I know the NFL season begins tonight. Actually, it is impossible NOT to know the NFL season begins tonight because the hype-machine that surrounds the league has been in full force since training camps opened in July. From February until June it only goes at about 90 percent.
Okay, fine, I know most of the country will be obsessing about the NFL from tonight until The Super Bowl is finally played on the first Sunday in February. My guess is there will come a day soon when The Super Bowl is played on President's Day weekend at the end of an 18 game regular season.
My mind tends to work in mysterious--and not always efficient--ways. This morning I've been thinking about Zanedogs. Bear with me a moment while I explain.
In yesterday's Washington Post, in addition to a special section ostensibly on the NFL but really on all things Redskins there was a column about some player's aunt who loved him so much that she kept making phone calls to see if he had made the team this weekend. I only got a few paragraphs into the story and I honestly can't tell you the player's name. But I found myself laughing at a memory as I read it.
Years ago, Dave Kindred, one of the best sports columnists to ever grace a sports page, wrote a lengthy piece about John Thompson, who was still coaching at Georgetown at the time. In the piece, Kindred wrote movingly about how Thompson had cared for his aging mother near the end of her life. There was lots of detail: how he bathed her, sang to her, kept her company for hours at a time.
The next morning, George Solomon, then The Post sports editor got a call from Lefty Driesell, then the coach at Maryland and an often bitter rival of Thompson's. "Hey George," Lefty said, "Aah got a momma too you know."
To say that line has been oft-repeated among people at The Post is like saying Rush Limbaugh has bashed President Obama on occasion. So, a few paragraphs into the column I couldn't resist sending Solomon and some of my old Post colleagues a note. It said, "aah got an aunt too you know."
At almost the same moment, an e-mail popped up from my friend Doug Doughty, who has covered Virginia football and basketball for--I'm not making this up--35 years. Doug says he was 12 when he first got the beat. The long and short of the e-mail was that it now costs $15 if you want to eat in the Maryland football press box.
Which brought up Zanedogs and one of my funnier memories.
Jack Zane was the sports information director at Maryland forever--and then the ticket manager forever and a day after that until he retired a couple of years ago. Jack was, to put it mildly, a big guy. (He's lost a lot of weight in recent years but he's still big). He was best described in 1976 when he walked around at The Cotton Bowl (Maryland was playing) wearing a red, ten gallon hat. Mark Whicker, then of The Winston-Salem Journal said, "he looked like TWO Hoss Cartwrights." (That's Bonanza for you younger folks).
I started covering Maryland football and basketball in 1979. Jerry Claiborne was the coach and, we were, to put it mildly, just a little different. Claiborne was a classic southern football coach. He tolerated, but didn't especially like the media. Practice was always open in those days but one day when the players were on a water break I made the mistake of trying to ask him a quick question.
"Son," Claiborne said (I was 23) "I don't talk to the media on the practice field--EVER."
I was a wise-guy Jew from New York. Claiborne was a son of the south who refused to open the weight room on Sunday mornings to encourage players to go to church. He didn't like to answer any questions about individual performances until he had looked at the film--it WAS film then--which was delivered to his house promptly at 5 a.m. on Sunday. Stories about Claiborne going nuts if the film was five minutes late were legendary at Maryland.
Claiborne was a very good coach and a very good man. Maryland had dominated the ACC under him from 1975 to 1978 but was starting to slip a little when I arrived on the beat. The Terrapins just couldn't beat truly good teams. Then, as now, the ACC was a mediocre football league and a team had to beat someone good outside the conference to be taken seriously nationally. Maryland couldn't do it and, in '79 and '80, it lost badly to Penn State and Pittsburgh and even lost a couple of ACC games.
Solomon decided a series about Maryland's fall from grace should be done. I started calling ex-players--you could never get a current player to talk honestly for the record and the consensus was pretty direct: Claiborne was a really good coach but Maryland just played too conservatively to beat really good teams.
"I remember Coach saying in a quarterbacks meeting that the ideal way to play the game would be to punt on every play and win with defense and special teams," Bob Avellini, who was then with the Bears told me. That summed it up.
So did a very funny Claiborne line, delivered after a too-close Maryland win at Duke in which tailback Charlie Wysocki carried the ball 55 times. I asked Claiborne in his postgame press conference if he worried about Wysocki getting worn out carrying the ball so often.
"John, that football's not very heavy," Claiborne snapped.
I'm now getting to the Zanedogs.
When my three part series came out, labeled, "Maryland Football: At The Crossroads," in The Post, all hell broke loose. Several players called me that week to warn me I might not be safe in the Maryland locker room after the N.C. State game. Claiborne had told the players in a meeting that, "John Feinstein doesn't know if the football is stuffed or pumped up."
Jack Zane had called my friend Ken Denlinger, then a Post columnist, to tell him that I was "through," at the University of Maryland.
And remember, this was BEFORE Maryland people hated everyone and everything associated with Duke.
So, that Saturday, George came to the game to stand up--if needed--for his young reporter. Sure enough, Jim Kehoe, then the athletic director--and a guy I always liked a lot--came into the press box demanding to speak to us. I stood back out of the way while George and Kehoe went nose-to-nose. It was an impressive display of anger on both sides. Kehoe finally concluded by waving a hand and saying, "It's people like you that make the world a bad place to live," and stalked off.
I went to watch the second half. George went to get a hot dog--which were affectionately known to all that covered Maryland as Zanedogs, the theory being that Jack cooked them himself before the season began and they were still sitting there waiting to be eaten by those who didn't know better in November.
George sat down in the press box next to me. Seconds later, Kehoe walked back in to tell Jack something. The first thing he saw was George taking a bite out of his Zanedog. Without missing a beat he SCREAMED for the entire press box to hear, "You see that, you see that--they come out here and eat all our food and then try to destroy our program!"
Off he went. I was almost on the floor laughing. George was not. He slammed down the Zanedog and screamed at me, "I don't want you to ever eat their food again!"
"ME eat their food?" I screamed almost crying I was laughing so hard. "I wouldn't be caught DEAD eating one of those things."
At the end of that football season, Maryland received a check from The Washington Post to cover food expenses. From that day forward, George sent checks to all the local teams in case he ever felt like a hot dog or a Zanedog--or more importantly to me if I felt like eating Ledo's Pizza at one of Lefty's press conferences.
The trend began there. Now, almost all press boxes at the pro level and many on the college level charge the media to eat.
And to think, it all started 29 years ago with one bite of a Zanedog.