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Paul Needell, former Star-Ledger NFL/Jets columnist, dies at 57


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Confessions of a Jets beat writer: This wasn't my idea. Kaplan made me do it. "Paul," our Sunday editor said, "you've seen a lot of strange stuff since you started covering the Jets. I think it would be fun if you wrote about it.


" Fun? Cruel and unusual punishment is more like it. But here we go. It was June 1983 when Larry Fox, the newly-appointed sports editor for the Daily News and the paper's long-time NFL chronicler, called me into his office and said: "The Jets are yours.

" "Thank you," I said. Hey, I was young and stupid. When you're 26 and the boss assigns you to cover a team favored to go to the Super Bowl, there isn't much else to say. Of course, the Jets didn't get anywhere near the Super Bowl that year. But I've grown accustomed to that. Good thing, too. The 1-5 Jets are not going to win a division title for the 26th straight year, and a new low could be on the horizon today if they fall to the winless expansion Panthers. Now in my 13th season, encompassing four sports editors, four head coaches, 10 quarterbacks, 86 wins, 110 losses and one tie, I have reached a singular conclusion: It's not my fault. I like to consider myself an over-achieving reporter saddled by an underachieving team. From Joe Walton to Rich Kotite, from Richard Todd to Boomer Esiason, from Mark Gastineau to . . . well, there's only one Gastineau, it wasn't my fault. I was a rookie when Walton finished 7-9 with the same team Walt Michaels had led to the 1982 AFC Championship Game. I was there when Leon Hess decided the bathrooms at Shea weren't clean enough and moved his Long Island-based team to New Jersey in '84. I was there when the Jets were 10-1 in 1986 and lost their last five games. I was there when the 1987 players' strike ripped the team apart, and Walton called his players "peabrains who won't amount to anything after football.


" I was there when a replacement player named John Fuoco, a pint-sized wide receiver whose mouth was all Bronx, got fired up for a strike game against Dallas by predicting, "We're going to beat those f-----' Cowboys!


" Of course, the Jets' scabs lost to those f-----' Cowboys by 14. I was there when Gastineau crossed the picket line and Joe Klecko warned the rest of the Jets, "The first one who talks to that guy when this is over gets punched in the mouth.


" Two weeks later, Klecko crossed the line, leading tight end Rocky Klever to ask, "Has Joe punched himself in the mouth yet?

" I was there when Gastineau was engaged to Brigitte Nielsen in 1988 and abruptly retired after seven games when the amazon actress had a cancer scare. I was there when Walton announced he would bench Ken O'Brien in favor of Kyle Mackey against the Saints in 1989, and New Orleans coach Jim Mora was so incredulous he thought New York reporters were pulling his leg. "Kyle who?


" Mora said. I was there for every "Joe Must Go" chant. I was there in 1990 when Bruce Coslet sat in his second-floor office at Weeb Ewbank Hall and held a news conference by telephone with beat writers sitting in the first-floor press room at Weeb Ewbank Hall. I was there when the Jets drafted Blair Thomas and Browning Nagle and Roger Vick and Ron Faurot and Mike Haight and all the other flops who have contributed to only three playoff appearances since '83. Wasn't my fault. I was there when Pete Carroll gave Miami's Pete Stoyanovich the choke sign after a missed extra point, then had to recant after the kicker beat the Jets with a field goal. The premature gesticulation wasn't my fault. I was there last January when Hess shocked the world by firing Carroll, hiring Kotite and proclaiming, "I'm 80 years old, I want results now," and so far the results are 1-5. It still isn't my fault. So many stories, so little time. How about Christmas Day 1986? The Jets were reeling from the five-game losing streak, but they made the playoffs as a wild-card team. So Walton had them practice early on the holiday, three days before they would beat the Chiefs, 35-15, in their only playoff victory of my tenure. Anyway, Walton was so pleased with the way the practice went he called the players around him and said, "You're my guys again. Great job.


" A team meeting was scheduled 30 minutes later, but Walton kept the club waiting for an hour. Finally, he came into the room and lit into the players like he never had before. The incredible about-face was apparently ignited by a phone conversation Walton had just finished with his mentor, George Allen, who told him the players had choked down the stretch and that their tombstones should read accordingly. Walton dismissed the team with disgust and stormed out. As the players looked at each other in amazement, quarterback Pat Ryan drawled, "Well, Merry f-----' Christmas to you, too.


" Walton never knew what to make of Gastineau. He knew the other players disdained the sack dancer, but could not ignore the pass-rushing force. When Nielsen's limousine drove onto the field at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., as the Jets scrimmaged the Redskins in 1988, Walton patted his chest and muttered, "Oh, my nerves.


" Gastineau was always a headline waiting to happen, the closest the Jets have come to filling the Joe Namath void. The last time I spoke to him was in the spring of 1989, after he and Nielsen had broken up. Although he was out of football, Gastineau was upset by a published report which claimed he had lost a huge amount of weight and hinted at previous steroid use. So Gastineau had his agent telephone me on a Sunday morning. He wanted to refute the allegations, and was willing to meet me at a Queens diner for his first interview since he had bolted the club months earlier. When I arrived at the diner, Gastineau led me into the parking lot and unlocked the trunk of a friend's car. He pulled out a scale, plopped it on the ground and jumped on. "Two-sixty-five," he said proudly. Vintage Gastineau. By the time GM Dick Steinberg and Coslet came aboard in 1990, Gastineau was long gone. However, Coslet felt saddled by O'Brien at quarterback. He gave Tony Eason and Troy Taylor shots at unseating O'Brien before finally force-feeding Nagle in 1992. Coslet had little respect for O'Brien, and the feeling was mutual. When the Jets were having all kinds of problems scoring touchdowns inside the other team's 20 in '91, Coslet bristled at suggestions his play-calling left much to be desired. "Are we having problems scoring in the red zone," Coslet railed at reporters. "Damn right we're having problems. Our quarterback stinks. I know it. You know it. Everybody knows it.


" Whatever his liabilities were as a player, O'Brien is one of the finest people I have had the pleasure of covering. In 1985, a close friend of mine was killed in an automobile accident. O'Brien had met her once, and when I returned to the team's complex 10 days after the funeral, he sat with me in the locker room for 30 minutes and movingly expressed his sympathy. Through all the disappointing seasons and blown leads and perpetual turmoil, men like O'Brien and Wesley Walker and Kyle Clifton and Pat Leahy and Freeman McNeil and Jeff Lageman and Marvin Washington and Dennis Byrd have always made the locker room a comfortable place to work. Even when sourpusses like Erik McMillan and Dave Cadigan tried to create a chill. The wins and losses never much matter to me. The personalities and stories keep you going, even when friends wonder how many more seasons you can stomach covering an awful football team. But for me, it's not about championships. It's about observing human reactions in good times and bad. In some respects, it will always be about Nov. 29, 1992, when Byrd was rendered temporarily paralyzed with a broken neck against the Chiefs. Byrd's daughter, Ashtin, and my oldest son, Eric, are both five years old, and the 6-5, 260-pound football Adonis and this 5-10, 165-pound weakling often exchanged child-rearing stories. As Byrd lay on the turf at Giants Stadium, I thought about Ashtin and Eric. Later in the locker room, Byrd's roommate, Washington, chased away other reporters and then cried as he told me Angela Byrd was pregnant again. And Clifton choked on his words when I asked him how hard he was going to hug his son when he went home that night. The following Thanksgiving, Byrd called me from his family's home in Louisiana. His incredible recovery had thrilled all of us, but this conversation put an exclamation point on an emotional year. "Who woulda thunk it?


" Byrd said. "Me standing at the head of the table, carving the turkey.


" I wouldn't trade that phone call for any Super Bowl. Of course, there are other phone calls I'd love to have back. One took place with Carroll last January 5, the night he was fired by Hess. We all knew Steinberg and Hess were scheduled to meet to discuss the ailing GM's future, but figured Carroll was secure after just one season. So I called Carroll at his home, just to check if he was in on the big pow-wow. His son, Brennan, answered, and handed Carroll the phone. "Pete, this is Needell," I said. "Just checking to make sure you weren't at the meeting with Dick and Leon tonight.


" "Nope, that's their deal," Carroll said. "Wish I could help you.


" The next morning, I learned Carroll had already been fired by Hess when we spoke. He could have given me the scoop every beat writer dreams of, but kept his mouth shut. I still don't understand why. Who was he protecting? I haven't stopped second-guessing myself. Maybe if I'd pressed Carroll more . . . Maybe if I had staked out Weeb Ewbank Hall all day . . . After 12 years and 13 seasons, it still matters. But last year, when a new person on the beat last year asked me, "What was it like covering Namath?

" I wondered if it was time to ask for a different assignment. The other day, Gerry Eskenazi of the Times who pre-dates me on the Jets, believe it or not was talking about the story lines we've already had this season. In the end, that is how we judge our own seasons. Off the field, there was Steinberg's recent death. On the field, the plots have had all kinds of juicy twists. Turns out the head linesman who blew the call when Esiason sustained a concussion last week is the son of the retired official who monitors Jet practices. That's great stuff. In consecutive weeks, Kotite has started a rookie who was a college quarterback at right cornerback (Vance Joseph) and thrown Everett McIver, a first-time starter at left tackle, at Bruce Smith. Mo Lewis, the best of these Jets, has been playing out of position for the first six games but finally returns to weakside linebacker today against the Panthers. And a free agent from Hofstra, Wayne Chrebet, leads all NFL rookie receivers with 27 catches and three TDs. "You know," Eskenazi reminded me, "it's always something.


" Damn, I love this job.

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Paul Needell, former Star-Ledger NFL columnist, died Saturday night after a long illness. He was 57.


Needell came to The Star-Ledger in 1996 after 13 years as the Jets beat writer and an NFL columnist for the Daily News in New York. As part of the Ledger's award-winning sports department, Needell — with his well-connected sources and dogged reporting skills — immediately strengthened the coverage of the Giants and Jets, and made the newspaper a major force in NFL stories of national importance.



He worked at The Star-Ledger until 2010.

In a knee-jerk world of sports journalism, Needell was known for his fairness. For more than two decades, he often broke the most compelling stories surrounding the two local franchises. While covering the Jets, Needell established a lifelong friendship with a team intern who eventually would embark on a career at the league offices: Roger Goodell.


The NFL commissioner hosted a tribute to Needell for more than 100 friends and colleagues at the league offices two years ago. Needell, unable to attend because of his health, listened by speakerphone, then delivered a thank-you speech with a caring spirit and a sharp but good-natured wit that spared none of his buddies — but also assured them that he was OK.


Former colleagues expressed their sorrow on social media Saturday night:


"The sports writing business lost a great one," former Jets defensive end Jeff Lageman told ESPN's Rich Cimini, a longtime Needell friend, on Saturday night.


"I always had tremendous respect for Paul," Lageman added. "I mean, he was just a great guy. I can't remember ever having a conversation with him where he didn't say, 'How are you doing?' He always asked non-football questions. He cared about you as a person, not just a player. Pretty special guy."


Needell possessed a rare ability to connect with the players he covered, while also maintaining objectivity and professionalism. Even when he was harshly criticizing coaches and players in print and online, they still liked him.


Needell also was known to drop huge, breaking stories into other reporters' laps, and often when the two were finished reporting and were ready to write, he would say, "You take the byline."


Needell was born in Brooklyn, attended Midwood High School and graduated from Stony Brook University in 1978. He started as a copy boy for the Daily News and quickly became a beat writer for the New York Cosmos and New Jersey Nets.


In 1983, Needell became the Jets beat writer for the News, and covered the inept team through some of its most turbulent and embarrassing times. In 1995, Needell wrote an amusing column filled with wonderful anecdotes on many of the one-of-a kind personalities that wore a Jets uniform. 


Needell, who lived in Rockville Centre, N.Y., is survived by his wife, Cathy, their three children, Eric, Evan and Alex; and his parents, Martin and Marcia Needell of Brooklyn. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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