Hi, My Name Is Mike Freeman, and I'm a Football Addict

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Hi, My Name Is Mike Freeman, and I'm a Football Addict

It was January 2001 and less than 48 hours before the NFC Championship Game. Inside the bowels of the Minnesota Vikings’ training facility, in the corner of a nondescript room, Dennis Green was smiling. He was extremely confident.

“I don’t think we can be stopped,” Green told me at the time.

He wasn’t alone in thinking this. The Vikings were favored to beat the Giants despite the game being at Giants Stadium. Some media members had called New York the worst team in NFC title game history. Meanwhile, Minnesota had a slick, spine-tingling offense. Daunte Culpepper could throw a football through a cement block, and his targets were Cris Carter and Randy Moss, an almost unstoppable duo in the regular season. 

Green told me the Vikings would win by at least two touchdowns. I believed him. I was covering the game for The New York Times, where I spent 12 years, almost all of them as an NFL writer. No one thought the Giants had the firepower on either side of the ball to stay with Minnesota, which had three future Hall of Famers in Carter, Moss and defensive lineman John Randle.

Then, something strange happened. They played the game, and the Giants weren’t the suckers the Vikings were anticipating. Sean Payton, then the Giants’ offensive coordinator, had studied extensive tape of Minnesota's corners. He thought they could be had. He was right.

The Giants, not the Vikings, went on the offensive and demolished their opponents, 41-0. It remains one of the more stunning outcomes in title game history.

“This is the Giants team that was referred to as the worst ever to win home-field advantage in the National Football League,” Giants owner Wellington Mara said as he accepted the NFC championship trophy. “And today, on this field of painted mud, we proved that we’re the worst team to ever win the National Football Conference championship.”

In more than two decades of covering the NFL, that moment remains one of my favorites. It speaks to why sports in general and the NFL in particular have such a dramatic pull on us—a pull that titillates our very DNA.

The violence of football has its own singular attraction. So does the fact that any team can reach a Super Bowl any given year. Except Cleveland. Or that there is a great player on each franchise to follow. Except Cleveland.

The best part of following the NFL isn’t those two things, though. It’s the stories. Every year, different stars and different narratives develop. It can be Peyton Manning changing teams or Andrew Luck changing fortunes. It can be PEDs or RG3. The concussion conundrum, Joe Flacco putting on his big-boy pads, the potential for a second dynasty in San Francisco.

Or a Giants team that was supposed to be blasted into low orbit upsetting the Vikings.

The stories—ever-changing, shifting, growing in depth and number—are what make the NFL unique. These stories happen seasonally, across the sport. Even in Cleveland.

***

Hi, my name is Mike, and I’m a football addict.

Like many Americans, the addiction started early in my life—in backyards, on gravel-covered streets, on football fields with lines painted crooked and mom in the stands. In high school, through the concussions and slow 40 times and wide eyes. Sometimes I slept with a football in my bed. Her name was Laura. Don’t mock me.

The obsession would dominate my professional life, beginning with internships at the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. Those summers would start an odyssey of covering seven different NFL beats with six news organizations across five states for over two decades. There have also been seven total books, four of them on football. And 15 Super Bowls. Or maybe 16. Or 17.

Each place, a different lesson. In Washington, there was Joe Gibbs and his ability to get the most out of three different quarterbacks in three different Super Bowls. In Dallas, it was watching Jimmy Johnson build a dynasty thanks mostly to the worst trade in NFL history (Herschel Walker for six Vikings picks, with one being used to draft Emmitt Smith). In New England, it was witnessing how low a franchise could sink. Then, years later, seeing Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick resurrect it from the dead.

In Jacksonville, it was seeing a fanbase that is mocked for not going to games but, in reality, is one of the sport's most knowledgeable. The past seven years at CBSSports.com saw me cover every facet of the sport, including the lockout and Bountygate.

My first football book was Bloody Sundays: Inside the Rough-and-Tumble World of the NFL. That book featured an interview with Michael Strahan, maybe the smartest player I’ve ever covered, who taught me about how truly violent playing in the NFL can be. There was the biography of Jim Brown, the toughest football player in history, and the biography of Bobby Bowden, who created the Florida State football program with his two bare hands.

“Coaching football,” Bowden once told me, “can be an obsession.”

So can covering it.

The most compelling figure I’ve ever written about was Don Shula. The most interesting team was the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins, who were the topic for my sixth book.

Maybe my favorite story involved the legendary Joe Montana. He was at the end of his career and was rarely doing interviews. I was at the Washington Post and asked to speak with him, and he surprisingly said yes, telling me to be at the 49ers’ training facility on Monday.

I flew across the country and was there on time, but then he said we’d talk on Tuesday. Then it was Wednesday. Then it was Thursday. I was getting angry—and fat from eating three squares in a variety of great San Francisco restaurants.

Friday came and I was scheduled to fly back that night. I was in the 49ers’ locker room when I was informed, "No Montana." Just as I was being told that, I spotted him sneaking out of a back exit. I chased after him as PR guys screamed at me to stop.

David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Montana was getting into his car and was about to shut the door. “Can’t talk now,” he said. As he closed it, I stuck my foot in the way, and the door slammed onto my ankle.

Montana felt horrible and invited me into his car, where we talked in the player parking lot for the next 90 minutes. He spoke extensively, and focused on how Steve Young was trying to take his job. Not too long after that, Montana was traded to Kansas City.

Stories...this is the NFL.

So why choose to tell my stories to Bleacher Report? Because of the readers. You're football addicts, too. Sure, there will be times when you read me and will want to punch me in the gonads, but I’m as dedicated to the NFL as you are.

Hi, my name is Mike, and I’m a football addict. Pleased to meet you.

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