For a kid who cared about sports, the 1990s was a unique time in South Florida. The Dolphins weren’t at their peak but they always competed for a playoff spot. The Heat, Marlins and Panthers were new and quickly successful. The ‘Canes started out hot, crashed hard but built a contender from scratch in just a few years. So my friends and I spent a lot time watching sports.
My dad also grew up in South Florida and was a sports junkie even though he was limited to UM and spring training. He would go to the Miami Beach Convention Center to watch ‘Canes basketball when Rick Barry was the star attraction. He sold sodas at the Orange Bowl in the Dolphins’ expansion season.
By the time I was old enough to really appreciate football, Dan Marino’s best years were behind him. I’d say I really started paying attention around the time Marino went down with the Achilles injury. I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving game when Leon Lett slipped on the ice trying to recover Pete Stoyanovich’s blocked field goal. And then Marino returned the following year and had his last great season, including the fake spike against the Jets. I never understood why Jimmy Johnson tried to turn the Dolphins into a running team with guys like Karim Abdul-Jabbar and John Avery, although I appreciated how hard the defense played in those years.
Marino, Bernie Parmalee, O.J. McDuffie, Bryan Cox, Richmond Webb, Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, Sam Madison and Pat Surtain are the names that standout when I think of that era.
You studied journalism at the University of Florida. Did you know you wanted to be a writer before college? How’d you get into writing and did you imagine that you’d someday work in sports writing when you were growing up?
I decided around eighth grade that I wanted to be a sports writer, but my love for writing began much earlier. In Kindergarten my family bought an Apple IIGS and I started writing short stories. I still have many of them in a box printed on dot matrix paper. It’s some far out stuff. Kids really do have a wild imagination.
The concept of writing for pay first hit me in fourth grade when I won a county-wide elementary school essay contest on the importance of the first amendment. I received one of those ridiculous oversized checks at the Broward County Fair and bought my first Game Boy. In middle school I wrote some articles on sports and technology for the Miami Herald’s special teen-oriented section called “Yo.” Very ‘90s. And in high school I wrote movie reviews for the Sun Sentinel’s teen section and was editor of the Cooper City High yearbook.
So I knew I wanted to attend UF because it had a great journalism school and the Alligator was the largest independent college newspaper in the country. I was torn on covering sports, politics or music, but sports turned out to be a no-brainer. I had one of the nation’s top sports programs at my disposal, I was able to freelance for daily papers across the state and I spent a semester as Alligator sports editor. I didn’t have a ton of great football to cover (Ron Zook era) but there was plenty of material (Zook threatening fraternity kids). UF won the basketball title my last semester so I covered a Final Four title team in my early ‘20s. That was an unforgettable experience.
Last season was your first one working as a reporter for the Dolphins. How would you describe your experience?
Fun, tiring, trying. It was a hell of a first year on the beat with the unprecedented bullying scandal. Everything football-related just ceased to matter for about 10 days and it became a 20-hour-a-day job. I’ll never forget when Cam Wake came into the locker room after winning AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his game-winning sack against Cincinnati. There were 100 reporters in the locker room and every question was about the scandal. Wake asked if anyone wanted to talk about football or his award but he had no takers. It was both comical and depressing.
Just when things died down and it looked like the Dolphins might make the playoffs, there was the late season collapse and the drawn out GM search. So it wasn’t easy. But I met a lot of people and got a really great crash course on covering the highs and lows of a football team.
How is working as a Dolphins beat writer/reporter different than what you thought it’d be like and what do you think are some common misconceptions of the job?
I had a pretty good idea of what the beat would be like after covering the Gators for three years. UF is a very competitive beat and there’s a ton of interest around the state.
What surprised me the most about the Dolphins beat is how quickly information spreads. Twitter came to age in the five years I left sports writing and covered local government and politics so I saw it happening there. But it’s a whole other level in the sports world. It’s amazing how you can instantly interact with Dolphins fans, athletes and other media. I can break a story and it’s on ESPN’s bottom line 10 minutes later.
It was an adjustment for my wife who values our weekends and suddenly I’m on the road for two preseason games, eight regular season games and events like the combine and owners meetings. Maybe, just maybe, they'll even be playoff road trips one of these days. But she's a former reporter and I met her at the Palm Beach Post so she understands the life of a journalist even if she wishes I wasn’t on Twitter all the time.
A small misconception is that we travel with the team. We don’t. Writers fly commercial and we don’t see the players between Friday and Sunday afternoon unless we happen to be staying at the same hotel. And I get occasional requests for player autographs. The No. 1 rule in sports writing: You don’t ask for autographs.
You previously covered Florida politics. How would you say covering and writing about sports is different or similar than/from political coverage?
Politics, especially during election time, is a nastier version of sports. It’s a game with high stakes but the ultimate outcome rests with the public. As a writer you’re really caught in the middle because your stories can alter policy. When I covered West Palm Beach government my stories directly affected land deals, political races and public safety initiatives.
With sports there’s a wider audience and it’s more fun. After a while I found government and political writing to be too negative. Journalists play a crucial watchdog role in government but I could only spend so much time in my life dealing with politicians. You really see people change after they gain power.
What are some of the most and least fun aspects of doing your work with the Dolphins?
The season is the fun part. I love telling a team’s story. There’s so much parity in the NFL that you never know what to expect week to week. When the Dolphins started last season 3-0 they really felt like a playoff team. Who could have imagined at that point they’d go 1-3 against the Bills and Jets? And when they were left for dead during the bullying scandal, they made a surprising playoff run. There’s nothing like the unpredictability and being right in the middle of it.
The offseason can be grueling, especially during a coaching or GM change. Everyone goes silent at a time when the fans are most hungry for news. It becomes a lot of off-the-record reporting. As a writer we have to decide what is worth putting out there.
Draft coverage is no fun. Readers love mock drafts but it’s mostly just speculation and educated guesses. When you do receive information from credible sources you’re chastised if it goes against the current mock draft logic. Of course the mocks never turn out to be right come draft night. But even if your info is good, so much can change leading up to the draft.
Which Dolphins player/players have been the most approachable for you? In your opinion, who is the funniest current Miami Dolphin?
I don’t want to throw out names because I might unfairly leave someone off. Despite the reputation of Miami’s locker room this past season, from a reporters’ standpoint it was a great team to cover. And that included Richie Incognito who was approachable and quotable. Most of the players are willing to work with the media.
In his one week of fame, safety Michael Thomas made me laugh several times. He’s a guy who was genuinely thrilled to get his shot and I’m keeping my eye on him.
There seemed to be some pretty surreal moments this last season surrounding the Incognito/Martin drama. The circus music played in the locker room. The national media swarm. Looking back now a little bit after the fact, having been up close to the situation, how accurate do you think the portrayal by the media was of the internal workings of the team?
It’s tough to think back six months and remember exactly what was being said about the Dolphins. The local media definitely had a better understanding of the players’ mentality than the national media and from the start it was clear that the players felt they were being railroaded by Martin and his camp. Reporters who had never stepped foot in a sports locker room were fixated on the bullying angle. It was a tough situation for everyone involved, including Martin. There were no winners.
At the time of the Ted Wells report, many thought there would be some major changes mandated by the NFL that would significantly change the way players interact and the culture of the locker room. Is your sense that this has been the case or do you think that the impact won’t be quite as significant as many imagined?
I don’t see how a locker room can significantly change because these are tough dudes. It’s not a law firm or even a newsroom. I doubt you’ll see some of the real blatant hazing – Rich Gannon told me some awful stories about the Raiders when he arrived to Oakland in 1999. So that will change. But it’s not going to be tea and crumpets in the locker room.
I’ve always thought it was an interesting dynamic to cover a subject closely and fairly while realizing that without access to that subject you don’t have substantial material. Do you ever/often feel that conflict of interest when covering the Dolphins and, if so, how do you deal with that dilemma?
Not at all. The way I see it, I’m writing for the fans that spend a lot of money and invest a lot of time on the Dolphins. They deserve to know what is really happening with the team. It was no different when I covered government and felt a responsibility to the taxpayers. I have plenty of informal chats with players and team officials. There’s a difference between sticking a voice recorder (or a pair of Google Glass) in their face and having a casual conversation. But my main job is to relay information to people who don’t have this kind of access.
The team has gone through some fairly notable changes this offseason with Dennis Hickey replacing Jeff Ireland and with Bill Lazor replacing Mike Sherman. From a PR standpoint there have also been some notable changes. Have you noticed a difference in terms of how the team has interacted with you in the offseason or in the demeanor of the staff or players towards the media?
The team seems to be making an effort to keep the media and fans informed of what is happening behind the scenes. They publicly announced GM candidates after they were interviewed and free agents after they visited Davie. But while several teams are announcing draft visits, the Dolphins are not doing it. And there’s only seven days of media access (excluding the draft) from now until minicamp in mid-June. But I think the secretive Bill Parcells mentality is over.
The roster has also gone through some extensive changes. The offensive line stands to look quite different, Nolan Carroll and Chris Clemons are gone, and Knowshon Moreno is now a Dolphin. Combined with the new coaching staff and the upcoming draft, what is your sense as to how different the 2014-15 Miami Dolphins will be in comparison to last year’s team?
Ask me again after the draft. I like that Joe Philbin is going out of his comfort zone and hiring people like Bill Lazor who don’t have previous connections to him. The great unknown is Ryan Tannehill. We’ve seen flashes of real promise but he still struggles with deep ball accuracy and pocket awareness. I still can’t believe how bad the run defense was last year. And although the Dolphins improved by a win in 2013, statistically they regressed in a majority of categories. To me this is an 8-8 team until they prove otherwise.
There have been reports of Dan Marino possibly getting involved with the team. Do you see him having a role and where do you think he’d fit best in doing so?
Marino hurt himself by taking the VP job in 2004 and then bailing three weeks later. I’m not sure how he’d fit in with the current executives. Dennis Hickey still hasn’t filled the assistant general manager job. I’ve heard nothing about Marino getting that gig and I don’t expect it, but if Miami wanted to give him a real position with influence, that’s an open position. If Marino wants a role I’d imagine the Dolphins could create one, but the question is whether it’ll be a figurehead position or something of real substance.
Looking at the upcoming draft, understanding that the decision-makers are pretty tight-lipped about their strategy, what expectations do you have for the team?
The Dolphins will draft only offensive and defensive players. No kickers or punters. But if I had to guess, I'd say the Dolphins go with at least two offensive linemen, possibly three. And I think safety should be a priority, even if it's just for depth in the later rounds. A late-round cornerback would also be smart despite drafting two last year.
Some people might not realize it, but you’re a pretty big music fan. You and I happen to share an appreciation for Bob Dylan, specifically. Push comes to shove, what are your top 3 Bob Dylan albums and songs and what are your top 5 albums all-comers?
It all depends on what mood I’m in. Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are always in my top two Dylan albums. At the moment, I’ll rank Nashville Skyline at No. 3. Songs are even trickier. Today I’ll go Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, Tell Me That It Isn’t True and Tombstone Blues.
My top five non-Dylan albums: Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones), White Album (Beatles), At Fillmore East (Allman Brothers), Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Byrds) and just for fun I’ll put White Pepper (Ween) on there because I love those guys and that’s a fantastic album.
Thank you for your time, Andrew.
Andrew Abramson writes about the Dolphins for the The Palm Beach Post and can be found on twitter at - @abramsonpbp.