So here I was, after watching the Chiefs dismantle the Texans, looking forward to following the first Sunday of the NFL season.
I had the luxury of a week off from my Fox broadcasting duties before I would begin a string of three straight games.
Then things changed in a hurry.
A call from my superiors advised me to be on the alert to be a late replacement for Kenny Albert who was scheduled to be at the mike for the Bears-Lions season opener in Detroit.
There was a problem regarding Kenny’s return to the U.S. during this pandemic, after working many NHL playoff games in hockey’s version of the “bubble” in Edmonton, Canada.
I would know Friday, just two days before the game.
On Friday afternoon I learned I would be heading to the Motor City for sure.
That’s when the fun began.
Never, in all my 50-plus years in network sports had I ever been in this spot.
Normally, all of us who do what we do begin to really focus in on our preparations for an upcoming game on the Monday leading up to Sunday’s contest.
We don’t spend most of each day getting ready, but we slowly get up to speed on the teams we will have.
We view their previous outing, read the newspaper clips from the two cities, and anything else that might help us “get to know” the teams better.
We receive game releases from the clubs which have everything you need
to know. They run anywhere from 25-75 pages.
The whole thing is a process.
You pick up speed as the week progresses and there are the zoom interviews with coaches and players toward the end of the week.
You arrive at the site of the game on Friday, gather with the production crew, numbering about six people, and have a relaxing dinner.
Saturday is a full workday, in the hotel meeting room, where everything is tied together. The day is capped by a production meeting in the evening, where all the graphics (what you read on the screen), and roll-ins (the taped flashbacks of significant plays from previous games), that might be used to advance the stories that help round-out the broadcast. We have our dinner in the meeting room.
Sunday is game day, we arrive about two-and-a-half hours before kickoff and we’re ready to go.
I detailed our routine here, just in case there are those who think we fly to a game the day before and let it rip.
But here I was, assigned to an NFL game, with a production team I wasn’t familiar with, and a partner, Jonathan Vilma, a promising talent new to Fox Sports, but one who had never broadcast a game. Vilma had been an outstanding studio analyst with ESPN, but working a game is a totally different animal.
I had worked with newcomers before, in fact, had mentored virtually everyone of our Fox NFL expert-analysts, and my bosses knew I could help Vilma get started.
But it was Friday afternoon, and I had a few challenges before I could get to the broadcast booth on Sunday and do a game and help a new partner, even if it was for only one week.
First things first. Fox travel had to get me to Detroit. I would fly from Phoenix, departing at 6:00am on Saturday.
But before that, I would have to get caught up.
That extensive task, which I loved doing,by the way, began as soon as I was assigned.
I printed out stories from the past few days and was faxed the team rosters,
including depth charts of position rankings, as well as the correct pronunciations of player names.
I looked up other information on the Lions and the Bears and used every minute of the flight getting a handle on the teams.
People always ask about having statistics, but that’s a low priority for me. The graphics during the telecast is the best way to convey significant stats.
Don’t forget, all this was being carried out on week one of a season that would be dramatically different than any other due to COVID-19.
I arrived Saturday afternoon and met with the producer, who I had worked with before, the director, our sideline reporter, and of course, Jonathan Vilma.
With Jonathan Vilma
Who are these masked men?
It was a smooth discussion.
At the same time, I had to arrange to have my charts put together for my spotter on the actual broadcast.
All football announcers have spotters who back us up in identifying who made the plays on both sides of the ball, including substitutions, injuries etc.
They are invaluable at times.
We travel our own, but in this case, I would use Kenny Albert’s spotter.
No time to do anything else.
Before our Saturdays production meeting, I was tested for COVID by a medical group on hand in an adjoining room. All clear.
The one thing I wanted to impress on my rookie partner was that he would have the freedom and room to comment on anything he wanted during the game without worrying about whether he was infringing on my time to talk.
My job was to call the play, his was to react to anything in the game.
He played and spent years down on the field. Viewers would want to hear his expertise.
This would be a different setup in the broadcast booth than ever imagined.
We would be separated a lot more than usual, and plexiglass would be set up between us as well.
It was sparse.
But the show must go on, and viewers at home could care less about our limitations.
They wanted to see a football game and enjoy the telecast.
There would be no fans inside Ford Field. Crowd noise would be pumped in so there wouldn’t be total silence on the field.
Our broadcast would have crowd noise as well, to attempt to create a normal atmosphere. Not to be overpowering, but to be a presence.
For this game only on Fox, there were virtual fans, digitally created to make it appear there were people in the seats.
We never mentioned that fact during the broadcast, just let it happen.
Then there was the game.
I have heard and read that announcers could feel the “emptiness” of the stadium during the game.
The fact is, I did not.
For some reason, I was concentrating so much on the play, that I was never aware of the lack of fans.
I didn’t expect that to be the case, but that was my reaction.
But I was aware of the distance between myself and my partner.
Usually we are right next to each other and communicate easily by a look or by a touch.
On the field, the game started slowly, picked up steam, and ended in dramatic fashion.
It was no ordinary opener.
Both the Bears and the Lions had something to prove. Even in this first game.
The Bears, who were an impressive team two seasons ago and reached the playoffs only to lose, after a 12-4 division title had slumped badly last year.
Their highly-drafted quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, had not delivered, and was challenged by a high-priced free agent pickup, Nick Foles.
The Lions, who hired former Patriot defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in 2018, to reverse their fortunes, had yet to do so.
The Lions plummeted to a 3-12-1 record in 2019, after winning only six games in Patricia’s first season.
This year would be the moment of truth for Detroit.
Trubisky won the QB battle over Foles in camp and had to prove he could be the Bears franchise quarterback.
Their offense was unproductive.
For Chicago, it was now or never.
The Lions controlled the game for the first three quarters.
The Bears were inept, not only on the attack, which was the fear in the Windy City, but on defense, which had been a tremendous strength.
The Lions led 23-6 going into the fourth quarter.
But it was no time for the Detroiters to get comfortable.
In the past two seasons, they had blown fourth quarter leads at an alarming rate.
Would it happen again?
The Bears, who had virtually been sound asleep, woke up.
Their defense found a pass rush and made things difficult for the Lions outstanding QB Matthew Stafford.
A key Bears interception, along with mistakes, penalties and sloppy play by the Lions changed the game’s momentum.
More important, Trubisky came alive, and delivered three touchdown passes to vault the Bears into the lead 27-23, in the late stages.
The Lions, needing a TD to win, thought they had it in the final seconds.
But Stafford’s pass to rookie running back D’Andre Swift was dropped in the end zone.
An incomplete end-zone pass was the final play.
The Bears had rallied to survive.
The Lions, once again, squandered a fourth quarter lead, and lost.
It was a truly exciting game to broadcast as the game advanced.
I thought Jonathan Vilma was outstanding in his debut.
He was able to do, what few analysts accomplish.
Looking ahead and speculating on what both teams might be thinking about. He put the viewer into the huddle.
He and Kenny Albert will make a superb team. Albert has been a standout play-by-play man for years.
As for this reporter, it was a hectic, unexpected and rewarding first week of the NFL season.
The support I had from the production team was in my view, it was so rewarding.
One minute I was relaxing, and anticipating the start of the football season, ready to watch several games.
The next minute I was scrambling to get so much accomplished in so little time.
In all my years in broadcasting, it was one experience I’ll never forget.