If you’re a football fan, then Ed Werder becomes a part of your daily life in some form around this time of year. Werder joined ESPN as a Dallas-based bureau reporter in September 1998. He covers the National Football League for Sunday NFL Countdown, Monday Night Countdown, NFL Live and SportsCenter. In addition to reporting from NFL game sites each week and regularly covering the Dallas Cowboys, Werder also covers the NFL Draft and Super Bowl. His professionalism, class, integrity and perseverance keeps him at the top of his game in this business. And with that, as he prepares for another NFL season ahead, Ed was kind enough to take time away from his demanding schedule to sit down with us and talk about his journey, advice for youth athletes and so much more. This is Ed Werder’s Y1 on 1:
What have you learned from sports that have helped you most in life?
I work in a highly competitive business that is not unlike the sports we cover. So competing in sports taught me the importance of teamwork and of being a great teammate. It taught me how to respond to both wins and losses in an appropriate way that remains in play in my everyday business life. So beyond developing a love for the sport I cover and understanding how it's played and its personalities, there are real-life sports lessons that translate from the playing fields into the television studio.
I also learned how committed you have to be and the amount of belief you must possess in your own abilities. I remember getting rejection letters from newspapers to which I had applied. That was really tough. I can vividly recall sitting on the floor at home on my day off for hours and spreading out my best writing samples and reading them objectively and convincing myself that I was right about my talent and those who didn't hire me were wrong. So you have to have a sense of conviction. You can never give up on yourself.
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How did you get your start in sports journalism?
I've always loved sports and been fascinated by the art of storytelling. So sports journalism seemed a natural fusion of the two things that most interested me. I can remember when I was very young in school that the teacher would give us quiet time and I would get out paper and pen and start imagining a football game and write the story of the game. My friends and I always announced the games we played…yes, while playing them. I got involved in doing a radio show in high school, wrote for my college newspaper, did a TV internship my senior year at the University of Northern Colorado and was writing for my local newspaper as I finished my degree. I double-majored in Mass Communication and Journalism. I worked in print for 15 years before getting the opportunity to move into TV.
You’ve been with ESPN since 1998 and in sports journalism since 1985. While so much has changed, what are some of the most glaring differences you see in today’s athletes from 15-20 years ago?
They make significantly more money and feel empowered by that and the increased fame they've earned. But I think the more significant change has been with the teams. There's far less opportunity to have casual contact with players and coaches now than when I first started in the business. When I covered the Super Bowl championship Cowboys teams in the early 1990s, I could sit down and have lunch in the cafeteria at training camp and interview Troy Aikman or Emmitt Smith. We would stand on the sideline at practice and Jimmy Johnson would come over and interact with us while the players were stretching. Now the cafeteria scene is almost gone completely in the NFL, and in many camps such as that of the New England Patriots, you're kept off the field and forced to watch from a special area that's roped off in a distant corner of the end zone. You can't hear the interactions of players in practice like we could when I first started. That significantly changes the coverage you're able to provide your readers or viewers.
Over your time covering sports, what do you see as some of the qualities and habits of successful athletes on and off the field?
They're all extremely gifted but the best are incredibly hard-working, devoted to maximizing their talent, being focused on preparing for competition and excelling in the games and being leaders who set a positive example for their teammates to follow. One of the things that made the Cowboys a Super Bowl dynasty was their best players, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Darren Woodson and others, were also the players who worked the hardest and demanded the same from their teammates. It's a lot easier to win when you're best players are also the most committed players
Do you have any mentors who guided you along your journey in sports media?
I consider myself infinitely coachable. I like to learn. I don't always want to change. But I'm open-minded about learning. Chris Mortensen of ESPN and Peter King of Sports Illustrated and Founder of Monday Morning Quarterback are two people whom I admire in every regard. They're high-character people and they both used their influence to create opportunities for me in TV. I also think that you have to be open to constructive criticism. I remember when I was a young sportswriter that I reached out to SI's Rick Reilly, who has been National Sportswriter of the Year a billion times now, and asked him to critique my best 10 articles. He was kind and generous with his time, and he took a red pencil to them. He told me what he liked and what he didn't. I still have those.
You’ve been around the game of football, and sports for that matter for over 30 years. What specific advice do you have for youth athletes? What pitfalls should they look out for and be aware of?
You have to be willing to be coached. You have to accept criticism. You have to judge yourself honestly. Accept responsibility when you fail. Too many people think giving great effort is enough, and it's not. That's the minimum. Effort isn't optional. That has to be there every time you practice or compete. In my experience, I played 3 years of varsity HS tennis and a little in college, the greatest victories come against those who were more talented than you, but you prevailed for some other reason, a tactic, a strategy, determination, better performance in the most decisive moments. Those are the most rewarding moments in sports.
Specializing is such a hot topic in sports. Would you advise youth athletes to play multiple sports or focus on one?
I think for most young athletes playing a variety of sports makes sense but I would suggest you're best served to decide which you love the most and which best suit your skill set and focus on developing your talent in those as quickly as possible.
Safety and injuries are center stage in the NFL and football across the US. Are the right measures being taken to protect these athletes from concussions and other potentially catastrophic injuries?
I think the equipment available and the general awareness has improved. Proper tackling techniques are being emphasized. But I would still argue there's more hitting than tackling in the NFL. Culturally, I think there's a greater acceptance of players suffering head injuries and removing themselves from games than there had been previously. But we saw that the protocols aren't always followed as with Case Keenum of the Rams last season. And there still exists to a degree the machismo in football where players refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of their injuries, generally because they're so competitive and don't want to fail their teammates or maybe they’re insecure and fear losing their positions on some level.
Most memorable game to be a part of?
The most memorable game I ever covered was when John Elway led The Drive in the AFC Championship Game in Cleveland. That was the day he became an NFL legend. As part of the media, I was on the sideline as he executed that drive that put him in the Super Bowl for the first time. I've covered 25 Super Bowls. That moment was better than any of them, although plenty of those have been dramatic.
Three players, could be in college or the NFL, who will lead the sport for the next 10 years?
Todd Gurley, Khalil Mack, Tyrann Mathieu
Favorite NFL stadium?
Lambeau Field for its uniqueness, its nostalgic value and college atmosphere
The story of your daughter, Christie, having and beating cancer only to see her husband Trey succumb to his own battle with the disease is well chronicled and something you have made very public. While 100 emotional questions could be asked, most simply, how are you, Christie and the family all doing now?
Christie had two brain surgeries and lost her husband of four years, Trey, to cancer just five months ago. She's a teacher, and despite so much misfortune and adversity she's full of goodness and faith in a way that I cannot comprehend. So we are adjusting slowly but we miss Trey, and we always will.
Finally, what philanthropic endeavors are you part of or charities you work with that we can help shed more light upon?
We support Make-A-Wish Foundation of North Texas (ntx.wish.org), Dallas Children's Medical Center (www.childrens.com), Hope Strengthens (hopestrengthens.org )and Cure Starts Now of North Texas (northtexas.thecurestartsnow.org). The latter is the least known, probably. It was started by friends Steve and Michele Bjornberg in honor of their little girl Sydney, who died of a DIPG brain tumor before turning 12. We were introduced to them when she was diagnosed and tried to use our experience to help guide them in a much more challenging situation. That they could endure such a devastating loss and use it to create a way to raise awareness and contribute to the welfare of others is simply an amazing act of humanity.
Follow Ed Werder on Twitter @Edwerderespn