"American Football" Fans Speak Out - Musician Jim Pepe
Musician and high-power vocalist JIM PEPE is uniquely qualified to talk about the great game known as American Football - and professional sports overall - for two main reasons. First, as the son of renowned sportswriter Phil Pepe he had a front row seat on the scene especially as it unfolded in the New York tri-state market in the 70s and 80s. Second, Jim himself was a gifted and determined athlete who excelled on the gridiron for the Division 1 South Carolina Gamecocks as they took on many of the legendary giants of the day. We were thrilled to get a few minutes to talk with Jim about all of this and to get an update on his music and future plans.
GG: Hey Jim - you came of age in 70's in the New York market as the son of a famous sportswriter long before sports became the "big" business it is today. Sure, team branding was well in effect and life-long fans were being developed in the days prior to ESPN and the social media revolution. But for you, the idea of professional athletics must have taken on a much more personal meaning seeing that it helped keep a roof over your head?
JP: Regarding sports in the 70s and my perspective, at the time and at that young age, I didn't think much at all about the business of sports. I was just caught up in the fanfare and probably took a bit for granted the uncommon access I had to these star as well as rank and file type athletes. While I was as starstruck as any young kid might be, answering a phone call to my home from Muhammad Ali or Pete Rose, it was normalcy for the most part, although meeting in person an athlete of Ali's stature privately in his private room at Deer Lake, PA, training facility always felt otherworldly.
GG: Many would cite yours as a dream upbringing as you were afforded the opportunity to encounter many stars of the day in sports and beyond. What athletes that you met had the greatest impact on you and why? And, were you able to acquire any memorabilia due to your close proximity to the source?
JP: I was mostly a modest and fairly passive collector of sports artifacts. One item I cherished and from a player who had an impact on me was the catcher's mitt my Dad received as a gift from Yankee captain Thurman Munson, who learned I was playing catcher in Little League and offered to my Dad as a birthday gift for me. I was awestruck by the glove and the kindness, all of which took on deeper meaning when he died tragically mid-season. He was a genuine, humble, real guy whom I met only once prior, at a KFC in Ft. Lauderdale when most of my family walked in to find Thurm eating alone after a Grapefruit League game. He was sad and frustrated because fans had just made a big deal of him eating at a KFC. He was disappointed in their reaction, and just wanted to be treated as a guy who was hungry and wanted some chicken so what's the big deal? A bit detached from reality but in an innocent, genuine way. His frustration was palpable and even as a 10 year old, that resonated with me.
Muhammad Ali as I mentioned earlier is another and I do feel truly blessed to have met him and again, he of any and all celebrities I've met whether as a kid or in my adult life as a talent agent at William Morris Endeavor, stands out as a unique treasure.
GG: It has always seemed to me that tackle football lagged behind the other sports in establishing a global presence. Have you followed the game at all beyond the borders of the U.S.A. and do you think international players will be able to make a bigger impact in established leagues as the years go by?
JP: I absolutely believe international players will continue to contribute and increasingly so. Dozens of sub-Saharan African nationals, and in particular Nigerians, have made NFL rosters over the last couple decades and it's an upward trend.
I expect Nigeria to continue expanding its placement of non-kicker position players on NFL rosters beyond the current dozen or so.
Another Way by Jim Pepe.
GG: Now, I need to be honest. The current incarnation of the Covid-impacted NFL and all of sports really isn't doing it for me - mainly because of the lack of fans in the stands. In addition to all of your many talents you were an exceptional athlete and you were able to experience the excitement of college football when you suited up for South Carolina. How important was that intangible element of an intense and participatory crowd to the performance on the field? I have to imagine current pro players are feeling some sort of let down due to the pandemic induced restrictions.
JP: As for pandemic restrictions, in my opinion beyond the initial discomfort of playing to cardboard cutouts, most of it is overblown except in a few key game moments (for example, goal line stand with deafening crowd noise in favor of host team on defense, etc).
My assumption having played at South Carolina in front of 76,000 and also intrasquad scrimmages in front of nearly nobody is these games resemble practice. When Bill Belichick was asked what the empty stadium experience felt like, his curt reply was "Practice." Makes sense. All these guys are pros and regardless of crowd or lack thereof it's all about execution.
GG: You have spent the last several years of your life living and working in two major NFL markets - Miami in the AFC and New Orleans in the NFC. Was this by design? And, can you compare the two locales in terms of how they support their teams.
JP: Concerning Miami and New Orleans, each move was for different reasons and completely removed from anything to do with football or any sport for that matter.
South Florida, where I'd spent some time in my youth each Winter (during Yankee Spring trainings in Fort Lauderdale) and later professionally pre-music when I ran the NYC office of a Miami Beach-based modeling agency, appealed to me for a few reasons.
First, I detest long winters and second, I was looking for a place to decompress after a grueling month-long tour fronting East Coast hardcore punk band Reagan Youth on their 2011 West Coast tour. That gig was wild, especially given I'm not much into the punk ethos nor was I even too familiar with RY's catalog, but I'm a quick study, they were in a pinch and needed a frontman fast. A brief Miami Beach vacation earlier that year kept it on my radar and after consulting a close friend who'd moved there years prior, it made sense to resettle there. RY invited me back for a couple more brief tours but by 2013 that commute of sorts wasn't going to work so I stepped down.
My New Orleans move was made with the specific intention of resisting a return to the corporate world by auditioning for and landing the frontman role for an established band with a residency gig at a Bourbon Street music club. I got that gig and moved to Nola to pursue a full time, gainful professional music career long term for the first time. I eventually switched bands and residency gigs but it was a fun run until pandemic shut everything down beginning mid-March.
I've always been a sports fan and reasonably knowledgeable one at that, so I did become a casual fan in both cities of the local teams, including the Marlins, Dolphins, Heat, Saints and Pelicans, but remained true to my favorites, the Yankees and Kansas City Chiefs. The latter sure paid off this year, finally!
As for comparisons, the Heat were in the midst of their great run with LBJ and D Wade, so that was a fun time and their fans were enormously supportive - and arrogant. It felt a bit superficial and that they only show up for a winner, since the Marlins and Dolphins, both struggling mightily in that span, were barely an after-thought. New Orleanians, they are true blue fans with deep emotional investment in their teams, especially the Saints, but they are also somewhat easily rattled given the many disappointments through the years. But it makes sense to me, because New Orleanians have soul, their music has soul, their food has soul, their way of life is deeply soulful and that manifests in their die-hard support. Miami? Not so much from what I've seen, but who cares let's go to the beach! Ha, that's the attitude.
Btw despite all that I always thought David Beckham's Miami soccer team should be called the Miami Sol. They should pay me a million bucks for that perfect name!
GG: What is the most amazing memory you have from watching football or attending a game live in person?
JP: My most amazing football memory has to be playing big bad Nebraska my junior year in Columbia, SC. We were a huge underdog to the #2 ranked Cornhuskers, but it was 100+ degrees on the field and we battled with them, leading most of the second half until blowing it late and losing 27-24. I was named Special Teams Player Of The Week, making the opening kickoff tackle on Terry Rodgers, son of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny, and also saving a sure TD on another kickoff by scuttling a cross the field lateral from the one returner to the other by not breaking contain and assisting on the tackle.
GG: As a Division 1 athlete and now a performer with a particularly grueling gig as lead singer and more for The Tonix at Famous Door on Bourbon Street - have you found that there are any similarities in your preparation to take the field or climb the stage?
JP: It's funny you ask about show prep vs game prep because they absolutely compare similarly, especially with the grueling Bourbon Street music club schedule, where we do up to 8 sets of 45 minutes each. Usually, we have 2 lead singers, but on occasion I've done 6 sets as the only singer, so physical endurance is essential, which means getting plenty of rest, keeping in aerobic shape and in overall good condition.
Distinct similarities beyond the above include, for me at least, keeping a specific routine for each gig and feeling the adrenaline butterflies pre-show. I've always considered a gig day to be akin to game day on so many levels. The real adrenaline kicks in as the gig begins and, naturally, doesn't wear off until well after the show.
GG: The NFL has its Lions, Bengals, Panthers and Jaguars. You are quoted on social media as saying you are now are your fifth life - presumably a feline themed reference to a cat's mythical nine lives. So, what's next for Jim Pepe?
JP: In addition to writing and developing a script on a New Orleans boxer, I'm exploring development of a multi-media CGI and a/v studio here. The focus is on original content I'm creating as well as third party content.
Musically, I'm starting a new music project called Alterna, on the anthology of alternative rock. I'm real excited about both projects. I can feel the adrenaline butterflies developing!
Jim Pepe fronts Reagan Youth @ The Gilman 9-3-11.
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