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with Sean Jensen and Don Seeholzer

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Pardon the Disruption...

As a sophomore at Mt. Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va., I discovered what I wanted to be: a sports columnist.
Anxious to get a jumpstart, I figured I would tap into the minds of two of the guys who had the type of job I coveted, Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post.
Since their phone numbers were listed at the bottom of their columns, I would call them a few times a month, seeking advice and insight. They were gracious, and Wilbon even directed me to attend his alma mater, Northwestern University.
Below is a more personal chat Tony and I had Saturday morning.

Sean: When I first met you, I thought you were big-time, with your column and books.
Tony: (Tony interrupts) I was big-time. Are you kidding me? In that business? Wouldn't you say, to have a column at one of the five to 10 best newspapers in the world is all you could aspire to?
You win. You get that, and you say, 'OK, game over. I've won.' I felt that then, and I still feel that.
I know you'll talk about radio and television. But I still feel that in the chosen field that I wanted, more than anything else, that that was the goal, and I got that. Enough. That was enough for me.
This other stuff, I didn't study for this. I didn't plan on this. It happened, and I'm grateful. But all I ever wanted to do was work for a newspaper and someday get a column in a sports section.

Sean: Do you plan to keep that for as long as possible?
Tony: I'm no longer as certain as I used to be. And the reason is, I think you do get to a point where you almost feel that there are no more words. That you've sort of used all the words there are, and you wonder, 'Gosh, am I just repeating myself? Am I really old now?' I didn't want to get to a point when all my references were to the '60s, and the '70s, and '80s. When you are in 2012, then who is my audience? So I have doubts that I'll continue to do that now.

Sean: So did you appreciate when humor columnist Dave Barry took time off a few years ago and said, 'Hey I got to take a break from this'?
Tony: When he announced that, I had a conversation at home, in which I said, 'He'll never go back.' And my wife said, 'Why do you say that?' I said, 'Because when you know that it's just a struggle, and you think to yourself, 'I'm not fooling anybody anymore,' when you finally say no, and I know you say, I'll be back at 'X' time, you're not coming back in your head.

Sean: He hasn't come back yet, right?
Tony: No. And I don't think he's gonna. I honestly don't think you can. I think you have to find something new to do.

Sean: You're your own man. But with the sitcom about you (Listen Up), and all the books, and the ESPN show, do you feel like a brand?
Tony: I don't. I don't feel that way, because I try to keep doing all of it. I feel certainly more like a yodeler more than ever, and I consider entertainment, just the notion of what entertainment is, more than I ever did when I was just a newspaper writer. But I know there are some people who think that there is this Tony Kornheiser thing, that will always produce X and Y. But I can understand how somebody else would.

Sean: Back in the day, when I was in high school, was I an annoyance to you?
Tony: Yes, of course. 'It's Sean again. Sean needs this, and Sean needs that.' Then I felt I passed the baton to Wilbon when you went to Northwestern. I felt, 'OK, he's going to Northwestern, he's your account now, Wilbon.'
Little did I know that you'd become both our accounts, actually in the business. But your success is great. It's always nice when you see people you knew as kids do well.
When I started in radio, my first board op was Greg Garcia. He went from being a board op, on an AM radio sports station to becoming the creator and just won an Emmy for writing on "My Name is Earl." That's Greg's show. Gregory Thomas Garcia. He is "My Name is Earl." Before that, he was on "Yes Dear." And his first paying gig, he operated a board on WTEM. Now, would I love to say that I saw this? No. Who saw that? He was a funny kid, and he was a nice kid. But the odds were 10 million to one.

Sean: Did you see anything in me when I used to harass you?
Tony: Yeah. What you see more than the ability -- because the ability is hard to judge when someone is 15, 16 or 17 years olds -- is the desire. That's exactly how I was when I was that age. That's what I wanted to do.

Sean: Did you look up to someone like that, the way I looked up to you?
Tony: There was somebody I looked at like that, but I could never get to that person. It was Stan Isaacs, who I thought was the greatest sports columnist ever. He was my idol.
And when I finally got a job at Newsday, Stan was moving from the sports section to the lifestyle section, and the first thing I said to the sports editor was, 'Do you mind if I sit in his chair?'
And when I finally met him, he was everything I hoped he would be. But I never had the nerve to call the paper. No. You were much more aggressive than I was.

Sean: You gave me great advice when I was a kid.
Tony: Which was, Stay out of the business?

Sean: Actually, I don't remember the advice. But you and Wilbon were very encouraging.
Tony: Yeah, that's what you try to do. You point out the pitfalls. But you also always encourage the ones who really want to do it.
This is going to be hard. You may never get at a great place. You're never going to make as much money as your friends who are doctors and lawyers.

Sean: But you probably make more than any of your friends, right?
Tony: That's why it's very hard for me to give that advice, because people turn around and say, 'Look at what you did.' And I say, 'I was incredibly lucky.' I came along when they started doing sports radio stations, and I had an established column then, so of course I was someone you pick. Then this PTI show falls out of the sky for me and Wilbon, and it's a hit. I never thought it'd be a hit. I thought it'd be cancelled in five weeks.
Then they come to me and say, 'We'd like you to do Monday Night Football.'
Yes, I am proof that this happens. But my career path is something that nobody can say, 'I want that path, and realistically I'm going to have it.'

Sean: There is more emphasis on sports in our culture than ever before.
Tony: The outlet might not be the same as it was for me, just going up the line of newspapers. But there's radio and television. If you're considered to be knowledge about sports, and present yourself well in an entertaining way, somebody will hand you more money than you ever thought was humanly possible. More than ever, because of the rise and importance of sports in the culture.

Sean: Do you feel guilty? Sometimes I feel bad that my articles are more well read than the local politicians.
Tony: You can't control that. You do the best, most honest job that you can, and if people like it, don't apologize for it. You can't change the culture. If you want to change the culture, then you start writing about the local politician.

Sean: No thanks.


Blogger 13x420 said...

Great interview. I really like Tony Kornheiser, both on PTI and on MNF...on MNF even if just for the fact he keeps Thiesman's gushing in check.

Really cool that both he and Wilbon were so open to approach and willing to offer advice. Some good mentors you picked SJ

11:49 AM  
Blogger Sean Jensen said...

Thanks. I've had mentors more involved in my life, on a day-to-day basis. But Tony and Mike were great because they were doing exactly what I wanted to do. They didn't line edit stories, or invite me to shadow them. But they were kind enough to encourage me with some chats here and there.

1:30 PM  
Blogger John said...

I never heard of the guy until I saw the Washington game. He came off as arrogant, pessimistic, and egotistical. I mean who has the nerve to challenge Joe Theisman on football knowledge? But he's still a pretty big step up from Bill Maas at Fox who was the announcer in the Carolina game.

6:05 PM  

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