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ESPN's Schefter channels his energy into NFL

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010;

As a 12-year-old sixth grader, Adam Schefter included his biography at the end of a short children's book he wrote to complete a school project. "His goals are to become a sports announcer or a sports writer," it read.

For Schefter, 43, the mission was quickly accomplished, first as the reporter covering the Denver Broncos for the Denver Post, often contributing 500 bylines a year to a paper that didn't even publish on Saturdays. That 15-year stint was followed by a soul-searching and somewhat gut-wrenching decision in 2004 to abandon the newspaper career he dreamed of in favor of taking the plunge into television. His first move was to the fledgling NFL Network in 2004; he jumped to ESPN last spring.

Schefter also is the planet's foremost media authority on Mike Shanahan, the new head coach of the Washington Redskins. They first met in 1990 when Schefter was a young beat reporter with a freshly minted master's degree from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and Shanahan was the Broncos' quarterbacks coach, grooming John Elway for greatness.

"I've known Mike almost half my life, wow!" Schefter said in a telephone interview this week. "I'd never even thought about that before."

Over the years, Schefter had a close look at Shanahan the public figure and two-time Super Bowl champion coach as well as the private man who asked Schefter to co-write his 1999 autobiography. Even after Schefter left Denver and moved east to try television five years ago, they stayed in frequent touch to maintain what Schefter describes as a long-running "close professional working relationship.

"He's a nice man, a generous man, a kind man," Schefter said. "He taught me so much about the game and how the league works. We're friends, but in no way has that ever compromised my coverage of him. If he made a poor draft choice, I would write about it. He may not have been happy with me, but he understood it. He gets it. He knows what's expected and what it means to be the face of the organization.

"Every year in training camp with the Broncos, I'd be walking off the field, and I'd look up and there was Mike signing autographs on the way to lunch. He'd do it for 45 minutes until everyone got one, and he did it every day. It used to blow me away. I knew he'd be up until midnight breaking down film, but he did it anyway.

"Away from the game, he's very personable, funny and a great story-teller. But when the camera goes on, it's back to coachspeak, the robotic answers. If you're looking for the kind of material [Steve] Spurrier provided, you're not going to get that from Mike. But you won't get any ineptness, no way."

That should be terribly soothing for Washington's success-starved football fans, as is Schefter's description of Shanahan as "ultra-intense, ultra-competitive, always thinking, creating, plotting to make the franchise better. He is just so smart on offense. As far as X's and O's, I consider him on offense what Bill Belichick is on defense."

Schefter also believes there is no question that Shanahan will go into his first season with Jason Campbell as his starting quarterback, despite the constant inconsistency over his first five years in the league.

"It's a quarterback's league. Each of the 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs was either a first-round pick or had gone to the Pro Bowl," Schefter said. "The Redskins do have a first-round quarterback who's had some success, but not enough. Mike is the right guy to get it out of Jason. Mike will provide him that environment. He will put him in an environment where he can succeed.

"The Redskins have the fourth overall pick, and even if you use that on a quarterback, it's a rookie quarterback. It makes no sense. Jason is a restricted free agent, so they're kind of stuck with each other. Either the relationship blossoms or it doesn't. But I'd be stunned if Campbell wasn't the quarterback next year."

Schefter also has some job security of his own at ESPN, where he has become a frequent and valuable presence on all manner of NFL-related programming as an information specialist. He has a plethora of well-connected sources all around the league, many of them developed covering the Broncos over two decades. And for all those years, Schefter was a must-read for Broncos fans every morning, constantly breaking major and minor news stories and almost always with no extra help from Shanahan.

He grew up on Long Island getting hooked on newspapers delivered to the front door of his suburban home. He devoured their thick sports sections filled daily by highly competitive reporters and provocative columnists with an abiding affinity for the written word.

"I couldn't wait for my dad to come home from work to tell him what I'd been reading," he recalled. "I'd pick out these little nuggets and I'd greet him at the door with 'can you believe what the Jets just did, the guy the Knicks just picked up.' All I ever wanted to be was a newspaper reporter or a columnist."

That's why the decision to leave the Denver Post when the NFL Network came calling in 2004 produced such angst.

"I never thought I'd ever leave the newspaper business, give up all this for television," he said. "Newspaper people used to frown on television people. It was a medium we thought didn't require as much time or tough work. Now, you're seeing newspaper people fleeing to TV because so many papers are struggling. But it was a very difficult decision to reach. I almost felt like I was giving up my dreams. I was going from my dream job to venture into the unknown."

Schefter had done some local television work over the years in Denver, and "I wasn't very good but knew it could be interesting and worth exploring." When the NFL Network courted him, they told him they wanted him to offer commentary as well as the insider reporting Chris Mortensen, another former newspaper guy, had been providing at ESPN for years.

"Something in my gut just said it was time to do this. If it didn't work, you can always go back to newspapers," he said. "It was complete dumb and blind luck on my part. I really had no idea that TV was exploding they way it did and newspapers were going the other way."

Schefter said he had "four-and-a-half great years and one miserable week" at the NFL Network. The bad week came last spring when negotiations on a new contract broke down and he was taken off the air, not long after he had distinguished himself with his typically tireless coverage of offseason free agency. But it did not take ESPN very long to get him back to the ranks of the employed.

"People told me they would work me to death," he said of his current employer. "But I've always loved to work. How could they work me any harder than what I did in Denver or at the NFL Network. ESPN is nonstop, and I'm nonstop, and we're both kind of crazy. It's a good match."

Actually, the craziness has calmed some. At the NFL Network, Schefter was constantly on the road, dashing in and out of airports, heading from East coast to West coast at least twice a month. These days, being on the road means driving 90 minutes, usually in light traffic from his home on Long Island up to Bristol, Conn., for the weekend shows. He can spend far more time working the phones out of his house, where ESPN also has installed a camera that allows him instant on-air access for any breaking NFL news right from his home office.

"The move has definitely simplified my life in ways I didn't even realize," Schefter said. "I can spend more time with my wife and the kids. My parents live 15 minutes away. It's like I've come home. I've got nothing to complain about, and I'm doing something I love."

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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