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Exclusive: FOX Nation host Ed Henry on '42 Faith,' which US Presidents are sports fans & more

EXPERT COLUMNIST
Exclusive
50   //    30 Apr 2019, 16:33 IST

Ed Henry with NBA legend Bill Havlicek
Ed Henry with NBA legend John Havlicek

Ed Henry is best known as the Chief National Correspondent of Fox News. But more specific to the sports world, Henry is the author of the book 42 Faith, which tells the story of baseball legend Jackie Robinson.

Henry recently wrapped up a really exciting project for FOX Nation based on his book. That FOX Nation special, also entitled 42 Faith, was released on National Jackie Robinson Day and reveals the unbelievable backstory of one of the most legendary and celebrated players in the history.

Also tying Ed Henry to the sports world is his work as the host of FOX Nation’s Front Row Seat, a show which tells the stories of some of America's biggest sports figures. Front Row Seat has led Henry to interview a lot of icons from the professional sports world, including NBA legends Bob Cousy, John Havlicek and Richie Guerin, Minnesota Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders, MLB pitcher Jamie Moyer, and University Of Kentucky head coach John Calipari. Notably, Henry was the last person to interview the aforementioned Havlicek before his passing earlier this month.

I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with Ed Henry about 42 Faith, Front Row Seat and plenty of other topics. More on Henry can be found by following him on Twitter via @EdHenry and/or visiting the Front Row Seat site within FOX Nation's Internet hub.

I understand that you did the last interview on-record with NBA legend John Havlicek. Any special memories from that experience?

Ed Henry: It happened almost by accident, so it makes meeting John so shortly before his death that much more magical. I visited Bob Cousy in Florida over Christmas break and he told me about this informal Thursday night dinner club he has in West Palm Beach with some of his golfing buddies, including another NBA Hall of Famer, Richie Guerin of the [New York] Knicks. Cous joked the old men get together and solve the problems of the world. He invited me to bring our Fox Nation cameras along in February to eavesdrop on them talking about the glory days, which I was already sold on.

And then he casually mentioned that sometimes Havlicek joins them, and I got more intrigued. Cous cautioned that Havlicek was quietly battling Parkinson’s disease and he may not be up to it. Adding to the drama was this dinner club of NBA Royalty meets not at some fancy restaurant but at an Italian joint in a nondescript shopping center. Even better is the fact that the De Pietro family is from Brooklyn so the walls are plastered with pictures of Yankees — from [Joe] DiMaggio to [Mickey] Mantle to [Derek] Jeter and [Aaron] Judge. I love that but I couldn’t believe these [Boston] Celtics greats could take that much Big Apple attitude.

At the appointed hour, Havlicek rolled into the shopping center. His wife Beth was driving because of the Parkinson’s, but I looked into the passenger side and there was John, peering through giant sunglasses in the Florida sun. But you could see his smile was even brighter at the idea of seeing his old pals. One of them had to help him out of the car, but I have to say other than that John was in great spirits, his mind was sharp, and we had a wonderful conversation.

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At one point, Cousy talked about someday getting called up to the “big basketball in the sky,” but we honestly had no clue John was about to get that call. He was lucid and happy, and I will always remember beaming as he talked about Red Auerbach calling the Celtics back to the locker room from the court before a big playoff game just so that Bill Russell could get on with his pre-game ritual of throwing up. Havlicek laughed and laughed at the memory, and I will cherish that.

John Havlicek aside, who are some of your favorite NBA players of all time?

Ed Henry: I grew up a baseball guy, but my son Patrick has gotten me more and more interested in the NBA over the last few years. So I love watching James Harden — he is unreal even if he probably takes four or five steps sometimes. And I follow the Minnesota Timberwolves closely because their young head coach Ryan Saunders is a family friend and on the rise, he was kind enough to join us on Front Row Seat.

I was lucky enough to share a cigar once with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony when he was still in OKC — we will have to try to get Russ on Fox Nation so I can tell that story. My son just turned 18 and because of his love of the NBA, I took him to meet Cousy in December when we were setting up the show. What impressed me is my son cared enough about the history of the game, despite all the focus on iPhones and video games these days, that he knew who Cous was and listened to his advice closely. What a treat that was because the class and grace of the old timers like Cous and Havlicek is something for all of us to emulate.

42 Faith is a sports-themed book, yet you first found major success covering politics and general news. Has sports always been a major part of your life?

Ed Henry: My Dad took me to the 1981 World Series at Yankee Stadium when I was 10, and it was one of the most thrilling nights of my life. Tommy John pitched a gem, and the Yankees went up 2-0 over the Dodgers. My dad turned to me and said, “Now they just have to win one game out in Los Angeles and they can come back to New York and clinch at home.”

Sounded great. But we never won a game in L.A. — or back in NY — we lost in six games! Learned an early lesson about not counting your chickens. But 19 years later I took my Dad to the Subway Series versus the Mets. It came full circle — and we finally saw the Yankees clinch.

Do you ever wind up talking sports with high-level political officials you interview or work with? In other words, is there a big overlap between politics and sports?

Ed Henry: Yes, and it is a rare bit of bipartisanship. President Trump loves talking sports, especially pro football and golf. And I was in some off the record situations where President Obama would seem to know every nuance of a big NBA game or college basketball matchup. President George W. Bush was the baseball guy, and he didn’t just know the teams well, he could recite the batting averages. It’s an all-consuming job for them and I think the following sports is a great passion — but also a stress reliever — for all of us. 

How long did you spend writing 42 Faith?

Ed Henry: On and off I was working it — on and off — for 10 years. It started accidentally. I was at a fancy dinner that got super-boring. I tried to sneak out early by telling the person next to me I wanted to get out in order to watch the 2007 World Series. That led her to ask if I liked baseball, and when I answered in the affirmative, she literally responded: “My late father-in-law played a major role in baseball history but the story has never been told.” I gulped and sat back down.

Her relative was a Christian minister who had secretly helped Branch Rickey sign Jackie Robinson to his first contract. The fact that I stumbled upon this chance told me it was the fate for me to write this book, even after one publisher after another rejected it. The research and writing took years. But ultimately that paid off because the book nobody wanted, made the New York Times Best-Sellers list. But it was the most fulfilling work project I ever worked on because the sweat was worthwhile.

How much did you know about Jackie Robinson before writing the book compared to nowadays?

Ed Henry: I knew the surface story that many of us saw in the movie 42 — a wonderful film but only a tiny percentage of the Robinson drama. I owe so much to Brian Murray, the CEO of Harper Collins. He listened to my pitch that so many others had rejected: the rest of the Jackie Robinson story, focused on how Rickey almost backed out of signing Robinson. Murray said, "Yeah but we know Rickey DID sign him in the end, so why should anyone read this?" I saw my proposal falling apart.

But then I tried to sort of a Hail Mary pass saying, “Well, everyone knows the Titanic sunk, yet they still watched that [Leonardo] DiCaprio movie for a few hours.” Lucky for me, Murray laughed and said that was true. He knew that if we told the new information I had dramatically, people would read it, and I am thankful he had an open mind.

Is there anything you feel that most people have wrong about Jackie Robinson?

Ed Henry: More like there was a secret ingredient for Jackie that most people don’t know about it. His deep Christian faith was not something he wore on his sleeve, but it helped him overcome challenges most of us probably would have considered to be insurmountable. As a kid raised by a single mom, he got in trouble with the police. It was a Christian minister who pulled him out of a gang, and helped get him to UCLA.

Jackie would star in football for the school on Saturday, and then head back to Pasadena on Sunday to teach Sunday school. When he was a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers, his wife remembers he would come home and kneel down to pray before bed. It was a quiet faith, but a thread that ran through his whole life.

So going back to an earlier topic we discussed, on a recent episode of Front Row, you had pizza with a group NBA Hall of Famers who regularly meets up. How exactly did that invitation come about?

Ed Henry: My Fox colleague Juan Williams kindly took the time to write the introduction to 42 Faith. And later, knowing my passion for sports, Juan was nice enough to introduce me to Bob Cousy. Cous and I have become phone pals. He is a man in his 90’s with a terrifically optimistic outlook on life who is terrific at offering advice. He told me he gets together for regular Thursday night dinners with another Celtics great, John Havlicek, so I pitched them on letting me eavesdrop on their conversation and they bought it.

I was absolutely stunned when John died suddenly in April. You have to check the episode out to hear John talk about his little secret about how he snuck up on Philadelphia to create that iconic moment of “Havlicek stole the ball!” I also loved Cousy recounting Red Auerbach trying to find a pastrami on rye on a goodwill tour in Indonesia.

I realize that you have to be objective as a journalist, but you did mention the Yankees earlier. Are there particular sports teams that you root for?

Ed Henry: Oh I am not the least bit objective when it comes to sports! Grew up in New York and bleed Yankees blue. Plus the [New York] Giants and [New York] Knicks — but not much to get excited about there these days. My boss Jay Wallace roots for all the Boston teams so we have fun convos. One of his sons came to the studios for the take your kids to work day and he was wearing a Celtics warmup. I was like, "Your Dad and I go back and forth on New York and Boston, do you realize your Dad grew up with heartbreak and now as a kid all you know is winning with the Red Sox and Patriots?" Best part was he just nodded calmly— and smiled — he knew oh he knew.

But I am feeling good that if the Yankees continue to survive these injuries, when Aaron Judge and the rest come back we will be on fire. Brian Cashman is hands-down the best executive in sports — but yes I am “biased” on this!

What was the last live sporting event you attended?

Ed Henry: I was sitting behind home plate at Yankee Stadium for a win versus KC — which unfortunately meant I had an up close look at Judge pulling his oblique muscle. UGH...

Your list of credits in many ways is a "who's who" when it comes to who you have interviewed. But are there particular athletes that are on your "wishlist" for future interviews?

Ed Henry: This is not original I suppose but top on the list has to be Tiger Woods. I was at a lunch with him a year ago, when another Masters victory was a pipe dream. I was impressed with his humble approach and when I asked what was the toughest part of the comeback at that point he was blunt: “I’m putting for (bleep)!” And when I asked how he was trying to reverse that he didn’t blink — answering that he was putting THREE HOURS A DAY. I think we all take for granted how hard the great ones WORK to stay great — or in his case to become great again. 

And based on everything I have already said, this may seem odd, but this New York guy interviewing Tom Brady or Bill Belichick would be gold for Front Row Seat. When it comes to Brady, I have nothing but respect for an athlete who was low on the draft board and proved everyone wrong through hard work. And he has only gotten better with age, again proven the detractors wrong. When it comes to Belichick, I interviewed his friend Tony LaRussa for Front Row Seat and Tony showed us this great impersonation of the monosyllabic Bill press conferences. I am going to call Tony to see if he can get me to Belichick — his conversation with Bill Parcells for the ESPN's 30 For 30 was so good I must have watched it three or four times on my iPad.

42 Faith promotion aside, what are you currently working on?

Ed Henry: I desperately want to write the definitive book about the Yankees. But I am still working on two things. The precise angle that will make it stand out like the Jackie book was a little different from what came before. And I need access to Cashman — nobody has stayed at the top in a high-pressure position like that for a couple of decades. There has to be a hell of a story in there. Did I suck up to him enough in the previous answer? (laughs)

Finally, Ed, any last words for the kids?

Ed Henry: We hear so much about the new generations are coddled, so I hope they read about Jackie to understand the sacrifices he made for people of all races, not just African-Americans. Yes, we still need to make more progress in America, but researching Jackie’s life so closely, I also realize how far we have come.

And do not just sit around and whine — work hard and do your part to shape your own destiny instead of sitting back expecting things to come to you. I think one of Jackie’s black teammates, Don Newcombe, put it real well when he said of the discrimination they face: “I am still bitter to a large degree, but then I think about what Jackie once told me: ‘You’ve got to change one letter in that word. Change the ‘i’ to an ‘e’. Forget about bitter. Try to make things better.’”

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