Sunday, July 22, 2012

The GM who gave my career a boost

In 1987, the year the NFL played with replacement players, I called Vikings GM Mike Lynn to get his opinion on something. (I was the AP sports reporter in Minneapolis.) About 5 minutes into our conversation, he almost casually mentioned that the strike was over and the regular players were coming back. I asked a follow-up question -- basically asked him to repeat it because I couldn't believe my ears. 

We ended the conversation and I immediately called call our HQ in New York. As it turned out, this was news. Our sports editor and football writer whipped up a quick story and got it out on the wire, and TV and radio stations were quoting AP's story. Soon, the NFL and other teams confirmed the news.

I didn't get a byline on the story (nor should I have), but the sports editor -- a guy who rarely said nice things about anybody -- later sent out a note to the entire staff that praised me. Shortly thereafter, I started getting more national assignments, including the '88 Calgary Games (my first of five Olympics) the following winter.

I was 27 years old, one of the youngest (if not the youngest) full-time sportswriters in the company, and I was considered one of the "up-and-comers." Though my career trajectory was pointing up, I always felt that NFL strike story helped move things along more quickly for me.

Why am I writing about this now?

The Vikings announced Saturday that Lynn died. Obituaries led with his failed deal for Herschel Walker, which I suppose is appropriate. A year or so after the deal, when the jury was still out on it, Lynn said the trade probably would determine his legacy.

There was a lot more to Lynn than that trade, though. For one thing, he was a brilliant businessman and self-promoter. At one point, he negotiated a deal with team owner Max Winter that would bring him 10 percent of the suite revenue at the Metrodome forever. Yes, forever! Lynn collected on that for the rest of his life.

He also was a pretty good GM who got Cris Carter off the scrap heap and drafted numerous Hall of Famers and Pro Bowlers. Most of the players hated Lynn because he was a ruthless contract negotiator. He didn't care if players held out, because he knew he always was going to win in the end; back then, NFL players had zero leverage.

Like White Sox GM Ken Williams, Lynn was a "swing for the fences" guy who loved to make the big deals. For two decades, Lynn was ripped for the 1989 Walker deal, which sent a bunch of draft picks to the Cowboys; Jimmy Johnson parlayed those picks into the core of a Dallas team that would go on to win three Super Bowls.

At the time of the trade, however, many thought the Vikings got the better end of it. Walker's debut was spectacular and the team was in national headlines all season. Some pundits even thought Lynn had fleeced Johnson because the Vikings had landed a true game-changing superstar.

When Walker turned out to be anything but a superstar -- he spent the rest of his career with several teams as a supporting-cast kind of guy -- Lynn took the heat. By the early 90s, he was out of the Vikings' front office.

While most remember Lynn for that deal, I remember him as an ideal GM from a reporter's perspective. He loved the limelight and was always reachable -- even when there was bad news, such as the many drunk-driving arrests that plagued the team back then.

He once told me he never wanted to see a line in a newspaper saying he "could not be reached for comment" because that made it sound like a person was trying to hide something. I always thought it would be great if every GM, coach and athlete saw it that way.

And I of course remember Lynn for that NFL strike "scoop." It would be a leap to say it launched my career, but it certainly helped move it along.

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