This story appears in the Feb. 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
As a kid, I wrote letters to athletes asking for autographs. And I was always astounded when they wrote back. It started when I was a 10-year-old Giants fan and wrote to Lawrence Taylor, who whet my appetite for pro signatures by responding with two signed photos of himself. Emboldened, I wrote to Niners running back Roger Craig, who also sent me his own glossy, sponsored by Smokey Bear. ("Fire Prevention Is a Team Effort," it read.) Soon enough, I had written dozens of letters and gotten back dozens of glossy photos signed by the biggest sports stars of my childhood, including Buddy Ryan and Fernando Valenzuela. The best response I ever received came from Cowboys Hall of Fame defensive lineman Randy White. During the 1988 season he sent me a signed photo, silver-star helmet stickers, a picture of a Cowboys cheerleader and a type- written letter apologizing for what would end up as a 3-13 year. ("Although this season is hard for a fan, it's harder for the team," he wrote. "We are in a rebuilding stage and hopefully you should see, in the near future, changes that will put us once again in the Super Bowl.") I was blown away, almost enough to become a Cowboys fan. Nearly 22 years later, I'm still impressed (but still a Giants fan). Randy White may not have typed that note, but he made sure someone responded to me. And, really, isn't that the connection every fan wants?
THE BIGGEST LOSER IN THE JOE PHAN PROJECT? THE BENGALS, WHO SUGGESTED I PAY FOR THEIR HEAD COACH'S AUTOGRAPH.
In April, I stumbled across White's letter and wondered if there were stars like him playing today; guys who care enough to do more than tweet at their fans. To find out, I handwrote letters, 479 of them, to folks associated with every MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL team, asking for an autograph. I penned a personalized note to each squad's star player, as well as to a random backup, the head coach and the mascot. I customized each note to let the recipient know I wasn't some creep using form letters to procure memorabilia for my eBay business. (In my note to Tom Brady I asked, "How cool is it to live with Gisele Bündchen?" Not creepy, right?) I used publicly available team addresses and signed each letter using the pseudonym Joe Phan, with no mention of ESPN anywhere. I mailed the letters from a random New York City mailbox. Snail mail being what it is, I have no idea how many of my missives made it to their intended targets (so I won't call out the pros who did not respond), but I did discover some modern-day Randy Whites. Or, more accurately, some true Joe Mauers.