Monday, December 25, 2006

Week 16 – Refresh. Refresh.

Pittsburgh, PA – 12/24/06

Can you picture Ray Lewis skipping and hopping along the sidelines chanting ‘Merry Christmas!’?

Well I bet you couldn’t picture the Houston Texans beating the Indianapolis Colts either, but that’s exactly what Ray and the Ravens got for Christmas this year and #52 didn’t hide his excitement.

In the span of about 10 seconds, the 2006 season went from a success to something truly special. And I was there to witness it all on the semi-frozen tundra of Heinz Field.

At first, the prospect of playing a rejuvenated Steelers team in Pittsburgh did not seem all that appealing. In fact, as we set up for the day while watching SportsCenter, Hank Goldberg of ESPN projected a 23-10 Steelers victory. What did he know?

Interestingly, our staging area was directly in front of the players entrance and we had the luxury of watching Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward report for duty. It was tough to look at Ward the same way after watching his local television show the night before. On the program, Hines and fellow Steeler Troy Polamalu went head to head in a fierce battle of…wait for it…wait for it…a Gingerbread Cookie Bake Off! To their credit, both gladiators of the gridiron held their own in an apron as Ward designed a Polamalu look a like cookie, while Troy opted for a Hawaiian hula girl. The dramatic duel was ruled a draw as both men fell equally as far down the intimidation scale.

Of course that’s about all the Steel City had going for it on a Saturday night. As we walked the streets of downtown, we were fortunate to even find a restaurant that was still open, and who knew, Pittsburgh also serves up some damn fine sushi. No match for Cleveland, but still respectable. Sushi was also the perfect meal for the evening as we had already managed to fit in dinner during our half-hour flight from Baltimore. The flight attendants were really hustling. They even had the courtesy to let me finish my dessert as the plane touched down. It wasn’t a gingerbread man, but their homemade chocolate cookies are delicious.

In defense of Hammerin’ Hank, the game was tough to predict. The Ravens had already clinched the division and their only hope of increasing their playoff seeding relied on one of the two teams ahead of them losing, the Colts or Chargers. A one or two seed would give the Ravens a highly sought after week off before beginning their post-season push. And with a few aging veterans leading the charge this season, a week of rest could give the Ravens what has apparently been the key to success this season, time to refresh.

The Steelers on the other hand were still in contention for a Wild Card spot after going 5-1 in their last six games. Of course the one loss was at the hands of the Ravens who registered nine sacks and a 27-0 victory back in November.

The one thing that was easy to predict was the weather. Let’s see. Pittsburgh. December. I would guess cold? Possibly frigid with a chance of bone shivering wind. I know its quaint to have a stadium built on the banks of three rivers, but someone had to realize that being so close to the water would be a better location for a wind farm than a football field.

As we took to the field, one thing we noticed, along with our wired Raven Chris McAlister, was that the playing surface was less than ideal. It was as if they were actually using the space for a farm during the week. Or maybe a driving range. The divots sprinkled the entire stadium and what was left was a mix of gravel, grass, and dirt. I was a little nervous because unlike my last 14 games, today I was forced to wear khaki pants on the sidelines (I left three pairs of wind pants in the dryer as we rushed out of the house on Saturday!). I was going to have to plan my kneeling carefully if I wanted to keep the pants in good condition. Of course my pants were actually a consistent theme for the weekend as I was chided for my ensemble on the plane ride in as I matched brown pants with a bluish shirt. Phil, I blame the wife.

The grudge match did not prove to be much of a match up as the Ravens proved the prognosticators wrong with a dominant victory over the Steelers. However, I had my sights sets on the scoreboard most of the day as the Colts were playing at 1:00 as well. As I mentioned, an Indy loss coupled with a Ravens win would give Baltimore a chance at a first round bye.

Surprisingly, the Texans were hanging with the Colts all day and even jumped out to a 14-0 lead. I whispered a few sweet something’s to Lauryn, but wanted to make sure she didn’t tell anyone near the bench. I wasn’t going to be the one to disrupt the focus of the players. Of course she immediately ran over to Don to tell him the good news.

As their game went to the fourth quarter, Houston still had the lead. But as is typical for a Peyton Manning led team, the advantage vanished quickly and we noticed that they were soon tied at 24. Don, Lauryn and I kept trading knowing glances and we all thought for sure that Manning would find a way to pull out a win. And then came those magical 10 seconds.

The Steelers were backed up near their own end zone to start a fourth quarter drive down just fourteen. Consequently, Jeff and I set up behind the end zone to get a good look at McAlister and Ward going at it. As I kneeled over Jeff’s shoulder, I looked up at the scoreboard in the far end zone. My advertising career has taught me a few things about tracking eye movements as the brain processes one element at a time. Well I was definitely processing what I saw next one element at a time. First, a 27 next to HST. Then, a 24 next to IND. And finally, a FINAL next to the score. I had to re-read it a few times before I full comprehended what must have happened. Not only had the Texans took the lead, the game had ended. Manning could not do any more. The Colts had lost.

My first reaction was to yell in Jeff’s ear, “The Texans Won!”. Of course he hadn’t been watching as closely and may not have known that they happened to be playing the Colts. Then I scanned the sidelines for Lauryn. She was skipping towards me, full of smiles. She knew! We both pointed at the scoreboard, making sure we each knew for sure what had just happened deep in the heart of Texas.

And then, just when the Steelers were threatening to comeback, Dawan Landry intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and returned it for what appeared to be a defensive touchdown. (The fact that a review ended up ruling Landry out at the 1 yard line was not important). The celebration was on. The celebration that had been missing the week before, that must have been pent up in all the players hoping and praying for a chance at a week off, was let out. Jubilation. Dancing. Hugging. And of course Ray and his holiday wishes.

The thrill of the chase did not end in Pittsburgh. There was at least one more game of importance left to be played on Sunday and the entire team knew what it meant. If the Chargers lost in Seattle, the Ravens would be in position for the #1 seed in the AFC. Home field advantage throughout the playoffs. A potential AFC Championship game in Baltimore. All eyes were on the Chargers, or at least our cell phone Internet browsers.

On the bus ride to the airport, Ray and Bart Scott were shouting out updates. Luckily the flight was a quick one and the game had just started the fourth quarter when we landed back home. And that’s when the real fun began. I started working my thumbs on the Treo fast and furiously to get new statistics. Refresh. Refresh. And I wasn’t just thinking it; everyone around me was asking for updates. Even a few of the players had taken an interest in what my Treo had to say including fellow Orange alum, Adam Terry. Jeff dubbed me, ‘Thumbs Lukin’ and I was providing play by play to the front of the bus. (Another lucky PDA owner was giving the back of the bus updates).

The game went back and forth and the Chargers were down 4 with just 30 seconds left to play. I was being asked how much time was left, how many time outs they had, what was the weather, what down was it, who had the ball, what was the crowd noise like….we were all hinging on my data download speed. And then our luck finally ran out. Philip Rivers hit Vincent Jackson for a 37-yard touchdown to put San Diego ahead for good. No more Christmas miracles this weekend, but one surprise gift was all we could have asked for. Not to mention a season sweep of our division rivals.

Now I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends with many of the Ravens staff over the last four months and a few even read my postings each week, but by no means do I believe that any of the players take note of the blog. However, the reaction on the sidelines on Sunday was exactly what I was hoping for. It was electrifying. It was exhilarating. It was near freezing. It was refreshing.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Week 15.5 – Purple Rain on My Parade

12/22/06 – Baltimore, MD.

I’ve been doing the New York Times crossword puzzle lately and I think the title of this posting would be an excellent play-on-words, dual meaning, 20-letter monster type of answer in a Tuesday or Wednesday puzzle. The question could be something like “A Prince Downer” or “Putting Prince Down”. But the New York Times is not why I am writing a mid-week posting for the first time in months, although it did help me come up with the title, pretty clever, right?

The reason I felt the need to blog, as the heading might indicate, is that the last four days have included milestone moments in Ravens history that have appeared to not only be ignored, but replaced by feelings of disdain, bitterness, and suffering. In what is my first, and possibly only season on the sidelines, I’m ready to pop the champagne after each touchdown (or at least give Steve McNair a high-five). What gives?

Let me recap.

On Sunday afternoon, the Ravens clinched a playoff birth. However, the injury to McNair and the prospect of still having to play a first round game seemed to outweigh the excitement of making it to the post season.

On Monday night, the Ravens clinched the division title when the Indianapolis Colts beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football. The irony is that most of the Charm City was routing for Ocho Cinqo and company as an Indy loss would propel the Ravens into position for a first round bye. So when the game concluded, and the Locker Room AFC North Championship T-Shirt boxes were allowed to be opened, not only was the team not in the Locker Room, but I don’t think anyone felt like we were any closer to a Championship.

On Tuesday it was announced that the Ravens would be sending at least five players to the Pro Bowl including: Jonathan Ogden, Adalius Thomas, Ed Reed, Chris McAllister, and Terrell Suggs. Of course the national press has featured no less than five additional Ravens on their ‘all-snub’ teams and the biggest snub of all, Ray Lewis, has been quoted on just about every talk show discussing his frustration with the voting. And I agree. Watching 14 games up close, I can’t imagine why Ray and his protégé, Bart Scott, were left off the list. Not to mention Trevor Pryce and all his wonderful sacks. But I digress, I’m falling into the same funk most of Baltimore already appears to be in.

We were 6-10 last season. We only sent one Raven to the Pro Bowl. We were eliminated from the playoffs before Thanksgiving. And you saw more Oriole Orange around the city than Ravens Purple as the New Year began. So this year, during a season in which we have witnessed multiple fourth quarter comebacks, a shutout against our biggest rival, and a Defense that almost led by fantasy team to the title game, I propose a new order. A plea to the City of Baltimore, Ravens fans everywhere, and even the team itself.

Don’t rain on my parade and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to enjoy a confetti shower together.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Week 15 - Playoffs Actually

Baltimore, MD -- 12/17/06.

Oh the weather outside is frightful,
Actually, it was 64 degrees and sunny in Baltimore.

But the fire is so delightful,
Actually, if you ask Kyle Boller, I don't know if playing under fire is all that delightful.

And since we've no place to go,
Actually, the Ravens clinched a post-season birth on Sunday so we are going to the playoffs.

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!
We do play in Pittsburgh next week on Christmas Eve, so why not.

The Holiday Season took center stage at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday as the game day entertainment included the Ravens cheerleaders dressed as Santa’s little helpers; a Ravens video montage set to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (see it here); an angel named Demetrius and a Grinch known as the Injury Bug.

On its surface, the game appeared to be an early Christmas present, or at least a really good gift on the third night of Hanukkah. The weather was unseasonably warm, the Ravens were favored by 11 points, and Jeff and I began the day camped out in the middle of the field as more than 40 women in purple Santa-style outfits came sprinting towards us. The ladies were joined by two of the state’s high School football championship teams to form quite possibly the longest pre-game gauntlet in franchise history. By the time the players made it to the end of the line their high fiving had succumbed to knowing glances.

We were joined on the sidelines by a few familiar faces, although we didn’t actually know everyone we recognized. The first face to find us was a former RaveTV crew member who is now a cameraman for NFL Films. The NFL is the pinnacle of the sports media world, but even within the ranks of professional football, a hierarchy exists with NFL Films a notch above the team’s themselves. The discrepancy is in part due to the simple fact that surprise, NFL Films shoots their footage on film. That way, they can get those super-slow-motion-close-up shots that make players seem even scarier, and sweatier, than they do at regular speed.

The other recognizable personality on the field was WBAL’s celebrity sideline reporter of the week, Josh Charles. Some might know him from his starring role on the short-lived sitcom, Sports Night; others will remember him from The Dead Poets Society; but everyone should recall his breakout role as Bryan, the burger flipping love interest of Christina Appelgate in the cult classic, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.

Each week, WBAL has a famous face/voice calling the action from the field level, from Art Donovan to Jada Pinkett Smith. However, most of the time we don’t notice the star of the day until they are shown on the SmartVision boards for all the fans to see. But this time was different. Josh Charles not only shares my namesake, but apparently my enthusiasm for being on the field, knowing that like me, this is not his day job and may be the only time he ever gets this close to NFL action. Every big play, every change of possession, I would see him sprinting along side me as I lugged the tripod up and down the sidelines. He would get down on his knees to get a closer look at a tackle. He would try to find out more about player injuries (more on that in a moment) and he just seemed to have a drive inside him that would not let him take anything for granted. I guess that’s how he was able to convince Christina to take him back during that fateful speech from the inside of his burger delivery cart.

Now no one would confuse Josh Charles with Jim Carrey, but someone was playing The Grinch on Sunday as injuries threatened to derail the Ravens Super Bowl plans. In the first quarter, Steve McNair's hand got stepped on and he didn’t return the rest of the way. Later in the game, Samari Rolle tackled Braylon Edwards out of bounds and did not get up for a few minutes. The medical staff showed off their 40 speed as they sprinted to the corner of the field where Rolle was lying. When he finally got to his feet, he was holding his arm tight to his body and you could tell he was holding back the pain until he was safely inside the locker room. Then, in the fourth quarter when the game appeared to be over, Todd Heap and Jonathan Ogden were shaken up on the same play. The clock couldn’t go fast enough.

There was one shining star, or at least a budding one, who managed to steer clear of the injury bug and grow some wings on Sunday. In what was his first touchdown reception and Kyle Boller’s longest pass of his career, Demetrius Williams caught a 77-yard bomb in the third quarter to essentially put the Ravens, and the RaveTV crew, into the next round. Fittingly, Williams is rumored to wear red contact lenses, which should remind you of a famous reindeer who typically gets a lot of air time around the holidays for leading his team.

After a few free drinks in the beer tent, thank you Kate, Lauryn and I decided it was time for some Chinese and Chargers as we watched the San Diego game with take out from Ding How. Someone had to celebrate. Even in a suburban, married couple sort of way. Because despite the fact that you couldn't tell by listening to the players, who have their sights set on more than just a post-season birth, or notice it from watching the fans, who are now ready for another Super Bowl run, the victory on Sunday still meant something special - we are going to the playoffs, actually. So delightful.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Week 14 – Magically Delicious

Kansas City, MO – 12/10/06.

I hereby declare myself the 2006 Ravens’ official Lucky Charm.

Mark Clayton may have scored the big touchdown and Ed Reed may have made the big plays on defense, but this week’s win was a virtual lock as soon as I boarded the team bus on Saturday. I know that sounds preposterous, probably because it is, but after a loss last Thursday while I watched the game from Fells Point, this was my week to prove my true value to the team. (Editors Note: Laura, another Ravenite who missed last week's loss, just happened to sit next to me on the bus ride to the airport and I think we both have some sort of Karma connection with the winning and losing this year.)

My services were needed right from the start as I stepped back into my role as bellhop by carrying Lauryn’s bags up the stairs and onto the plane. Apparently no one filled the position last week as they watched Lauryn struggle every step of the way. They were all glad to have me back because none of them knew whether they were suppose to help or not. For future reference, I will happily let anyone interested carry my wife’s bags, no strings attached.

As our bus drove us through the majestic mountains of Missouri (how much more middle of the country can you get?) all we could talk about was where we would be going for dinner. This was Kansas City, the melting pot of the BBQ world, and even though we ‘snacked’ on some steak and lobster during the flight out, nothing was going to keep us away from the grill of our dreams, Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue.

The only thing you need to know about Jack Stack is that the tables are set with two bowls of barbeque sauce before you even sit down. The walls were adorned with portraits of what else, cows. But don’t be fooled, the menu featured five different meats, and our table took a taste of them all. Pork, sausage, turkey, lamb, and of course – beef. And not just any beef, the menu describes one of the rib dishes as follows, ‘Dinosaur-sized ribs for those who crave the taste of beef.’ Apparently this is where the Flintstone’s gets carryout on those cold winter nights after a game. It also happened to be the preferred dine-in location for a few players as we saw two tables full of Ravens enjoying some ribs. Also apparent, the menu wasn’t lying. The Prime Beef Ribs were about a foot long each, had been cooked for 10 hours, and with a thick coating of barbeque sauce tasted absolutely delicious. Magical even.

Each week more and more people start to take notice that RaveTV not only has a new team member this year, but he happens to be very close to the cute girl from the editing suites they’ve come to love over the years. Eventually they put it together that I’m the spouse of said cutie and we subsequently hear our share of ‘adorable’ comments. This week may have brought us one of the best, however, as one of the coaches casually commented as we boarded the bus, ‘Honeymoon in Kansas City.’ It sounds like a mediocre movie at best, but we make the best of every city, and KC would be no different for this adorable couple.

Once we made it to the stadium I accidentally took on my next role for the team, press agent. Now that might be a bit of a stretch, but I played the part for a few brief moments before the game as I hung out on the field watching John Clayton give his SportsCenter update. I was trying to hear if Willis McGahee was going to play today as my fantasy football playoffs kicked off this week. Laurence Maroney was already being ruled out and McGahee was still listed as questionable! What's a fantasy GM to do.

I didn’t want to get too close, but as I edged my way towards the set, another ESPN host approached. Rachel Nichols (pictured in the white hat on the left) was also covering the game today and before I could decide how to introduce myself, she saw that I was dressed in purple and started asking me all sorts of questions. Potentially important questions. Like when does Ray Lewis come out of the tunnel to warm up? I could have thrown off the entire broadcast with the wrong answer. Luckily, as Brian Billick tells all his first year players, we aren’t rookies any more. I’d seen Ray Ray do his pregame routine enough times to give answers that seemed to satisfy Ms. Nichols. We kept up the small talk for a few minutes about the weather before I was summoned back to the locker room. I was giddy. It was sort of like the popular girl in high school sitting down at your lunch table to ask what the English homework was. I didn’t matter why, it was that it happened at all that made it exciting. I couldn’t wait to tell Lauryn. I made it clear that my excitement had nothing to do with the fact that Rachel was a woman. It was purely professional. I would have been just as excited to chat with John Clayton and if you’ve seen him lately, he is no Rachel Nichols.

By the time the game got started, I was back to work for the first time in two weeks and it felt good to be out on the field in a sea of red and, well, red. Kansas City fans love their Chiefs and Arrowhead Stadium is legendary around the league for being the loudest place to play. It’s also the perfect place to shoot a game as I’ve always associated KC with the NFL Films clips you see on HBO each week. This was sacred ground in the NFL and I felt privileged to step out onto the grass. Speaking of which, Don was told that the reason KC switched to grass in the ‘90’s was at the ‘request’ of Hall of Fame quarterback, Joe Montana, who finished his career as a Chief. Just an interesting side note, thought I’d share.

There was a sign back in the locker room that read, ‘Don’t Confuse Effort With Results’. Well, I do know that I really can’t affect the result, but I sure put in the effort. Jeff and I sprinted up and down the field all day as we followed this weeks wired Raven, Ovie Mughelli. Lucky for us, Ovie not only plays offense, but he is also a special teams star. That means he has the potential to be out on the field on just about every play, which kept us on our toes and on our knees most of the game. And what a game it was. Our defense is scary good. Just when you thought KC was about to score, we would not only stop them, we would force a turnover. Which would of course force me to scramble back to the bench to grab the tripod, but even the confusion on the sideline was exciting. This was a playoff type atmosphere and we were playing like it.

The final score was 20-10. After the game, the top performers from the Ravens are asked to speak to the media in what is usually a make-shift press conference. The room in which they were holding the press conference also happened to be RaveTV’s make-shift locker room. We scurried inside and tried to pack up as quietly as possible. I took care of my duties, but my attention was on the podium. The first player called in was Mark Clayton who made a stop on his way to the microphone as he gave Lauryn a hug. Now if it was just about any other player I think my heart would have tightened up, I mean it is hard to compete with multi-millonaires, but fortunately Clayton is just about the most polite NFL player you will ever meet. He calls Ray Lewis 'sir' and he has yet to spike the ball after a touchdown. He seemed like he wanted to today after his 87-yard touchdown, but true to form, he held up. Maybe he'll carry Lauryn's bags next time...

The next player to take the stand was Terrell Suggs. Apparently T-Sizzle forgot his hat in the locker room and since the rest of the crowd was the news media, he looked to us for a quick wardrobe rescue. He tried on Don Barto’s hat first but thought better of it and gave it back. Luckily, Tim pulled out some fine head gear that suited Terrell’s taste as he promptly took the offering and put it on with a bit of a lean to the right. That is how all the cool kids wear it. He was followed by Ed Reed who answered every question in his undershirt, shorts, and flip flops – the things you can’t see on tv. Ed was the star of the game, and he had some celebration plans for the trip back to the airport.

Once we finished packing, we hit the showers and boarded the bus as Ed, Bart Scott, and a few of the other players managed to secure some freshly grilled ribs for the trip. How in the world did they find BBQ between the locker room and the parking lot? The tailgaters had gone home already...They must have some good connections, who can cook a mean side of beef, because the bus smelled divine as we made our way to our seats. As the players waved their ribs in the year, they got the bus driver to pump up some Kansas City hip hop as they relished the sweet taste of victory.

This was the Ravens 5th road victory of the year after losing all eight last season. A season in which I did not have a seat on the chartered flight. Although I did bare witness to a loss in Denver earlier this year, it was a Monday night which means I really shouldn't have attended, after all, I still have a pretty good day job. Of course you all know what happened last Thursday when I stuck around in Baltimore. So while the Ravens are off to their best start in team history, I don't really know how to explain the connection between my tripod sprints and each big win. Magic? Perhaps. Lucky? Maybe. Charmed? I’m sure.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Week 13 (Part One) - Roughing the Passer

Cincinnati, OH -- 11/30/06.

By Jay O'Brien (pictured in rain gear below)

They say that the best defense is a good offense, so let me say this at the beginning of my first & only blog entry of the season ----- it’s all Josh Lukin’s fault. The sports world is intense, competitive, and superstitious, and there are certain things that should never be changed in the midst of a championship season – socks, underwear, and miniature tripod carriers. And as for my own 0-3 career record traveling with the Baltimore Ravens, I have only 1 response – Josh is 0-3 in those games watching them from alternate locations. Coincidence?

So after the 13-7 game in Cincinnati, and after my dream of being in the post game locker room as the Ravens celebrated a division championship was dashed, I began thinking of other things that would have changed during the road trip to Cincinnati had I not been there (and before I get started, let me warn you that this is what happens when you call me Julie and make fun of my snazzy suit that I wore on the plane):

1) Lauryn and Josh would have been able to go out to dinner with relatives, who live in every NFL city. Following the dinner, which will happen at “one of the best steakhouses/seafood places/salad emporiums in the country,” they would have been able to take a wonderful picture outside of said steakhouse/seafood place/salad emporium to post right here.

2) Scotty would have spoken to someone else about something completely meaningless for 20 minutes straight “Yeah Jay, you can take razor blades on the plane now. You can take as many as you want! You used to not be able to take fluids on, or toothpastes for that matter, but now they just look at it and say, Ok you’re good to go! Even Scope you can bring on, I don’t know about the other brands of mouthwash, but definitely Scope. Hey Jay, do you have any Scope? Where am I?”

3) Jeff Atkinson would have missed a shot. I know this is unimaginable because he not only invented cameras and all lighting equipment, but also the sunlight and moonlight that lights the earth. But seriously, he would’ve missed a shot. Because you know, he’s not perfect. Seriously.

4) The entire crew would have made it to the Tropicana bar in Kentucky and, instead of hanging out with Jason Giambi, Marshall Faulk, and Nick Lachey (which actually happened), they would have sat at the bar and ordered questionable minty &/or fruity beverages from the male bartenders wearing bowties but not shirts. Tim would continue to try and get into the VIP level with his minty &/or fruity beverage, but would still be waiting outside because “that tall dude doesn’t work for the Ravens, he works for WBAL!!”

5) Junior would not have to worry about that awkward climb up the stairs to the plane with Lauryn struggling to carry her bags in front of him. Do I offer to help her? Do I let her struggle? Oh, she’ll be okay.

6) Don would text message me back in Baltimore with funny lines from Family Guy.

7) With my absence, Larry would find a new person to call Half-day _______. My vote goes to Brevet, aka Half-day Elvis.

8) And last, but certainly not the least, I would have been soaked with Yuengling instead of rain as the Ravens would have won the game.(P.S. I hope that the Ravens organization doesn’t actually believe that I’m a curse, because I would LOVE to travel to our playoff games if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if if we make the playoffs.)

Happy trails Ravens Road blog, maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe we’ll get to read you thru the playoffs.

Week 13 (Part Two) - A Tale of Two Cities

Baltimore, MD – 11/30/06.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Well, actually it was just the worst. At least in Cincinnati. I'm sorry Jay. It was a beautiful night in Baltimore.

In a season full of highlights, under the lights last Thursday night was a low point. Something wasn’t right.

Carson Palmer completed first down passes with ease. Matt Stover missed a chip shot field goal after a bad snap. BJ Sams was lost for the year. The Ravens offense couldn’t get out of the mud. And I never got out of Maryland. Now I’m not saying I could have helped Matt Katula on the snap that led to Stover’s miss, or somehow alert Ed Reed that a flea-flicker was coming, but these are the facts – I was in Baltimore and the Ravens lost in Cincinnati. I’m just saying…

And I’m not the only one who thought my absence was a detriment to the team. Within two minutes of the final whistle, I received text messages from across the country (or at least New York and Baltimore) that I was at fault. I sent a note to Lauryn. I promised not miss another game.

Despite sticking around in The Charm City, my season in the spotlight continued as I watched the game with a few friends, coworkers (one of which decided NOT to wear purple), a Super Bowl champion, an offensive lineman, and the ABC news team at Shuckers in Fells Point. The waterfront restaurant was host to the local pregame show that featured Michael McCrary as a host and Edwin Mulitalo on the ukulele. I thought it might be worthwhile for me to inform the production crew that I was on-hand and available if they needed an emergency blogger (more on that later). I decided it was best to keep that to myself, but I kept my Treo by my side just in case.

The live audience also got some face time and lucky for me, I knew exactly where to stand. Just before the final sign off, we knew the camera was going to shine on our little corner of the bar before the network switched to the broadcast. Our resident Texan was front and center and attempted to flash the ‘Hook ‘Em Horns’ sign for all of Baltimore to see. What he didn’t expect was a sneak attack on his chicken fingers. As soon as the camera light turned red, I went in for the kill, gave a wink to the camera, and had myself a snack! That’s what Mik gets for trying to post inappropriate comments on the blog. And you wondered why they’re moderated now.

As I previously noted, the game did not go as planned. The bar was practically silent until the fourth quarter. A last ditch effort ended with a missed onside kick and the Shuckers crowd emptied into the Baltimore night.

Unfortunately for Lauryn and the RaveTV crew, they still had a flight home to catch. We traded text messages for an hour since the rain was keeping Lauryn on edge. I’ve come to learn that the most important part of my job on the road is keeping Lauryn calm when the plane hits turbulence (in addition to carrying our bags up the stairs). This week she had to rely on Don to keep her in conversation during takeoff. I think he’s looking forward to my return next week. As is Lauryn, the Speical Teams unit, and of course, I can't wait. Kansas City is supposed to have the best ribs in the country. And it's time to get back to what's best. With a few more wins, this season can still turn out to be the best of times.

Apparently I'm not the only advertising executive moonlighting as a blogger.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Week 12 – Can You Hear Me Now?

Baltimore, MD – 11/26/06

It was a day just like any other day. Except that it wasn’t.

The Ravens were playing the defending Super Bowl Champions, and their fiercest division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

By the time the game would come to an end, the Ravens would break a Steelers all-time record and set a franchise mark of their own.

And for the first time in my RaveTV career, we would not have a player wired during the game.

We did not have any coaches wired either, but we did set out to focus on the Special Teams units and their coordinator, Frank Gansz Jr. But how would we be able to record what was being said on the bench and in the huddle without actually taping a mic to any of the players you might ask? That’s easy, or as Jeff described it, ‘brainless’. All we had to do, or should I say I had to do, was stick a long pole with a microphone secured on the end, called a 'boom mic', in the face of anybody who happened to be talking about the Special Teams.

I was being promoted to the Audio Engineers Club for the day and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Sure, sticking a pole in the face of a 250-lb professional football player sounds easy, but try sticking a pole in the face of a 250-lb professional football player and see what happens. Than I was informed that not only did I have to wear a kangaroo pouch with a mixing board tucked inside, but I actually had to learn what the damn thing did. All I saw was a random array of knobs, meters, switches and pulsating lights. It was like staring at the controls inside the cockpit after being told that you might need to fill in as a flight attendant.

We did have some other options. As I mentioned, we were going to try and cover Coach Gansz as much as possible and we thought that maybe we could just film him talking to the players and then dub his voice later, sort of like Mystery Science Theatre meets Inside the NFL. We could even make it a comedic episode of Ravens Wired with sound bites like, “Who wants to make a Starbucks’ run?” or “How many push-ups do you think I could do?”

Alas, we stuck with the pole and I was stuck, well, with the pole. But don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t complaining because the pole served as my all access pass to just about any conversation being had on the field, including the pre-game huddle. You know the one where Ray Lewis is surrounded by all 52 teammates and the entire NFL films crew. The one where Ray barks at his troops and leads them in song, “We Read-y. We Read-y. All my dogs in the house. Woo Woo Woo Woo! All my dogs in the house Woo Woo Woo Woo!” Now it might have only been three ‘Woo’s’ but either way, I was in the house, on the field, and smack dab in the middle of the huddle recording every word. An audio engineer's dream come true, or at least a sports-fan-trying-to-be-an-audio-engineer's dream come true.

Ray’s huddle wasn’t the only gathering we were invited to on Sunday. Right before each kickoff, Gansz would bring his unit together on the field and I sprinted out there with them to make sure we could hear what Coach wanted. Sometimes he wanted to give our kicker, Matt Stover, some instruction on which way to angle the ball. Sometimes he wanted to give a few key players direction on how he expected the Steelers to try and block them. But most of the time, I think he just wanted to get the guys focused and fired up.

Overall the ‘boom experiment’ did not go exactly as planned. I routinely found myself in the wrong place, sticking the pole in the face of the wrong guy, holding the boom too high, even holding it too low to give the shot that authentic b-movie feel. There were even times that I had to battle other booms for position in a A/V Club style duel. But I was learning every minute. I had become extremely proficient in carrying the tripod throughout the first 10 games of the season, but this audio gig was tough work. Remember those knobs and lights, they actually meant something. They serve as a way to adjust how much sound the boom picks up. So I kept looking back at Jeff and Lauryn to see if they could hear okay. Most of the time they couldn’t. I kept expecting the Verizon guy to come out of the stands to mock me.

I finally got the hang of things and we recorded some of our best sound bites as the players shook hands after the game. Again I was allowed to storm the field and stick my nose, and the boom, into any conversation that looked interesting. Ovie Mughelli left the field smiling and talking about teamwork. Stover left the field blowing kisses to his family in the stands. And Ray left the field with the NFL films crew still following faithfully behind him.

The statistics will show that Baltimore finished the game with 9 sacks – the most in franchise history and the most ever allowed by the Steelers. The tapes will show that I successfully recorded at least 9 good sound bites that Lauryn will have to extend into a 5-minute feature. But most importantly, no matter what you listen to, at 9-2, the Ravens are being heard loud and clear around the NFL. Woo Woo Woo Woo!

Editor’s Note: The next Ravens’ game will be this Thursday night against the Bengals. Due to the fact that I actually have a fairly successful career as an advertising executive at Exit10, I will not be traveling to Ohio this week. In my place, RaveTV will be sending one of their own, Jay ‘Oh what a rough night’ O’Brien. Jay has assured me that he will take note of all the excitement a Wednesday night in Cincinnati has to offer and will report back on what could be a division clinching night. However, I won’t be silenced completely as I plan on documenting my Thursday night experience back home in the Charm City. Whose coming with me?!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Week 11 – Reverse the Curse

Baltimore, MD – 11/19/06.

Each week I find myself in the midst of more than 100 of the best athletes in the world. I’ve shared the field (technically) with Ladanian Tomlinson, Randy Moss, Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, Michael Vick and Reggie Bush. I’ve shared a locker room (sort of) with Todd Heap, Jamal Lewis, Ed Reed, Steve McNair and Jonathan Ogden. But no matter how many players I have the fortune of coming face to face with; I will forever remain in awe of Ray Lewis.

There is an infamous curse associated with the top sports publication in the country known as ‘The Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx’. From Eddie Matthews to Nomar Garciaparra, many athletes have suffered a season ending injury or worse after appearing on the front of SI. Ray Lewis appeared on the November 13th issue and hasn’t played since the magazine hit the newsstand. But I’m here to tell you that there is no curse, because Ray Lewis made the difference today in beating the Atlanta Falcons.

His final statistics on the day may have read a lot like my own, but while I waited outside the locker room doors before the game, I’m pretty sure Ray was standing squarely in the center of his sanctuary. We had a mic in Ed Reed’s pads this week, both of them actually (more on that in a moment), and as we waited for Ed to emerge we eavesdropped on the pre-game speech by Baltimore’s beloved cover boy.

The title of the cover story was ‘The Gospel According to Ray’ and fittingly, Lewis delivered a moving sermon Sunday morning. He spoke about teammates that were unable to play today and how they would give anything to take just one snap, line up for just one play. He left his team with a simple message, to appreciate each and every moment of each and every game. As we listened in, Lauryn and I shot each other quick looks. And not just of attraction, but of amazement. We were privileged to hear the Ravens’ leader do what he does best – lead. Even without his pads, Ray’s impact was going to be felt.

As for Reed, with #52 out of action, he was going to be the last player introduced into the stadium. As 70,000 fans waited to welcome him, we were just happy that he was wearing the right shoulder pads. Apparently Ed is one of the few players on the team, and maybe in the NFL, who has two sets of pads. Unfortunately we wired the wrong set on our first attempt. Don came back to our staging room with both sets in tow and Dr. Atkinson was recalled for some emergency rewiring. Of course the surgery was a success and we were ready to run with Reed for the next three hours.

We weren’t the only runners on the field, however, and we certainly weren’t the only ones with press credentials. This week the Ravens’ game was televised on Fox and the crew included a Moose, a Goose, and a Dick. That’s Daryl ‘Moose’ Johnston, Tony ‘Goose’ Siragusa, and Dick ‘Dick’ Stockton. In some sort of ironic twist, at least for Lauryn and I, Daryl and Dick are Syracuse Alumni, while the word Siragusa looks a lot like the Italian province SU is named for, Siracusa.

There was one more national media personality of note on the field, Rachel Nichols of ESPN. I only mention her because as we ate breakfast in the press box, I saw a report by Ms. Nichols on one of the TV screens. I took a healthy bite of my bagel and Laura, another one of our gameday crew members who I promised to mention at least once on the blog, pointed over my shoulder to say, ‘there she is again’. I thought she meant Rachel was in the cafeteria, which was an actual possibility for once because as I said, she was reporting live from M&T Bank Stadium. Of course it turned out that she was still just reporting live from the stadium and happened to appear on another one of the TV’s, but I thought it was worth noting, and it is my blog.

Now back to the other runners. Jamal Lewis had three rushing touchdowns in the game, but the biggest gains of the day were made by return specialist, BJ Sams. Sams gained over 200 return yards and during two of his longest runs, he seemed to head straight at us. I know he wasn’t trying to, but if you look at the replays, you can almost see Jeff and I towards the end of the play . His return in the second quarter actually stopped directly in front of us as he was immediately swarmed by any and all Ravens in his vicinity, including Ray Lewis. I was later told that one of Ray’s comments to Sams after his run was something along the lines of, 'next time you gotta score'. Apparently he takes Ray’s comments seriously because BJ sure tried his hardest to follow those orders with two more 60+ yard retuns. Of course neither were for a touchdown, I hope Ray let it slide.

The game came to an end after another dominating second half for the men in purple resulting in a 24-10 victory. As is customary after each game, the players greet each other in the middle of the field and we find a way to get a camera on them. We got lucky today as we followed Ed around. He shook hands with a few Falcons, gave a few hugs, and even got a ‘Ohio State’ cheer from Michael Jenkins, an Atlanta wide receiver and former Buckeye. The strange thing is that Reed isn’t a former Buckeye or a Michigan Wolverine; I guess Ohioans just want to make sure everyone knows they won on Saturday. Duly noted.

The next stop on the post-game parade was Michael Vick. Ed gave MV7 a pat on the helmet, just as McNair approached Vick from behind. The Vick-McNair encounter attracted every reporter in Baltimore. Just as he did with Vince Young in Nashville, each week McNair seems to be giving the next generation of quarterbacks a tutorial on how to win in the NFL. I’m just glad the lessons keep going as planned.

As the players returned to the locker room, I got a taste of the post game celebration. This week, the game-ball went to BJ Sams, but Billick made sure to emphasize that just like every victory, this was a team win. A team that includes Ray Lewis and a team that has won the last two weeks with Ray out of uniform, but still inside the minds of every man who does suit up. Therefore, in conclusion your honor, I submit to you evidence that if this is the ultimate team sport, then two straight victories for Baltimore in the aftermath of the Ray Lewis cover concludes that the curse, and I quote the Raven, is nevermore.

In the spirt of team unity, the RaveTV crew took part
in their own post-game celebration. But even in the beer
tent, Ray was still with us. Check out the jersey behind
Lauryn's head.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Week 10 – Steak and Cake

11/12/06 – Nashville, TN.


I have no clue what that means, but in the home of country music, it's gospel. And it also happens to be a perfect way to explain our victory against the Titans because I have no clue how it happened.

For those of you who read last week's entry, you are well aware that this blogger is a Yankee. Maryland seems to live in a gray area between the North and South, but New Jersey sits squarely above the Mason-Dixon line. As a result, country music could be sung in Swedish and I wouldn't know the difference. But there is another aspect of southern culture that I’m happy to take comfort in - big 'ol steaks.

When I told my Dad we were headed to Nashville, he suggested a steak house for Lauryn and I to try. But he couldn't remember the exact name. He thought it was along the lines of 'The Ranch'. Lucky for us, his clue led us down the right path and up 2nd Avenue to the appropriately named, 'The Stockyard'. That was some good eatin’ right ther (read that last line with an overly stereotypical southern accent and it sounds really cool). The menu featured 9 lb lobsters and 37 oz rib eye's. I felt like John Candy in the Great Outdoors. Maybe I could get my name up on the wall, right between the ‘Aging Meat’ sign and a commemorative Reba McIntyre record. Eventually we both settled on filet mignon. As Lauryn tried to say, "When in Tennessee, do as Tennesseans do." So I did as I ordered my steak with some sort of cheese on top. Cheese on filet mignon! I love the South.

The Nashville night reminded us that we were a long way from home. Johnny Cash covers, cowboy hats, southern belles and some Badonkadonk. Still no clue, but it flows nicely, right? I didn't know the words to any of the songs anyway, but I did catch myself toe tapping with one hand on my belt buckle. Why does that happen?

On to the game. As I mentioned, it was hard to explain. First and foremost, it was the return of Steve McNair to his former stomping grounds. In a very classy move, the Titans played a short video tribute to #9 before the game. But I don't think the crowd wanted to see him go. A woman commented to us on the elevator in a not-so-subtle-but-very-sarcastic tone, "So you have our little quarterback now, don't ya." I thought, ‘Um, yes, I suppose we do ma'am, but he is 6' 2" and doesn't know who I am.’ I decided just to nod in appreciation. It sure was nice to have their little Stevie on our side.

As we were wiring this week’s featured Raven, Mark Clayton, some emergency surgery was needed on the microphone. As a result, his pads were left alone on top of one of our cases while the surgeons - Don and Jeff - went to work on the mic. Then someone asked me for something in the case. I would have to pick up the pads. Of course they are practically indestructible and made to handle the impact of flying linebackers, but I was worried they might fall apart in my hands. Well Clayton ended up catching 7 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown so I think my handling may have actually helped. I was very careful with them. I swear.

The game appeared over before we really got started. Interceptions, a safety, a few personal fouls and at least three injured Ravens taken to the locker room before halftime. One of the fallen was Musa Smith who had to be taken off the field on a cart. We picked up his voice on Clayton’s microphone saying, “I can't feel my legs". It made you wonder how there wasn't a serious injury on every play in the NFL. Fortunately he was back on the sidelines by the end of the game.

Meanwhile, Vince Young, who is so much taller in person than I was lead to believe - led the Titans to a 26-7 lead midway through the 2nd quarter. However, there was still a lot of game left and the Ravens had some Badonkadonk left in them. See how versatile that word can be when you don't know what it means.

The final score for Baltimore came on a touchdown pass from McNair to Derrick Mason. The play was meaningful on so many levels. First, it gave the Ravens the lead for the first time since the first quarter. Second, it marked a memorable homecoming for both players who gained fame together in Tennessee. And third, and either the most or least important reason depending on who you talk to; I have both players on my fantasy team. The touchdown counts double for Canton FC (my fantasy football team name) and my enthusiasm got the best of me as I pumped my fist and showed off the 12 inch vertical once again.

The game still wasn’t over. The Titans had a field goal try to win the game. Lauryn couldn't look. Luckily Trevor Pryce was watching and blocked the kick. More fist pumping. Clayton held his helmet high. Bart Scott gave a few fans some high fives. I caught a glimpse of the out-of-town scores and yelled back at Larry, San Diego just scored again! McNair took a knee and all of a sudden we were 7-2 with a three game lead in the division.

The celebration continued on the bus and back on the plane as the sun set on Nashville. We were leaving the Music City and all the Badonkadonk it had to offer. Fortunately, our chartered jet had a little more in store. After a screening of Talladega Nights on the way down, we were able to focus on the food on the way back. A few players whipped up some cobbler; we were treated to chicken and rice, and a little something special in honor of the men in purple. Another great weekend in the books, and on the blog. Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr. would say it best:

Steak. And. Cake. Steak and cake!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Week 9 – Tunnel Vision

Baltimore, MD – 11/5/06.

I haven’t completed my research, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there are no 5’9” Jewish guys from New Jersey playing in the NFL today. In fact, according to the world renowned Jewish News Weekly, there were only 7 Jewish players in the entire NFL in 2005. I don’t mean to stereotype. Jewish people, along with just about every other racial and religious group in the country, are taking enough of a beating from Borat this week. But Jews don’t typically play with the pigskin. It doesn’t even sound Kosher.

The reason I mention the startling statistics above is that this afternoon, on a beautiful, but brisk day in Baltimore, I found myself standing at the cusp of NFL stardom. Inside the players’ tunnel, at the entrance to the field, this 5’9” Jewish boy from New Jersey wound up in the midst of the parade that is player introductions in the NFL.

First the visiting team took the field. Chad Johnson was so close that I could tell that not only did he shave his golden mohawk, but I think I noticed a smile full of gold teeth. Then came the cheerleaders and the three Raven mascots, one of which patted me on the back with one of his wings. It was my second ‘brush’ with fame on the day as ESPN football analyst, Sal Paolantonio, also patted me on the back while trying to get by me in the press box. I know that’s not as exciting to most of you as an encounter with Ray Lewis, who was the next to walk by me in the tunnel, but for the same reason my heart skipped when I saw Chris Berman in Denver, I grew up wanting to sit alongside these guys at the SportsCenter desk. A much more attainable goal for me than, lets say, a middle linebacker. Mike Greenberg. Tony Kornehiser. Al Michaels. Sports heroes a young Jewish boy could look up to. But on this day, I was standing in line with the linebackers.

The last players to enter were the offensive starters and from under the stands, I could hear the crowd shake with every announcement. The last to be introduced was Todd Heap, who ran through the smoke and the runway strip of players to finish off the pre-game spectacle. What the PA announcer may not have realized is that Lauryn and I were still in the tunnel. We followed Heap into the smoke but apparently the pyrotechnic crew increases the gas flow after the last player takes the field. We lost each other in the confusion. I wasn’t sure if the fans still had their eyes glued to the entrance and I didn’t want to stumble on my way out, so I stopped in the midst of the smoke and waited for further direction from Lauryn. Of course she clearly had been here before because she had already left me by the time I looked up. I wonder how many 5’2” Jewish girls from Columbia, MD could say that they ran through the tunnel at an NFL game. I’m proud to say that she’s probably pioneering that path.

My big entrance, however, was going awry. My NFL dreams were about to go up in smoke. Pun intended. Then I caught a glimpse of the grass as I was searching for a way out and I made a run for it. Daylight! I emerged from the haze and welcomed the crowds cheers. I think they were still focused on Heap and the offense, but I didn’t mind sharing the praise. With 70,000 fans in attendance, there was enough to go around.

The game could not have started better for Baltimore. Two turnovers. Two touchdowns. The second score came courtesy of Ed Reed, who stole the ball from Samari Rolle after Rolle intercepted a pass from Carson Palmer. I don’t know if I have ever seen a group of Baltimoreans happier than the fans were at that point in the game. Not while eating crabs on the way to Ocean City. Not while playing competitive kickball in Federal Hill. And certainly not at Oriole games the last 10 years. Husbands kissed their wives. Brothers hugged each other. And who knows, despite being less than 48 hours away from Election Day, you could even imagine Ehrlich and O’Malley giving each other fist pounds before realizing whom they were celebrating with. It could happen.

In the past few weeks, the talk of the NFL has been Ocho Cinco (a.k.a. Cincinnati’s Chad Johnson, #85). But today belonged to Baltimore’s Ocho Seis. Just ask Trevor Pryce, our wired Raven this week who commented after one of Heap’s big catches, ‘That man has skills!’ Or you could ask the clever fan in the modified Heap jersey that I stole the name from. Either way, the first half belonged to the Ravens and the team led 17-7 at halftime.

Unfortunately, the Bengals decided to play the second half as well and just as they did two years ago, their highflying offense began to chip away at the lead. Then something funny happened. Not ‘funny ha-ha’. More like ‘funny uh-oh’. Palmer completed a deep pass to Chris Henry and Chris McAllister was able to tackle him just before the end zone. The ball came loose and Ed Reed picked it up and tried to run it back. At some point in the play, both Ed and Ray were knocked to the ground and had to be attended to by the medical staff. As loud as the crowd was up 14-0, there was stunned silence in the stands as the faces of the franchise lay flat on their backs. Of course there was confusion too.

The play was ruled a fumble. Cincinnati challenged and it was overturned. Then Billick tried to challenge that Henry was out of bounds before the reversed fumble even took place. Billick lost the challenge. So to summarize: two challenges, both went against the Ravens; two players down, both of them Ravens; and the Bengals get the ball on the four. Kudos to Larry and the game day crew in the video control room who not only brought up the replay on the SmartVision boards, but were able to zoom in on Henry’s foot, apparently stepping out of bounds. Too bad Larry wasn’t controlling the replay booth the referee was using.

As the game wore on, every time we would film Pryce about to take the field, we were lucky enough to almost get in the way of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as they psyched themselves up for each new series. I don’t care how many times I get to stand on the sidelines, I will always be in awe of the aura surrounding Ray Lewis. I couldn’t help but stare at him. I tried not to make eye contact but I did make arm contact. He has a tattoo of a panther on his bicep that is in honor of his mentor growing up in Florida. I swear, if I didn’t know better, and as I’ve mentioned many times that this whole experience still feels like a dream, I think the panther snarls a little as Ray pumps his arms. It is scary. Especially up close. And even though I experienced my first player introduction earlier in the day, I don’t think I’m ready for the massive bicep tattoo just yet. Remember, still 5’9”. Still the Jewish boy from New Jersey.

As the fourth quarter ticked away, the Ravens found themselves up just six points with less than three minutes to play. The Ravens fans knew that in order to stop another dramatic comeback, the 12th man had to be called upon. And the crowd abided. In accordance with the newest man-law, a continuance on the chant, ‘D-Fence!’ was issued. 70,000 strong sang loudly. Even a few of us on the ground got into the act. Fourth down and the game was on the line. This was my professional debut; I wasn’t going to let this one get away. A few extra ‘D’s’ had to help. And it did. Palmer’s pass was tipped. The game was over. The Ravens gained a game in the standings and took control of the AFC North.

As I reflected on my day in the spotlight I realized a few things. First, other than my in-laws watching from section 230, I was not in the spotlight. Second, even with a defense ranked 3rd in the NFL, no lead is safe. And third, there just might be a universal truth that connects Jews in New Jersey to the NFL. In Brian Billick’s post game speech to the team, he referenced that one thing he was looking forward to after the game was sharing some Chinese take-out with his family. A tradition shared by many of my religion. Lauryn and I do the same after every home game and hopefully all our cookies will continue to bring us good fortune.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Week 8 - Dream A Little Dream

New Orleans, LA -- 10/29/06.

Surreal (adj.) 1. Characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions (i.e. Our trip to New Orleans was surreal.)

Lets start with the fantastic imagery, and for those of you who have never had the pleasure of spending an evening on Bourbon St., the imagery is fantastic! Especially on Halloween, a night in which you are allowed to wear anything you could imagine, something’s you couldn’t imagine, and in some cases, not enough to leave anything to the imagination.

Now before I get into the visual buffet, I have to start my story with some true gourmet cooking. Lauryn’s Aunt and Uncle treated us to some of N’Orleans finest fare at Galatoire’s right on Bourbon St. No menus. No need. Our waiter explained their specials and his Cajun accent could have convinced me to order anything in the kitchen, even though I couldn’t understand a word he said. Turns out, I said ‘yes’ to a pan-seared butter-basted trout topped with lump crabmeat, in addition to the fried oysters wrapped in bacon that preceded the main course. Butter. Bacon. Fried. How could you go wrong? We probably should have stopped after dessert – pecan pie a la mode – but there were drinks to be had and people to be watched.

We set up on a corner along the strip – Bourbon and Toulouse to be exact – and over the course of the next four hours we witnessed what could only be described as, um, well, I don’t think you could use one word to describe what we saw. Here are a few attempts:

Oompa Loompas, Larry Legend, Moses and the Devil.
Football players, football fields, Stewie, Homer, and we even found Waldo.
Plenty of beads, hot pink boas, and an actual boa constrictor.
Sexy referees, police cadets, Mr. Clean and Little Bo Peep.
Batman and Robin, butterflies, bumble bees, and oh what a view from those famous balconies.

New Orleans was apparently back. I was never in the Big Easy in the pre-Katrina days, but a few drinks ironically called Hurricanes made me see the city for all that it has to offer. Of course my vision may have been impaired at this point in the night, but from what I could tell, New Orleans never looked better.
And now on to those crazy incongruous juxtapositions you’ve been waiting for.

An award winning sportswriter named John Feinstein wrote a book last year about life on the sidelines in the NFL called ‘Next Man Up’ in which he followed the Ravens for an entire season. I couldn’t help but find the concept of interest now that I too am chronicling my year ‘On the Road with the Ravens’. I finally decided to read his version of events and the ‘surreal’ nature of my time with the team really sank in. I would read a paragraph about how and why the team decided to trade a first round draft pick in order to select Kyle Boller. I would then look up from my book and see Kyle Boller getting up to use the bathroom. Every page mentioned someone on the plane. It sounds like the next screenplay from Charlie Kaufman, but I was reading a story that was coming to life right before my eyes. I couldn’t wait to find out how this week’s chapter would go.

The atmosphere inside the refurbished Superdome is ridiculous. It was October 29th, yet I felt like we were at the Super Bowl. Some of the Saints’ legendary alumni were walked out on to the field by the teams cheerleading squad – the Saintsations – who by the way were practicing on the field as we walked into the stadium earlier in the day and I couldn’t help but notice how physical their practice was. I swear – that was the only physical thing I was noticing. The cheerleaders got the crowd up on their feet and the noise that came raining back at us was deafening. Larry had some sort of decibel tracker and the meter was close to 100, which apparently is high because we couldn’t hear ourselves ask if 100 was high.

The game got off to a great start. On third and goal in the first quarter, newly appointed Offensive Coordinator Brian Billick called a running play for quarterback Steve McNair, which he ran to perfection and was barely touched on his way into the endzone. Apparently frustrated by not being able to throw the ball on this particular play, McNair unloaded at the wall behind the goal post to celebrate his score. It just so happens that your favorite production team was filming from right behind the goal post at that exact moment. I never had the chance to play football in high school – more specifically I never thought I’d be able to make it through a practice so I stayed on the baseball diamond where I belonged. In any case, I’ve never really had a ball thrown at me that hard. I wasn’t sure if I should dive out of the way, dive in front of Jeff, or maybe even make a diving attempt at catching the ball. As you can see in the picture (I have the white sleeves on), I eventually decided to just flinch, scared out of my mind about what the ball would do to my hands if I tried to get in its way. I'll have to work on that in practice.

The player we were filming from that fateful vantage point was Jonathan Ogden. Now for those of you who may not be familiar, Jonathan Ogden is a monster. And not just on Halloween. He's a Pro Bowl offensive lineman, a future Hall of Famer, a loving father, and a certifiable genius. But at 6’9” and 345 lbs, in full pads with a few more inches of afro on top, he is above all else a monster. We had the good fortune of listening to ‘J.O.’ the entire day and as the Ravens’ continued to rack up the points, the mood on the sidelines started to change. A bit more jovial you could say. So much so that Ogden felt like singing. Not hip-hop. No Metallica. Not even the NFL standard - Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ which he hummed a few bars of during warm-ups. Nope, the monster was in the mood for a little Wild Cherry and out came the funk:

Play that funky music white boy
Play that funky music right
Play that funky music white boy
Lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die…

The birthplace of Jazz was certainly a good place to get funky and JO and the Ravens’ were getting down all day en route to a 35-22 win.

When the game ended we made our way into the locker room. Now, since my first week on the job, I’ve always found it interesting that female reporters walk around the locker rooms as the players change, shower, hang out – you know things you do in a locker room. I think they have every right to be there, or at least as much of a right as a male reporter, but I still find it a bit, lets say, awkward. So to my surprise, when it came time to shower up, I saw a female reporter hovering around a locker that just happened to be near the showers. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I am by no means a professional athlete, so these situations don’t come up that often for me. The team at Exit10 doesn’t shower after a new business pitch, and we don’t have reporters waiting to talk to us afterwards. Fortunately, as I found myself pacing around the sinks, trying to decide how to handle the situation, Ray Lewis made himself available to the media and all those who carry a microphone swarmed towards our fearless leader. I was free to wash up.

The final piece of the juxtaposition puzzle came on the bus ride to the airport. I was busy checking my fantasy stats and various box scores from around the league. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. From the back of the bus I could hear Ray shouting out scores and stats to his teammates. I would read on my trusty Treo that Fred Taylor rushed for 100 yards against Philadelphia. Ray would shout out, 'Freddie rushed for 100'. You see, Ray Lewis actually knows the players that make up most of my fantasy football roster. Not just by name, but probably by where they grew up and how they like there steaks cooked. Once again, fantasy was becoming a reality.

A secondary definition for the word surreal is, 'Having an oddly dreamlike quality.' My first eight weeks on the road with the Ravens has certainly had an oddly, dreamlike quality to them. A dream in which the line between fantasy and reality is blurred, And after spending 24 exhausting hours in a city in which that line is all but erased, I can't wait to get to sleep to find out what happens in the next chapter of this dream. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Week 7 – On the Couch without the Ravens

Baltimore, MD – 10/23/06.

The Ravens took flight this week, back home to cities across the country to spend a few relaxing days during their only break of the NFL season. Lauryn and I also took advantage of our first Sunday away from the football field by planting ourselves on the couch for eight hours of what else, football. Actually, you could say we watched 12 hours of action since we brought a second television into the living room to allow us to watch both division rivals – Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – who were playing separate games at 1:00.

The day started out with a quick run to the local Safeway for chips, salsa, cheese, crackers, and grapes. I know I know, grapes sound a bit too healthy to consume during a day of football, but Lauryn ate most of them and I only used them to cleanse my palette in between salty snacks.

The games were both close and at one point in the second half, both AFC North foes were losing. Unfortunately, the Bengals found a way to beat the Panthers to tie us for first place. However, the Steelers lost a shootout in OT to the Falcons to fall two games back of both Cinncy and the Ravens.

I’m going to keep this week’s posting brief, considering I’m not promoting via email, I don’t think anyone would be interested in hearing about the amount of salsa that I was able to fit into a Tostitos scoop, and I am distracted by Game 2 of the World Series. Next week should be special though with a trip to New Orleans to see Lauryn’s aunt and uncle, and probably more interesting to all of you, to play the 5-1 Saints. Goodbye bye week. Hello Bayou.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Week 6 - Coffee on the 50

Baltimore, MD. -- 10/15/06.

Starbucks rules the world. America runs on Dunkin. But as much as I enjoy my grande-vanilla-skim-latte, I’ll take my morning caffeine fix on the fifty-yard line any day of the week. Or at least on Sundays. (Editors Note: Lauryn and I have dibs on naming rights to the first 'Coffee on the 50' cafe when we retire to the tropics)

Week six started early for us as RaveTV was going to film Brian Billick on his morning walk from his hotel to the stadium. Since Lauryn had to get to work on the shoot a few hours before I was needed, I was assigned the task of bringing our bags into the stadium. Huge responsibility! Imagine what would happen if we got to the field and one of us didn’t have our gloves. Or worse, not enough pens!

So after a few nervous moments with security, I dropped off our gear – mission accomplished – and headed upstairs to the press box for my morning coffee. A packet of Splenda, some powdered creamer, and I was ready to start my day. Again, I'm a big fan of the froth and foam, but my cup-o-black courtesy of the NFL was good enough for me. I took the elevator back down to the service level and made my way out on to the field. At 8:30 in the morning, the place was empty, eerily silent, and down right cold as it was still covered in shade. At least I had a coffee.

The first sign of life appeared to be an equipment manager who was cleaning the benches. And he wasn’t just wiping them off; he was using some sort of high-powered anti-bacterial spray to get them clean. Why would anyone go through so much trouble? Did this guy realize that just a few hours later, the bench would be filled with men the size of mountains who tend to sweat small rivers during the course of a sixty minute game? Maybe it was keeping him warm. At least I had a coffee.

After watching the sun rise over the stands, I went back inside to see if any of my gameday friends had arrived. As I waited near the entrance to the locker room, the elevator opened and a few Ravens players headed my way. Was I supposed to say hello? Maybe just a casual nod, like the one I tried to give Chris Berman last week. Maybe I should just keep my head down. I didn’t want to look at them the wrong way considering my facial expression would probably set the tone for their entire day. I took a deep breath and just gave a little smirk. A sort of – good morning, have a good game, you don’t know me but I work for the Ravens and I thought I should be friendly even though I’m still a little star-struck at seeing you in person – kind of a smile. They nodded back. We understood each other.

After my mental pep talk to a few members of the team, I got 'the call' (or at least the text message). Lauryn and Jeff were about to start the big trip with Billick and the text informed me that I had to meet them on the city-side of the Hanover St. Bridge at 10:40am. I expected the next call to be Curtis from CTU. I confirmed that I received the message and I headed towards the coordinates. When I reached my position, two figures came running from the woods carrying their weapons of choice – it was Jeff and Lauryn with a pair of Mini-DV cameras. What the hell were they doing? Where was Brian? Apparently the trick was to run about twenty yards ahead of Billick and then film him for a few moments as he walked towards us.

My first assignment when they arrived - take off their clothes. Seriously, they wore a few too many layers and after a couple of wind sprints they needed to shed a fleece or two. I then took charge of protecting Jeff while he moonwalked away from the Coach as he made his way towards the stadium. After a few minutes, the crowd realized who was with us and the cheers began. A couple of fans even decided to take a few steps with Brian to give him some ‘insider’ tips on how to beat the Panthers. Very thoughtful. I’m sure that he considers each and every fans' fantasy football implications before deciding on whether to go for a field goal or not late in the game. Speaking of which, there was a game to be played.

Despite a combined 44 points scored between the two teams, the most memorable moment came early in the first quarter. Steve McNair was sacked deep in Ravens territory and when the dust cleared, McNair was still on one knee. A slight concussion had knocked him down and eventually out of the game. There is a cliché in the football world that states that the most popular player in every NFL city is the backup quarterback. For three years, Kyle Boller was the face of the Ravens' failures. From Anthony Wright to Kordell Stewart, Boller’s backups were praised as he was poked and prodded. So much so, that when Kyle was forced to leave the season opener last year due to injury, the crowd cheered. The HOME crowd cheered when their starting quarterback got injured!

So as much as it hurt to see Steve leave the game, I felt good for Kyle who received an ovation from the fans as he trotted out to the huddle. Cliché confirmed. Three years of frustration would be erased in the minds of Baltimoreans if somehow Boller could lead the team to victory against Carolina.

The game itself got off to a slow start. Partially because we were stuck changing cameras every few minutes due to issues with the tape deck. I’m still learning the broadcasting ropes, but even I know that a video camera that stops recording at random is not a good thing. Eventually Brent and I were able to get back to work. Brent, by the way is the old me. Or should I say I'm the new Brent? Either way, he used to carry the tripod. Now, he carries the camera and with a double shoot day in preparation of bye week, we were teamed together to cover Coach Billick during the game. And after three quarters of questions, we saw a fourth quarter full of answers.

1. Down six, could the Ravens keep Carolina from pushing the lead to two scores? NO. The Ravens trailed 16-7 in the fourth.
2. Down nine, could the Ravens begin a comeback with Boller in charge? YES! After a tipped pass was caught by Mark Clayton for a touchdown, the second tipped pass for a TD by Clayton in the game, the Ravens were within two.
3. Two serendipitous scores in one day had to be a good sign, right? NO. With the Ravens trailing by just two, the Panthers got the ball back with four minutes to play and on first and ten they really answered. A 72-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith. I felt my heart tighten, and it wasn’t the extra cookies we had at halftime, it was just that hard to believe. Who throws deep when you're supposed to run out the clock? Carolina was back up by nine, 23-14.
4. Game over, right? NO! With just over two minutes remaining, Kyle turned a no huddle drive into a scoring one when he found Todd Heap in the back of the end zone. So much for a slow start. Three touchdowns in three minutes.
5. We were back in the game, right? NO!!!! On a lousy third and one, the Panthers converted and were able to run out the clock. Game over.

We were now back on a streak, only this time it was a two-game losing skid heading into the bye week. 13 days to contemplate what’s been working, what went wrong, and where to go from here. Hopefully, Steve McNair will make a recovery from his concussion. Hopefully, the team can take solice in the fact that after losing to Tampa Bay, the Bengals ended the day at 3-2, leaving Baltimore alone in first place. And hopefully, I'll find time to once again watch a full Sunday of football on the couch with a few not-so-healthy salty snacks. So as we say 'Hello' to the time off, hopefully, when we get to New Orleans in two weeks, we will all be able to say it was a 'Good Bye'.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Week 5 – Here Comes the Boom

Denver, CO – 10/9/06.

Harry: “I expected the Rocky Mountains to be a little rockier than this.”
Lloyd: “I was thinking the same thing. That John Denver's full of sh*t, man.”
- Dumb & Dumber, New Line Cinema © 1994

When we touched down in Denver on Sunday, I had to agree with Harry & Lloyd. Although the two were mistakenly gazing at the cornfields of Nebraska, I found myself in the Mile High City with nothing but gray skies on all sides. No mountains in the distance. No snowcaps. No ski lifts. Nope, the Denver skyline was painted a shade of ugly, which was a sign of things to come.

After a week of actually paying attention to all of the ESPN promos asking, ‘Is it Monday Yet?’, it finally was. But first things first, the weather report didn’t get any better over night and they were calling for 2-3 inches of snow. Yes, in October! Of course team officials must have known this prior to leaving Baltimore and I’m sure all of the players had enough clothes to keep them warm, but someone forgot to tell the production crew. The result, a field trip to REI to stock up on long underwear, fleece jackets, and ski pants. Some nice souvenirs I suppose.

Back to the reason we were in town. We arrived at the stadium a few hours before kickoff and I had been telling Lauryn all week that if given the chance, I was hoping to meet Chris Berman, an ESPN living legend. ESPN, now home to Monday Night Football, apparently travels a small armada of sportscasters and production crews to each game as we saw three production trucks outside the stadium, another two trucks inside the stadium, a stage in front of the main entrance, a stage up in the stands, and a war room complete with laptops, video cameras, and umbrellas for the lovely sideline reporting duo of Suzy Kolber and Rachel Nichols. The point of all this is that I assumed it would be impossible to find ‘Boomer’ amidst the fleet. Lucky for me I had a lot of water to drink on the bus.

Most trips to the bathroom are uneventful, at least to my reading audience. But this was no ordinary bathroom visit. As I turned the corner to find the facilities, I recognized a familiar face. It was Steve Young, former San Francisco 49er and current ESPN analyst. Once my brain processed the fact that I was standing next to a hall of fame quarterback that I used to despise during my Cowboy fandom days, I noticed another familiar face. Mr. Berman. The two were chatting it up with Steve McNair. I couldn’t interrupt, and I really had to go, so I darted into the men’s room hoping to formulate a plan.

I entered the bathroom and saw a man getting dressed in the corner. Normally I would pay no attention, but I noticed that this man was wearing a superman shirt and a cowboy hat. Odd I thought. Turns out, the clever people in the promotions department at the Broncos decided to have an actual horse run around the field every time Denver scores. Well this guy, he rides the horse.

So after, well, using the bathroom, I washed my hands and went to dry them. I was hoping Chris was still outside so that I could find a way to casually introduce myself. But then I panicked – no paper towels! A $500 Million dollar stadium and they run out of paper towels! I started waving my hands as fast as I could, maybe they would air-dry in time. At least the cowboy had left so no one was in there to see me flutter around the sink. I did the whole dry-your-hands-in-your-pockets trick, and had to take my chance before it was too late. I left the bathroom. Chris, Steve, and McNair were still talking shop, and I tried to catch Berman’s eye as I walked by. He was of course still having a conversation and had no idea someone was looking for him. I sort of nodded as if signaling hello to an old friend and walked right past him. I’m pretty sure he ignored me, but it was closer than I thought I ever thought I would get.

As I headed back to our staging area, the remaining team buses pulled in. The camera crew scurried to set up along the entranceway to get a glimpse of the players making their way to the locker rooms. Funny, a few minutes earlier when I got off the bus, those same camera men were still set up but seemed a little disappointed at who was staring back at them. So to the delight of all media, this bus was a bit more star-studded, as Ray Lewis walked down the steps and into the eye of the storm.

The game was a mess. Not just a defensive-battle, lots of turnovers, only two field goals in the first half kind of a mess; but a rain soaked, muddy field, wet gloves, cold feet kind of a mess. We had Ed Reed wired this week and we were getting great sound from him the whole first half. He was calling plays, yelling at teammates, talking to coaches, even smiling back at the camera. But then, we heard static. With about 3 minutes to go in the first half, the battery in his wireless microphone died. After five weeks on the job, I’ve learned to put the camera together and pack my bag full of batteries, tapes, extra pens, etc…but I must have skipped class the day they taught us about the ‘boom mic’. The ‘boom’ is that fuzzy ball of fur you sometimes see hanging over actors’ heads in b-movies. It picks up sound and is usually attached to a pole that is attached to an audio technician holding the pole. Well, my loyal readers, this week in Denver, I became an audio technician. For three minutes.

Jeff kept rolling and Lauryn handed me the pole. I held it over the players on the bench, fearful of someone getting up too quickly and knocking themselves out. Or at least getting mad at me and breaking the pole. I kept looking back at Lauryn for assurance. She kept saying to bring the mic lower. Lower!? I was practically cleaning their helmets. But I listened to her; after all, she is the boss on game day (yes, just game day, right sweetheart?). Then, as my shoulder started to tighten up the boom made contact with Ed Reed. But it wasn’t my fault, I swear. Ed apparently is used to the attention and ever so slowly he reached his hand up from the bench and shook hands with the boom. I froze. He smiled. Initiation complete.

Fortunately, for everyone involved, we were able to switch his battery at half time and the boom was no longer needed. It is rare to be able to actually change a player’s pads mid-game for a television feature, but as you can tell, Ed was a willing participant. But our team only had a few minutes to make the switch. When I walked into the staging area, Larry, Don, and Jeff were hovered over his pads performing what seemed to be open heart surgery on the gear. As soon as the battery replacement was complete, Don ran the pads back to the locker room and we all breathed a sigh of relief. The show would go on. And in the quote of the year, as we walked back on the field, Ed commented to another teammate while straightening his uniform and pads, “Saw my mechanic. Had to get a tune-up.”

The rest of the game was brutal, we were wet and cold and losing, but the trip home was the real rough part. We took off well past midnight on the east coast and we were scheduled to land around 4AM. But with less than 30 minutes left in the trip, we had to make an emergency landing in Pittsburgh. One of the players on the team, who had been injured during the game, had to be taken to a hospital. We all knew how serious it must have been since we were so close to home. The paramedics rushed onto the plane and helped him off. The injury does not appear life threatening, but it was a clear reminder as to how brutal the game can be, and how insignificant one loss can be. It was a Monday Night to remember, but more importantly, one we can forget.