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This story appears in the Feb. 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Nice Swag

Check out 12 choice items that athletes, coaches and mascots sent Joe Phan

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?


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 B√ľndchen?" 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.