Paul Needell, a former beat writer and NFL columnist for nearly 25 years in New York, died Saturday after a long illness. He was 57.
Needell made his name at the New York Daily News, covering the New York Jets from 1983 to 1996. In 1996, Needell left the Daily News to cover the NFL for Star-Ledger of Newark, where he worked until 2010.
At the Daily News, Needell chronicled one of the most colorful eras in Jets history, bringing the personalities and inner workings of the team to his readers every morning in the pre-Internet age.
He was well-respected for his reporting skills in a competitive market, but what separated Needell was his ability to humanize the people he covered, according to former Jets and team officials.
“The sports writing business lost a great one,” former Jets defensive end Jeff Lageman said Saturday night.
“I always had tremendous respect for Paul,” Lageman added. “I mean, he was just a great guy. I can’t remember ever having a conversation with him where he didn’t say, ‘How are you doing?’ He always asked non-football questions. He cared about you as a person, not just a player. Pretty special guy.”
Needell started on the Jets’ beat the same year they drafted quarterback Ken O’Brien. They hit it off instantly.
“He always took the personal side into consideration,” O’Brien recalled. “He was never consumed with X's and O's. To me, he always saw the big picture. We had a great relationship, and I knew I could trust him. He was a friend. We had that bond.”
In '83, Needell befriended a Jets public-relations intern named Roger Goodell, and they became lifelong friends. A few years back, Goodell organized a tribute for Needell at the NFL offices, where about 100 family members, journalists and league officials turned out. The event included a touching speech by the commissioner. Because of his illness, Needell was unable to attend, but he listened via speaker phone and responded with a hilarious acceptance speech -- an example of his unbreakable spirit.
"In a 'Tale of the Tape,' I was taller than NFL writer Paul Needell, but he was helluva lot tougher...especially in recent years. R.I.P," tweeted Joe Browne, the senior adviser to the commissioner.
Former longtime Jets public relations director Frank Ramos said Needell was “very fair” in his reporting, always giving the organization a chance to give its side on a particular story.
“He earned people’s trust and respect,” Ramos said. “That’s why people gave him information. … He was so well-liked by people in the building and respected by the coaches.”
Needell, born in Brooklyn, attended Midwood High School and graduated from Stony Brook University in 1978. He landed his dream job out of college, working as a copy boy for the Daily News.
He quickly worked his way up to a professional beat, covering the New York Cosmos and New Jersey Nets. In 1983, he was bumped up to the Jets’ beat.
One of Needell’s most memorable stories was printed by the Daily News in 1995, entitled, “Confessions of a Jets Beat Writer.”
He wrote: “The wins and losses never much matter to me. The personalities and stories keep you going, even when friends wonder how many more seasons you can stomach covering an awful football team. But for me, it's not about championships. It's about observing human reactions in good times and bad.”
Needell, who lived in Rockville Centre, New York, is survived by his wife, Cathy, their three children, Eric, Evan and Alex; and his parents, Martin and Marcia Needell of Brooklyn. Funeral arrangements are pending.