In Part II of “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg,” several prominent sports journalists of the past 50-60 years shared anecdotes and memories of Izenberg and weighed in on his legacy in the news business. Jerry Green, one of his contemporaries since the 1950s, was one of the interviewees.
“There’s clarity and there’s depth in his writing, and I think he’s very analytical.”
By Ed Odeven
More than most, Jerry Green knows the significance of the totality of Jerry Izenberg’s sportswriting and his career as a whole.
Green and Izenberg were the only two newspaper columnists to cover the first 53 Super Bowls.
A fraternity of two.
“We share a survival instinct,” said Green, who has written for the Detroit News for decades. “He’s a survivor, I’m a survivor, and I appreciate the fact we’re both interested in each other continuing to cover (sports) because we represent an era that is long gone in American sports media. We covered national events and it would make some sort of reputation for ourselves.”
Clearly, Izenberg was in the right place at the right time early in his career with Stanley Woodward, the New York Herald Tribune sports editor as his legendary mentor, according to Green. And Woodward was a big part of those formative years.
“He came up with a terrific pedigree in that he had associations that other writers lacked being out of the New York area,” Green said of Izenberg.
Green gave an example of Izenberg’s important connections, noting his close ties to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the subject of his 2014 book, “Rozelle: A Biography.”
“He really got to know people in depth and a lot about them, and he was able to put that into words,” Green said.
Green believes he first met Izenberg at the 1966 NFL Championship Game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where the Cowboys took on the Green Bay Packers. The Packers led 14-0 en route to a 34-27 on Jan. 1, 1967.
Izenberg “had a closeness to (Hall of Fame coach Vince) Lombardi that I did not have because he coached on the New York Giants staff there before he went to Green Bay,” Green said.
Like Dick Schaap, Izenberg also saw the rise of civil rights as an issue of profound importance in the 1960s, and sports was not immune to societal changes that focused on civil rights. Izenberg’s support of Muhammad Ali’s right to refuse to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War on religious grounds set him part from the vast majority of his newspaper peers.
“He was in Ali’s camp right from the beginning, I would say, from the time Cassius Clay changed his name,” Green said.
With decades spent reading and writing what appears on the sports pages of American newspapers, Green developed a deep understanding of what has made Izenberg an effective sportswriter.
“There’s clarity and there’s depth in his writing,” Green said, “and I think he’s very analytical.”
Green’s nimble mind unearthed a classic example from Super Bowl II: Izenberg’s reporting on an “in-the-trenches showdown” between Packers offensive guard Gale Gillingham and Raiders defensive tackle Tom Keating. As Izenberg watched the action unfold before his eyes, the combatants on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage became a compelling slice of the game’s overall drama, according to Green.
“He got into that,” Green said of Izenberg’s analytical writing, “just the way they beat up on each other. He talked to both of them … and I don’t think there was any other sportswriter in America at that time in those early years (of the Super Bowl) who would do something like that.
“Jerry was able to pick up this battle in the trenches, providing a fresh perspective on one of the game’s pivotal matchups.”
Other journalists focused on Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr or Lombardi’s last game as Packers coach or running back Jim Taylor or the NFL’s dominance of the AFL, Green recalled. Izenberg’s coverage set him apart from the masses.
To this day, “he has perception,” Green stated.
In February 2018, Izenberg and Green sat side by side in the press box for Super Bowl LI in Houston, watching the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.
“I knew he was interested in the fumble, which actually was the turning point in the game,” Green said, referring to Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter that sparked a remarkable comeback by New England. At the time of the turnover, Atlanta led 28-12.
A key section of Izenberg’s game column focused on the pivotal play.
Here’s a portion of it: “It was third-and-one on the Falcons’ 36 and here came Hightower from his linebacker position, the honest workman doing his job. He zeroed in on Ryan, who — inexplicably to some — had dropped back to throw. Hightower came on like an avenging angel or a giant eraser, determined to wipe clean the earlier mistakes of the embarrassed Patriots.
“The linebacker arrived so ferociously, it was almost a dead heat between him and the shotgun snap, which he jarred loose as Ryan went down. The Pats recovered.
“He hadn’t lit a spark. He had ignited a full-scale forest fire. Brady threw four straight completions, starting at the Falcons’ 25 and ending with Danny Amendola cradling the football in the end zone. A two-point conversion kept the flame alive.
“But for all the scoring in this game, it was Hightower who got it going and now there was no coping with the Real Patriots.”
Green penned a more traditional column with a piece about Pats QB Tom Brady.
So when did Green begin to understand that Izenberg possessed a special talent to write about sports?
“The first thing that I really got to admire Jerry for was he came out with a book called ‘The Rivals,’ ” Green said of his colleague’s 1968 book. “It really captured the flavor of sports,” he went on,” which Jerry always did. He could capture the flavor of a game and games.”
Citing the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fistic rivalry, Notre Dame-Army football, Sea Biscuit vs. War Admiral, among others, Izenberg delivered a first-rate treatise on American sports.
Summing up the book, here’s the Kirkus review: “With a jovial good humor and a delicate regard for the behavioral eccentricities of athletes under fire, Mr. Izenberg recalls, in a lively and original style, tournament traumas of the not-too-distant past. Classy showing on a well-run track.”
Izenberg demonstrated how to use a wide range of cultural and historic references to complete the task.
“Mr. Izenberg decorates his combat commentaries with delectably apt quotes — from Job and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Alfred Shotgun Foley,” Kirkus stated.
One book, of course, didn’t cement Izenberg’s legacy in journalism, but it gave a glimpse into what he’s able to do in this arena of human (and equine) drama.
“I think he’s prolific and I would say he is a national sportswriter, and the way our business is going we don’t have that many anymore, so he’s a throwback to the Red Smith era,” said Green, who served as a U.S. Naval press officer in Asia in the 1950s before returning to New York and, in ’56, pursuing a career in journalism. In 1955, Green penned a column on a Sugar Ray Robinson fight that he had listened to on the radio while stationed in Japan, then distributed the column at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo. The Asahi Evening News, a now-defunct English-language newspaper, printed the column.
“The first time I read Jerry Izenberg he was working for the New York) Herald Tribune (from 1958-62), so he was working with Red Smith,” Green said.
Describing that era’s prominent talent, Green said the group of distinguished journalists included Jimmy Cannon and Jack Murphy.
“They were older than Jerry and I were, but we would look at them and admire them and … try to emulate them.”
“I would say maybe he’s the 21st century Red Smith,” Green commented.
In his own right, fueled by his work ethic, talent and intellect, Izenberg made a name for himself in sportswriting.
“I would go to an Ali fight or a Super Bowl and realize that he is one of the icons in our fading business,” said Green.
Green wasn’t shy about pointing out why he and Izenberg continue to concoct relevant columns, even as they move closer to their 90th birthday.
“One of the best things about him and myself is we have a perspective of history,” Green stated, “and we can take current events such as the Super Bowl and go out and write about Vince Lombardi and bring it up to the current situation.”
What’s more, Izenberg’s all-around abilities as a journalist turn his prose into a work of art.
Being a skillful observer of every detail in front of him, including how and what is said in individual and group settings, helped propel Izenberg to the top of his profession.
“Yes, he was able to pick out statements and dramatize them and analyze them and use that analysis directing him to the game’s final outcome, which is a rare ability,” Green said. “It takes special insight as a journalist to be able to do that.
“He has superior insight to other sportswriters and sports columnists of our era,” added Green. “He’s a serious journalist, the kind of journalist you’re supposed to be, and few people attain that level of competence that he has plus for the output that he has had.
“I’ll say this: He’s ambitious because he’s still writing books deep into his 80s. It’s something I noticed in him and something I admire in him, his motivation.”
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