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As the NFL Playoffs kick off on Saturday, Sal Iacono — AKA Cousin Sal on Jimmy Kimmel Live! — is on a hot streak.
In addition to being Jimmy Kimmel’s sidekick who does hidden-camera pranks and other bits on air, and as a writer on the ABC show, the lifelong sports fanatic began doing NFL game picks this season on ESPN’s SportsCenter on Thursday or Friday evening each week.
His three weekly picks aren’t just about who will win, but rather which teams will beat the spread — the number of points professional gamblers say a team will win by. He also throws in a joke or two.
Over the past six weeks, by his count, he has been right 15 times and tied three times without a single miss. For the entire season, he says of his one-a-week Best Bets, he has 12 correct, three misses and one tie.
He picked the Minnesota Vikings to beat a hot Green Bay Packers team in week 12 and correctly picked the Packers to beat the powerhouse New England Patriots in week 13. In week 17, he picked the Kansas City Chiefs over the San Diego Chargers, which knocked them out of the playoffs.
By his reckoning, that means during this six-week hot streak he has beat the odds by something close to 20,000 to one.
How does he do it? “I can’t even explain why it’s happening,” admits Cousin Sal, adding: “I wrack my brain. I watch these sports talk shows and listen to the radio until 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning every night. And I can’t read enough about the games.”
Then a few hours before he does his four-minute bit on ESPN a producer will call for his choices so they can prepare the proper graphics.
“Then I throw my hands in the air and pick teams,” he says. “Its been working out. It’s mostly on a hunch, but it’s really been working out better than I could imagine.”
Cousin Sal, age 43, who also writes a weekly column with football picks (even which team will score the first field goal) for Grantland.com, has been betting on sports since he was 7. He remembers in the school yard he would flip baseball cards with his pals to see if they landed on the correct side — thus winning the cards. “I always loved football,” he says, “but I loved gambling even more.”
He is still betting, now legally he says, adding, “I usually lose.”
But he won’t bet on any of this TV picks. “I know as soon as I put even a dollar on one of those TV games, it’s all going to fall apart. It’s a weird situation I’ve gotten myself into.”
A Brooklyn native, he is a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, but so far this season he hasn’t picked the Cowboys on ESPN. He says now that they are in the playoffs, that may change. But he still doesn’t think they will make it to the Super Bowl.
Cousin Sal’s pick for the big game on Feb. 2? “I think Seattle beats New England in a close Super Bowl,” he says. “That could change depending on how much I have on it at the time.”
Cousin Sal’s father and Kimmel’s mother are brother and sister; and he and the comedian have remained friends since childhood.
When Kimmel set off for a career in radio and then TV; Cousin Sal went to law school near his home after playing high school football (“They called me ‘Safety Sal, everybody’s pal”).
Read more The Best Television of 2014
“I did real estate law for a year and didn’t like it,” he recalls, so he walked away from the legal profession altogether.
By then Kimmel was on KROQ-FM in Los Angeles and was about to start work on the show Win Ben Stein’s Money. “He needed a writer,” Cousin Sal says, “and he was doing syndicated sports editorials on the radio that he wanted me to take over.”
So he sailed west, arriving in 1997. Two years later he met his wife while in Mexico attending a bachelor party for a pal of Kimmel’s. He married in 1999 and has two kids.
When he bets for himself — which he does regularly — he has an even wackier system.
“I like to go against the public,” he explains. “So if I see by Thursday that 75 percent of the people are betting one side, I’ll typically go the other way because I know Vegas isn’t built on people winning games when 90 percent are jumping on.”
On Sunday, Cousin Sal can be found with half a dozen or more pals in a “lounge” just outside Kimmel’s dressing room in the Hollywood studio where the daily show is shot. “We have five screens now,” he says. “I look at the games [on DirecTV] Sunday morning and pick which five are most interesting as a result of gambling or fantasy football or various pools were in.”
Kimmel rarely joins them because being there reminds him too much of what he does all week, says his cousin: “He ends up sitting down by his laptop and doing work on a Sunday.”
Until three years ago, Kimmel hosted a weekly party at his home to watch the games. But it got too messy, Cousin Sal says: “We’re a bunch of slobs and he started getting expensive stuff. There are only so many times you can see him in the corner upset one of our thuggish friends inadvertently was mashing Raisinets into one of his expensive rugs.”
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