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.