One morning during the fall of 2002, I was surprised to receive an email from Washington Post sports editor George Solomon: "We have an opening; Are you interested?" Five years earlier, I had declined an offer to cover Maryland football for the prestigious newspaper. Instead, I accepted a simultaneous offer from the Seattle Times to become the SuperSonics beatwriter. When I explained to Solomon that my dream job was to cover the NBA, he responded brusquely: “You don’t turn down the Washington Post! Certainly not for a job all the way in Seattle!” Our next conversation wouldn't come until a half-decade later: Solomon urged me to take the plum gig of covering the Redskins, considered the Washington Post's second-most important beat after that of the White House. Solomon assuaged my concerns about having little football knowledge. He stressed that switching to the NFL would enhance my career: "Football is king." Soon after I accepted the job, Washingtonian magazine profiled me, introducing the Post's new Redskins beatwriter to its readers. Below is the article and a photo with a caption that says: "Demasio won't fawn over the Redskins."
During my stint at the Post, I strived to show my range, even contributing to coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign (with the most-emailed article in the paper that day). Upon learning about a reserve wideout's tremendous talents as an artist, I pitched the story to the paper's Style section. The unconventional feature earned a groundswell of positive reaction from readers as multiple TV stations followed up on the piece.
My first front-page article for the Washington Post came September 5, 2003 -- the Redskins's season opener versus the Jets. That night remains etched in my memory: With only a few minutes left in the game, managing editor Steve Coll -- now the dean of Columbia University's journalism school -- had given me the pressure-packed assignment. Coll visited the press box from the stands to scrutinize my lead (newspaper jargon for the article's first few sentences). With the big boss reading over my shoulder, my heart raced as I awaited his verdict. To my surprise -- and delight -- Coll didn't order any changes: "Looks terrific."
One aspect of my Redskins coverage that gave me tremendous pride involved Sean Taylor, their uber-talented yet enigmatic safety. As I wrote regarding the 2004 NFL draft, owner Dan Snyder's team selected the University of Miami player fifth overall. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Taylor combined a unique blend of size and athleticism for a defensive back. But almost three months after Taylor joined the Redskins, I learned — and wrote — that Taylor had prematurely departed a mandatory rookie symposium in California. The NFL would fine him $25,000 for staying only one day into the four-day event. It was the latest red flag during a controversial off season for Taylor, who had fired prominent NFL agent, Drew Rosenhaus. During his first press conference at the team's headquarters later that summer, Taylor lashed out about the article that had revealed his departure from the rookie symposium. He said that the reporter had failed to get his side of the story. When I spotted Taylor alone afterward, I nervously introduced myself as the reporter in question, but pointed out that I had indeed tried to reach him through the team. Taylor mumbled, “Okay.” He undertook a media boycott while making an impact on the gridiron as a budding star. But Taylor's off-the-field incidents continued unabated. Those episodes culminated with an arrest in Florida in June of 2005 for pulling out a gun while trying to reclaim his two stolen ATVs. With Taylor missing in action from Redskins facilities amid his legal troubles, the Post instructed me to try locating him for an exclusive. In the most adventurous assignment of my career, I ended up visiting Homestead, Florida -- a small town not far from Miami -- where Taylor was laying low in his mother’s house. His grey, mixed terrier darted toward me from the back of the home, barking viciously. (Months later, Taylor would correct my description of a pit bull.) Only the front-yard fence apparently prevented me from being attacked. The experience was even scarier than two days earlier when I had driven through one of Florida's most dangerous neighborhoods. So I unilaterally ended the assignment. The investigative story — “Complexities Surround Redskins’ Taylor” — provided substantial insight on the inscrutable player. (An image of article is shown below.) When Taylor returned to Washington, DC in July of 2005, he granted his first interview in almost a year — to me off all people. Taylor explained that he had respected me for outing myself after the first negative article, and believed that my coverage had been fair overall. My final article for the Post came on September 24, 2005: “Taylor’s ‘Maturity Level Has Shot Through the Roof.’” The star safety died in a home invasion on November 27, 2007 while I was in Saratoga Springs, New York, starting on the Parcells project. ESPN The Magazine was aware of my track record as the only journalist who Taylor had granted extensive interviews. So its editor asked me to write the magazine's weekly column: Sean Taylor Wasn't The Man You Think He Was -- Whatever That Might Be.
The kudos -- and writing awards -- I received for transforming the Redskins beat came with a price: owner Dan Snyder proactively instructed his minions to try undermining me. As the franchise continued to struggle, my tone reflected the poor play. Snyder invited the publisher to his Potomac mansion to rail about my supposedly coverage. During the fall of 2005, Snyder yanked 267 season tickets that the paper had held since the 1950s. The Post's upper management responded by quietly giving me a raise -- and included me among a handful of staffers to receive a year-end bonus for exceptional contributions. Ultimately, my coverage would catch the attention of Sports Illustrated, leading to an offer that I couldn't refuse. An online site that reports key moves by journalists compared the development to "the White House correspondent quitting on the eve of the State of the Union."