Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Turning Backtime: The Road Not Taken

Above is the most famous sports broadcast team in history. Eighteen years ago, I worked one game as their stat guy in the booth at Skydome in Toronto for a preseason game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills.

Long before Backtime's Executive Editor was a "full-time decision maker," the gig represented the first real career choice I ever had to make.


I had grown up as an unparalleled sports fan, and a full-time gig at ESPN had been beyond my wildest dreams until I got it. Then I was introduced to overnight clip sessions, office politics, and The X-Games.

Don't get me wrong, I was doing well at 26 years old as an associate producer on a pet project like the inaugural X-Games. But the days were long and miserable. Newport, Rhode Island in June was a great place to be, but I got to enjoy none of it.

One miserable night (they all were) I returned to my hotel around Midnight, and the phone rang in my room - it was before most people had cell phones - so it wasn't all that unusual. What was unusual was who was on the other end, NFL on Fox producer Bob Stenner. He was calling from his summer home in Hawaii, so it wasn't even night where he was.

They had to fill their lead statistician position and he got my name from Pat Haden, whom I had worked with on radio, and had put me in the mix for a similar gig on TNT the year before. As it turned out I wasn't needed because Major League Baseball went on strike in 1994 and there were a flood of established guys available.

So that's how Stenner got my name. How he got my number at some rinky-dink hotel in Rhode Island is a mystery. I didn't ask, the butterflies in my stomach were fluttering.

Stenner offered me the opportunity to work with Pat & John. I would audition on a preseason game in Tornoto on August 12th, and if I met their approval I would stay on and do the season. Of course I said yes, but in the next 6 weeks I went back and forth on whether this was the right move.

It was a classic "short-term, long-term" dilemma. The NFL gig would give me a measure of status and a great note on my resume' (I was only 26), but it would derail my career goals in production. And from everything I had heard about John Madden, he wasn't about to stand for someone who was using their show as a stepping stone.

I decided to do the game. So I went to Toronto and I attended the production meeting, where I was introduced to Pat Summerall and John Madden. It might be the only production meeting in my career I didn't say a word in. Madden was abrasive (to put it kindly) with the underlings in the room and I wasn't looking to be roadkill on Day 1.

Several hours later, I was in the booth when the announcers arrived. Madden never made eye contact with me. Summerall, on the other hand, was a gentleman. We had one pre-game conversation as I stood side-by-side with him looking out to the field. I don't remember what we talked about - I was probably just thinking how cool it was that I was talking to Pat Summerall.

When the game began, the Bills sacked Troy Aikman on the second play from scrimmage. I held up a card I had ready - the Bills had 5 sacks in the first half of their last preseason game. I thought Pat & John would be so impressed with my preparation and timing. Instead, SWAT! Madden backhanded the index card right out of my hand. So that was my first on-air moment with those guys. It didn't look good. Though ask anyone who's worked with John Madden, and that outburst wasn't anything extraordinary.

As the game went on, things were better but pretty mundane. Madden referenced a few of my notes. Summerall gave me several very subtle nods of acknowledgment, just as elegant and understated as you would imagine.

But ultimately it was a 9-7 Bills win in a preseason game. Jim Kelly took 9 snaps. Aikman and Emmitt Smith only played a quarter. There was no chance for me shine.

Even at a young age, I was able to step back after the fact and weight the pros and cons. Ultimately there was only one positive about the gig: I would be on the signature NFL broadcast every week.

There were too many minuses. ESPN was at war with Fox after they had come on the scene just a year earlier and poached some big-time people. I wasn't big-time, but I would be joining the enemy. And being a stat guy would be a step backwards if I really wanted to be a producer. And John Madden was a dick who might take the joy out of my job, or simply pull the plug on me at a moment's notice.

I got back home on Monday and called Stenner. Even though my audition went fairly well, my mind had been made up. I quit even before I could get fired, though I was honored to be considered in the first place.

My phone rang the next day, it was a producer from NBC offering me the rest of the season as an associate producer on baseball. I worked the National League Pennant race and ultimately the 1995 NLCS. The Braves swept the Reds and headed onto their only World Series title.

As for me, I left ESPN but continue in a freelance role to this day. I produced my first game in December 1996. But my career and my life could have turned out very differently if I'd followed the stars in my eyes.

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