Aging NFL Players Attempt to Transition to Television at NFL's Broadcast Boot Camp
Saturday, June 27, 2009
MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. The room, unlike most television studios, was not kept at a glacial temperature. And so, under the blaze of television lights on a Tuesday afternoon, Washington Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn sat baking in a suit, feeling an anxiety he knew only from football Sundays.
"It's like before a game when you have those pregame jitters," he said.
His nervousness surprised him. He had been in studios dozens of times, a regular on so many cable sports shows that the whole process of makeup and wardrobe and finding the camera with the shining red light had become almost routine. And those were shows that were actually on television. They were real. This was practice, a simple exercise at a broadcasting clinic put on by the NFL, just a couple minutes long, the kind of quick-paced banter about football that has come to populate our television sets daily.
And yet there was a dread that filled the studio Tuesday, in part because nothing Wynn had ever done on television mattered as much as this taping. Before, television had been done for fun, without expectations. But now this one tape he made, this practice test, would be reviewed by executives from Fox, NBC and the NFL Network. While it was all a lesson, there was also a sense at this three-day class the NFL calls "Broadcast Boot Camp" that impressions would be made, second careers could be born or broken.
Wynn, entering his 13th NFL season, isn't even sure he wants to be in television when football is done. But he isn't ready to learn that it's something he can't do, either.
The producer's fingers counted down. The camera's light went on. Wynn took a deep breath, crossed his hands on the set and smiled at his host.
For hours, Wynn and 23 other current or freshly retired players had undergone a steady stripping of everything they once knew, pulling them from the warm cocoon of the athlete's privilege into an unfamiliar world they don't trust by nature.
"Players think of the media as the enemy," said one of the boot camp's instructors, Ross Tucker, a former offensive linemen for the Redskins who now writes for SI.com and hosts a football talk show on Sirius radio. "I still have trouble with that, and I'm full-blown media. The reason players hate the media is that you have a guy who just screwed up and you guys all run over there to talk to him. It's like vultures."
But with retirement facing the 24 players, they made the decision to at least contemplate something many of them have scorned: a media career. One, former wide receiver J.J. Stokes, flew on a red-eye to make the camp. In a series of classroom sessions taught by broadcasters and network officials, the players were encouraged to have opinions. Don't be afraid to criticize, but when you do, make sure you can support your position. And the only way to do that is to research.
Ron Jaworski, the Monday Night Football analyst, held up a copy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' playbook from last season, a bound volume about two inches thick, and said it was given to him by his new broadcast partner, Jon Gruden. The former Tampa Bay coach simply wanted Jaworski to better understand the West Coast offense, which so many coaches -- including Gruden -- operate. Jaworski encouraged the players to be equally as resourceful.
But aside from watching tape, the gathering of information does not come naturally to most players. They are not accustomed to pumping teammates for nuggets they will then use on the air -- almost as if doing so would be a betrayal of trust. At one point, Kyle Brady, the recently retired tight end, suggested to an instructor, Solomon Wilcots of the NFL Network, that he didn't think his old football stories would be interesting to the general public. Wilcots laughed.
"If you say, 'I remember when . . . you've got 'em.' " Wilcots said.