Last October, Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel sat at his locker after practice, shirtless, all sinewy muscles and unfurled dreadlocks, looking every bit the warrior who defines the National Football League. Samuel made it clear to reporters that he wasn’t happy about the trade rumors hovering over him. Andy Reid was the guy he played for, the guy he’d go into battle with — Coach was a lifer in the sport, and Coach had his back. He wasn’t so generous about the duo in charge of the Eagles front office, team president Joe Banner and general manager Howie Roseman, two guys who look like they’d lose a fight with a blocking sled. “Couple people upstairs might not want me, but who cares? They’ve probably never played football,” he fumed. He couldn’t resist taking another shot at Banner and Roseman: “It’s a business, and they run it like a business. … They’re playing with a lot of money, playing fantasy football, doing their thing.”
It’s an age-old conflict in professional sports — the jocks vs. the bean counters who control their livelihoods. Asante charged that Banner and Roseman were little more than two nerds living out a dream with Jeffrey Lurie’s checkbook. In a sense, he was right, at least regarding Roseman. When he was growing up in North Jersey, Roseman convinced his father, a schoolteacher who was lukewarm on football, to buy season tickets for the New York Jets — a shrewd negotiation, and one that would hint at his future career. Most kids fantasize about becoming a cannon-armed quarterback or flashy wide receiver. Roseman wanted to be the guy who drafted them and wrote their contracts.
Today, the 37-year-old isn’t just the youngest GM in the NFL; with the departure of his mentor Banner this summer, he stands beside Reid as the architect of the team. And as Samuel noted, he’s never strapped on the pads. He didn’t have any legacy connections inside the league — no uncle who played in the ’70s, no coach who knew his parents. Before Roseman was hired as an intern in 2000, he had as much of an inside track into the game as your average sports talk-radio caller.
Samuel might not admit this, but at the core, there’s little difference between Roseman’s path to success and that of retired Eagle Vince Papale, the walk-on special-teamer who inspired the film Invincible. “It’s one of the great American success stories,” Eagles guru Ray Didinger, of Comcast SportsNet, says of Roseman’s rise. “There are a million guys out there who’d chuck everything to live their football dream, and only one in a million gets a call back. He had this desire to get in the game.”
And while Mark Wahlberg may not be signing up to play a front-office suit in a Roseman biopic, that doesn’t make his tale any less remarkable. He’s the fantasy football guy whose fantasy came true. But here’s where Samuel got it wrong — the nerd just might be exactly the right guy for the job.
I’M SITTING IN Howie Roseman’s expansive office, overlooking the NovaCare practice field, three days before the start of training camp. On a shelf next to his desk is a photo of his wife Mindy and their three kids, and across the room there’s a massive whiteboard listing the Eagles roster. In gray dress pants, with the sleeves of his blue button-down shirt rolled up, Roseman could pass for a decade younger than his age, thanks to a youthful face that’s never suffered a bone-crushing hit. In a business where even the guys with clipboards look like ex-players, or at least like jocks, Roseman resembles — well, a Howie. Bill Parcells once told him the only other man he knew named Howie was feared defensive end and Villanova grad Howie Long, who pulled it off with an imposing six-foot-five-inch frame. Roseman said he was sticking with it anyway.
Beneath his unassuming exterior lies a tunnel-vision obsession. While players have a few months to escape the game and recharge their batteries, Roseman’s most intense work begins when the NFL’s season ends — signing contracts, diving headfirst into draft preparation and assessing what went wrong the year before. Back when he was still an intern, Roseman would hang out with the scouts to watch tape long after everyone else went home. That work ethic hasn’t changed: His days at the NovaCare complex often begin before 6 a.m., and after roughly five hours of watching college and free-agent tapes, plus meetings, team practice and hitting the phones, he’s lucky to make it home by 8 p.m. “My job is to bring talent to our football team,” Roseman says. “We’re gonna look under every rock and explore every option to improve our team. There’s no way I’m ever satisfied.”
Aside from football, Roseman will only cop to two other passions: pizza (he’s a fan of Tacconelli’s in the Northeast) and his family. And even the latter seems increasingly wound up with football. His oldest child was born on Super Bowl Sunday (one can imagine Roseman doing the conceptual math and planning that intentionally), and for this year’s annual family vacation to Orange Beach, Alabama, where his wife’s family has a summer home, he had game tapes shipped down so he could prepare for the supplemental draft.
Roseman’s obsession with putting together the perfect roster began as a kid, even though at the time, fantasy football didn’t exist. That didn’t stop him from compiling research in preparation for the NFL draft, which he’d watch from start to finish. When his family went out on Sundays, Roseman would stay home, glued to games on television. At age eight, he met Jack Elway, father of future Hall of Fame quarterback John and himself a college coach, on a flight to Florida. After talking football with Roseman for two hours, Elway was so impressed that he told the kid’s mom her son should audition for the TV show That’s Incredible. “I finally had someone believing in me,” Roseman says of the encounter. “I used to tell people I wanted to be a general manager in the National Football League. And everyone would go, ‘How are you gonna get there?’ I didn’t really know. I just knew what I wanted to do.”
Roseman’s vision of his future sounded implausible even to his own family, so much so that his mom “misplaced” Elway’s business card. But he had two distinct advantages — a laser focus on his life’s passion, and a relentless drive, like a math whiz consumed with solving some knotty equation or a spelling-bee champion memorizing the dictionary. His senior year of high school, while his more athletic classmates were catching touchdowns, Roseman sent letters to every NFL team, asking for career advice. He only considered colleges with top-tier football programs, just to get close to the game. “He’s a very meticulous guy,” says Jedd Fisch, offensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes and Roseman’s roommate at the University of Florida. “Very detailed, very organized, very driven.” As proof, Fisch points to the 1995 NFL draft, during which Roseman made their apartment look like the Jets war room, with binders and a draft board.
His singleminded approach continued at Fordham Law, where he paid close attention to topics that applied to football, be that contract negotiations or salary-cap management. It was the perfect time to be a number-cruncher looking for a path to the NFL: The cap was a new obstacle along the road to a championship, and teams needed guys with degrees, not gridiron pedigrees, to balance their books. After Roseman’s second NFL letter-writing campaign — in law school — Eagles president Banner, unsure whether he was a talent or a stalker, agreed to meet him in person, and hired him as an unpaid intern. With no real estate to spare, Roseman sat at the edge of the desk of Banner’s assistant, a feisty South Philly native. On his first day at work, Roseman’s not-so-inner Urkel made an impression. “Ever see the movie Uncle Buck, where Macaulay Culkin asks him, like, 40 questions in a row?” Roseman says. “I was 25, fresh out of school, and I had all this energy and ideas. So I started shooting off questions, and she finally turns to me and goes, ‘Enough with the fucking questions.’”
In sports today — as in pop culture and business, where guys named Jobs and Zuckerberg are the patron saints — being a geek isn’t such a bad thing. Statistician Bill James used sabermetrics to strip baseball down to a series of numbers and equations; now you’ll hear analysts talking as much about WHIP and WAR as wins and losses. Pencil-necked Yale grad Theo Epstein, the youngest GM in the majors, built the Red Sox team that snapped an 86-year title drought. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player ever, has been an utter failure as an NBA executive and owner.
Of course, by the time Roseman joined the Eagles, there was already a nerd in the front office: Banner. But not all geeks are alike, and Roseman’s image as “Joe’s guy” wasn’t seen as an advantage to all, considering Banner’s reputation as a ruthless bottom-line manager. Some within the organization even questioned the speed of Roseman’s ascension — by 2006, he was vice president of football administration — and the collateral damage that came along with it. As Roseman studied the personnel side of the team, those he’d learned from moved on, including vice president of operations Jeff Kaplan; vice president of personnel Jason Licht; and finally general manager Tom Heckert. That Roseman impressed Banner and Lurie enough to make longtime, well-regarded lieutenants above him expendable speaks to his unrelenting pursuit of that childhood dream. “He put in the time,” says a former Eagles front-office staffer, who says Roseman was no suck-up. “You knew he wasn’t content where he was. It was never enough. He always wanted to do more.”
With Banner gone, Eagles insiders agree it’s Reid’s show to run, but emphasize that Roseman isn’t an empty suit, particularly important given that Reid is dealing with the aftershocks of losing his son Garrett. “Howie’s right in the middle of it,” Didinger says of the team’s off-season this year. “You get the feeling that Howie and Andy have a pretty good working relationship. Andy has more influence, but he really trusts Howie.” Though Roseman shared Banner’s academic mind for the game, the consensus is that internally, it’s a very different team with Roseman at the helm. “Joe does a lot of things well, but as a people person, he’s terrible,” says the former staffer. “When he went into the cafeteria with the players, he was staring at his shoes. Howie says hi.” Roseman’s also known for keeping in touch with agents, even when there’s no business on the table. Unlike Banner, whose connections with players seemed to run only as deep as the ink on their contracts, Roseman sees relationship-building as essential to his job. (Largely for that reason, insiders speculate that if Roseman had been in charge in 2009, longtime fan favorite Brian Dawkins would never have left for Denver.)
ROSEMAN ADMITS HE’S still a work in progress in the GM role, but the results of the three drafts he’s captained illustrate his swift learning curve. Four of his 13 picks in 2010 weren’t with the team in training camp, and his first-round selection, defensive end Brandon Graham, has been a bust thus far. The following year was more of a mixed bag, with some hits (sixth-round center Jason Kelce) and head-scratchers (kicker Alex Henery in round four). This season’s draft was among the NFL’s best, addressing critical needs and doing so with potential game-day studs. Even before he became GM, Roseman’s freakish — and nerdish — attention to detail was evident in his constant tweaking of the bottom of the 80-man preseason roster. One of his finds was Colt Anderson, who’s now among the league’s best special-teams players.
The boy wonder isn’t without his critics. In 2010, as Roseman tried to trade Donovan McNabb, Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports framed him as a “shakedown artist” and quoted an anonymous GM who said Roseman was “trying to be too smart for his own good.” But agent Todd France says the knocks on Roseman are groundless: “At the end of the day, he’s trying to get the best deal for his team.” Didinger adds: “Pro football is like any other industry. There’s a cattiness to it. I have no doubt there are guys who’ve put in years in the league and wonder, ‘Who’s this guy to get a GM job?’ The only way to put that to rest is to win.”
Back in his office, Roseman gives generic answers to questions about how he’s running the team. The only time he opens up is when I ask about Samuel and his “fantasy football” comments last season. “I was pissed off,” Roseman says, adding that he told the cornerback how he felt in a closed-door man-to-man meeting.
In some ways, Roseman bears little resemblance to the typical Eagles fan. His idea of the perfect Sunday doesn’t involve face-painting and a case of Miller High Life. That doesn’t mean there’s no fire in his belly, or that he lacks the steely will to stand up to veteran GMs who try to bully the new kid, or that he doesn’t have a blue-collar attitude about his job. His childhood dream wasn’t to get rich — it was to build a championship NFL team. “This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for,” Roseman says of the pressure he’s facing this year, out of Banner’s shadow for the first time. “We’re excited about the season. The players are just hungry — hungry to erase the taste of last year. All of us are.”
As of this writing, Las Vegas has the Birds at 10-1 for a Super Bowl victory. Considering Roseman’s lifetime record for somehow figuring out how to get what he wants despite much stiffer odds, the smart money is on the fantasy football dork.
Published in the September 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.