BTSC brings in my favorite reporter Jim Wexell for another series of questions and answers. I knew Jim had a new book coming out very soon, but I had no idea what it was about. It looks quite interesting, and it's set to be available for purchase prior to the start of the season. He has set the bar high with his first books, Men of Steel and Tales from Behind the Steel Curtain, both of which you really should read if you have not already done so. But, as you'll see, Wexell's changing it up a bit with his content in his newest book. As always, you can check out Jim's work at SteelCityInsider, Steelers Digest, The Tribune Democrat, and The Herald Standard. Many thanks to Jim!
1) Without divulging too much, would you mind telling us about the latest book project you've been clandestinely working away at in between your myriad other more regular writing gigs?
Wexell: I've only been "clandestinely working" because I talked too much about it last fall and have been trying to keep my big yap shut about it, but it's a road trip book. I drove around the country last season, following the Steelers' schedule, and talked to Steelers fans, former players, families and friends and rivals of current players, anything to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's also a good amount of behind-the-scenes info as the team played its games. But I talked about it last year to kind of draw out the more interesting people for interviews. The book will be out before the season. I like it very much, but some of the people editing it expected me to talk to more fans. I felt I talked to enough; and, really, what more can be said about Steeler Nation? The more interesting stories come from the family and friends of the current players: Roethlisberger, Parker, Hampton, Polamalu, etc. The list goes on and on. Greg Lloyd was the most intense interview. Visiting Willie Colon's family in the projects was pretty intense, too. But I'm just about done editing down from 400 pages. It's now 260 pages and only the really good stuff survived. A teacher of mine once said that you want your work to be a chocolate chip cookie packed with chocolate chips. Well, I think that's what it is.
2) Wow. Sounds great. We'll leave it at that for now and keep myself and BTSC readers sufficiently intrigued. Let's move on to camp. We've exhausted each and every possible conversation here in our little neck of the woods, so I'm going to try to largely spare you and my readers time asking about postion X, Y, Z battle. Instead, I'm curious if there was anything you could tell us about the training camp experience from a journalist's point of view. How many have you covered? Anything you can look back fondly or with amusement about your first training camp?
Wexell: I became sports editor at the Standard Observer after my boss, Vic Ketchman, left to work for the Jax Jags in 1995. I live in Irwin and of course had to put the page together every day, so I commuted my first four camps and really was just trying to keep my head above water because I didn't know the players or coaches very well. But, persistence paid off. You prove yourself to these guys eventually and then you gain their confidence. After I resigned from the paper, I began staying up there at camp. It felt like going back to college, particularly with the other writers because they were so much fun. But I hate to say that I dread it anymore. I'm really comfortable at home with my family, and things have become so competitive between the reporters that it's not nearly as much fun. That's the only allure that has dissipated. Getting news from trusted sources while everyone else is chasing Ben Roethlisberger, that never gets old.
3) While we're on the subject: don't be too mad at me for putting you on the spot, but if there was one development in training camp personnel wise that you could envision happening that we, the fans, are not considering, what might it be? Hyperbole and endless predictions are tiresome, and I've read enough of your stuff to realize you typically avoid the headline grabbing, shock-jock type stuff in your work, but hey, I'd feel like a fool if we didn't get at least one thing to chew on that's not on our radar.
Wexell: I think even my sub-surface thoughts have been chewed over, but to answer your question I think this "pony backfield" idea of Mendenhall and Parker will be a big story for the mobs, but we'll barely see it. Also, I don't think Limas Sweed will live up to this early hype. Don't get me wrong, I really like him as a player and person, but I don't see him cracking the top 3 WRs for a while. Remember that wide receivers take time. I also wonder if Kendall Simmons can hold off Willie Colon at RG. I think the masses are looking to move Colon to LG to compete with Kemoeatu, if they do move Colon, but my gut's telling me to keep an eye on Simmons. I'm also curious to see if Casey Hampton's lost any weight. Ryan Clark's health will also be an important development.
4) Let's keep you on the hot seat. Which of the following 10 players will make the 53 man roster: Darnell Stapleton, Kevin Marion, Carey Davis, Sean Mahan, Mike Humpall, Willie Reid, Dennis Dixon, Jason Capizzi, Kyle Clement, Travis Williams.
Wexell: Stapleton, Davis, Mahan, Humpal, Dixon, Capizzi. Because of expiring contracts, they may have to keep five tackles, which gives Capizzi a real chance. Davis is one of the best kick coverers they have and can play both RB spots. Mahan can play three positions and has Steelers character. The other three are valuable young players.
5) For somewhat selfish reasons, I have to ask about your honest opinion on Bruce Davis' chances to emerge as a legitimate 3-down back in this league in the future. I think he has the necessary attitude and mindset to do his job consistently and even make some highlight type plays on special teams right away, but what about as a bona-fide Steelers-type pass-rushing OLB? And what about his potential against the run? If you can't clean up the dirty work done by the front 3 of a Steelers defense, you aren't going to stay on the fied too long. Can Davis be that versatile, long-term solution type of player? I ask because he's agreed to chat with us the fans on multiple occasions and he's most definitely a friendly and accesible guy. If he can produce, he's going to be a fan favorite because of his charisma on and off the field. Can he though?
Wexell: I loved watching Bruce Davis play in college, and I believe he can emerge as a 3-down player. When the Steelers drafted Lawrence Timmons to play OLB, I was surprised, because at his size there was no way he'd be able to hold the point. They saw that right away and moved him inside early last season. But Davis was a defensive end. Yes, I know playing the run wasn't his strong point, but it wasn't a glaring weakness. You move him off the tackle a bit and he should be fine holding the point as a linebacker. My problem with him is he needs to put on muscle. I kind of doubt he really weighed the 252 he claimed last spring. He has no chest or arms, so maybe there's even more upside than we initially expected.
6) Favorite NFL city to travel to?
Wexell: Can't think of one. Oh, hell, Cleveland.
8) Worst beat you ever got as a sports writer early in your career?
Wexell: Winter high school sports. There's no press box in most gyms, so crazed fans are screaming into your ears at the officials. You wouldn't believe some of the things wrestling moms scream out down there in Washington County.
9) How many more years can you see Dick LeBeau coaching?
Wexell: This could be it. It's year No. 50 for him.
10) Game on 2008 schedule you're most interested in?
Wexell: New England with 10 days rest.
11) Funny nickame given to a player by his teamates that us fans don't know about (provided it was one they wouldn't have to kill us for knowing?
Wexell: Just to brag, I put the F in FWP. And it really pisses people off when I say that and I don't know why. I had it in print twice his first preseason. Alan Faneca read it in the Digest and gave it to him in the locker room. I also named Bill Cowher "Big Giant Head" after that "Third Rock From the Sun" show, and that really caught on among reporters. He just became "BGH" after a while. I'm really drawing a blank on the nicknames players hand out. I remember when Peezy was telling us a story about Kriewaldt and he used the nickname "Buddy Lee." I asked Clint about it. He's a blonde nordsmen from Wisconsin. I told him that's the whitest white boy name they could call him. "It's better than what they used to call me," Clint said. "What's that?" I asked. "White boy," he said. I should have a better answer here, and I know one will hit me right after we're done.
12) True or False? In addition to the book you have coming out in the immediate future, do you already have ideas cooking about future books that Steelers fans young and old should be excited about?
Wexell: False. I'm a bit exhausted by this process since I'm self-publishing. I do think the world needs a biography on Bill Nunn, but the Steelers, the front office, except for cool guys like Omar Khan and the personnel department, the rest -- those above their PR staff -- don't want to help anyone anymore. I really wanted to get an interview with Ernie Holmes for this recent book, even when he was in town for the all-time team, but my repeated requests were ignored (they don't even say "no"), and then he passed away. What a shame. But it seems that every two years I get the itch, so maybe something will crop up. You'll be the first to know.
Many thanks to Mr. Wexell again for taking the time. If you've never read his stuff, now's the time to start doing so, as the 2008 training camp is just around the corner. Just as soon as I hear anything from him about the release of the new book, I'll be sure to pass that information along.