Sal has had an incredible career as a journalist, from newspapers, to authoring four books, to being a Veteran of ESPN for over 25 years. With ESPN he covers the National Football League for SportsCenter, Sunday NFL Countdown, NFL Live and Fantasy Football Now. He also hosts the long-running NFL Matchup show. While Sal’s career has been in journalism and sports, he talks about curiosity, about finding information that no one else knows, about approaching one’s job with a beginner’s mindset, and a whole host of topics applicable to any career.
Sal Paolantonio is a national correspondent for ESPN. He primarily covers the National Football League for SportsCenter, Sunday NFL Countdown, NFL Live and Fantasy Football Now. He also hosts the long-running NFL Matchup show. He has been a mainstay of ESPN’s NFL coverage since he joined ESPN in August 1995, and is a veteran of 25 Super Bowls. Prior to joining ESPN, Paolantonio was a political reporter (1985-93), as well as a beat reporter for the Philadelphia Eagles (1993-95), for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1994, he won the Associated Press Sports Editors Award for Reporting, and in 1995, he was named Philadelphia’s Best Sportswriter by Philadelphia Magazine. He also served as a reporter for Philadelphia’s WPHL-TV nightly newscast, Inquirer News Tonight (1994-95), and hosted Saturday Morning Sports Page, a weekly call-in show on WIP-AM all-sports radio (1993-95). Paolantonio began his journalism career as a reporter for the Albany Times Union, where he received the Associated Press Managing Editor’s Award for Enterprise Reporting (1985). He received the 2017 Jack Newfield Courage in Journalism Award from the New York Daily News.
Paolantonio is the author of four books. His most recent, Philly Special: The Inside Story of How the Philadelphia Eagles Won Their First Super Bowl Championship, will be available in September 3, 2019. His previous book, How Football Explains America, was published in 2008 and was the No. 1 selling football book in America for six straight months, according to Amazon.com.
Paolantonio served in the United States Navy (1979-83) as a surface warfare officer in the Pacific Fleet and was awarded the United Nations Meritorious Service Medal in 1981 for supervising the rescue of Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea. He retired as a full lieutenant in 1983. Paolantonio is also a member of the board of the Cooper University Hospital Foundation in Camden, N.J.
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You had both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree when you joined the Navy. What lead you to that decision?
Many of my family members were in the military. My dad was 4F’d from the Korean War due to cataracts. His two older brothers were in the Navy during World War II.
On my 12th birthday, my uncle told me that he wanted me to go into the military because my dad could not.
When I got to Oneonta State in 1974, the war protests were dying down. I never participated in those movements. There was an anti-war sentiment that was quite high. I was a reporter with our school’s newspaper and earned a full fellowship to get my Master’s degree at New York University. After I completed that, I joined the Navy.
Was there anything you learned in the Navy that you were able to take with you into journalism?
Yes - so many things. I learned many things that helped me as a father and husband as well. The most important thing I learned is to act with humility and show gratitude for what you have.
As a military officer, I learned about the importance of preparing for all contingencies in all situations. I also learned a great deal about the importance of teamwork.
Where does your interest in journalism stem from?
Watching the Watergate hearings during high school is what piqued my interest. The military protects our rights and the most important of those rights to me is the freedom of speech.
When you go overseas as a member of the military, the first thing you see is that there are large parts of the world that do not have the same rights that we do.
The meaning of America is rights and justice. That’s what separates us from many other countries around the world. We try to protect people’s rights and restore rights to people around the world that do not have them.
What is your day-to-day life like?
My first job out of the Navy was working for the Albany Times Union as a political reporter. I then got a job with the Philadelphia Inquirer as their national political journalist. I covered three presidential campaigns while I was with them. Eventually I got moved to the beat covering the Philadelphia Eagles. Shortly thereafter, I was hired by ESPN. In the month of July, I spend as much time as I can with my family. Once the fall rolls around, it’s non-stop traveling around covering the NFL.
How much do you have to prepare before going on camera?
I treat each live shot like it’s the first time someone is seeing me. I want it to be as fresh and in the moment as possible.
My dad was a big fan of Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio tried to handle himself with utmost respect for the fan. He knew that someone there was watching him for the first time and he wanted to make a good first impression. I try to do the same things with my broadcasts.
What advice do you have for people wanting to pursue journalism?
Journalism is just an extension of being a curious person. We’re all journalists in our own world. If was a journalist writing about the national forests, I would approach it the same way I approach my NFL reporting. I would talk to as many people as possible to find out what was going on.
Anybody can have a blog or podcast. You want to share new information with people and add a fresh perspective.
How do you build relationships with sources in order to get new information to report on?
It’s a lot of ‘trust but verify’. I teach young students about broadcast and journalism quite a bit. I tell them that the basics are the most important aspect of journalism. You need to ask good questions, take good notes, and verify your information.
When I taught sports journalism classes, I would tell the students in the class to write a one page paper about Jell-O. The reason I did that is because if you can write about Jell-O, you’re going to be able to write about anything else that you want.
You can teach someone how to write or how to communicate. What you can’t teach is curiosity. If you’re curious, your boss and the people around you will recognize that and understand that you will make a great teammate.
Have there been any challenges or setbacks you’ve faced during your career?
After I covered the 1991 campaign for Philadelphia’s mayor. I decided to start a project writing Frank Rizzo’s biography. Frank was a Philadelphia police commissioner that died in 1991. As a result of writing that biography, I was taken off on a different path. I was unsure of where that path would leave me or if it was the right path to be on. But that’s what eventually lead me into sports.
You’ve now written four books. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
I wrote Frank Rizzo’s biography and also wrote several football books. There are three things you need to do in order to be able to take on the project of writing a book.
The first is to get away from your desk. You need to get out in the world and talk to people and learn things. Second, write about what you know. And finally, writing is work so you need to treat it like that. If you don’t make it happen, you’ll have nothing on the page.
When writing my books, most times I would make the goal of writing 2,000 words per day. With my most recent book Philly Special, I had a tight deadline so sometimes I was writing even more than that.
What are your thoughts on the changing world of journalism?
Everybody's shouting and it’s harder to be heard. You really have to set yourself apart. There are over 600,000 podcasts out there. When television first started, there were ten channels. Now, people have so many choices.
The only way to separate yourself is to be different and to tell people something that they don’t know. One thing I like to do on the NFL Matchup Show is ask my co-hosts to share something with me that I don’t know. That gets us all in the mindset that we are there to share information with the viewers that they don’t know.
The same thing is true in any walk of life. Tell your boss, spouse or children something that they don’t already know. You’ll be adding value to their lives.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
A lot of things in life is overrated but being a grandfather is not one of them.