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Man on a Wire: The Legacy of Dave Goldberg, NFL Beat Writer for the AP and One of Pro Football’s First ‘Insiders’

Remembering Dave Goldberg, the best NFL reporter whose name you probably never knew.

Dave Goldberg, who died February 8, locked nearly every reporter he met in a bear hug of friendship. For me, it just took one lunch. I met Goldberg last spring near his home in Bedford Hills, New York, to talk about his 25 years as the lead NFL writer at the Associated Press. Goldberg’s hair was frightfully uncombed and he wore a well-used sweatshirt. If Mitchell & Ness made sportswriter throwbacks, the tag on this one would have read: “Astrodome locker room, 1984.”

Without preamble, Goldberg began to talk. He talked of Joe Montana, Dan Rooney, young Roger Goodell — everything but his own literary merits, which is the subject most old sportswriters never move away from. “His greatest asset was his mouth,” one of his colleagues said postmortem. Goldberg would have certainly agreed.

Writing a eulogy for Goldberg is like writing a eulogy for “wire services.” You know the term? It’s journalism’s ghostly non-byline, the voice of anonymous authority. You’d see it rolling along the ESPN Bottom Line this week if Adam Schefter had left any trades for the AP to break.

In the old press box, Goldberg was the literary manifestation of “wire services.” He was an enormously powerful NFL writer during the reigns of three commissioners. But his name is almost unknown to readers. Last month, the AP published Goldberg’s obituary. Newspapers inflicted their typical violence, in some cases chopping off the byline. At first, I felt a small pang for the author. But then I remembered Dave. How fitting, I thought. How utterly perfect.

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Elias Stein/AP

An NFL writer walks into a press box. This is the ’80s or ’90s. Across the way, he sees a schlump. “You know what a schlump is?” asked Leonard Shapiro, who covered the league for the Washington Post. “He’d wear sneakers and jeans and a shirt with mustard on it. He was Oscar Madison.”

Maybe Goldberg is loading his plate at the free buffet. Or maybe he is fighting a losing battle with his necktie and the skinny end is hanging in front of the fat end. “He had this Einstein look about him,” said Gary Pomerantz, another ex-Postie, “with hair pointed in every direction of the compass, and he looked like the classic unmade bed.”

We live in the age of omniscient NFL “insiders.” Well, three decades ago, NFL writers were just called NFL writers. And their power was divided among newspapermen who ruled like territorial governors. Don Pierson in Chicago. Ira Miller in San Francisco. Rick Gosselin in Dallas. Chris Mortensen in Atlanta.

Every week, these NFL writers left their home bases, squeezed into airplane seats, and went in search of the big game. If they were lucky, they might run into the schlump. Because Goldberg was just like them, only instead of writing for one newspaper he wrote for hundreds. “They all had their little fiefdoms,” said the Los Angeles Times’s Sam Farmer. “Dave had the whole country.”

Goldberg had a tractor-beam pull in the press box. He wore a permanent half-smile, as if he were amused by the world. He never said “hi.” If it was Week 8 and a writer hadn’t seen Goldberg since Week 5, Goldberg would just continue the conversation they were having in Week 5. The subject might be football, history, politics — Goldberg was a political junkie and a staunch Democrat.

Goldberg almost hovered over the other NFL writers. But not in terms of pure scoopage (that was Mort and others) nor pure celebrity (that was the Boston Globe’s Will McDonough, issuing papal edicts on network pregame shows). Goldberg was a kind of god of impartiality, someone who had sacrificed his various grudges and agendas in service of the wire.

At the Super Bowl, the NFL writers watched commissioner Paul Tagliabue, no pal of the press, give long and earnest answers to Goldberg. They watched Goldberg pull the ultimate power move: following Tagliabue down the hall after a press conference or media scrum. At the sight of Goldberg, Tagliabue would stop. He’d utter a few extra words that only Goldberg’s copy would contain.

Peter King, who wrote for Newsday before moving to Sports Illustrated, had a theory about why Goldberg kept fishing scoops out of the league office. It was the tao of “wire services.” NFL apparatchiks knew Goldberg’s stories would be backbreakingly fair to the league. But Goldberg was so diligent — so fanatical about cross-checking facts with Gene Upshaw and the players’ union — that no rival would accuse him of printing a press release. A Goldberg story thus became a near-definitive document, in the way that a tweet by King or Mortensen or Schefter or Jay Glazer is today. In a funny way, it was almost more believable than the words that escaped the commissioner’s mouth.

But for all of his stature, something about Goldberg struck the NFL writers as odd. They were seeking spoils beyond their newspapers — then, book deals or sports-radio sinecures; later, TV gigs or branded websites. Goldberg was uninterested. Mortensen once tried to get him hired at Frank Deford’s The National, but Goldberg demurred. “It sounded kind of flighty,” he told me.

Moreover, Goldberg’s reporting often didn’t appear in big newspapers. When it did, one of the territorial governors had taken Goldberg’s scoop, mulched it, and written his own piece. “If Dave Goldberg writes a story about the NFL putting in the two-point conversion, that’s going to go nationally,” said Newsday’s Bob Glauber. “But it’s going to go under the AP slug, and half the time his name isn’t going to be on the story.”

In sportswriting, there’s asceticism and then there’s anonymity. The former gets a sportswriter praised around a saloon. The latter just breaks everyone’s heart. On Monday mornings, the NFL writers would get on planes to fly back to their hometowns. They would unfold their newspapers and find the game story Goldberg had written a few seats over from them in the press box. Often, for a byline, they saw only two letters: “AP.”

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“Dave, you talk about all these sports,” an AP copy editor once said. “Do you have any favorite sports?”

Before Goldberg could speak, the voice of an ancient slot man answered across the desk. The slot man had spent days and weeks listening to young Goldberg rattle off stats, talk about the Mets and football Giants, indulge in the joy of fandom.

The slot man said: “Anything that moves!”

Goldberg didn’t begin his career covering sports. He just talked about them all the time. He bounced around the wire for a while before landing at a swell job at AP features. That was as gaudy and “longform” as the wire got; around the office it was called the Poets’ Corner. But Goldberg soon grew restless. “I found more people, just plain citizens, talked to you about sports,” he said. “If you tell them you’re doing politics, they don’t care.”

Once he got the NFL beat in 1984, he rose fast. A lot of NFL writers thought Tagliabue was a lawyerly bore who lacked Pete Rozelle’s maverick spark. But as Glauber noted, Goldberg saw Tagliabue as a quiet consensus builder who was leaving the same light footprints on the league as he was on journalism.

When he asked why he didn’t take a job at a newspaper, Goldberg would ask why he should want one. Every week for 25 years, his editors let him go to pretty much whatever game he wanted. Some were classics. Some, like the 10-10 tie between the Falcons and 49ers in 1986, were desultory. The chief entertainment was sitting next to Paul “Dr. Z.” Zimmerman.

“This is a great game,” Dr. Z said.

“It is if you watch the line,” Goldberg said.

Dr. Z turned to him and, with the earnestness of an X’s-and-O’s fiend, asked, “What else would you watch?”

Goldberg was a fast writer. King was often shocked to see him leaving a press box and going to dinner when King was settling in for an hour’s worth of wrangling with the desk. “He didn’t have time to luxuriate or ruminate over a lede,” Farmer said. “His deadline was as soon as the game’s over.” In his early years on the beat, Goldberg called the AP from the press box and spoke his story straight into the phone.

He published 7,000 to 9,000 words a week. “The AP was a little like Twitter, this constant machine that you fed,” said NFL.com’s Judy Battista. The machine’s perpetual motion was one of Goldberg’s great advantages, an edge not unlike the one Twitter would give NFL insiders later on. “A lot of us felt we set the agenda,” Shapiro said. “But, look, if something was happening in Seattle at 10 p.m. — 1 a.m. in New York — I couldn’t get that in my newspaper. Dave Goldberg would get a phone call and get something out on the wire in 22 seconds to cover the West Coast editions.”

Goldberg’s beat was the machinations of the big-timers — the commissioner, the union chief, the “powerful” (there is no other adjective) competition committee. He used wisdom gained on the political beat to break stories like the end of the 2001 referee lockout. Vic Carucci, who covers the NFL for the Buffalo News, said Goldberg always seemed to be a step ahead, connecting dots that other reporters were slow to connect.

Goldberg got enormous clout from just being everywhere. At the 1984 NFC Championship Game, he asked a young man with the PR office for his credentials. The man was eager to meet him. “Hi, Dave, I’m Roger Goodell.” As Goodell made his own rise through the league, he proved to be an excellent on- and off-the-record source.

By unanimous proclamation, the NFL writers made Goldberg their Helen Thomas. He got to ask the first question every year at the commissioner’s annual press conference the week of the Super Bowl. Goldberg took the responsibility extremely seriously, asking colleagues, “What’s the thing we need to know more than anything?” Note the we.

The downside was that Goldberg was often viewed as sports Wikipedia — a vault to be plundered rather than a journalist to be admired. Need an anecdote? Call Steve Sabol, the godfather of NFL Films. Then call Goldberg. I did once, many years ago, when I was struggling with a profile. Goldberg talked — and talked and talked and talked. I could sense his half-smile through the phone line.

“He could be very disdainful of going to the Super Bowl and finding so many reporters who had not covered the season the way he had, did not know the people he knew, did not understand pro football the way he did,” said Tom Jory, a pal who wrote for the AP. “Privately, he’d complain. But if one of these people that was fresh to the business asked a question, he’d tell ’em all he knew.”

Goldberg’s prose? It was most notable for the clichés it didn’t contain. In a Goldberg story, a coach was fired, not “axed.” A player was great, even brilliant, not a “future Hall of Famer.” Goldberg performed a funny ritual with sports clichés. He spoke them as often as he could — Jory said it was as if he were performing a journalistic exorcism. Once, after he got a speeding ticket, Goldberg said, “I got flagged off the Kosciuszko Bridge.”

Goldberg was the kind of writer who makes peace with his lack of style and instead tries to pummel readers with pure information. “One of the reasons I admired Dave is because I never in my life will write a fantastic sentence,” King said. “I’ll never be Rick Reilly or one of the great writers. But I think some of the things Dave did are some of the things I try to do: Be fast, be thorough, be comprehensive, and tell everybody what they need to know.”

Indeed, Goldberg was the wilderness guide waving you into unexplored regions of the NFL. When he went to see Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Manning gave him an interview. Then Manning yelled across the locker room and made Marvin Harrison give him an interview. Harrison didn’t like to talk to anybody.

When Goldberg went to Raiders training camp in 1993, Al Davis sidled up to him. Davis told him Marcus Allen, his former running back, had taken coach Art Shell and “stabbed him in the back.” Davis’s allegation of treason traveled the country. One day, Davis picked up a newspaper and read his words under another NFL writer’s byline — one who’d helped himself to Goldberg’s scoops as everyone did. Davis was furious. He had whispered that slur to Dave Goldberg, not some dope!

At the 2006 Super Bowl, Steve Young was scrambling up a flight of stairs. He was trying to avoid writers who would pump him for anecdotes about his old coordinator Mike Holmgren.

“Steve, I gotta talk to you sometime this week!” Goldberg yelled.

“I can’t!” Young said.

But then Young stopped. He recognized the voice. He turned. Wire services.

“Oh, hi, Dave, how are you?” Young said.

They spoke for nearly an hour. Goldberg’s story ran in some newspapers without a byline.

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An NFL writer walks into a press box. It’s the dawn of a new millennium. Across the way, he sees … a mob. Back in the ’80s, a big game might draw 50 reporters. Now, it draws 300. And the press pack is changing. The newspapers that employed the regional governors are bleeding money. Sports editors are asking: Do we really need a gamer for Monday morning when everyone saw the highlights 25 times on Sunday night?

The decline of newspaper NFL writers gave rise to the newly christened NFL “insider.” And that, in turn, changed the nature of the scoop. The insider was not just competing on Goldberg’s national, big-picture beat. He was vulturing news that had once been primarily local: coach firings, free-agent signings, trades, disciplinary suspensions, Walter Thurmond to the Eagles. Or he was dispensing gossip about all of the above. The insider is not the child of Goldberg but of Will McDonough. His job is to know things, but, as we see with episodes like the Dez Bryant video, it is not necessarily to prove them.

Goldberg watched this development with incredulity. He couldn’t understand how small transactions made a Lazarus rise from agate type into something a national writer actually considered a scoop.

Watergate was a scoop,” Goldberg said.

It was the great irony of Goldberg’s final years on the beat. The NFL insider now published ’round the clock; he spoke to the country rather than to one city; he favored hard info over great prose; and he clamored, often in vain, for credit. Everybody had become a wire reporter.

Goldberg groused only a little. “Somebody’s signing a reserve left guard and nobody cares,” he said. But it wasn’t the insiders that drove him off the beat. He got a nice buyout from the AP in 2009. Goldberg worked three more years, writing about football at AOL FanHouse. Later on, he did the two things a sports fan must do to show his modernity: He tweeted and he became a soccer fan.

In January, Goldberg was walking down an icy hill near his home in New York. He slipped, rolled over, and broke his hip. A crowd saw him and summoned an ambulance. Before Goldberg had surgery, he rummaged through his bag of forbidden clichés and told Jory he was going “under the knife.” Goldberg had been under the knife before — he’d had heart bypass surgery in 2009 — but this time he never left the hospital.

In Phoenix, some of the old territorial governors had gathered in a room to decide who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was a quorum not unlike the ones found in an NFL press box in the ’80s and ’90s. When the AP’s Barry Wilner told the room about Goldberg’s dire condition, many of the writers got very sad, thinking back to Goldberg, with mussed hair, a stained shirt, and a wonderful smile, standing by the buffet.

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Over lunch last year, Goldberg allowed himself to brag about a single story. This was 1998 — pre–Rooney Rule on the NFL’s timeline of race healing. Tony Dungy was coaching the Bucs. Dungy called Goldberg. Nine new head coaches would be hired in the league that offseason and only one was black. Dungy was angry. Goldberg had an active head coach venting and it was all on the record.

It was the kind of story that would please both sides. Dungy sounded wise and unhysterical. In Goldberg’s various follow-ups, league officials sounded like honest people — caught flat-footed, perhaps, but working hard to remedy the problem.

The story was published on December 29, 1998. It measured 765 words. Goldberg was proud of that story.

“If there was any groundbreaking I did — ” he said.

Then he stopped. Or an internal editorial mechanism stopped him.

He continued: “It wasn’t groundbreaking. It was simply — I think I made the rest of the media a little more conscious of that issue.”

It was like seeing an AP edit in action: an aggressive claim sanded down to one that is modest and provable. Goldberg had significantly understated the case. I looked it up. His Dungy story was published in newspapers all over the country. The San Jose Mercury-News ran it under the byline “wire services.”

How fitting. How utterly perfect. A eulogy for “wire services” can have only one purpose: to make more people wish they’d known the byline “Dave Goldberg.” To make them wish they’d met a man untempted by the most basic unit of journalistic vanity. “People say I should write a book,” Goldberg said. “You write it for me.”