November 21, 2013 – Along with interviewing Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone during my recent trip to Orchard Park, New York, I also sat down with legendary quarterback Jim Kelly for an upcoming “5 Minutes with…” feature in Yankees Magazine.
Thanks to Nancy Newman, who is the host of the YES Network’s Yankees Magazine TV show and who covered the Bills during Kelly’s career, I was fortunate enough to spend about a half hour with the Hall of Fame quarterback on the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Upon arriving in Orchard Park, I was asked where in the stadium I wanted the interview to take place, and to me, the ideal location was mid-field on the 50-yard-line.
When we arrived on the field, Yankees chief photographer Ariele Goldman Hecht took several portraits of Kelly in that same location. The beautifully lit photos feature Kelly, who was wearing a Buffalo Bills warm-up jacket, holding a football. In the photos, the wide expanse of the stadium serves as the backdrop.
Then, as Bills media relations personnel were setting up two chairs for my interview, I asked Kelly to throw me a pass. As the case was with Dan Marino at Yankee Stadium (see blog entry below), I knew that catching a pass from Kelly would make for a memorable experience (and a great blog entry). But I had no idea how memorable this pass would be.
The light-hearted Kelly quickly instructed me to run a 15-yard post pattern from the 45-yard line, and with great excitement, I lined up near the right hash mark and began to run the route. When I turned toward the quarterback from about 15 yards away, the ball was already at its target – which, of course, was me.
Thankfully, the bullet throw was a little high — as opposed to coming right for my head. But with just about no time to react, I jumped into the air and — somehow — caught the ball (see photo below). It was the fastest pass that I’ve ever caught or dropped, and the lucky catch surprised Kelly as much as it shocked me.
“You may run passing routes like a Miami Dolphin,” said Kelly, who I had a running joke with over the fact that I worked for the Dolphins before my time with the Yankees. “But I can’t believe you caught that pass.”
With far too much adrenaline rushing through my body, I began the interview with Kelly (see photo below). In our candid conversation, the native of Western Pennsylvania spoke about the role that football played in his childhood.
“It was a huge part of my life,” Kelly said. “Growing up in a family of six boys, we played football in the house, even when mom told us not to. We wore helmets in the house because our mom knew that if we were going to play inside, one of us was going to smack our head on a piece of furniture. We played tackle football in a foot of snow or in the middle of a rainstorm. Football made us who we are. When you’re part of a family with six boys in Western Pennsylvania, what else are you going to play? None of us played golf or tennis. We all loved football.”
Later in the interview, I asked Kelly how his career would have turned out had he not teamed with star wide receiver Andre Reed — who will be featured in a “5 Minutes with…” Q&A piece in the same 2014 issue of Yankees Magazine that Kelly will be in. The quarterback’s answer showed his humility and grace.
“I would not be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame if he wasn’t here because when we needed a big play, he was our man,” said Kelly. “He was one of the best receivers in the history of the game at running after the catch. He would have been successful no matter where he was. Someone would have found a way to get him the football. I was blessed to have No. 82 on my team.”
Kelly’s sense of humor came out when I asked him whether he and [former Dolphins quarterback] Dan Marino ever reminisce about the epic games they played in against each other.
“We don’t talk much about those games because Danny doesn’t want to bring it up,” Kelly said. “Of course, I’m happy to talk about those games, but we usually have too much stuff going on in our lives to catch up on. We usually have a few beers and talk about things you probably can’t put on a recorder. He’s one of my good buddies, and we still spend a lot of time together.”
Finally, I asked Kelly, who led the Bills to four consecutive AFC championships in the early ’90s, to take me back in time to the very place we were sitting. I wanted Kelly to describe the atmosphere at then Rich Stadium during the Bills heyday, and he did just that.
“We were bundled in parkas, and I don’t even think they had heated benches back then,” Kelly said. “But the Bills fans had more passion than any other group of people in the world. There were guys who would come out here with their chests painted. It would be 10 degrees and they never put their shirts on. The fans were there for us all the time. It was a great place to be when we were winning.”
–Alfred Santasiere III
November 21, 2013 – On a beautiful autumn afternoon in October, I traveled to Orchard Park, New York to interview Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone for a feature, which will appear in the 2013 New Era Pinstripe Bowl Official Game Program.
Prior to taking the Bills job in January, Marrone was the head coach at Syracuse University, and he led his team to victories in the inaugural New Era Pinstripe Bowl in 2010, and he hoisted the George M. Steinbrenner Trophy again after defeating West Virginia University in the game last year.
In the interview, which took place after a Bills practice, the Bronx native shared his favorite memory from the week leading up to the first Pinstripe Bowl game.
“A few days before the game, I participated in a coaching clinic with a group of kids from the Bronx,” said Marrone. “I spoke to them about how important education and sports were in my growth as a person. When I was delivering that talk, I thought to myself, ‘This is my life right in front of me. I was just like these kids.’ I was in the same place as those kids, and fortunately, I got a college scholarship. Now, I’m a head coach speaking to him. That clinic made me realize that life had really come full circle for me.”
Marrone, who led the Orange to 8-5 records in 2010 and 2012, also spoke about the moments after the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
“One of the most special moments of my life was when I received the trophy,” Marrone said. “They handed me the microphone, and I began to thank the people who helped us get to that point. When I started to speak, I heard an echo, and it made me think about Lou Gehrig’s speech. There’s nothing like winning a game in New York City because you become part of such great history. That was very special for me.”
The 2012 New Era Pinstripe Bowl was played in a snowstorm, and in my opinion, the weather conditions only enhanced the atmosphere in Yankee Stadium and added to the excitement. Near the end of the interview, I asked Marrone about coaching that game in the snow, and his response resonated with me.
“Being on the field that day reminded me of some of the football games at the old Yankee Stadium and at the Polo Grounds, which were played on torn-up fields while it was snowing,” Marrone said. “I’m a purist, and I believe those are the best conditions to play football in. I loved everything about that day.”
Again, the entire interview with Marrone will be published in the 2013 New Era Pinstripe Bowl Official Game Program. That publication will be available at the 2013 New Era Pinstripe Bowl on December 28, and it can be purchased by calling (800) GO-YANKS or by logging on to http://www.yankees.com/publications.
–Alfred Santasiere III
November 21, 2013 – In the midst of the many celebrations for Mariano Rivera this summer in Major League Baseball stadiums, I had a conversation with my closest friend, which resulted in another great honor for the Yankees great closer.
On a chilly afternoon in my backyard last spring, Matthew Shauger — who is the New York Giants assistant director of pro personnel and who has been my friend since we were both in third grade — and I began to discuss the possibility of the Giants honoring Rivera. In that conversation, our minds quickly raced toward the idea of Rivera serving as an honorary captain for Big Blue.
A few days later, Shauger asked the appropriate people in the Giants front office about the possibility of that happening. Don Sperling, who is a VP and executive producer of game entertainment with the Giants immediately embraced the idea and extended a formal invitation to the closer. With great appreciation, Rivera accepted.
On October 21, I had the privilege of traveling to MetLife Stadium with Rivera and his family for the Giants Monday Night Football game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Upon our arrival, Rivera was greeted in the owners’ suite by Giants president and chief operating officer John Mara.
“We wanted someone to give us some positive energy,” said Mara, whose family has been part of the team’s ownership group since its inception in 1925. “Mariano is such a New York sports icon, such a revered figure, and one of the greatest Yankees of all time. He is the type of player you dream about having on your team, because he is a quality individual off the field as well a great clutch performer on it. For all those reasons, we thought it would be great to honor him.”
After that visit, we headed to the field to watch pre-game warm-ups, and Rivera spent time with several gridiron greats including Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, former defensive end Michael Strahan and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young.
One exchange that stood out above the others took place when all-time great wide receiver Jerry Rice approached Rivera (see photo below).
“I’ve won four Super Bowls,” Rice said as he greeted Rivera. “But getting to meet you is one of the greatest moments in my life.”
For me, those words really put Rivera’s greatness in perspective. Like Rivera, it’s fair to say that Rice is one of the few athletes who is unanimously regarded as the best to ever play his position. Therefore, the fact that Rice’s brief meeting with Rivera meant that much to the former San Francisco 49er’s star illustrates that Rivera is truly one of the most legendary sportsman in history.
“Mariano had a tremendous work ethic and an even greater love of the game,” Rice said to me after sharing a few moments with the closer. “Playing baseball wasn’t just a job for Mariano. He wanted to go to the ballpark everyday, and he wanted to improve every time he took the mound. He did so much for the game, and I really admire him for that.”
As the teams exited the field following their pregame warm-ups, we were escorted to the tunnel outside the Giants locker room. From there, we watched as Big Blue took the field (see photo below).
“Being so close to those guys as they got ready to play a game was something I will always remember,” Rivera said. “The atmosphere around an NFL team before a game is a lot different than it is in baseball. It’s pretty intense.”
A few minutes after the teams assembled on their respective sidelines, the Giants played a video tribute to Rivera. Then, the voice of the late Bob Sheppard — who in addition to serving as the Yankees public address announcer for 56 years, also held the position with the Giants for five decades — came over the sound system.
“Coming in to pitch for the Yankees, No. 42, Mariano Rivera, No. 42,” Sheppard announced in a recording while Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” played.
As Rivera was introduced, the sellout crowd at MetLife Stadium gave the closer a standing ovation, and he began to walk out of the tunnel toward midfield (see photo below). But within seconds, Rivera’s slow pace turned to a jog.
“Because of the energy and excitement at that moment, I couldn’t help but to start jogging,” Rivera said. “There was too much adrenaline rushing through my body to walk out there so calmly.”
When he got to the 50-yard line, Rivera — who was donning a jersey featuring Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s name and number — was met by the team’s captains.
Rivera stood between Manning and Vikings captain Adrian Peterson as the referee tossed a commemorative coin in the air (see photo below). The Vikings won the coin toss, and they elected to receive the football at the start of the game.
“I’m very grateful to the New York Giants organization for this tribute,” Rivera said. “To have my family here with me made the experience even more special.”
Whether Rivera’s honorary captaincy played a role in the game’s outcome is anyone’s guess, but with the great closer on hand, the 0-6 Giants captured their first victory of the season.
“Mariano certainly charged up the crowd,” said Mara, who watched the game with Rivera. “And, our players and coaches just kept it going. It was a great night and a big win for us.”
The entire story of Rivera’s night at MetLife Stadium will be published in the 2013 New Era Pinstripe Bowl Official Game Program and in the 2014 New York Yankees Official Yearbook.
–Alfred Santasiere III
November 21, 2013 – Earlier this fall, my 5-year-old son, Alfred, and I helped lead the Misericordia Cougars football team into battle.
On October 5, we were asked by the university — which I graduated from in 2001 — to be honorary captains for the homecoming game against King’s College.
I’ve been on the advisory board for the university’s athletic department since 2012, and I’ve enjoyed working on two fund-raising events. The first was a kickoff dinner for the football program, and the second was an inaugural golf tournament. As I took the field for the ceremonial coin toss, I felt proud of my efforts. But more than that, I was mindful that without the tremendous support of the New York Yankees, my contributions would have been much less impactful.
While it’s always nice to be recognized by my alma mater, which is located in Northeast Pennsylvania and plays in the Division III Middle Atlantic Conference, the experience of walking from the home sideline to the 50-yard line with my son was unforgettable.
When we got to mid-field, the King’s College captains extended a hand to me and to my young son, who was somewhat in awe of his surroundings. Then, the referee introduced Alfred and I to the crowd over the PA system.
“The Cougars’ ceremonial captains for today’s game are Al Santasiere and his son Alfred,” the referee said. “Al is the director of publications for the New York Yankees and a 2001 graduate of Misericordia University.”
At that point, the referee handed me a commemorative coin, and I tossed it high in the air. For the first time in Misericordia’s two-year football history, they won a coin toss. Later that afternoon, they took the game into overtime and nearly captured their first victory. But after two overtime rounds, the Cougars lost a heartbreaker, 41-40.
After nearly two full seasons, the Cougars finally earned their first victory. This past Saturday (November 16) Misericordia defeated Fairleigh Dickinson University on the road.
–Alfred Santasiere III
November 1, 2013 – The October Issue of Yankees Magazine is on sale now on newsstands throughout the Tri-State area.
Of course, you can purchase a subscription to the print version of Yankees Magazine by visiting http://www.yankees.com/publications or by calling (800) GO-YANKS. The digital version of the magazine is available through http://www.yankees.com/publications.
In my opinion, the October Issue (like the September Issue) is one of our all-time best. This edition includes a photo essay on Mariano Rivera’s emotional celebration at Yankee Stadium, as well managing editor Nathan Maciborski’s comprehensive story on Yankees great Jerry Coleman. For that feature, Maciborski spent two days with the former United States Marine and Yanks second baseman in San Diego, and it is a must read.
I am especially proud of the three features I put together for this issue, including the cover story on Andy Pettitte’s final game. For the story on Pettitte, I flew to Houston with the team in late September, and I chronicled as much of the lefty’s final days in pinstripes as I could.
After Pettitte tossed a gem in his final start at Yankee Stadium, he admitted that he didn’t have much left in the preverbal tank. But with one start left in his 18-year career, and with the opportunity to pitch that game in his hometown of Houston in front of about 40 family members, Pettitte literally gave it everything he had.
I had a brief conversation with Pettitte when he got to Minute Maid Park on the afternoon of his last game. When Pettitte arrived in the visiting clubhouse, he was greeted by Joe Girardi, who caught him for several years in late-’90’s, and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, whom Pettitte has been close friends with since they were teammates in the minor leagues in the early-’90s.
“Mo and Derek have made a huge impact in my life,” a teary-eyed Pettitte said. “They mean a lot to me. I’ve been blessed to have them around me for so many years. Until you’re ready to say goodbye, you don’t realize how much time you spend around your teammates, coaches and trainers.”
A few hours later, Pettitte made his final walk from the bullpen to the dugout. As he made his way, the pitcher peered toward the luxury box that his wife, children and parents were in.
“I found myself getting emotional again,” Pettitte said. “And I said to myself, ‘This is not good.’”
But from the very first pitch of the game, Pettitte kept his emotions in check. He threw a complete game, allowing only one run in the win.
It was an epic performance for a 41-year-old pitcher whose battle against Father Time was more grueling than his battle against a young Houston Astros lineup.
The day after the game, I sat down with Pettitte in the clubhouse for nearly an hour. He spoke with me about everything from the emotions he had as he drove to the ballpark to make his final performance, to the physical pain he felt in his shoulder in the late innings.
Pettitte also admitted that during the game, he flashed back to many of the memorable moments of his career.
“While I was sitting in the tunnel in between innings, I thought about the big games I’ve won and some of the postseason games I lost,” Pettitte said. “All of that was running through my head, and I really enjoyed it.”
In addition to the Pettitte story, I met up Aaron Boone last winter in Arizona (see blog entry below). During our lunch meeting, Boone described his greatest day in pinstripes.
Ten years ago, Boone hit a game-winning grand slam in the 11th inning of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. Boone’s first-person recollection of that seesaw game will bring you back to that thrilling night at the old Yankee Stadium.
Finally, a few hours after the 2013 Old-Timers’ Day game, one of the most memorable evenings of my life began.
As day turned to night on June 23, I sat down with the only three men who have tossed perfect games for the Yankees (see photo below). For the first hour of the dinner, I interviewed Don Larsen, David Wells and David Cone about their respective masterpieces at Yankee Stadium.
In the candid interview, which took place at Smith and Wollensky steakhouse in New York City, each of the pitchers spoke about the emotions they felt as they took the mound for the ninth inning.
“The crowd was on their feet, and I was really excited to get out there,” Wells said.
“I had a nervous feeling in my stomach for the first time,” Larsen added. “And, I didn’t’ like it.”
Cone listened intently and then chimed in.
“I never felt an adrenaline rush like that,” he said. “Moments like that made it hard to retire because nothing can match that high.”
After the interview and a steak dinner, Yankees chief photographer Ariele Goldman Hecht took a series of beautiful portraits in a bar room located next to the private room we ate dinner in. Below is one of those those portraits, along with a photo that my wife, Tiana, and I posed for with the perfect game pitchers.
Enjoy the last issue of 2013.
–Alfred Santasiere III