About a year ago Jesse Boggs answered a help wanted ad in The Washington Post which began: "Scoreboard Operator . . . " RFK Stadium had just installed a new $3 million marvel -- something told you more than just who was winning -- and they were looking for someone to bring it to life. Boggs, who produced televised correspondence courses for Northern Virginia Community College, was their man. "This was a way to make some money on the side" he says of his new part-time job.
Though Boggs was knowledgeable about graphics, he had never before worked with computers, which this job required. That was okay, said American Sign and Indicator Corporation, creator of the big board. Boggs traveled to company headquarters in Spokane where he learned how to master the beast. "They taught me the basics, and they just let me play with it (the computer). Boggs conceded he no longer sees computers as "the threat to humanity I once did."
On this Sunday morning in September, Boggs sits in a booth n the mezzanine of RFK Stadium. He "draws" a sequence of images he has dreamed up on a computer screen by either lighting or turning off points of light on the screen. When he gets through executing the idea it will be stored for later recall on a plastic disc which looks like a phonograph record. The process, he says, is "painstaking."
The dots of light on the computer's screen correspond to the 8,000 light bulbs which comprise the message screen of the scoreboard hanging high from the roof at the far end of the field. During the game, Boggs will punch his computer, and on the scoreboard -- wired to absorb as much juice as nine average American houses without blowing a megafuse -- multicolored, animated images will bloom before the eyes of 55,000 people.
Down on the field, ranked along the yard lines like armies, the Houston Oilers and Washington Redskins do calisthenics. Houston wears powder blue and white, Washington burgundy and gold. The seats, mostly empty now, ascend to the rim of the place, in the bright hands of orange, blue and green. The sight is sharp, vivid.
While a student at American University, Boggs "became impressed by the power of the visual media, their impact on people." So he studied television and film.
"I am most interested in what you might call 'non-verbal' communication. I think the communication between intellects is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to communication between people. If the scoreboard says, 'Go Redskins,' the thing that impresses you more than what the words say is their color."
To Boggs, the highest form of non-verbal communication is music, something he has studied most of his 34 years. Classical guitar is his "discipline," writing music his natural from of expression." Music would be Boggs' sole pursuit, "if all was right with the world. But," he adds, "it (music) never seems to be enough to make a living from." And that is one reason he sought this job.
The stadum is filling now, the bright seats turning into a softerhued mosaic of hummanity. The booth, too, is filling -- with Boggs' coworkers. Georgianna Andrews and George Catlogh will keep score on the left side of the board. Cheryl Travaglini will help Boggs fill the right side with imagaes.
Boggs has found that after running the scoreboard this season for the Diplomats there is "more interaction" between him and the crowd in soccer than in football. "They (the soccer fans) become responsive to the scoreboard almost immediately." He found that often if the game was slow he could psych up the crowd, and that in turn would heighten the tempo of the game. In football, though, he finds his role more "reactive." The game, he feels, is more deliberate, less fluid than soccer.
The first half of the football game is tautly played, the teams shoving each other around the field, probing for weaknesses. There is a focus to it, and so the scoreboard becomes more a sidehow than a force in the proceedings. On it appear fantastic renderings of events on the field. "Put it in ORBIT," the board exhorts the Redskin punter. The ball ascends into space and is next seen revolving like a satellite around the earth. When the Oiler quarterback goes down under a Redskin rush, the image is of a sack of potatoes being tied. Boggs likens his product to caveman drawings," in which "art is reduced to very sophisticated simplicities." As the season goes on, and he has time to program the computer with new ideas, Boggs hopes the electronic mural will appear more detailed.
In the third quarter the game opens up; the Redskins take a 27-13 lead. The crowd comes alive, and the board attempts to sustain it: "Fantastic; great play; give THAT MAN A HAND." Stars and exclamation points shot across the screen.
But all this electronic enthusiasm cannot ultimately sway human events below on the field. Houston is the stronger army, and in the fourth quarter the tide turns. The Redskins miss about five tackles on a crucial third down play. Boggs -- and the board -- can only react: "Oops." Some minutes later there is a Redskin fumble which will set up Houston's winning touchdown. A glum looking Indian says: "Aaargh,"
Houston running back Earl Campbell scores a touchdown. The Indian says: Aaargh" again, and the crowd now drains quickly from the stadium, revealing again the hard, artificial colors of the seats. The board, imploring "GO, GO, GO" on the Redskins final, futile series of downs, cannot bring the people back.
Boggs shakes his head and says gently, "I think they played too conservatively when they had lead. They shouldn't have sat on it." Down on the field, Campbell, the game's undisputed hero, is one of the last players to leave the field. He walks slowly, his face a mask of exhaustion. At the field entrance a knot of children wait for him, adoration in their eyes.
Now in the quick and sudden silence of the stadium we walk to the far end and climb up into the darkened scoreboard. It is like being inside the phone company. Wires wrapped in thick, sinewy bunches lead everywhere. It is a hard connection to make, all this lifeless matter capable of creating a rush of images, showers of light. The heat inside the board is oppressive, telltale evidence of the machine's appetite for electricity. Boggs says, half seriously, that he'd like to put a turkey up here during a game and see if it would cook.