By Buzz McClain
Sunday, January 23, 2011; W10
With the cameras rolling and the crew waiting patiently in the Los Angeles sunshine, John Brenkus, host of ESPN's "Sport Science," began to have second thoughts:
This is a bad idea.
Brenkus was standing on a football field behind Vernon Davis, tight end for the San Francisco 49ers. Davis, 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, was wearing a harness. Attached to the harness was a nine-foot tow rope. Attached to the tow rope was a handle.And attached to the handle were Brenkus's hands, sheathed in high-tech gloves.
The scripted experiment Brenkus was now rethinking was designed to see whether Davis was strong enough to, while sprinting, drag "the equivalent of the NFL's largest defender across the goal line for the ultimate touchdown." The 5-8, 160-pound Brenkus was standing in for the 360-pound defender. (The experiment would later be repeated with two people behind Davis.) Brenkus's crew of scientists and film technicians was ready to measure the force of Davis's power surge on takeoff.
Davis, whose nickname is Cyborg, faced the goal line 20 yards away, ready to blast off when given the signal. Brenkus, not so much. When he had met the imposing Davis, Brenkus thought: This guy is massive -- he probably ripples the air when he walks. Hey, that could be a good experiment. ...
The gloves Brenkus wore were slick with embedded sensors, something he hadn't counted on when devising the experiment. The slickness compelled him to grip the tow rope beyond the white-knuckle stage; if he let go, the gloves wouldn't record their data, and the entire enterprise would fall on its face.
Brenkus took a deep breath and gave the signal to go.
Davis's burst off the starting line accounted for a full 1,200 pounds of force. He charged the 20 yards without hesitation or interruption.
Brenkus flew four feet into the air, legs arching behind him, and crash-landed on his chin 12 feet from his starting point. Davis dragged Brenkus 15 yards on the artificial turf, shearing skin from the host's chin and forearms.
For the record, Brenkus accelerated from 0 to 15 mph in half a second, the equivalent of being pulled off a pier by a 500-horsepower speedboat at full throttle. It's all in the data.
And, yes, Vernon Davis could drag the NFL's biggest defender and then some.
For Brenkus, it was just another day at the office.
John Brenkus , 39, raised in Vienna, Va., talks and thinks in superlatives. The fastest! The hardest! The highest! Something has to be the best or the ultimate, or it doesn't get his attention. And it had better be measurable.
For three seasons, the first two as an hour-long show on Fox Sports Net, now as segments on ESPN, "Sport Science" has asked such nerve-testing, teeth-jarring questions as: Does an NFL linebacker pack as much force as a battering ram? Does being punched by a mixed martial arts fighter hurt more than being run into by a sumo wrestler? Can a man withstand a kick to the groin with the force of 1,100 pounds? (The answers, according to "Sport Science," are yes.) It was on Brenkus's show that then-Detroit Lions wide receiver Dennis Northcutt found himself in an inter-species footrace with Thelma the ostrich (the bird won).
It was Brenkus who helped demonstrate which squeezes harder, man or snake, pitting a nine-foot python's power against that of mixed martial arts star Fedor Emelianenko -- with Brenkus getting "choked out" (rendered unconscious) by Emelianenko as a preliminary. (For snake vs. man, Emelianenko was much stronger for the few moments he squeezed, but a python can choke at full strength for hours.)
And it was "Sport Science" that asserted that L.A. Lakers' star Kobe Bryant could have jumped over a speeding car coming at him, as depicted in a popular but faked viral video. Brenkus's test stuntman, Damion Poitier, succeeded.
The show uses biomechanical engineers, physicists and stunt coordinators to conceive, execute and measure experiments. Cynthia Bir, who teaches biomedical engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit, and Bassil Aish, a sports medicine physician from Huntington Beach, Calif., are regular cast members.
Not everyone is impressed with the science of "Sport Science." Rhett Allain, an associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, has criticized the show on Wired.com. Brenkus and crew sometimes "spin" the numbers to force a comparison between unrelated phenomena, such as speedy tackle Troy Polamalu and lightning, Allain says.
But hundreds of thousands of fans watch segments on YouTube (especially popular: "World Record Kick to the Groin"). In three years, "Sport Science" has won three Sports Emmy Awards (out of nine nominations) and made it to ESPN. The giant sports network drops three-minute "Sport Science" segments into a variety of scheduled programs, including "Monday Night Football," "College Game Day" and "SportsCenter," then collects and re-airs segments in stand-alone shows, such as this month's roundup of NFL experiments. In December, ESPN signed a new, multi-year deal with the program and began running promotional spots showing Brenkus clowning around with the familiar ESPN cast of anchors and analysts.
"What they're doing is tapping into a really sophisticated sports audience with their emphasis on metrics and science," says Ron Wechsler, vice president of content programming for ESPN. "But at same time, they get to the very basic principles of sports, something simple like who is a better player or what streak is more improbable, the things that go to the heart of sports and sports debate."
Brenkus isn't just the host and "human crash-test dummy" of "Sport Science," although, for a kid from Vienna with no previous on-air aspirations or experience, it isn't a bad gig. Brenkus is also the co-creator and co-owner.
And not just of "Sport Science." Brenkus and his business partner and brother-in-law Mickey Stern, joint chief executives of BASE Productions, have more than 10 programs in play at any given time, including the SyFy Channel's "Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files," which each week sends a team to investigate video evidence of rumored dubiousness (UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, the moon landing); the National Geographic Channel's CGI-illustrated guide "Known Universe," which explores Earth's deepest oceans as well as deepest outer space; and Animal Planet's study of three Montana ranchers, "Last American Cowboy."
As one might expect, the BASE Web site is studded with superlatives: "Jesse James Is a Dead Man," in which the motorcycle daredevil risks the titular death, was "Spike TV's highest-rated reality premiere" when it began in 2009.
The show, starring Sandra Bullock's widely vilified ex, drew 2 million viewers. That total "would get something instantly canceled on regular network television but for cable is a pretty solid number," says Andy Dehnart, a journalism and writing teacher at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who blogs about reality television. ("Jersey Shore," in comparison, can pull in 6 million viewers, depending on the notoriety of the episode.)
"The [ratings] bar is considerably lower on cable," Dehnart says. "Really what matters is that the show reaches enough of that demographic that the network caters to." Dehnart says that some of BASE's offerings, such as "Jesse James" and the G2 Network's "Human Wrecking Balls," have gained traction. "They may not be crazy hits, but they're good shows." But, he says, the most-successful reality TV production companies "bubble to the top because of the quality of their shows and the way they manage to create something new and have it imitated. I don't think this company has had that quite yet."
Brenkus isn't likely to let such a mildly enthusiastic review sway him. Here's how he recalls one of his earliest encounters with criticism: "I was in kindergarten, and I handed the teacher my coloring project, and she said, 'This is good, John.'"
Good? Good? "I was offended! I said, 'This isn't just good; this is great.' 'Great' is still my favorite word."
As a student at James Madison High in Vienna, Brenkus ran track and cross-country and played football, "but I was never amazing at any of it. That set the tone for my appreciation of greatness. I knew my place."
He did want to leave a legacy, though. As school secretary in 1989, he created "Mr. Madison," a pageant-dance that necessitated coming up with a cast, props and lights. "I was essentially executive producer," he says. "Believe it or not, it's still going today." He pauses. "And I knew then I kind of wanted to be in entertainment."
Brenkus might not have broken any athletic records at Madison, but he was named "Biggest Flirt," a dubious distinction he tries to turn to his advantage. "Flirting is another word, I believe, for networking," he says. "Being able to be friends with a lot of people."
At the University of Virginia, Brenkus created his own major -- Film and Rhetoric Communications -- and graduated with honors in 3 years. Before graduating, he told his mother, Rose, he wanted to do two of the hardest things he could think of: write a novel and make a movie.
"There was just no stopping him," says Rose Brenkus, a university nursing school administrator (Brenkus's father, John Sr., sells real estate). The novel, "Crimson Lights," about a young man, a one-night stand and the unfortunate events that follow, went unpublished. But it provided the framework for the script of the movie Brenkus was determined to make.
Brenkus met Mickey Stern in the summer of 1990 when he was just barely 19 and Stern was 22; Stern, who is from Crofton, was dating Brenkus's older sister Mary (they are now married and have two 8-year-olds, Lexie and Luke). Stern was studying law and business at the University of Maryland, earning a law degree and an MBA in four years. Brenkus, meanwhile, was taking scut jobs with a New York production company, sleeping in broom closets (the only space available) and in unheated trucks (to guard the movie gear) just to develop contacts within the film industry.
Stern thought Mary's little brother was a little crazy but changed his mind when he read his book and saw that Brenkus was determined to make the movie. Stern signed on as executive producer, raising funds and negotiating contracts with the actors and crew. "His helping was a turning point," Brenkus says. "He had been developing real estate as a law student, and he raised money for the film like he would a real estate deal. We raised $100,000 really quickly."
"It's hard to believe now," Stern recalls, "but we got it done."
"It is sort of the adage, 'See it and believe it, and ultimately you achieve it,'" Brenkus says.
The 90-minute "Crimson Lights," with actor James McCauley as perhaps the only vaguely familiar face, was sold in 1994 to a small distributor. And released? "Well, not really," Brenkus says. The film did make it to home video; it is now out of print, though it pops up on Internet movie databases.
"The movie didn't make money, but we impressed our investors with our chutzpah," Brenkus says.
BASE -- Brenkus and Stern Entertainment -- which incorporated in late 1992, had become a viable entity. Stern, who was bored with his commercial real estate work at a boutique Columbia law firm, decided to go full time with BASE, working out of the Brenkus family's basement. And Brenkus decided to act on advice given by director Steven Soderbergh, whom Brenkus had once tracked down at a Charlottesville screening. "He said to do everything myself," Brenkus says. "He told me to teach myself, not go to film school, track down my own gear and to teach myself how to edit, because everything comes from the editing."
Stern and Brenkus raised $159,000 to buy one of the then-few Avid digital editing machines in the region. With an Avid, a video editor could implement the lightning-fast style that was becoming the standard on television, turning staid footage into cool, edgy and exciting programming. The two put in 22-hour days polishing, honing and making a little money on any project that presented itself, including local TV sports shows that weren't quite working.
"There was a time when we were reluctant to even buy a roll of stamps," Stern says. "It was stressful because it was so expensive."
In 1996, BASE won the contracts to produce weekly television shows for the then-Washington Bullets and the Capitals. Today, BASE continues to provide the "in-arena" production for both teams -- all the videos you see during games are BASE's -- as well as a weekly show on Comcast for the Capitals.
After that, Brenkus and Stern Enter-tainment hit its stride, producing programming for cable networks based in the Washington area. From 1996 to 2003, BASE produced, among other shows, "Science Live!," the first interactive weekly science show, for Silver Spring's Discovery Digital; "The Wright Experience," a documentary about the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight, for Discovery; and "The Young Scientists Challenge," which brought eighth-graders to Washington for a televised science competition, also for Discovery.
In 2003, BASE was brought in to shepherd a show called "XMA: Xtreme Martial Arts," another offering from the Discovery Channel. "XMA" possessed what would become the hallmarks of BASE's shows: blisteringly fast editing, visually chaotic photography, up-tempo electronic music, live-action and CGI animation.
The series spawned 2006's "Fight Science: Calculating the Ultimate Warrior," which emphasized more of the science than the fighting, on the National Geographic channel. After it did well on Nat Geo and sister network Fox, "we immediately pitched the spinoff, applying the same visual style and scientific approach to all mainstream sports," Stern says.
And that was "Sport Science."
The 26,000-square-foot studio where indoor "Sport Science" segments are filmed is part of BASE's West Coast headquarters in Burbank, a facility built in 2009.
It includes an indoor athletic field, basketball court, MMA arena and a biomechanical laboratory. With its high ceilings and lights hanging from rafters, it is far more spacious than it appears on the TV screen.
The front of the building is a warren of editing suites and production offices where many of BASE's other shows are produced, including a new series on ancient artifacts for SyFy, two new series for TruTV and two new series for the Speed Channel. While Brenkus oversees the West Coast offerings, Stern heads up the East Coast headquarters in Haymarket, where he manages the company's accounting and legal affairs and produces the programming made in the Washington region. Both partners are involved in developing shows and presenting them to networks.
Brenkus's nondescript office in Burbank is just off the front lobby, outfitted with a desk, a few chairs, end tables and a coat hanger with his on-camera wardrobe -- nicely pressed casual shirts.
He typically arrives at 10 a.m. in his somewhat downscale (by Hollywood standards) black Prius: "It's so quiet it's therapeutic, and I don't have to worry about getting it scratched in the parking lot; a car should be stress-free." He doesn't leave again until 7 p.m., when he beelines home to have dinner with his wife, Lizzie, and their children, Bryce, 4, and Arabella, 2. He works the phone as he drives the 20 miles to Calabasas, a town of gated communities perhaps best known these days as the place where the Kardashian clan films its reality TV show. (Celebrity is commonplace: Rising Nickelodeon star Daniella Monet, a regular in "Victorious," is the Brenkuses' baby sitter.)
The Brenkuses' home is in a neighborhood of million-dollar houses, located at the end of what Lizzie describes as "a kid-friendly" cul-de-sac; there's a small swimming pool built into the patio out back, while the interior is decorated in Asian accents, reflecting Lizzie's pre-marriage stint as a teacher in China.
There are no show-business trappings to be seen. Brenkus says he eschews the Hollywood lifestyle of networking at glitzy parties and schmoozing with movie stars because, for one thing, BASE programs don't have major stars, which keeps the costs down. "We're results-based," he says. "Besides, I don't spend enough time with my family as it is."
One of the pursuits that took him away from the family last year was writing "The Perfection Point: Sport Science Predicts the Fastest Man, the Highest Jump, and the Limits of Athletic Performance" (Harper). It is the summation of his fascination with superlatives as he questions just how much weight a human can lift, how fast a human can run or swim, how far a home run can travel. (And there is a surprisingly sympathetic digression about steroid use.)
Brenkus is happy to point out that the book rose to No. 1 on the Wall Street Journal and Barnes and Noble lists, and No. 4 on the New York Times nonfiction hardcover list.
And, although the on-air Brenkus claims to be "aggressively average" in comparison with the world-class athletes who appear on his show, in his spare time he engages in a quest for competitive superlatives of his own. "No one knows I'm athletic," he says. "I don't flaunt it."
"John started doing the Ironman because he asked a sports guy, 'What's the hardest thing a human can do?'" Stern says. The sports guy cited the grueling ordeal known as the Ironman, a 17-hour, 11,000 calorie-burning triathlon. Competitors engage in a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
Brenkus has completed five now. And Ironman mania has become a family thing. When Lizzie, a Princeton and Harvard graduate who speaks Mandarin and Spanish, saw what an endorphin rush her husband was getting from all his fitness training, she tried it herself in 2008. "I timed her on her first few runs and realized she's not just fast for a woman, she's fast for a human," Brenkus says.
By 2009, Lizzie had set the record at the local Calabasas 10K and was competing in triathlons. She now coaches a local running club, has her own running sponsor and has completed a pair of Ironman events, as well.
But Brenkus speculates that he is the only person in the world to have successfully completed Hawaii's Kona Ironman competition and a 12.6-mile open ocean swim seven days apart, without a professional trainer, nutritionist or sports psychologist.
That 12.6-mile open-water endurance event was in October, when the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Monica is frigid. It took Brenkus, who finished 12th in a field of 14, eight hours and 36 minutes, and more than 25,000 stokes, to complete the swim. Even he wondered whether he had pushed it too far.
"If I had known his body temperature was going to get down to 89 degrees, I never would have let him in the water," his mother says.
Brenkus, however, is proud of that week. "It's called 'the Brenkus Double,'" he says with a laugh. "The first person to do something gets to name it."
But why the obsession about the first, last, lowest, highest, biggest, longest, fastest? Why does everything in Brenkus's life have to be extreme?
Because, in the world according to John Brenkus, "if you're going to do something, it might as well be the best you can do.
"The gauge of how happy you are with something is directly related to how good of a job you think you did," Brenkus says. "When you sit back, some things need to be compared to other things."
Buzz McClain is the rugby columnist for NBC Sports.com and Universal Sports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.