The Hardest Job in Football

For millions of football fans watching at home every Sunday, it seems as though NFL games make a seamless transition from the gridiron to the television screen. But spend a weekend with a network production crew, and you’ll discover what it really takes to turn the on-field action into televised entertainment—intense preparation, frantic effort, brilliant improvisation, and an artistic genius named “Fish.”

The next morning, Fish passed this bit of inside dope along to his camera crew.

“I will tell you this,” he said. “Whoever is doing far receiver or near receiver, Chad Johnson, whether we can believe him or not, whether it’s the typical player bullshit they give the press, watch for a deep pattern, a deep pass, on the first play from scrimmage… I think they are going to go deep. Johnson says, ‘Just make sure you cover me on the first play.’ That may have just been blah-blah-blah-blah, but actually, some guys tell you the truth and that actually happens.”

When the Bengals took possession for the first time in the game, the TV crew was poised. Moments before coming back from a commercial, Fish reminded his camera operators, “Okay, guys, let’s watch Chad Johnson on this first play.”

In unison, the voices in the trailer counted down the seconds to the return from commercial, “Six. Five. Four.”

“Stand by,” said Fish. “Slow push in.”

“Three. Two. One.”

“Ready five [a close-up of Carson Palmer breaking the offensive huddle],” said Fish. “Aaaaand take five!”

The music started, and as the Bengals quarterback positioned himself over center, Gumbel intoned, Carson Palmer looking for a breakout game today. He has been very un–Carson Palmerlike so far. No TDs, three picks.

“Ready three [the play-by-play camera]. Take three!” said Fish, and then, noting the Bengals’ formation, added, “Two wides! Two wides, that’s all.”

Let’s see if the Bengals try to jump on the Giants in a hurry, said Gumbel, like a man who knew something his viewers did not.

The ball was snapped.

Fish: “Pass! Here it is!”

Only, here it wasn’t. Johnson was racing deep, but the Giants defensive line swamped the quarterback immediately, dropping him for a six-yard loss.

Palmer under pressure, trying to get away, and can’t! Gumbel said.

Fish: “Ready eight [a close-up of Palmer with his face in the turf]. Take eight! Ready two [standing Giants fans clapping and cheering]. Take two! Ready five [a close-up of Palmer getting to his feet]. Take five! Ready four [Giants tackle Fred Robbins, who got the sack]. Take four!”

Chad Johnson was flying up the left side, Gumbel said. Palmer couldn’t get it away.

There was no chance of completing a pass, Dierdorf said. He was fighting just to stay up.

Fish: “Hold four [Robbins lining up for the next play]. Hold four.”

The Bengals would end this first offensive series backed up against their own goal line, 20 yards behind where they started—victims of a sack, a penalty (on the offensive line), and a second Giants rush that forced Palmer to fumble the ball, which Cincinnati recovered. The frustration and disappointment on the field were mirrored in the broadcast booth and in the trailer, where Cincinnati’s failure to execute had cost them the chance to show how on top of a big play they were.

The whole thing seemed like the Bengals’ sorry season in a nutshell, underlining the truth of Johnson’s impolitic insight: no blocking meant no throws, which meant no big plays. As the punt team lined up, Fish called for a shot of the Cincinnati receiver and quarterback walking off the field together.

The biggest fear of any broadcast team is a blowout. The audience changes the channel, and even the camera operators have trouble keeping their heads in the game. “You just want to get the hell out of there and move on to next week, because the game sucks,” says Fish.

But in spite of the inauspicious start, the Giants-Bengals game turned out to be a terrific matchup, all the more so for being unexpected. “On any given Sunday…,” the adage goes, and in this one the winless Bengals found themselves four points up on the champs, 20–16, with less than two minutes to play. As the Giants conferred during a Cincinnati time-out, preparing to attempt a go-ahead touchdown, the trailer was humming at a climactic pitch. Amid overlapping conversations, sound effects, and shouted instructions from the rows of technicians, Wolff primed his broadcasters and replay operators, and Fish, standing now, barked instructions and waved his hands to some rapid internal rhythm:

“Ready two [Bengals coach Marvin Lewis talking into his headset microphone]. Take two! Ready one [Carson Palmer craning his neck to see the field]. Take one! Ready 12 [Eli Manning walking toward the sidelines to confer with Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride]. Take 12!”

He’s pretty cool for someone so young, Gumbel said.

Well, it’s in his DNA, Dierdorf replied. (Manning, as most NFL fans know, is the son of former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie, and the kid brother of Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Peyton.) I don’t think we should be surprised. This is a regular-season game. They are 2-and-0.

Fish: “Ready eight [Lewis from a fresh angle]. Take eight! Ready four [Manning trotting back out to the field]. Take four! Ready five [a field shot from ground level]. Take five! Ready … aaah … eight [Manning from another angle]. Take eight! … Ready fou—five [another shot of Lewis]. Take five! Ready three [play-by-play camera]. Take three. Nice shot, Pat!”

As the Giants lined up over the ball, Wolff wanted attention paid to wide receiver Plaxico Burress, a likely target. “Cover 17! Iso17!”

Fish: “Where’s 17?”

Wolff: “ Far-side receiver.”

Fish: “Far receiver on camera two!”

But the pass wasn’t to Burress, it was to tight end Kevin Boss, who caught it in the end zone. From outside the trailer came the roar of jubilant Giants fans. Inside, the touchdown ignited a frenzy as well. Fish machine-gunned a mosaic of the scene, leaning toward his array of monitors as the cameras swung violently, finding one telling visual after another, his high-pitched voice squeaking at the upper reaches of its register:

“Ready five [close-up of Manning jumping for joy]. Take five! Ready two [close-up of Boss, still carrying the ball, mobbed by joyful teammates in the end zone]. Take two! Ready three [rejoicing New York fans]. Take three! Ready four [beaten Bengals strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe trotting off the field]. Take four! Ready eight [Marvin Lewis looking forlornly up at the scoreboard]. Take eight! Ready 12 [a pan of cheering Giants fans in the upper deck]. Take 12! Ready two [another close-up of Boss]. Take two! Ready five [a close-up of Manning leaving the field]. Take five! Ready eight [close-up of the shell-shocked Chad Johnson]. Take eight! Ready three [another crowd shot]. Take three! Ready two [a close-up of Boss, reaching the sidelines, still carrying his touchdown catch]. Take two! Ready 12 [Bengals huddling on the field before the extra point]. Take 12! Ready six [close-up of Manning accepting a pat on the helmet from Gilbride]. Take six! Ready four [close-up of Lewis, shaking his head with disgust]. Take four! Ready five [more high fives for Manning on the sidelines]. Take five! Break! Extra point! Ready four [a high shot in the end zone behind the goalposts as the Giants line up to kick].”

Wolff: “Fish, I’m going X, Y, Silver, Moe!”—the lineup of upcoming replay shots of the touchdown. (The replay machines are given letters, to differentiate them from the numbered cameras.)

Fish: “Ready two [Boss on one knee on the sidelines, having been mildly shaken up on his touchdown play, trainers crowded around him]. Take two! Ready four, aaaand take four!” The extra point was booted.

Wolff: “Are you listening?”

Fish: “Yes! X, Y, Silver, Moe!”

Wolff: “I’ll talk you through it.”

Fish: “Ready two [another shot of Boss on the sideline]. Take two! Ready X. Aaaand take X! Here it is!”

The replays of the touchdown followed, each from a different angle, the last an isolated shot from an end-zone camera showing Manning celebrating after the play. Then it was time for another blizzard of calls from Fish.

This frenzied movement after the Giants touchdown seemed to mark the conclusion of the symphony, a game-ending flourish. But the game was far from over. “I want to see Carson Palmer’s career comebacks!” Wolff shouted to his graphics technicians, who summoned up a graphic showing that the Bengals QB had an impressive record of bringing his team back from late-game deficits. And sure enough, the scrappy Bengals mounted a last-second drive and kicked a tying field goal in the closing seconds, forcing the game into overtime, in which the Giants marched into field-goal range and won it, finally, 23–20, with a well-directed 22-yard boot.

By the end, Fish was hoarse. A police escort waited to whisk him and the CBS crew to the airport ahead of the thousands of fans exiting the stadium. On the plane home, he would review a hastily assembled DVD of the broadcast, which he—unlike his millions of viewers—would be seeing for the first time. Like any other artist, when he watches the program, he mostly sees the things he might have done better.

When I last saw Fish, he was leaving the trailer, getting ready to figure out where he and his crew would be going next week. But I already knew the answer. Whether his windowless production trailer was in the parking lot outside Lambeau Field or Dolphin Stadium, he would be in the same place he is every week of the season for millions of football fans all across America: behind the curtain, lodged deep inside our brains.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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