About 90 minutes before the Wizards played the Magic last week, Steve Buckhantz tossed a thick stack of his game notes in front of Tiquan Underwood and Frankie Hammond. The two NFL wide receivers gawked as they flipped through the packet; “dang,” one said under his breath.
“These are my sheets for tonight’s game,” Buckhantz, the Wizards’ television voice, told the players. “And we do this for every game.”
“See, this is what I like to see — just how much work y’all put into it,” Underwood, a four-year NFL veteran, told Buckhantz. “Because normally you’re watching the show pre- and post-\game, and you’re like, man, I could do that, I could talk about sports. But y’all actually put in a lot of work that we really don’t know about.”
The receivers will at least have a better idea after spending three weeks doing externships with Comcast SportsNet, through a new offseason program organized by the NFL Players Association. The players union helped bring 14 players to the Washington area in mid-February to begin three-week placements with a variety of local companies, including CSN, ESPN 980, SB Nation, the University of Maryland, Under Armour, TV One, and the Congressional offices of U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) The players — who are living in corporate housing across the region — have been spending four days a week at these externships, and a fifth doing career training at the NFLPA’s offices.
“We started to talk to guys about getting more active during the offseason, to stimulate their minds, get experience away from the locker room and the facility, and we found out that a lot of people didn’t know where to start,” said Leslie Satchell, the NFLPA’s senior manager of player services and development, and the supervisor of this program. “To do shadowing programs for a day or two can be really surface, and we wanted guys to really get their hands dirty and see what it’s like to be in corporate America or the industry they want to be involved in, to get to know what the day-to-day is like.”
So the union relied on its local relationships to craft appropriate positions, and then reached out to teams and agents to try to fill these slots. Hammond found out about the program from a PR staffer with the Chiefs. Underwood, who played in Tampa Bay last season, found out from Terry Cousin, the Buccaneers’ director of player engagement. Underwood’s first child was born in January, but he still left home for three weeks of commuting on Metro from a downtown apartment to CSN’s Bethesda offices.
“This is for her, for my family, for my future, so it was an easy decision coming here,” Underwood said last week.
Underwood and Hammond were placed together at Comcast SportsNet, where they had a three-week crash course on regional sports networks. They spent time in department meetings and on the sets of nightly news shows and post-game studio broadcasts. They went to an industry conference at George Washington and sat in the hockey press box Sunday afternoon with CSN’s Jill Sorenson. And they shadowed the Wizards’ broadcast team on a game night, attending production meetings before Underwood donned headsets and joined Chenier and Buckhantz at their perch, while Hammond headed out to the production truck. (They will switch places Wednesday night.)
“We don’t get to see this part,” Hammond said during a break in the action. “We know there are cameras and guys on the sideline doing interviews and all that, but to see what goes into it, the preparation and how everything ties into each other is just a great experience, and something I can learn from and just keep adding on to when it’s time for me to get a job.”
Underwood, meanwhile, was wearing headphones over his distinctive hightop fade near the top of Verizon Center’s 100 level. He hadn’t heard of Buckhantz and Chenier before arriving in Washington, but he was already enthusiastic about their broadcast.
“You can just see what great chemistry they have, and what a great duo they are together; great guys to learn from for sure,” he said. “I know I can’t just jump into that; just listening in on it is good enough for me right now. But the reason I’m still in the league is because of hard work. Putting in that work to be a great analyst wouldn’t be anything new to me.”
And Buckhantz and Chenier — among the many industry professionals the players have met in town — both told the players to soak everything in.
“I was just telling these guys, it’s a great opportunity to get a head start into a field where you normally don’t get these kind of chances,” Buckhantz told me. “And with them getting exposure to this kind of communications, it’s gonna help them in their own locker room, and with the marketing of themselves. That’s something you can’t buy, really.”