When I first learned my inimitable colleague Jori Epstein had been selected as the 2022 winner of the Professional Football Writers of America’s Terez A. Paylor Emerging Writer Award, my visceral reaction was unrestrained glee that she and her work were being so prominently recognized by her peers – and in conjunction with someone as widely respected as Terez was.
Yet it only took one reflective moment to think my PFWA associates – through no fault of their own – were having a Captain Obvious, sky is blue moment.
After all, Jori’s no “emerging writer.”
Much as I might suspect it, I can not prove she was a fully formed baller of a beat reporter from the day she took her first breath. But she’s been every bit a Pro Bowler since the day she joined USA TODAY Sports in 2018, primarily to cover what’s probably the NFL’s most competitive beat: the Dallas Cowboys.
Jori’s transition from the Dallas Morning News ‘night desk was as seamless and impactful as a certain fourth-round pick from Mississippi State when he replaced Tony Romo as the Cowboys’ QB1 – so much so that Dak Prescott himself provided Jori a heartfelt video, congratulating her for being the second recipient of the Paylor Award. (That alone is telling insight into both Jori and Prescott.)
But he knows. Jori has written about one of the league’s biggest stars comprehensively and fairly – whether detailing Prescott’s successes between the lines, his gruesome leg injury in 2020 and subsequent comeback, the tragedies he’s dealt with off the field, his long-awaited contract extension, the deal to be Jordan Brand’s NFL quarterbacking ambassador and even the failure and postgame controversy that came with last season’s playoff loss to the 49ers – often with exclusive access.
And, yes, it’s a prerequisite to bird-dog the quarterback when you cover an NFL team – and most certainly Prescott’s Cowboys. Yet Jori has a gift for crafting insightful and even fun stories off Dallas’ beaten path – and, again, it’s quite a challenge to blaze trails when you’re assigned to America’s Team.
Yet she managed to find a lighter – and viral – side to cornerback Chidobe Awuzie’s randomly mandated drug test in 2019. A year later, she navigated the opposite end of the emotional spectrum as the Cowboys endured the death of strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul, who Jori would circle back to exquisitely profile anew in 2021.
“From Day 1, Jori brought enthusiasm, fearlessness and professionalism,” said Tom O’Toole, her first boss at USA TODAY. “She is not intimidated by the spotlight or the big events. Best of all, you can tell she has fun doing the work.”
Naturally, she shifts seamlessly to covering other teams – while drilling down on the Cowboys following their annual ouster – Super Bowls and important league news beyond the Lone Star State. Two of my favorite Epstein specials were last year piece about women working as NFL scouts and last week’s story exploring the professional union of agent Nicole Lynn, who is Black, and Patriots rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe, who’s white.
And it’s not all football, folks.
Her 2020 reporting revealed a culture of abuse surrounding Texas Tech’s women’s basketball program – and the Red Raiders wasted no time firing their coach after Jori’s story dropped.
Fully emerged. Definitely.
Jori unfailingly churns out great stuff – yet just spotlighting the work of a consummate pro is frankly a miscarriage of justice if you’re looking at the Fathead version of the Epstein aura.
Even in a 2,000-word feature, she painstakingly chooses every word and phrase – not only for storytelling impact but also her unwavering mindfulness for fairness to her subjects. She’ll talk on the phone until 2 am, seeking more details about the history of the Air Jordans that might grace Prescott’s feet that week … perhaps after meandering into a discussion about politics or race … or a nerdy detour into components of the ultraviolet spectrum … or maybe she’ll just want to see new pictures of your kids … even if it means her self-assigned “deadline” floats to 4 am once she circles back to the topic du jour.
The writing reflects her empathy. Her obsessive desire for detail further distinguishes her, even if you can not fully appreciate it when reading her latest analysis of Dallas’ defense.
It’s truly encapsulated by her 2021 book “The Upstander,” which chronicles the journey of her late 94-year-old friend Max Glauben, a Holocaust survivor who asked Jori to be his biographer. She recounts Glauben’s trials and tribulations with extraordinary color and meticulously researched backdrops without dwelling on the more grisly aspects of the horrors he encountered as a boy in World War II Europe. It’s a powerful, educational snapshot of perhaps the most important event of the 20th century – while doubling as a loving tribute to Max.
While it seems an amazing feat that someone as young as Jori could produce such a tremendous work amid her first bookwriting attempt, that sentiment would sell her short.
“We’re so proud of her,” The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue, the initial recipient of the Paylor Award, said of Jori while referencing other women who cover the NFL and are part of a mutually supportive chat line.
“Jori’s probably one of the most driven individuals I’ve ever met in this field. … Our group text is just filled with notes about how deeply thoughtful she is.
“She’s an inspiration for people who are her friends and to people who are her colleagues.”
Paylor was also an inspiration to many, a truly gifted writer and football savant whose death at age 37 left a void in this industry. I did not know Terez well, but – being an admirer of his work – I made a point of meeting him at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis years ago. That conversation was enough to reveal why he was so beloved – and that was well before his premature passing.
I’m sure Terez would be tickled Jori is being lauded in his memory. I have no doubt she will treasure being honored in his name. I’m also completely confident she’ll pass this forward, answering every question and dispensing sage advice to the next generation of writers, who will doubtless seek her counsel. They’d definitely be the wiser for it.
A kind word, intentional nugget or even unsparing mentorship might be the spark that catalyzes another’s emergence … even if it always seemed like Jori Epstein never truly needed it herself.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter: @ByNateDavis:.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein wins PFWA’s Terez A. Paylor Award: