Somers, the Arizona Republic sportswriter whose beat is the woebegone Arizona Cardinals, was watching the local team play poorly, again. Five straight losses were bad enough. This would be worse, magnified by "Monday Night Football," the high-church telecast of the National Football League that gathers millions of worshipers at flat-screen altars across America.
It was the fourth quarter. The San Francisco 49ers led the Cardinals, 24-6. An ESPN camera showed us the Cardinals' quarterback, Derek Anderson. We saw him having a good time. He'd been a bum all night and his team had been worse. Yet on the bench he chatted amiably with Deuce Lutui, an offensive guard, both men cheery, the quarterback flashing a smile as bright as an Arizona sunrise.
It was a mystery, whatever caused the quarterback and his lineman to be so pleased during a humiliation. Maybe Lutui had mentioned the Cardinals' owner, Bill Bidwill, good for laughs across the decades. Maybe, because losing teams disintegrate into cliques, these offensive players found amusement in the defensive unit's hapless work that night. Or maybe, boys being boys, they spoke of girls being girls. Who knew?
We know it made Jon Gruden grumpy. Twice fired as an NFL head coach, Gruden is a football lifer whose boyish looks belie the anger necessary in his line of work. Some unkind folks even call him "Chucky" after Hollywood's baby-faced, ax-murdering serial killer. As MNF's lead analyst, Gruden did a voiceover on the DA-Luti video. "When you're down 18 points and you have five first downs," he said, "I want it to bother you." In case we didn't catch it the first time, Chucky said, "I want it to really bother all of us." I heard an ax blade being sharpened.
Reacting to the arrival of tweets and text messages at his press box seat, Somers made calls to verify the scene. He told me, "One call was to my boss, who rewound the incident and played Gruden's comments over the phone to me and described what was being shown."
Somers is 50 years old. He has been a sportswriter since graduating from Utah State University. From the Ogden Standard-Examiner, he moved to the Republic 25 years ago. He has been the beat man on the Cardinals most of the last 15 seasons. Like most NFL reporters these days, he blogs daily, tweets during games, files blogs on game days, and does the occasional local TV appearance. He works from the Cardinals' complex four days a week and from home on Tuesdays, the team's day off. Add it all up – a gamer on Sundays, notebook, two sidebar items, the week's daily stories and notebooks – he may write a dozen pieces a week.
We're not here, though, to talk about his writing.
We're here to speak of sportswriting's under-appreciated art, the on-deadline dogged pursuit of an answer from an uncooperative interview subject.
At a podium to answer post-game questions, Anderson told reporters, "Fire away."
Third question in, Kent Somers said, "The cameras early in the fourth quarter showed you and Deuce smiling and laughing on the sidelines. Can you tell what was – can you explain that, what was happening?"
"By no means," Anderson said, "was there anything that was funny going on out there. He was just trying to be positive and say, y'know, ‘Get on the same page, get something going.' We're not laughing at anything. It wasn't like we were making jokes of what was going on." He seemed a touch irritated, his answer a touch weasly.
Here someone popped in a cream-puff question about how the team's good practices hadn't produced good games, to which Anderson agreed. Then Somers immediately did what good reporters do. He went back to the only question that mattered to the Republic's readers. He asked Anderson, "What were you saying in that instance, that you were trying to be positive, that was funny. I don't mean this to be sarcastic or pointed, but that went out on Monday Night Football television. A lot of fans are talking about it right now as a big problem with this team. Can you put into context what was going on at that moment, what caused you . . ."
"What Deuce and I talk about," Anderson said, more than a touch irritably, "is nobody else's business."
"But why was something funny when you're down 18 points in the fourth quarter?" Somers said.
Now, irritation became anger as Anderson denied what America's eyes had seen. When Somers said the camera caught him, the scrambling quarterback called five audibles, in this order:"That's fine, that's fine, that's fine. That's fine, that's fine." Then, shouting over Somers's five calm interjections asking for context, Anderson 1) never once answered the question, and 2) went on a rant that now has been viewed nearly a half-million times on You Tube.
"You think this is funny?" he said. "I take this (expletive) seriously. Really serious. I put my heart and soul into this (expletive) every single week. I'm just telling you right now what I do every single week. Every single week I put my freaking heart and soul into this. I study my ass off. I don't go out there and laugh. It's not funny to me. I don't want to get embarrassed on ‘Monday Night Football' in front of everybody."
Somers didn't let go there. "That's why I'm asking you, what was the context?"
"I'm done," Anderson said, and he left the podium.
Instead of doing the smart thing and using Somers's legitimate line of questioning to defuse the controversy, Anderson compounded it with a profane rant that raised questions about his poise and leadership abilities. Even he seemed to understand as much two days later when he told a crowd of reporters, "Let's try this in a manner that doesn't end up all over You Tube. I'd like to apologize for my actions after the game. . . I obviously was very frustrated by what happened during the game and I let the emotions get the best of me."
Kent Somers, in his post-game blog, wrote of his part in the incident, "I tried to be diplomatic and professional, but I guess that's for others to judge. Anderson obviously didn't think so."
The score here: Sportswriter 1, Quarterback 0.