I’ve been writing for Behind the Steel Curtain for nine years, and it’s really been a blast. I’ve produced literally hundreds of pieces of commentary—most of which I’m extremely proud of. In addition to that, I’m now co-hosting a weekly podcast (I grew up idolizing the likes of Johnny Carson, so that’s kind of a hoot).
However, in all the years I’ve been affiliated with BTSC, I’ve never interviewed a player—namely a Steeler player (although, former center—and Super Bowl XLIII hero—Justin Hartwig did email me one time and called me an idiot for pointing out the flaws of the 2008 offensive line).
Obviously, being a writer on a site that doesn’t have access to team facilities would greatly diminish the chances of ever speaking to a live player, but, believe it or not, two summers ago, I was approached via email by a marketing guy representing a very famous soup brand (I don’t know how BTSC/SB Nation feels about mentioning brand names, so let’s just say it rhymed with shambles soup). Anyway, he said his company was partnering with Steelers Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown in a commercial called “Fill in while they fill up,” a promotional something or another where Brown would surprise the head coach of the Thomas Jefferson high school football team. Brown would then coach T.J.’s players for a bit, while the head coach took a break in the stands and ate some shambles soup. The guy wanted to know if I was interested to sitting down with Brown afterwards and asking him a series of questions related to the shambles soup commercial and his career.
I don’t know how this guy found my name. My guess is he Googled “Most brilliant Steelers writers,” and “Anthony Defeo” was the first thing that popped up—either that, or he was just throwing a bunch of soup at the wall, and it finally stuck when I responded.
Don’t get me wrong, I was quite apprehensive. I mean, why couldn’t I start out with someone on a much smaller scale, such as Cobi Hamilton (no offense to him)? Here I was, being asked to conduct my first interview, and with someone I thought was pound-for-pound the best player in the National Football League. I realize this might offend your sensibilities if you’re one of those hardcore tough guy fans (“Grrrr, Lambert! Grrrr, Deebo! Grrrr, receivers are divas!”), but that’s what I truly believed. Even my mom recognized Brown’s football superiority on Thanksgiving Night in 2016, when she woke up from her turkey slumber to see him catch his third touchdown pass of the game in a 28-7 victory over the Colts. The national play-by-play guy screamed something like, “There he is again!” or whatever those guys typically scream (those national guys are always just so dramatic), and my mom said, “Hmm,” which was her way of saying, “I’m in my 60s and a woman, so what do I know about football? But even I recognize that man’s greatness.”
I remember talking to family and friends about this invitation, and about how it felt like I was being asked to interview the LeBron James of the NFL. I honestly believed Brown was that superior at the game of football at that point in his career. Don’t get it twisted or anything. It’s not like I thought Brown would go on to be the funniest actor in a movie starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader, but let’s just say I had a ton of respect for his abilities as an NFL receiver.
My friends were so encouraging, I actually psyched myself into doing this. That’s how friends are, right? They’re always saying things like, “You should totally do stand up!” But what do they care? It’s not their shame. They don’t have to worry about some audience member recording their “act” with a smartphone, and then not getting hired by some prospective office employer because they couldn’t comprehend people actually having lives outside of work-type stuff.
Once I made up my mind that I would do it, I began writing down some questions I wanted to ask Brown. I dated a journalist a few months earlier, and I was going to ask her for some advice—advice that she may or may not have given me (you know how vindictive those ex-girlfriends can be).
Anyway, after a few days of back and forth emails with this promotional guy, I eventually told him I would do this. He said something like, “Great! Now make sure you bring a camera crew to record this, and to get some action shots of Brown interacting with the kids.”
I don’t remember my exact response, but it may have been something like, “Whoa! I’m not a real journalist. Oh, sure, I get paid for my work, but not enough to actually support myself, just enough to impress whatever woman I happen to have a crush on at the time. I’m just a regular dude. In fact, two years from now, Facebook will super-impose my face onto the body of another guy sitting on the toilet going number two and use it as a meme to mock my lack of football credibility.”
After sending that last email, perhaps, not surprisingly, I didn’t hear from this guy for the longest time. To me, that was quite telling, since he had been pretty quick to respond up to that point. It was kind of like interacting with a woman on Bumble, where the two of you exchange frequent messages (“What else do you like to do that’s fun?”) until she suddenly disappears the moment you try to set up an actual date (shout out to comedian Aziz Ansari for providing the premise for that joke). I guess I couldn’t really blame the man. I mean, here he was, probably thinking he was getting the Bob Ley (or whomever) of Steelers writers, but instead, he stumbled upon some schmoe who would one day have his face super-imposed on the body of another guy sitting on a toilet going number two in a meme mocking his football credibility. That would be quite the sobering realization for any promotional guy. Chances are, he was scrambling to find someone else to conduct this interview with Brown. At least that’s what I was thinking for the few hours that he didn't get back to me. In fact, the second I read the words, “Bring a camera crew,” I suddenly felt unqualified.
But, surprisingly, this guy actually did get back to me (maybe he had no other options), and told me I was more than qualified to do the job. Unfortunately, by that point, I had talked myself out of it. Doubt crept in. To use a football metaphor, I suddenly grew alligator arms and shied away from a pass across the middle.
Anyway, as the link above clearly shows, Brown filmed this commercial and seemed to have a good time with the football kiddos at Thomas Jefferson high school.
Did I miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime?
At the time, I certainly thought so. In fact, I was so ashamed of myself, I never told anyone affiliated with BTSC, for fear of feeling the scorn after losing out on the interview that would have been contained in the article I would have written.
But now knowing what I do about Brown—the very low opinion most reporters have of him; his frequent tardiness to everything; his apparent lack of enthusiasm and engagement when actually doing things like interacting with high school kids—I wonder if I dodged a bullet, instead.
You know how you hear stories of people who have very poor encounters with celebrities they once idolized? I wonder if that would have been my experience. I wonder if I would have walked away from that day asking myself why Brown made me wait four hours and only answered two questions. I wonder if I would have walked away wondering why Brown wanted to know how my jaw felt.
As weird as it sounds, whatever regret I may have felt for not interviewing Antonio Brown quickly vanished within a week or so. They say you should always go with your gut, and my gut was never truly on board with the whole idea.
Maybe there was a reason for that.