Mark Bernstein gets some work done at Chestnut Hill Coffee Company. (Photo by Lane Blackmer)

by Lou Mancinelli

It turns out that fans owe the tradition of hot wings and Super Bowls to the Ivy League, where the rules of modern football, from yardage markers to the number of players on the field, were developed. The Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award, was named after John Heisman, who once coached at the University of Pennsylvania.

Twenty-year Mt. Airy resident, writer, historian, producer, cartoonist and former lawyer Mark Bernstein tells the story in “Football: The Ivy League Origins of An American Obsession” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

Bernstein, who turns 51 this month, worked as a lawyer in Philadelphia for six years before leaving his job at age 34 to shift careers and take his chances as an untrained writer. “I kind of realized I liked what I was doing at night a lot more,” said Bernstein, a 1979 Penn Charter graduate raised in East Falls about the writing hobby-turned craft he worked to refine at night.

Now a senior staff writer at the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW), where he has interviewed people like writer, humorist and National Public Radio host Joel Stein and two-time United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bernstein’s work has been published in the Wall Street Journal and The New Republic, among other national publications. He is the author of five books on politics and sports, and he co-produced a documentary about Ivy League football that aired on PBS in 2008.

Something about the high pressure of law and an urge to create first directed him towards the life of freelance writing. “It became pretty apparent that I just wasn’t cut out for it,” said Bernstein about life as a lawyer.

His wife Rebecca, a corporate lawyer, encouraged his literary leaning. “It’s a little bit scary to try and do it after putting all this time into law school,” he said about leaving his first career and dedicating himself to a new trade and new craft.

After all, Bernstein was heavily invested financially and had worked for a decade in the field before he left. A 1983 Princeton University graduate, the Mt. Airy resident worked on Capitol Hill for a few years before earning his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1989.

Nevertheless, a year into his new gig, Bernstein was approached by the director of the University of Pennsylvania Press, who needed a writer for a book about the history of Ivy League football. Two weeks earlier Bernstein had sold Penn’s alumni magazine a freelance piece about a football game played between Penn and Riverton Club of Princeton inside the Academy of the Arts on Broad Street in 1889, something he read about in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He took the job and was paid an advance, a privilege for an unknown, little-published writer.

Bernstein was not a complete neophyte as a writer. At the Virginia School of Law, for example, he was an editor of the law review, and he worked as a reporter for the Perryton Herald in Perryton, Texas. He was also a legislative aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and then-Rep. Dick Durbin of Illinois.

“Some of it’s been luck,” said Bernstein, a father of two girls who has worked as a writer full-time since 1997. His publishing career officially started two years in 1995 while he was still a lawyer, when he first sold sketches of his comic strip, “J.D.,” to a San Francisco legal newspaper. It ran until 2006, eventually being picked up by New York legal newspapers and others around the country.

“You could get all your frustrations out on paper … send them off to San Francisco,” said Bernstein about drafting the strip. But the relevancy of his jokes petered out the longer he stayed away from the office.

Bernstein said that as a writer he has more control over the course of his life than he did as a lawyer. “It seems that a lot of lawyers wish they were doing something else,” he said. “There’s an expression for it: ‘getting over the wall.’ I was one of the lucky ones in that respect, I guess.”

Bernstein began his freelance career by first writing pieces on speculation and sending them to editors, unsure if the work would ever be published. It was a risk. “The un-U.N.” was one of his early pieces published in 1996 in Philadelphia Magazine about how the United Nations headquarters was originally supposed to be built in Roxborough until the Rockefeller family stepped in and donated millions of dollars to have it built in New York City.

Bernstein chose to spend time researching stories that interested him, for weeks if necessary, figuring that a completed piece provided a better chance of attracting an editor than just an idea proposal. His strategy worked, and he sold more pieces about subjects that interested him. When generating new material, he searches or waits for anything that piques his interest. It might become the next book or article.

At present, for the Princeton alumni magazine he’s scheduled to fly to California to interview two producers of the Showtime series “Homeland” who are also Princeton alumni. Bernstein is also working on a non-fiction account based around the lighting of Manhattan in the nineteenth century.

“Everyone has this assumption that before electricity people used to sit around in the dark,” said Bernstein about the book, “but before that gasoline powered lights.”

He said it’s a story that needs to be told.

For more information, visit www.markfbernstein.com