Ever since Fox had told him, two weeks before, that he would be the network’s color commentator for the Washington Football Team-Detroit Lions game, he had been getting that same swirling feeling in his stomach that he used to have as a player in the days leading up to games.
“Like I got to perform,” he said earlier in the week. “It’s showtime on Sunday.”
Then on Sunday he got up early, put on the brown, custom-made suit he picked out the previous Wednesday and made sure to be at the stadium by 9:45 a.m. in the hope he would persuade network executives to give him a contract such as the reported $17 million a year CBS is paying former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. “I’m trying to get me a Romo!” he had said. Now, in his rush, he left his phone at the hotel and had to go back.
Former players fill analyst roles across the television networks. But those players tend not to be like Talib, who was famous for interceptions, smothering coverage of opposing receivers, five Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl title — and outrageous statements filled with unprintable words, four suspensions and a handful of off-field incidents.
The word several Fox people have used to describe him is “raw.” Still, there has always been an earnestness about him — a fierce loyalty to teammates, an obsession with studying and preparing, and a warmth that always made him one of the most popular players everywhere he played.
“He’s infectious and real, and that’s contagious,” said Jacob Ullman, a senior vice president at Fox Sports.
Which is why Fox was giving him an opportunity on a Sunday when the network had an extra game. It came without promises. NFL analyst slots on the three main networks are so coveted that Ullman said someone “would have a better chance to be an NFL quarterback than an NFL analyst.”
But a chance was a chance. At the stadium, phone in hand, Talib — butterflies twirling in his stomach — began to prepare in the broadcast booth only to look down and realize he didn’t have his gameboard, a giant card filled with information about each player that all announcers use. It, too, was back at his hotel. This time, Fox sent a runner to fetch it.
‘Enhance the broadcast’
Back in the spring, Fox asked Talib to do color commentary while watching half of a San Francisco 49ers-New Orleans Saints game. Talib’s audition was not perfect, but there was enough for Ullman to see “something there was different.” The network told Talib it would try to find him a game or two in the fall.
When the assignment for Sunday came in early November, Talib started preparing by watching one of each team’s past three games every day. Not knowing exactly how a television commentator studies teams, he decided to watch the way he did as a player: first the main broadcast, to hear what other analysts were saying, then the condensed version of the game stripped of everything but the plays and the “All 22” version shot from behind the end zone — like a coach’s tape — so he could look for team tendencies.
But there was so much else to learn.
He called Gerry Matalon, an Emmy-winning sports media consultant who has worked with many of the industry’s top broadcasters and had helped Talib prepare for appearances on NFL Network. On a Zoom call that lasted almost two hours, Matalon warned him not to talk over the snap of the ball or the referee announcing penalties and to stay away from vague references to jargon such as cover-two without explaining what the terms mean.
“Your job is to enhance the broadcast, not intrude,” Matalon told him.
As the game drew closer, Talib’s phone kept ringing with calls from network executives and producers. There were teleconferences and conference calls about logistics and graphics and schedules. It was a lot.
Mostly, Talib wanted to keep watching the film. As a player, he used to race home after games to watch a replay and see what the broadcasters had gotten right. Did they show him love, or did they tear him apart? Often, he was shocked to realize the analysts had everything wrong and were blaming the wrong players. No way, he decided, would a Detroit or Washington player go home and hear Aqib Talib get something wrong.
“I’m not going to be on there saying some stuff that’s not true,” he said.
‘I feel like he wants to curse so bad’
Then, suddenly, it was showtime.
Inside Talib’s headset, everything was racing. He could hear play-by-play announcer Dan Hellie, to his left, describing the plays, but there also was Rich Gross, the producer, talking from the production truck and a stats person handing notes and a spotter pointing to the number on the gameboard of the players who made tackles.
The plays were going by fast, and Talib was trying to keep up. At times he said nothing. He could feel the silence and wondered whether people watching could feel it, too.
Slowly, though, he began to relax. He imagined himself having 12 to 15 seconds to talk after each play and began to adjust his thoughts to fit that timeline. The game in the booth started to feel like the game on the field. The old Aqib started to come out.
He said Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had found “the honey hole” in Washington’s defense.
He defended a penalized lineman by saying, “I’d hold before I give up a sack, too.”
He yelled, “Whatcha got, Jack?!” at Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio before a key third-down play.
He was feeling good now, and people were noticing.
“Loving Aqib Talib on this broadcast. I feel like he wants to curse so bad,” former ESPN anchor Jemele Hill tweeted.
“Aqib Talib sound like my uncle calling a national television game,” one man tweeted, adding a meme captioned, “I love it.”
On the field below, Washington had come back from three touchdowns down to tie the score at 27. Overtime loomed. And then suddenly it was over, with Detroit winning on a last-second, 59-yard field goal.
Quickly Fox switched to its late games, which were about to start. The mic went dead. The TV lights turned off. Talib was elated, but there was no time to linger. His flight home to Dallas was leaving in 90 minutes. He dashed out the door, remembering to take his phone.
He woke early Monday morning, anxious to see how he had done. The reaction on Twitter had been intense.
Someone said listening to him and Hellie do the game was like being in the room with two people watching on a couch. He liked that. Some said he pointed out things that they had never seen. Others said they loved the way he talked, like he wasn’t just another broadcaster during a long day of football.
But there were others who hated it, who didn’t find him funny or informative. The Twitter avatars of many of those people were White, and it wasn’t hard to see where the divide lay between those who found Talib refreshing and those who did not. If this bothered him, he wouldn’t say.
“Hey, some people are going to like it; some people are not going to like it,” he said over the phone later that day. “I played the game, so I know. … The only person I know how to be is Aqib Talib, so that’s the person I’m going to be forever.
“I’m different. We’re from different places; we don’t talk the same. … I’m going to go up there and try to talk as professional as I can on TV because I know there are a lot of people listening. At the end of the day, I’m going to talk what I know and I’m going to talk what I see. That’s what I was told to do in the audition, and the audition was good enough to get me on Fox, so that’s what I did.”
He watched the telecast for the first time, while still in bed, ready to tear himself apart. He noticed the painful silences early in the game and cringed when he cut himself off, worried he would talk over the snap. He said “man” way too much, he thought.
Still, there was a lot he did well. He didn’t get the defenses wrong or mix up formations or blame players for mistakes that weren’t their fault.
“I was on the money,” he said. “I ain’t throwing nobody under the bus or something. Un-uh, everything I said, they did it.”
Later that day, Ullman would say he found Talib to be “authentic” and “knowledgeable.” He enjoyed reading the tweets and hearing the buzz that followed. “You want a reaction, right?” he said.
“I don’t know where the next opportunity [to do a game] will be,” Ullman continued. “He’s certainly somebody we would consider. He will do a great job.”
But no Romo. At least not yet.