Of the many hundreds of men who experienced their first encounters with Jimbo Covert inside a football stadium, I had an experience that ranked among the least punishing but still stands as one of the most intimidating of my career.
At the heart of his tenure as a Chicago Bears left tackle, eight seasons that included a Super Bowl triumph, two All-Pro selections, too many pancaked defensive ends to count and, this Saturday, the occasion of his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Covert stood 6-4 and weighed 277 pounds. I encountered this intimidating figure as an unemployed, aspiring sports journalist who weighed half as much and was armed only with a Bic pen.
This is how I described the scene I encountered nearly 38 years ago, for an article in The Pittsburgh Press:
Jim Covert sat on a tiny, overburdened stool in the visitors’ locker room at Memorial Stadium, wearing nothing more than shorts to prevent him from a draft and nothing less than a terrifying scowl to protect him from an invasion of privacy.
This was perhaps the worst day of Covert’s football life, which to that point included first-team All-State honors at Freedom High in Western Pennsylvania’s Beaver County, first-team All-America selection as a senior at Pitt in 1982 and selection as the No. 6 overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.
He was four games into his rookie season when I drew an assignment to write about him, but how we arrived at that moment in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, and why his “no comment” that afternoon was so much more than routine, is rather an involved story.
I was close to being a rookie myself that day, a little more than a year removed from earning my Journalism and Communications degree from Point Park University. I’d rushed the completion of my senior year to begin a job covering the Pittsburgh Pirates for the Tribune-Review of Greensburg in January 1982. I covered spring training and more than 130 big-league games. And I was a terrible baseball writer. I didn’t work hard enough, didn’t understand the job of developing sources and taking readers inside the game, didn’t do the best job of listening to those with more experience. When the T-R needed to lay off some staffers, I was among those let go.
After five months of unemployment, an opportunity to join a two-man staff at The Manchester Herald in suburban Hartford developed. My fiance and I postponed our planned May wedding and I moved to Connecticut in April 1983. I was ready to leave in a day. I was barely making enough to eat, missed my fiance, missed home. I stayed until July then moved back to Pittsburgh, prepared to enter grad school and possibly to leave the business that had been my lifelong dream.
It didn’t turn out that way. The Press sports staff was undergoing massive changes. A new editor at the paper, the late Angus McEachran, was revolutionizing everything about the way the paper ran, all the way down to the headline fonts. Several on the sports staff left, by choice or force. The Press was literally running out of writers to fill the paper. I’d written some high school basketball articles for the Press during my unemployed period, and they must have been passable, because the sports editor, the late Ernie DeFilippi, called two weeks after my return to Pittsburgh and said if I’d come in, he’d find some things for me to do.
A little more than a month later, I was ringside in Madison Square Garden as Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini fought Orlando Romero and retained his WBA lightweight title. Ten days after that, I covered a high school football game on a Friday night that bled well into Saturday morning, hopped a plane to Boston after two hours of sleep to cover the No. 12 West Virginia Mountaineers in a game at Boston College, then jetted on Sunday from Logan to BWI for the Bears-Baltimore Colts game. There, my assignment was to gather material for features on head coach Mike Ditka, another Beaver County guy, and Covert.
This all was a hell of a ride, but remember, I had no job. I was desperate for the Press’ new assistant managing editor in the sports department, Russ Brown, to hire me. There was no choice but to do the best possible job on the two articles.
The Bears lost in overtime that day. Worse, Covert was absolutely wrecked by Colts edge rusher Johnnie Cooks – so badly Ditka was compelled to bench Covert midway through the third quarter. I knew then my approach to Covert in the locker room would be a challenge.
I explained to Covert who I was and that I was there specifically to speak with him. “Not today,” he said through a grimmace. “I don’t have anything to say.”
Could I have written the article with just that quote from Covert? Today, sure, with 40 years of eperience.. But four decades ago, without the security of fulltime employment, I understood The Press did not send me all that way to get blown off. But Covert soon erased that concern. He gave me his phone number and told me to call a few days later. I caught him at home one night after practice. We had a delightful conversation.
“My last two years at Pitt, I hardly ever made a mistake,” Covert said then. “I don’t read the papers or anything, but I’m sure Mike said some things about assignment busts, and I probably topped the list, But I can’t be dragging that in my mind … I’m ready to play. I just had a bad game.”
There were few like it afterward. Covert was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1980s. He was an essential part of the revered 1985 Bears championship team. He retired after the 1990 season and pursued an extraordinarily successful career in the health care business, which included a period as president and CEO of The Institute for Transfusion Medicine and a current position as operating partner with Cressey & Company, a private equity firm focused on health care.
Even four decades later, I remembered the scene in the Bears locker room and the lead paragraph I wrote about it vividly, but what I’d forgotten was this: When I phoned Covert, he apologized for declining to talk after the game.
That’s the man who’ll enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My original article about our encounter — and his with Cooks – appeared in The Pittsburgh Press on Sunday, Oct. 2, 1983. That was the day after my wedding, while my wife and I took just a two-day honeymoon to New York City because every day I wasn’t at the Press was a missed opportunity. Exactly a month after I met Covert in that chilly Bears locker room, after he’d rescued that article and maybe my career with his grace, Russ and Ernie called me into the office and offered a fulltime job.