Interview transcript: Chris Wesseling, writer and co-host of Around the NFL

Liz: Welcome to the show, Chris, how are you?

Chris: I’m holding up pretty well. Lakisha is pregnant and due in late May. So we’re trying to get through this Coronavirus lockdown and get all of that ready. She’s in the nesting phase, so we’re getting the house ready. It’s a lot of baby stuff.

Liz: Oh, that’s really saying congratulations to you both.

Chris: Thank you.

Liz: Do you guys know what you’re having or is it being kept a surprise?

Chris: We’re having a boy, we have not come up with a name. We had a girl’s name, I’ll figure it out. But it didn’t work out that smoothly.

Liz: Oh! Well, listen, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today. I’ve been a huge fan of Around the  NFL show for a few years now. So yes, thank you so much.

Chris: Well, thank you for listening to us. It’s been a long time.

Liz: Absolutely. Now tell me, what was it that made you fall in love with writing? Who would the biggest influences on your style?

Chris: That is a good question. I fell in love with writing, I think as a fallback option when I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player. You know, very few people ever make it and I didn’t come close to making it. So I had to come up with something to do. And I think I was just always, you know, one of those people who could string sentences together and it made sense. So that’s a good start. The people who have the most influence on me, I went through a big Hunter S Thompson phase in my late 20s. Charles Caroll, who is a American journalist and travel writer was a huge influence on me. I would say those are the biggest two right there.

Liz: And was writing about American football, something that you’d always wanted to do and was that like a key sport in your household growing up?

Chris: No, it was a distant third place behind baseball and basketball; baseball was my first love and still is. I think I know the sport a lot better, I played it at higher levels. In basketball too, Cincinnati does not have an NBA team, that’s where I grew up but I was like one of the few kids, you know, in my neighborhood who was enthralled with the NBA. Most Americans like me who grew up kind of middle class, white Catholic are huge college basketball fans. And I was for a long time. I kinda grew out of that. The older I got and still maintained a love for the NBA. Football was third place. I had six brothers. We all played sports. My mom did not want us to play football. She was sorta like the liberal NPR mom who did not want her son playing that physical game, where he could get hurt. So it was not something I got into. I guess it was not something that I obsessed over until I started playing fantasy football, in my early 20s, probably late teens, somewhere in the mid-1990s.

Liz: Wow. So fantasy football is kind of where it all really started then.

Chris: Yeah. Football, I mean, it really did get a huge spike in popularity from fantasy. It had overtaken baseball in this country as the most-watched and the most popular by the 1970s, but it really jumped another level or so in the mid to late 90s with the internet and fantasy football. And the NFL knows that. The NFL knows that a lot of its success is due to fantasy.

Liz: I mean, yeah, I can totally see it because fantasy football is what helps me gain knowledge on players when I first got into the sport. Now I understand you’re from a large family, what was it like growing up with so many brothers?

Chris: Well, we were never bored. There were always sports, you know, in summertime, mom would literally lock the doors, send us outside and say, don’t come back to lunchtime. Then we’d, you know, the neighborhood kids would join us and we’d be on the back patio with Koolaid and peanut butter crackers, eat lunch for a little bit, and then go back and play more baseball or kick the can. But there were only sports going on. We all play baseball every day during the summer and we all played basketball when it was basketball season and football when it was football season so there was always something to do. I still think that like I miss sitting down to watch like an NBA finals with my mom and dad and my brothers and just all sitting around the TV and have a rooting interest. It was a more innocent time.

Liz: Yeah, I can imagine. Now, it’s well known that you loved the history of the game; are there any books that you would recommend as must reads to fans?

Chris: Well, America’s Game by Michael McCambridge and to me the definitive history of the NFL not just for the history’s sake, but it goes several levels deep in sort of the sociology of what’s going on in American and around the world in addition to just football. So it puts it in proper context and tells a good story. So that to me is number one. You may have to buy a used copy on Amazon, but the author’s name is Terrence and it’s sort of a behind the scenes look at the power brokers in the 1980s and 70s. And then you sort of see how the current owners sprang from this group, but it’s almost like a reality show, the way you get behind the same scoop of what sort of the controversies were during the day and it’s pretty dramatic. I really enjoyed that one.

Liz: Wow. And I guess the pioneers of the game from like the 1920s and 30s would probably be, you know, no doubt, amazed by what we call football today. What big developments do you kind of see happening in the coming years that I guess will change the game as we know it?

Chris: So I think we would have to look at health and safety.  So at some point, I think I wonder if tackling is gonna go into be out of the game altogether. I’m not saying the next 10 years, but maybe before we die we might see a game where there’s no tackling. So to me, you look at that kind of stuff first because there’s more money at stake, there’s more awareness so toughness is not something that’s really valued anymore. And I continue to see a future where that is more and more of the case where other qualities take precedent over toughness. And I think always keeping as much money involved as possible will be the top priority. Just that’s the way capitalism works. So I think those two things, you’ll see a game even more on speed and agility. I think that that has been true with every passing generation.

Liz: Absolutely. And I guess when it comes to things like the Hall of Fame, is there anyone that you feel that’s been a big oversight, having not been elected so far?

Chris: They’ve done a pretty good job. I look at Ken Anderson, a guy I grew up watching the Bengals quarterback from the 70s and 80s. You can’t really compare counting stats in the NFL. It just doesn’t work that way like baseball does. Stats, they change so much from generation to generation and from each passing revolution to the next, you just can’t compare them. But against his contemporary, he was the most accurate quarterback in the league. He was always one of the better, more efficient quarterbacks in the league. The Bengals had their most successful teams when he was there. To me, he stands out as a guy who should be in, but again, he’s sort of borderline, it’s not like an obvious poll. It just seems like he’s better than some of the guys in. I do think they’ve done a pretty good job with voting.

Liz: Absolutely. And is there a key moment in like NFL history that you feel gets wrongfully overlooked?

Chris: That’s a good question. I can’t think of one off the top of my head. No.

Liz: Well, that’s fine. And how did the opportunity around the NFL come around? Like what is it like to work alongside like Greg, Dan, and Mark?

Chris: It’s a weird story. We were all hired as writers. Mark and Dan had been with the NFL for a couple of years. They were doing around the NFL blog posts and then Greg was hired, just sorta turned that department into the pro football talk of to do like news and rumors of the day in a blog style. He kept Dan and Mark on for a trial basis. And I think there were some times where they didn’t know if they were going to stay on so there was some awkwardness there for a while. And then Greg hired me away from Rotoworld in 2013 so I had to make a decision whether to leave my beautiful little tiny Island on the east coast of America and move all the way over to Los Angeles, which was sorta totally different culture-wise than the Island I had been on.

And slowly it’s been us chipping away with that mindset. We had a boss at one time, he’s no longer there, who refused to say the word podcast in the office. He would call it show and say, ‘I hate the word podcast. People don’t even like podcasts. They are never going to be popular.’ He just hated everything about it. And you know, thankfully he’s gone and when he left there was room to grow. But I think that tension has been key to the show, that tension of not having the respect in the building. A podcast not getting any kind of love from the NFL for a long time, that has driven quite a bit of what we’ve done and now it’s sort of, you know, you wonder what you’re railing against anymore. We will still find a way to manufacture some tension, but that’s been a key part of it.

Liz: Yeah. And did you ever think that it would become kind of what it is today and that you’d be part of events like NFL Live in the UK?

Chris: Oh God, no. I thought we were going to be terrible. You know, my voice coming from America sounding a little bit more raw, seven or eight years ago, Greg tells me he had a horrible voice. I wasn’t confident if any of that was gonna work out. It took probably a good six to eight months before I thought, okay, we got something here. And I think two or three years in, I felt really confident when I realized after doing this show three times a week with Mark, Greg and Dan, that they’re talented. Like this isn’t just for goofballs talking about sports, like Mark is a very talented person. There’s nobody like him in the business. Nobody’s brain works the way he does. Greg, I think, he probably has the world of football under wraps as well as anybody as far as the issues, not just the ability to mix the issues with the ability to watch game tape and devoted to it.

And then Dan the hosting ability and humor. I think Dan’s love is more sort of radio and ours is writing. So Dan comes like from a Howard Stern type of background where those guys meant a lot to him and he’s driven the show, created the characters on the shift basically through his love of it too. Knowing that I was working with three really talented people, that’s when I started to get confident probably a few years in it and it’s been growing ever since. And I think people liked the chemistry between us and they appreciate in a world that is increasingly not genuine, that we are sincere and we mix that with some humor. So I think that that combination works well.

Liz: And obviously you guys came over to the UK for the NFL UK Live events. Is the size of the UK fan base something that surprised you guys or was that something you already expected?

Chris: Shocked. I mean, I had no idea and I think that goes for all of us. There were indicators, you know, a year or two into the show that we had a bigger overseas audience than we ever imagined. And we know that would not be the case if we are not associated with the NFL. If we were independent, if we worked for CBS, ESPN or for somebody else, I don’t think we would have had that reach. But I think all of it to me, I said several times, that’s been the biggest surprise since I started this job is how big we are over there and how much interest there is. And I know it’s a smaller subset of the population, which is into NFL football, but of that subset, the interest is rabid and it sort of has to be. I know you guys get to wake up early in the morning, staying up, in order to watch the game so it takes a certain type to be interested in it. I guess it’s sorta like soccer’s popularity here. Where if you want to watch Premier League, you’re staying up at odd hours and you’re only a small subset of the population, but you get together with your friends who share that interest and it’s passionate. I think that’s what impresses me the most is how passionate and how knowledgeable British fans are.

Liz: Yeah, definitely. It’s a sport that, yeah, it grows year on year and it’s an amazing like community to be a part of really. It’s really great bunch of people.

Chris: Yeah and very interactive too. I think most of the feedback we get now on Twitter and Instagram is from overseas listeners. Americans just don’t seem to be as interactive about it.

Liz: That’s quite interesting. Listen, it’s been so good to chat with you today. Best of luck to you and Lakisha with the baby, cherish every moment and yeah, good luck with the show and when the new season starts too.

Chris: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

One thought on “Interview transcript: Chris Wesseling, writer and co-host of Around the NFL

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top