Jesus. What If Howard Eskin Was Your Dad?
A week after Spike’s night shift, I’m eating breakfast with the Eskins in the upstairs dining room of the Omni Hotel, around the corner from the WIP and Fox studios on Market Street. Spike was at work by 7 a.m., after a 40-minute walk from the South Philadelphia rowhome he shares with his girlfriend. Howard, after doing his Sports Sunday night show on Fox, was back on television that morning with the station’s Good Day Philadelphia crew. When it comes to work ethic, it’s like father, like son. But where Spike is introspective and open, Howard is uncomfortable talking about his family, steering nearly every question back to sports. When I ask about him allowing young Spike to get tattoos, he turns it into a conversation about Todd Marinovich, the USC star quarterback whose controlling father ruined his career. Spike says he’s frequently pestered by people on Twitter who hate his dad; Howard follows that with stories of his own Twitter fight with former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, which somehow leads to him hanging at the Super Bowl, where a CBS broadcaster called him “a pioneer.” Howard told me he’d only talk to me for this story for his son’s sake, then says he can’t meet on a Friday because “it’s my only day off in a week.” Warm and cuddly he’s not.
Spike seems to have survived growing up Eskin thanks to his mother, Andi, the family’s emotional ballast, whom he describes as “definitely more laid-back, very accepting, very tolerant”—words never used to describe Howard. Though she’s been married to the elder Eskin for 38 years, Andi is seen in public only slightly more often than Bigfoot, and is just as mysterious to Howard’s colleagues. “I don’t think she was ever interested in being a part of my dad’s career,” Spike says, “at least not publicly.”
Countering Howard and sports in Spike’s life are Andi and music: one of his running gags at WYSP would be to put his mom on the air when she’d call him to request Aerosmith, which she did frequently. Spike remembers that when he was a kid, his mom would bring doughnuts to the gas station when she’d drop off her car for repairs. It seemed corny, until Spike tried it himself years later and saw how much the guys at the shop appreciated the simple gesture. “Relationships are very important to her,” he says. “Treating people well.” Off the air, Howard doesn’t call folks on the street morons or dopes. His version of handing out doughnuts is stopping to talk to the doormen at the Omni about Eagles draft picks.
Spike’s other survival tool is a sense of humor about himself and Howard. In 2011, he and his brother Jason, a 28-year-old digital-media marketer in Los Angeles, conspired to draw their dad into a Manti Te’o “catfish” scheme of sorts. Knowing how paranoid Howard is about imposters on social media, they created a fake Howard Eskin Twitter account, complete with the blue authenticity mark, and started sending his real account messages, just to rile him up. They pulled the account after a day of good-natured torment, but the needling continues. “The best era of making fun of him on Twitter was when Andy Reid was getting fired,” Spike says, while adding with pride that real Howard’s 36,700 followers are proof he’s “still relevant.”
Howard’s Andy Reid admission was more than Spike’s coronation as his own man; it was the resolution of a lifelong debate he’d never won. “When we would argue about sports when I was younger, it would make me mad, because he’s, like, a professional arguer,” Spike says. “So it was hard to win, you know? But now, you can just enjoy the banter.”
As our breakfast winds down, Spike admits he’s not sure he could handle sports talk five days a week, the way Howard once did. Wearing so many hats suits his ADD personality just fine. I ask Howard about retirement. “I still think I can work 10, 15 years,” he says, before segueing into a conversation he had with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue about Dick Vermeil. Spike recently told his parents they should take a break and retreat to Europe for a month. “My mom says, ‘Dad stop working for that long? No way.’ I don’t know what he’d do with himself if he wasn’t doing this. He’s busy 24 hours a day.”
A look through the Eskin family tree reveals how deeply both sports and compulsive hard work are rooted. Howard’s grandfather started a wagon-works business in Fairmount Park in the 1930s, and his son, Donald, took over as it became a truck-body shop. “My dad worked all the time,” Howard recalls. “He was always home late at night.” Sports served as a bonding agent, and Donald had season tickets for the Phillies and Sixers. He also had strong opinions—Howard’s father refused to buy Eagles tickets because he thought Leonard Tose, whom he knew through the trucking business, was a bum.
It’s more evidence that somewhere inside the fur coats and the bluster and the bobbleheads bearing his likeness, Howard is a father, one molded in the image of his own. Like a lot of dads, he talks to his son chiefly through the language of pick-and-rolls, Tampa-2 defenses and double-switches. But sports are what pulled Howard away from Spike, and when it led them to post-game parties or executive suites, Howard was The King, not Dad.
That’s mostly in the past now, as time—and their jobs—have brought the Eskins together. In the process, their relationship has exposed a reflective side of Howard few people have seen before. At a recent WIP event, Cataldi found himself in a position he’d never imagined—asking for, and receiving, advice from his on-air nemesis about leaving the daily grind of radio. “It was weird,” Cataldi recalls. “He became like a confidant. I’ve had some medical issues, and have thought about the day when I’m not on the air. I said, ‘You finally made a move, you walked away, what’s it like?’ He just said the sense of loss in not being on every day wasn’t as big a void as he thought it would be. Life goes on after this.” Then he adds: “The idea that I would ever go to Howard for insight was unthinkable.”
It’s nearly 9 a.m., and Spike is itching to get back to work. No hugs or kisses goodbye, just a “See ya later” wave of the hand. Howard spends the next five minutes haranguing me about the fraudulence of Sixers CEO Adam Aron, before he’s off to do whatever it is that Howard Eskin does all day long. Later that afternoon, he sends me an unprompted email that’s disturbing not for its vitriol, but for its complete lack thereof. In the past, when Howard has followed up after an interview, he’s name-dropped, bragged, or berated me—sometimes all at once. Now, he’s saying something he couldn’t in front of his kid: “Brett has done so much on his own that’s why I’m so proud of him!” He mentions a photo from Phillies fantasy camp of himself with Donald and Spike, only a year into his own career, before he was The King—back when they were just fathers and sons from Philadelphia, united by the game.