Game of Life
Homegrown sports journalist Ray Didinger documents a personal history any fan would envy.
From the September 19, 2007 Philadelphia Weekly
Ray Didinger knows how lucky he is.
He went from cheering in the bleachers at Shibe Park to working in the press boxes of nearly every stadium in the country. He went from idolizing undersized Eagles receiver Tommy McDonald to introducing him at his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Along the way -while writing for the The Bulletin and the Philadelphia Daily News - Didinger witnessed some of Philly's greatest sports moments.
Now a producer for NFL Films and a commentator on Comcast SportsNet's Eagles Post Game Live show, Didinger has compiled some of his favorite columns in a new book, One Last Read, which hits bookstores next Wed., Sept. 26.
"I grew up in a very sports-oriented family. My grandfather owned this bar in Southwest Philly, and I was there a lot as I grew up. The seasons weren't winter, spring, summer and fall. They were baseball, football, basketball and hockey. You just had this sense that these weren't just games. They were more important than that."
Why are we so attached to our teams in Philly?
"It's part of how you define yourself. If the Eagles are having a good year, you're having a good year. If the Eagles are having a bad year, so are you. For a lot of folks, in their day-to-day lives, it's hard for them to assess whether they've won or lost. I think we kind of measure our own daily lives by the teams because they're the ones with the numbers on the scoreboard that we can all relate to."
Was it difficult to be a fan and a journalist at the same time?
"I gave a copy of the book to my father, and he said, 'You've really led a remarkable life.' In the summertime we used to drive to Hershey to watch Eagles training camp. That was our two-week vacation every summer when I was a kid. My father said that one day I pointed to [The Bulletin sportswriter] Hugh Brown, and said, 'Someday I'm going to have that job.' I've lived the life I dreamt about."
How was your first interview with Tommy McDonald?
"He was every bit as warm, welcoming and engaging as I had hoped he'd be. He was truly my boyhood hero, so when you meet him and he lives up to everything you hoped he'd be, that just makes you feel good."
What was the most thrilling event?
"Being Tommy's presenter at the Hall of Fame. We all have our boyhood heroes. For 99.9 percent of us, that boyhood hero is never anything more tangible than a poster on your bedroom wall. I had the opportunity not just to meet this guy but to develop a relationship with him to the point that he asked me to be his presenter at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I still look back and marvel at how that all unfolded. In 1957 he was a rookie player whom I fell in love with. To think that 40 years later we'd be standing together on the steps of the Football Hall of Fame. My goodness, what are the odds of that? You can probably count on one hand the number of people on the globe who've had their dreams and their life intersect in that way like it did for me."
Why leave newspaper sportswriting for TV?
"Steve [Sabol] asked if I'd come aboard for a sweeping, epic project for NFL Films called Football America. I was going to be this researcher and idea gatherer, doing it on the side while I continued to write my column in the Daily News. Over the course of the project I really became emotionally invested in all the stories. At that time they offered a round of buyouts at the paper, and I kind of came to a crossroads in my life."
And now you're a TV star. Got any good stories about your co-host Gov. Ed Rendell?
"Three years ago, when the Eagles played the Packers and the game came down to fourth and 26, McNabb threw the pass to Freddie Mitchell, and they got the first down. They went down, kicked the field goal to force overtime. Then they kicked another field goal in overtime to win the game. That was a back-and-forth emotional day for the fans. When it was over everybody in the stands was drained, but nobody was more drained than the governor. By the end of the first segment [of the postgame show] the governor was just spent. We cut away for the break, and the governor just slumped in his chair. He said to [host] Michael Barkann, 'How long are we on today?' Barkann said, 'The usual - two hours.' The governor said, 'There's no way I can make it for two hours. I'm exhausted.' He was just emotionally wrung out. I'm sitting next to him thinking, 'How many election nights did he sweat out? How many races did he sweat out watching the returns roll in?' Here was this football game that drained him like no election night ever did. I just thought that was really revealing: He's as into it - if not more so - than any fan in the 700 level."
What's the state of sportswriting today?
"It's not what it was when I got into it, and it's not what it was when I got out of it more than 10 years ago. The basic touchstones of good journalism will never change: knowing your subject, knowing how to ask the right question and seek out the right information, and knowing how to present it fairly and accurately. For those who say that old-school sportswriting is dead or that newspapers are dead - well, I don't believe that."