…every interesting and semi-interesting and not-at-all interesting thing that had ever happened to me. A couple of times. And I usually preface this by saying, “You know this, don’t you?” Then start. I get maybe six words in and he’ll either nod, or finish it perfectly. So this morning, because the guy was a guest, I say, “You know Phil Simms and I have a little history.” And he says, “No, what?” And that’s my cue.
In July of 1979, I had been with the Albany Times-Union two months, mostly covering high school sports and taking bowling and golf scores over the phone at night. I got my first big assignment: Go to the New York Giants training camp in Pleasantville, New York and do a feature on their Number One draft choice, Phil Simms.
Phil Simms had been a surprise first round choice out of tiny Morehead State in Kentucky. His senior year, he threw 6 touchdown and 11 interceptions. The Giants had taken a lot of flack for drafting Simms seventh overall (75 spots ahead of Notre Dame’s Joe Montana, who went to the 49ers, who reportedly wanted Simms), and were doing their best to keep the obscure longshot under wraps. I didn’t know until I arrived at a rookie scrimmage with the Jets at Hofstra that no one was allowed to interview him. Ed Croke, the irrascible long-time PR man for the Giants, said, “I’m sorry you came all the way for nothing.”
While standing on the sideline, I recognized a player from Albany, Gary Weinlein, who was trying to make the team as a defensive back and punt returner. We had played racquetball a couple of times. He looked at me and said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m doing a pre-season profile of the team (pause while my mind raced)….and a feature on you.”
We agreed to meet the next day, which was a day off for the rookies. After the scrimmage, as I walked him to the bus, I confided that my editor was dying for a quote or two from Phil Simms, but i couldn’t get near him. Weinlein told me to meet him back at Pace University in Pleasantville outside the dining hall.
He put me in a small room off the dining hall. I waited about a half-hour, and then he walked in with a remarkably slight but tall, very blond kid my age. “Phil, this is my pal, Bill Scheft from Albany. He wants to talk to you.”
For the first five minutes, I can’t tell you who was worse. I was phumphuring and unclear, and he was giving one-word answers. Finally, I said, “Look, I owe you an apology. I just graduated from college, this is my first big piece and I’m nervous and doing terribly.”
And Phil Simms said, “You’re nervous? What about me? I’m not going to be starting quarterback. That’s never happened.” And just like that, we started talking about how strange it was to be out of school and having to feel our way around. Then we started the interview, and he was great. Honest, humble, sure and unsure.
When we stood up, he said to me, “Can you do me a favor? When you’re done, can you send this article to my mother. Here’s her address.”
I wrote the piece the next day, and it ran over the fold on the Sunday sports section. I even remember the wood: GIANT HOPE.
Sad part first. I have EVERY article I ever wrote for the Times-Union…except that one. I sent all the copies I had when I was applying for other jobs. I also don’t have the letter Phil Simms mother sent me, telling me, “I have a lot of write-ups on Phil, and this is the best one I’ve read.”
That was July, 1979.
Cut to February, 1985. I am now emceeing at Catch a Rising Star. Phil Simms walks in during the show (which ran from 9 pm-2 am) with his agent, David Fishoff. After an hour where I was sure he had been laughing at my interstitial time between acts, I summoned the courage to walk over to his table.
“Phil, I’m Bill Scheft. I don’t know if you remember me, but I did the first big feature on you as a pro.”
He smiled. “Of course I remember you, Bill,” he said. ”You’re the only guy I ever asked to send my mother an article who did.” I told him how proud I was of the way he had perservered and thrived. After four tough seasons, he had begun to emerge as a star.
He came back a few times to Catch. No agent, no entourage. Sit in the back and laugh, tip well and leave.
One year later, Phil Simms led the New York Giants to their first world championship in 27 with the most accurate passing day a quarterback has ever had in the Super Bowl, 22 for 25.
He played another seven seasons, won another ring in 1990, and then went on to become an even more celebrated analyst.
Over the years, our paths have crossed maybe three times. But I have heard from other comics that when they ask Phil Simms who his favorite comic is, he says, “Well, there was this guy, Bill Scheft. You probably don’t know him. He was a good sportswriter, but then he became a great comic.”
He walked out tonight, and I waved to him from under the spiral stairs. And before he sat down, he said, indiscreetly, “Hi, Bill.” He did great, funny and glib, and afterward, when we got to greet each other, he said to Dave “I used to see this guy at Catch a Rising Star…” And Dave said, “And we know all about the letter from your mother.” It took him a second, but he got it.
Some guys just live right.
(EPILOGUE: Gary Weinlein was one of the last cuts by the 1979 Giants. Never played in the NFL.
Ed Croke eventually did.)