By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Bud Morgan, a producer for ESPN, told the players in his class that too many football players transitioning into broadcasting are hesitant to cite their own careers when talking on television.
"You don't want to come off as self-aggrandizing," Morgan said. "But that's why you were hired."
At times, the messages seemed to conflict. In one session, Wilcots, while encouraging the players to trim their thoughts into three quick "bullet" points, told them their first should always be "a grabber."
"You hear a show where a guy says something and someone else says, 'Oh, he's just trying to get attention,' " Wilcots said. "Well, it works. No one wants to hear, 'Oh, I don't know.' Make sure you get their attention."
In a different session, Jaworski warned against saying anything too strong or too outlandish.
"There are guys who have done that," he said. "But eventually they can't walk into a locker room. When they do, some guys say, 'He just wants to make a name for himself with his bold statements.' You lose your credibility."
In the end, one of the biggest conflicts for the players remained just that: How is it possible to attack one of their own? It went against their very culture.
"When you're a player and you criticize another player that's the worst thing you can do," Wynn said at one point between sessions. "When someone who never played the game does it, players don't think anything about it. That person just doesn't know. But when a player does it about another player, that's different."
The boot camp's directors came up with a list of sizzling topics to discuss during the studio shot. They were the kinds of subjects most athletes would rather avoid: Terrell Owens, players and guns, Brett Favre. Each player was assigned a topic to talk about on camera.
Wynn drew Matt Cassel: Will Kansas City Chiefs fans be happy with their new quarterback?
It was less contentious than many of the other subjects, but also one with which Wynn was not familiar. He was a defensive end who had played in the NFC the past several seasons. Cassel was a quarterback in New England, who played only last season. He had barely seen Cassel play. The camp's directors had given the players newspaper articles about each topic that would be discussed, and Wynn had read them the night before. But the articles didn't give much. He was going to have to be on air soon, who knew something about Cassel?
Then Wynn spotted Brady, a friend and former teammate in Jacksonville, who had played with Cassel for two years in New England. He asked Brady what he knew. Brady knew a lot: Cassel worked very hard with the Patriots, players respected him, liked him, thought of him as a leader. He would be great in Kansas City. Wynn nodded. He could remember that.
When it was his time, he walked up to the NFL Network set that sat in the middle of the room. Sitting there was Curt Menefee, the host of Fox's Sunday pregame show. Menefee introduced the segment. A taped breakdown of Cassel's game was played on television. Wynn flubbed his first take a few words in, stopped and asked to start again. The next time, he sailed through save for one significant glitch: He began every answer with the phrase "I'll tell you what."
Sitting near the set, ESPN's Morgan shook his head. The "I'll tell you what's" were distracting, an awkward cliche and really just a chance to get the brain started. Instead of saying, "I'll tell you what," Morgan suggested that Wynn pause for a moment. Wynn nodded.
His final take was flawless.
Afterward Brian Baldinger, an NFL Network analyst, who was also watching, praised Wynn for his presence and the way he used his voice. He was harsher about the tidbits Wynn had used from Brady, saying they were too superficial and didn't offer enough.
"Give me some reason why the Chiefs' fans should be excited," Baldinger said.
Morgan, however, who had been hard on other players, was not nearly so with Wynn. He praised him for seeking out Brady and asking him for his opinions. The instructors had been talking all day about using contacts to help you; Wynn showed he had been listening.
Later, there would be more positive signs. Molly Solomon, the managing director of NBC Sports, sought him out after a session to tell him how lucky he was to be in a city as important as Washington. She said she looked forward to seeing his tape. Bill Brown, a senior producer at Fox, teased him about being a Notre Dame graduate and told him to get Solomon to put him on NBC's Notre Dame telecasts. Everybody laughed.
But it was a connection, one that suddenly put Wynn somewhere few aspiring broadcasters get to be at this stage: in the memory of some of the industry's most powerful people.
Wynn, who had considered broadcasting an option only after the recent urging of several sportswriters who had worked with him on television, suddenly had the buds of a promising career.
"I love it," he said.
Then he paused.
"I guess it's really up to me now," he said. "Today showed me a unique opportunity, and it's a matter of where I go from here."