SPJ launched the Fellows of the Society program in 1948 and has named three or more Fellows every year since. Jerry Green is among the 2022 recipients of this, the organization’s highest honor.
When he began his newspaper career, he wrote his stories on a heavy old portable typewriter, but these days he’s as apt to use his iPhone as anything else.
Well, you name the technology for filing a piece, and Jerry Green has probably at least tried it out.
That’s what happens when you’ve been writing stories and columns for American newspapers for seven decades, as Green — now 94 years old — has. The hallmark of that astonishing career writing about sports is being the only reporter in the world to have covered all 56 Super Bowls, from the very first one in 1967, in which the NFL champion Green Bay Packers topped the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, to this past February’s game, in which the LA Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals to take home the famed Lombardi Trophy. Given that extraordinary run, it’s no surprise that the Pro Football of Fame inducted Green into its writer’s wing — or that Green himself has a story or two to share about the guy who actually gave the Super Bowl trophy its name (legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi).
But Green’s career has been about more than Super Bowls. The writer, who spent the bulk of his career with The Detroit News and was named Michigan’s Sportswriter of the Year 10 times by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, has not only covered some of the greatest sports heroes of the last several generations, but also had a close-up view of changes in pro sports and the way those sports are covered.
Here, Green, who lives in suburban Detroit and still contributes the occasional piece to The News, opens up about writing, reporting, legendary Detroit athletes like Al Kaline and Denny McLain, and his lifelong love of games and newspapers.
You’re most famous these days for being the only reporter to cover all 56 Super Bowls. Are you happy to have that as your legacy?
Very much so, yes. I guess it was an act of survival. I’m glad to be able to do it. It’s become a chore the last couple of years because I had to have some caregiving while there. I’ve cut back on the way I’ve done it. Hopping on buses and going to team hotels — things like that just became too difficult for me — so I’ve used an historical approach the last few years. But I was quite happy to have covered all the games. I never had any idea it would happen, but it did.
Do you have favorite stories or favorite people you’ve covered in your career?
Muhammad Ali. Joe Namath. Vince Lombardi. Tom Brady, of course, from college on.
Were they all fun to talk to?
Well, Namath, we did it poolside at the hotel in Fort Lauderdale before the third Super Bowl. Lombardi … it was the first Super Bowl, maybe 10 reporters were around him. It was not a staged situation the way it is now. He was flipping a football, and I asked him if it was an NFL ball or an AFL ball. He wouldn’t answer, then he flipped it again. I asked him again. He wouldn’t answer. It took three times before he said, “Yes, it’s an NFL ball. It runs better, it passes better, and it catches better.” And then he said, “You asked, damnit, and I answered,” or words to that effect.
Where did you interview Ali?
One time it was the Fifth Street Gym in Miami. Ali was working out in the gym and just sweating and talking. He was wonderful. I don’t remember what he said, but he was always wonderful. The first time I covered him was in Lewiston, Maine. I think it was 1965. It was after he beat Sonny Liston, and he was just changing his name from Cassius Clay. Another time I interviewed him in Detroit at the Statler Hotel. His people wouldn’t let me in, so I walked away, but he called me back. He was that way. He was great.
I consider the timing of my career close to perfection. I covered pro football and the Detroit Lions just as pro football was emerging into America’s most popular sport. I covered Kaline and the World Series. Ali was timing. The Super Bowls. Reggie Jackson. Rod Carew. I covered Henry Aaron when he was going to break Babe Ruth’s record. Henry was always so gracious. I loved the guy. Pete Rose. Roger Clemens, whose son is currently on the Tigers. Al Kaline, of course, time and again. Denny McClain, during his 31-win season in 1968. I became the Lions beat writer for The Detroit News just before the merger of the NFL and AFL. The end of the 1965 season, they made me the pro football writer at The Detroit News. And the following June I got called at home during vacation: “You gotta come in. The leagues have merged.” And so I got in the car, drove the 15 or so miles from my home to The Detroit News, worked all night and wrote four stories. On vacation.
You grew up in the ’30s and ’40s, when baseball was king. Was that how you got hooked on sports?
Yeah. I was born in New York City, but I grew up on Long Island. I went to my first baseball game when I was 8, so this is my 86th season following baseball. I’ve actively gone to games every year since I was 8, except 2020 —that, of course, was the COVID season — and 1955. I was in Japan and Taiwan in the Navy on active duty.
What made you want to get into sports writing?
I couldn’t hit the curveball. That’s my regular answer, and in essence it’s true. I certainly wasn’t good enough to play. I learned that when I was 15, trying out for a high school team and seeing kids two years younger than I was being better than I was. Plus, I didn’t grow – my tallest was probably 5 feet, 6 inches. I’m not that anymore. I’ve shrunk.
But you can still type.
Growing up, my dad would bring home The New York Sun, and then it was the World Telegram and The Sun. And I’d read it and look for the sports section all the time. I’d look for other papers, too. In New York there were seven papers at that time, I believe. I loved newspapers, I loved sports and I combined them.
Actually, a friend of mine in college when we were seniors … I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I was moaning about it. And a friend of mine suggested: “You know what you ought to do? You ought to become a sportswriter.” That was just before Korea started. When that started, I knew I’d have to go into the service. I went to Columbia University after I graduated from Brown to take courses in trigonometry and algebra. I took a writing course. No grades. It was the school of general studies. I took an economics course, and I sat there bored stiff one day and I said, “I don’t like what I’m doing. I’m headed nowhere. He’s right. You ought to become a sportswriter.” Boston University was just starting a graduate school of journalism. I went there, still on deferment. I got my master’s in June of 1952 and got a job as a copy boy at the New York Journal American, and I loved it. The night before the 1952 election I got a telegram that said, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted in the Navy Officer Candidate School program.” And I went and spent three years in the Navy. I learned to write while I was in the Navy. When I was in Japan and Taiwan, I was getting Time and Newsweek magazines and reading them from cover to cover. And they would have an enormous impact on the way I would write.
Sports has changed a lot since you started covering it. Were you able to be closer to the players in the old days?
Absolutely, yes. I was hired by the Associated Press and sent to the Detroit bureau and then relayed on to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I became the Ann Arbor correspondent for the Associated Press. It was 1956, my first year covering sports for the AP, and I felt like I’d been assigned to cover the Yankees. I was a very lucky. Guys on the Michigan team were my friends for years. The pro ballplayers were pretty close, too. [When] I wrote a book about McLain, I had so much information. I wrote a book about the Lions. The ’60s and into the ’70s, before they stopped letting us travel on team planes and things like that, we were very close.
You must be amazed at how much money players are paid these days.
It’s unbelievable. I think the players can’t believe what they get. There were stories after McLain won 31 games about whether he’d get $100,000 per year. He got $90,000. Incidentally, when McLain was suspended by [Major League Baseball commissioner] Bowie Kuhn in 1970 and missed half a season because he was involved in a gambling thing … I happened to be in New York covering a fight. So The News said just stay there. I stayed for a few days, and the story started getting hotter. I went to the commissioner’s office every day, and he refused to see me. I became friendly with the staff, and there was one guy from Detroit in the commissioner’s office, and the day McLain was suspended he helped me. He walked me through a mob of reporters, put me in a freight elevator, and said just wait. McLain came through, brushed past Howard Cosell and Milt Richman of UPI. And somebody said, “He’s in the elevator!” The door closed and McLain looked at me and said, “What the hell are you doing here?” I said, “I’m taking you to the airport.” And he said, “If you pay for the cab, okay.” So I took him to the airport. I had him alone for the whole thing.
What a scoop.
I got a double bonus.
Journalism has changed a lot, too, since you started. Newspapers were on top, then came TV, and now it’s the internet. How do you feel about the current coverage of sports?
I guess like every old-timer, I look down on the younger ones now. I think sports writers today involve themselves too much in rumors and not enough in the truth. They’re impacted by the way television covers things, and now the internet. Social media is to me a terrible blot on the passage of information.
Which of your peers did you admire?
Let’s see. Wells Twombly, the San Francisco Examiner columnist. I admired Dick Young from the New York Daily News as a reporter. I thought Jimmy Cannon, as grouchy as he was, was probably in my mind the second greatest American writer, after Hemingway. I greatly admired Hemingway, so much so that I have his picture framed in my apartment, along with a picture of my daughter and granddaughters and a picture of Joe Louis I had taken with him in Las Vegas. And there’s a picture of Namath at the pool.
What’s your favorite Hemingway book?
“The Sun Also Rises.” I’ve read it a few times. I’ve got to read some more Hemingway before I leave this planet.
You wrote a column about your Super Bowl memories a couple of years ago, and you said the best player ever in the Super Bowl was Joe Montana, not Tom Brady. Why him?
I’m not sure. Actually, I don’t think either one of them is the greatest football player of all time. I think John Unitas is. Unitas helped popularize the position, the game, what it was like to win, and drive against the clock, which other quarterbacks need to be able to do now. Like John Elway and Tom Brady and Montana.
The Super Bowl has become as famous for its halftime shows as the game. Do you have a favorite?
No. For the very reason that, at halftime, I’m writing, or I was writing before they let me write after the game. Incidentally, I think it’s interesting that the technology through the years and the devices on which I wrote, changed so much. A heavy portable typewriter. A Smith Corona. An Olivetti. Then we took those data machines that were heavy — we called them Xerox machines. Then we went to smaller keyboard machines. And then we had those boxes with what looked like a little TV screen on them. Finally, to the internet and using email. Then along came Wi-Fi.
Yeah, you’ve seen the real march of technology.
When I get a column idea now, sometimes at midnight, I start writing on my iPhone.
Are you planning to go to the Super Bowl next season?
I haven’t said no yet. You know how old I am? 94. I have a lung problem. I have leg problems. I don’t walk very well. So my daughter has come to the last three Super Bowls with me. She doesn’t want to go again. Do I want to go again? I’m concerned, if I make it to next February, how I would react having to watch the game on TV. It could drive me crazy. I like what I do. I enjoy writing. And I’m very very fortunate that I’m able to do it. Knowing me, come January, I’ll probably say: yeah, one more.
Feature photo by The Detorit News
Tom McGrath is an author and journalist based in Philadelphia. He was named Writer of the Year by the City and Regional Magazine Association in 2022, and he’s currently working on a book about the 1980s.
Tagged under: Detroit, Super Bowl, sports writers