me. He is very spiritual in the sense that he finds peace in different pieces of different religions and teachings. And he believes that’s what kept him from being bitter during the Deflategate stuff.
– Scott Eden on Matt Ryan
SE: Difficult question. He’s very good at being unsurprising. However, he did seem to suggest that, during last year’s playoffs, he watched the games at a Maui beach bar, drowning his frustrations in Mai Tais. But he may have been speaking metaphorically.
How did this change the way you watched last Sunday’s conference championship games?
KVV: I’d already written my piece, and if the Patriots won, I knew it was going to be our cover story so I couldn’t help pulling for the Pats a bit. But if they’d lost, I’d have tucked some of these thoughts in a drawer and saved them for another day. Brady turns 40 this summer. He thinks he’s going to play until he’s 45, but I think the end is going to sneak up on him (and us) one day.
SE: There’s the old sportswriters’ saw about no cheering in the press box, which is a sort of journalistic admonition to be neutral. But after spending a week talking to a bunch of teammates who have forged this tight bond across a crazy season, it’s hard to be neutral. In other words, I was rooting for the Falcons. (Sorry, Green Bay.)