Today’s Guest: Pete Williams, author, The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent
Pete Williams is a journalist and author whom I have known and been friendly with for several years. But I didn’t ask him to do a Mr. Media interview simply because we are buddies so much as I think that his recent book, The Draft, a Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent, was an overlooked sports journalism classic from 2006 that more people should be exposed to.
Pete, who is a long-time fitness enthusiast and journalist, is a regular contributor to Men’s Health magazine and has written a number of sports-related books, some as sole author, others, such as the Core Performance series, with Mark Verstegen. Their third book, Core Performance – Endurance, written for runners, cyclists, swimmers, and triathletes, was released in January 2007, and Core Performance – Golf is slated for 2008.
Pete also has an interesting private life that in the last year has become an open secret. He is a practicing nudist. I say it’s an open secret because Pete is the co-host, along with Sabrina Vizzari, of “The Fitness Buff,” a weekly radio show that combines two of his interests – physical fitness and nudity.
I don’t think this will be a dull interview.
BOB ANDELMAN: Pete, I have to ask: are you clothed or unclothed for the interview?
WILLIAMS: I am dressed, but as we are conducting this interview, I do have “The Fitness Buff” show later in the day from Paradise Lakes, so I guess I have to get in that mindset sooner or later.
ANDELMAN: All right, and we will come back and talk about that, but I just thought it would be kind of weird, and I was hoping whether you were clothed or not clothed you would just say clothed. So, that aside, let’s talk about your book, The Draft. What prompted you to write it?
WILLIAMS: Bob, I have always been fascinated by the NFL draft process and why there is so much interest in it, because if you think about it, it’s a pretty boring television show, and that is certainly what Pete Rozelle, an NFL commissioner, thought way back when when ESPN came to him and said, hey, we would like to televise what is essentially a two-day business meeting of a bunch of guys sitting around calling out names. I think your fantasy football draft was televised. That’s essentially what it is, but a cottage industry has emerged, and thirty-five million people tune in to some portion of the draft, which is phenomenal. It’s one of the highest-rated programs, cable or otherwise, in the month of April every year, and so I was fascinated not just by that phenomenon but how teams actually evaluated talent. You would watch, and you would see some guy you never heard of from Southeast North Dakota State go in the second round and then some guy who finished third or fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting not get drafted at all. I was just real curious how teams evaluated talent, and I learned it’s a year long process that has a lot of machinations to it. There is a calendar, there is almost a draft season, really, that starts right after the final bowl game with players preparing and then, of course, all the evaluations, which have been going on for six months prior to that, and then I was also curious as to how agents recruit these players. It all seemed a little shady, to say the least, and I wanted to learn more about that process. Finally, I wanted to find out how the players and the colleges dealt with all this, because they have this onslaught of interest both from NFL scouts and the agents on campus and how they made sense of it all, so I had those four parties, and I wanted to spend a calendar year, well, not a calendar year but indeed a year, from May 1st to April 30th, showing how all of this takes place.
ANDELMAN: So it was almost a real-time project.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it really was. I didn’t start on May 1st, although I guess I started doing the legwork, but certainly in the summer of 2004 was when I really started talking to agents and later the Atlanta Falcons and rounding up some players, and so in that sense, yeah, no doubt.
ANDELMAN: I think what you say is true. You think about a two-day show that just shows people being drafted, and that sounds about as exciting as burnt toast. We have known each other a while, and I knew why you were working on the book, and I like to watch a football game. That’s the extent of my interest. I don’t get involved in fantasy football, and so I thought, well, you know, as a friend and as someone who wants to support you, I am going to read the book, but I wasn’t really expecting a lot, but the thing I loved about the book was, it really got into, I mean, you really took us behind the scenes. You painted a picture, you lifted the curtain, it is just a fascinating… It’s a lot of great anecdotes, it’s a lot of great insight and color. One of the things I was wondering about is how did you arrange all the access that you had? And at times, it seemed like you were in twelve places at once, and I know that is just the quality of the writing, but you know, you make the reader feel that, but how did you get the access that you had?
WILLIAMS: Well, it was kind of insane with the travel. I remember there was a stretch in March of 2005 where I think I was in six hotel rooms in six nights. It was really a testament not so much to my own diligence but the access and the willingness that a lot of these parties had to let me into their lives, and I think for the most part, I have always found as a journalist, if you explain to people that what you are doing is trying to explain the process, I think they get that, for the most part. In other words, you are not doing some exposé, although to some degree, there is a bit of that in The Draft, but I think people just like anyone in life, if people ask you about what you do, people are happy to explain that, and they are interested in doing so, and so I am not saying… Heck, as a journalist, I have been blown off hundreds if not thousands of times, I am under no delusions there, but for the most part, the people I approached, whether they were agents, players, ultimately the people at the Atlanta Falcons, and the colleges that I focused on for the most part were very receptive, surprisingly receptive, and the other thing I found is that a lot of this process is remarkably open. Now, you watch the NFL Combine, which is now on the NFL Network quite extensively, that process is virtually media lockdown to the media. I think you probably could get better access to the Bush White House, but the Senior Bowl and some of the Pro Days and a number of the other elements to this are remarkably wide open. In fact, the Senior Bowl, which is the premier post-season college bowl game, I found had the greatest media access of any event I have ever covered. The reporters, and there aren’t that many that actually go, they wear the same credentials that Jerry Jones wears around, so that access and so, but that aside, it really took a leap of faith from a number of people, including agents, players, and most notably, the Atlanta Falcons.
ANDELMAN: Are there any stories or anecdotes you can share about the story behind the story, about how you got a certain story or the lengths that you had to go to to get an interview or find something out?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. There is no doubt I had to spend a lot of time just camping out in places. The Falcons, for instance, Rich McKay in Atlanta and previously in Tampa, is known for being about as media-receptive as they come. However, I think he did have some reservations about this, unlike, say, Michael Lewis writing the book Moneyball, who had extremely unlimited access with the Oakland A’s, Rich kind of picked and chose at times, and that was fine. On balance, I got what I needed, but boy, there were a couple of times I went to Flowery Branch, which is their headquarters north of Atlanta, and I couldn’t get through to anyone there, so that was a little frustrating at times, but given some of the lengths I have had to go through in my career for interviews, certainly in covering major league baseball, this wasn’t that bad.
ANDELMAN: Well, I know you have been sort of my go-to person when I have needed to interview someone on the football side, and you have been very blunt about it’s very hard to get these guys. They are generally not readily available outside of on game day when they have to be.
WILLIAMS: The NFL likes to paint a picture of itself as remarkably media-friendly, and the way they do that is by sending out literally about fifty press releases a day, and they do a phenomenal job of creating the myth of the NFL. You look at it compared to baseball, and we have the Mark McGwire situation; he will never get into the Hall of Fame, whereas in football, you have Shawne Merriman suspended for four games for using steroids, for definitely using steroids. I mean, we assume Mark McGuire did, but we don’t know for certain, and that’s not even a blip on the radar screen in terms of national media coverage, that Shawne Merriman was suspended for twenty-five percent of this year’s NFL season, so the NFL does a phenomenal job of, I dare say, controlling the media, but the way it worked for me is that the two players I ultimately focused on in the book, Fred Gibson, coming out of the University of Georgia, and Chris Canty, coming out of Virginia, they were not NFL players. In fact, they weren’t really college players, they were done with that, so they were just two guys, two individuals, that I could negotiate for access, if you will, and they were remarkably receptive.
ANDELMAN: Have you heard from any of the people that you focused on in the book since publication about how it may have affected them or their response to having that aspect of their lives written about?
WILLIAMS: You know, Bob, I have gotten remarkably little feedback first-hand from any of the central characters in the book. Now, as a journalist, I know that if people are really ticked off, they will call you about it. If they liked it or they are neutral, you are never going to hear from them, and that’s fine. I have heard through third parties that Jack Scharf, one of the three agents I focused on, wasn’t too pleased with it, and actually, he told a couple people that he blamed me and the book for not landing many, in fact, no clients for the 2006 draft, which I found interesting, because the book itself didn’t come out until late February, and by then, everyone had signed their players six weeks earlier.
ANDELMAN: So you think you gave him a convenient scapegoat?
WILLIAMS: Perhaps. Jack was remarkably forthcoming to me, and Jack is a bit of, has a bit of swagger to him, has a bit of arrogance to him, and I think he… He never told me this was off the record or anything like that, but I think in hindsight, he probably said, you know, I probably came across as a little too brash for my own good.
ANDELMAN: Well, you know, some guys have to see that happen before they realize how they actually sound.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. There is no question. That happens in journalism all the time, and I certainly wasn’t the first guy to interview Jack Scharf and not the last.
ANDELMAN: Now, did anyone significant, of great significance decline to participate that left you a little frustrated?
WILLIAMS: You know, in the acknowledgements, the only person who categorically turned me down was Drew Rosenhaus, and in hindsight, I think Drew’s story has been told enough, and I don’t think… He was never going to be a central figure in the book, but I did want to talk to him about various things, as I did, boy, more than a dozen agents at length, and even though I only focused on three, and I was never envisioning Drew as one of those three, he was the only guy.
ANDELMAN: Do you think Drew, who has historically had a problem of opening his mouth too much, may have decided this was the point at which to contain his thoughts?
WILLIAMS: I think, if anything, Drew said he was writing his own book on the NFL draft. Drew never turns down a media opportunity when it can help him, and remarkably, he is very media accessible. Drew does not have an assistant. Everybody has Drew’s cell number. It’s very easy to get Drew on the phone, but to sit down with Drew for any length of time is difficult because he doesn’t have an assistant. He does everything himself with two cell phones, so it is difficult for anybody, I think, to talk to Drew for more than five or ten minutes.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Where did you find the highest level of naiveté about the draft and all that it entailed? Was it with the college players? Was it with the college coaches, the pro scouts? I mean, I suspect somewhere in there, there are some people operating with very little sense of what they are dealing with.
PETE WILLIAMS: Well, certainly the players have to be at the top of that list, but first, there was more of that at the college level than I would have expected. Now, these college coaches, they understand how the world works. They understand these agents are harassing their players all the time, and actually, that’s legal. I mean, an agent can contact any player, freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior, any day of the year so long as he does not provide that player with anything of value. Now, technically, there are rules, state regulations and such, I mean, here in the state of Florida, you supposedly cannot contact a player. Every conversation has to be initiated by the player himself, and this is preposterous, as you can imagine. This is not enforced at all, so technically there are rules along those lines, but the one that most people at least try to pay lip service is not providing players with anything of value. Now, if you play in your final college bowl game, and you walk off the field, and you sign with agent ‘X’ and thirty seconds later he gives you a suitcase full of money, that is legal by the NCAA, by your school, by whatever state you live in, and by the NFL Players’ Association, so long as you didn’t get anything before you became a professional athlete, so you can see how this is really the wild west, and what happens with agents, every agent I interview claims to be the only honest man in the business who doesn’t do anything along those lines.
ANDELMAN: Now, do you think you will follow up the book with any other… Will you be writing articles about the draft? Will you ever do a subsequent book about the draft?
WILLIAMS: Well, the paperback is coming out in the spring of this year, and what’s interesting, Bob, is as you know, the book business is, you have long lead times. Even when you write an afterword, which is really only a five-thousand-word additional chapter for the paperback, which I did, but I had to turn it in in mid-September, so as we sit here in early 2007, that book is not yet out, and I am thinking, you know, I could bang out five thousand words this afternoon, which would be much more updated than it was back in mid-September, but that’s not how the publishing business works. So I will, I think on my web site, PeteWilliams.net if nothing else, have some Q & A’s and some updates that I will write, and that will be the extent of it, but I still follow it a great deal. Starting in early January, I started getting calls from sports radio stations who have had me on in the last year, and they want to have me on again this year, so it’s never too early, as Mel Kiper knows, who talks NFL draft 365 days of the year.
ANDELMAN: Now, I want to point out that we have something in common and something not so in common. We have both had our football books written about by Sports Illustrated, and I will say mine first. I did a book almost thirteen years ago called Why Men Watch Football, and Sports Illustrated named it one week a sign of the apocalypse. Now, you had a much better experience with Sports Illustrated. Tell everybody what Sports Illustrated had to say about your football book.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, SI.com was very kind to my book. They named it the book of the month for either March or April of 2006, shortly after it came out, and yeah, they gave it a lot of credit for telling a story that hadn’t been told in detail, and I was very appreciative of that. Obviously, that leads to a spike in sales at the time, and so, yeah, I was up against some other football books that had just come out. John Feinstein had his Baltimore Ravens book at the time, and there were a couple of others, so yeah, I was very grateful that The Sporting News and Sports Business Journal were also very kind.
ANDELMAN: I don’t know, Pete, I have to say, I think in the long run, ten or twenty years from now, people are going to remember the book that was a sign of the apocalypse.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I would think so, too. That’s a distinction that, thankfully, nobody said The Draft is a sign of the apocalypse.
ANDELMAN: No, and it’s not. It’s a wonderful book to read. Now, tell me a little bit about your relationship with Mark Verstegen and the Core Performance books.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, Bob, Mark actually ties into The Draft very well, because he, among other things, trains players for the NFL Combine. Players drop out of school as soon as the football season ends, and then they start going to these Combine training centers, many of which are in warm-weather locales, like Mark’s Athletes’ Performance in Phoenix, and they spend, four to six hours a day doing nothing but training for the drills that they will do at the Combine in late February in Indianapolis, and so Mark, a very interesting guy, I had done some stories on because he has trained a number of prominent pro athletes for years, and as he built this phenomenal new training center in Phoenix, I did a number of national stories on him, and he and I started talking about that he should do a book, and then a number of prominent literary agents started calling him, and the deal came together for our first book, Core Performance. Everyone talks about core training to the point where it has become almost, I think, hijacked by the fitness magazines to refer to washboard abs, and that’s really not what it is. It’s about developing your better movement and stability and mobility and flexibility in your hips, your shoulders, and your mid-section so that you can, you name it, play better golf, play better tennis, avoid back injuries… early 2008, so it has been a great relationship, and along the way, I spent so much time out in Phoenix with Mark that I was watching these players year after year who were training for the NFL Combine, and there would always be agents around, and I would be talking to them about the process, and since I have kind of covered the NFL here and there through the years anyway, I kind of knew enough NFL people, and it all started coming together, but certainly being around that environment was a big inspiration for The Draft, as well.
ANDELMAN: Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that you have always had a personal interest in fitness.
WILLIAMS: No question. Absolutely. Yeah, like a lot of kids in my generation, I got Arnold’s Book of Bodybuilding when I was twelve or thirteen, and certainly, even when I was a full-time baseball writer for most of the 1990s, I would always do a lot of stories, I think I was one of the first people who really would focus on athletes and their training regimens, so yeah, no question about it. That’s always been a big interest to me, both personally and professionally.
ANDELMAN: Now, do you have other books that you are working on or that you are planning for the coming time? Obviously, with the Core Performance books, you have another one in the pipeline and the paperback for The Draft, is there something else on its way people should look for?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, quite a bit. There’s the paperback of Fun is Good, the business motivational book I wrote with Mike Veeck that came out in ’05, but probably the big thing on the burner is a book I am writing with Shawn Phillips. It’s also a fitness book. Shawn is a fitness guru. He is probably best known, and he is fine with this, is the brother of Bill Phillips, who wrote the best-selling book, Body for Life, the best-selling fitness book of all time, in fact, and Bill and Shawn built the company EAS, that became a dynasty, really, in the ‘90s and late ‘80s, when you talk about nutritional supplements, and they have since sold the company and moved on to other things, but Shawn is really a remarkable guy in terms of his fitness knowledge, and Bill will be the first to say that Shawn provided basically the workouts for Body for Life. And so my literary agent, who also represents Bill Phillips, started talking to Shawn at Bill’s wedding two years ago now about him writing a book, so he paired me and Sean together, and so Sean and I have been writing this book over the last, I don’t know, six or nine months or so, and that book we hope, and we don’t quite have the title firmed down, but we hope it’s going to be the book that has the impact here in the 21st Century that Body for Life did when it came out in the late ‘90s.
ANDELMAN: That’s great. Now, let’s talk about “The Fitness Buff” before we wrap things up here. Now, I kid you about this, because as long as I had felt I had known you when this started, when you started promoting “The Fitness Buff” radio show, I didn’t make the connection. I remember we talked about this. It wasn’t until I think the Tampa Tribune wrote a story about it and pointed out that it was at Paradise Lakes, I think you were broadcasting from there, and that the hosts were in the nude, and I was like, what? I was completely blown away by it, so I like to kid about it, because you let me get away with it, but who is the main audience for the show, and where can people hear it?
WILLIAMS: Well, first off, you are not the only person to not make that connection. That’s almost by design because as much as we enjoy that connection and as much as Paradise Lakes is a great sponsor, first and foremost, we do want to make it known that we are a legitimate fitness show. I have the credentials. I don’t profess to be a fitness guru, but I interview a lot of people who are, both in my writing and on the radio show, and so we provide, I think, a great deal of fitness knowledge, and the show itself, which can be heard on AM 1340 in Tampa Bay on Fridays from 5:00 – 6:00 PM and also online at TanTalk1340.com, it has created a community, I dare say, of fitness enthusiasts, both here in the Tampa Bay area and surprisingly around the country. People, I am not sure how, but around the country are listening to it online, and we have gotten great reception from you name it, book authors, prominent trainers, journalists, race directors, athletes. We had people like Martina Navratilova on when she was, by phone, after promoting her book, and so the whole nudist element out there at Paradise Lakes, that’s helped get some publicity, but I think people think it’s pretty cool, and we have been surprised at how many people have come out to Paradise Lakes to be on the show. Most stay dressed, and in fact, Sabrina and I will stay dressed if we gauge the comfort level of the people. Even though there may be literally hundreds of nude people running around, Sabrina and I will stay dressed, but in some instances, the people, and in more instances than I would have thought, are more than comfortable and actually look forward to getting nude, in fact, in some instances, and had experienced going to Paradise Lakes already. So it is really a small world in so many ways.
ANDELMAN: I have to point out that a lot of people think that, their view of nudism in general is it’s a lot of older, unattractive-looking people, but folks, I have to tell you, Pete’s a good-looking guy, and Sabrina is a good-looking woman, so whatever else you may think, these are very handsome-looking people. I just want to say that just for what it’s worth.
WILLIAMS: Well, thank you. We get people from all walks of life at Paradise Lakes, but it’s funny. We had a girl from the University of South Florida come out to do a story on us. I think she was doing a paper for her class or something like that, and she said, hey, you know, would you guys mind staying dressed? And I said, oh sure, fine. And I think like a lot of people, she had an impression it was an older crowd, and sometimes, you never know on any given day, especially on Friday afternoons when people are working and so on and so forth, but that particular day, there was a young couple from Atlanta, in their mid-twenties. These two could have been models. The girl was just a knock-out, and they just started hanging out around our show, obviously not dressed. Sabrina and I were. So this girl from USF comes in, probably expecting nothing but old people, and she sees a girl that looks like a young Pam Anderson without the plastic surgery, and I thought, this is her first impression, so there you go.
ANDELMAN: I will just ask you, we’re almost done here, but how did you get involved in the lifestyle?
WILLIAMS: Through a freelance opportunity. I think I answered an ad for the American Association for Nude Recreation, which is based in Kissimmee, Florida, represents 275 nudist resorts, and they were looking for a writer for their monthly magazine/newsletter, and it has been actually one of my most long-standing freelance gigs. I have been working for them, it’s not a lot, it’s just a couple short stories a month, but for twelve and a half years, and through them, I got to know a lot of nudist resorts around the country, including Paradise Lakes, and in a great small-world story, Joe Lettellier, the owner of Paradise Lakes, his sister-in-law, lived next door in St. Pete to Mike Veeck, who is one of my co-authors, when Mike was working in St. Pete for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, so again, just a wonderful, small world we have out here.
ANDELMAN: Well, and of course, we also found, I think in the last year, how small the world was in that the Lettelliers are a neighbor of mine.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Joe and Becky have lived in St. Pete for, I believe, almost forty years. There you go.
ANDELMAN: Now, is it a coincidence that the show airs in the Tampa Bay area on a station called TANTalk?
WILLIAMS: It really has worked out. I think I was considering the show name “The Fitness Buff” even before Paradise Lakes signed on to sponsor it, and being on WTAN, yeah, it’s completely serendipitous.
ANDELMAN: Now, last thing about that, you mentioned, of course, the show airs live on 1340 in the Tampa Bay area, but it’s also on the internet. Is it only broadcast on the Internet live, or can people download it somewhere?
WILLIAMS: At the moment, it’s only live. My webmaster, actually, we have all the archived shows going back to its debut in October of 2005, so hopefully sometime in the first quarter of 2007, you will be able to. I don’t think we are going to load everything up there, but certainly the first dozen memorable shows I think we are going to put up there at the very least.
ANDELMAN: Maybe the one with Nina Hartley?
WILLIAMS: Nina Hartley. In fact, that’s one we may re-air, just that interview, of course, at some point very soon.
ANDELMAN: Now, I don’t remember. Was she on the phone, or did she come to Paradise Lakes?
WILLIAMS: No, she was on the phone. However, we have had discussions with her both on the show and since that she is receptive to coming out to Paradise Lakes, and we may have a book-signing, but it wouldn’t be part of her book tour, which has since been completed. She had a book come out back in October, but she said, like everyone else, she travels quite a bit and makes it through Tampa and Orlando every so often, so we are hoping to have her back live on the show.
ANDELMAN: Great. Well, Pete, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I appreciate your coming on the Mr. Media podcast and doing this. I know you have the paperback of The Draft coming out in March, I think.
WILLIAMS: That’s right. Yep. In time, probably, well, the Combine is in late February but certainly a month before The Draft the paperback will be out.
ANDELMAN: Well, I would certainly encourage people who not only are football fans but people who just like kind of a good peek-behind-the-scenes story, it’s a great read. You will not regret picking this book up.