The lunch spread laid out over two tables at the back of the Fox broadcast booth in Cowboys Stadium is standard man-cave, working-lunch fare—a pile of roast beef sandwiches, various chips and dips, a few trays of cookies, a full chafing dish of gourmet mac-and-cheese. Then the sushi arrives. It’s a generous helping, with a fist-sized serving of wasabi carefully sculpted to look like a football, laces out.
A minute later, as if on cue, Troy Aikman walks into the booth, Yogi Bear sniffing out a picnic basket. “Do we have makeup?”
“Hey, your sushi’s here, Prince Valiant,” says Joe Buck, Aikman’s broadcast partner since 2002.
Aikman laughs, but it’s not exactly a joke, since he ignores the rest of the food. It’s 2 p.m., an hour and a half before game time. He takes a small plate of sushi and wasabi to the front of the booth and eats it with chopsticks while staring out at the field.
The game might change but the factory product never does
A few minutes later, Aikman is sitting under a black barber cape, eyes closed, still as a mannequin, every bit as professional while getting makeup applied as he was quarterbacking the Dallas Cowboys for a decade. He’s been in and out of the booth since noon for today’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff. It’s Thanksgiving Day, 2010. But it could be anytime. The game might change, and the venue, and eventually, even the production staff and the broadcasters, but the factory product never does. The Fox crew didn’t come up with this method of televising sports—there was Monday Night Football first, then John Madden and his team—and they won’t be the last to use it.
Makeup complete, Aikman and Buck stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the center of the booth, rehearsing a brief drop-in appearance on the Fox pregame show, previewing this afternoon’s Cowboys-Saints game. Their voices are suddenly TV-loud, but no one pays much attention, instead going about the business of getting prepared for the broadcast. As they run through a few takes, Aikman and Buck suck on Halls cough drops, which they will do for the rest of the day, keeping their throats loose and ready.
Before the next rehearsal, Ally Muntean, the local stage manager, ducks in and adjusts the flag pin on Buck’s lapel. She walks back over to where I’m standing and introduces herself, telling me to help myself to the food next to us.
“Just wait on the sushi until Troy’s done.”
It’s the evening before the game. We’re in a conference room at the Four Seasons in Las Colinas, a suburb of Dallas, for a production meeting. Around the table: Aikman; Eric Shanks, president of Fox Sports; Richie Zyontz, coordinating producer for NFL on Fox, and graphics producer Mike Steavpack. Buck isn’t in town yet.
Shanks and Zyontz were once both broadcast associates for John Madden — go-fers, more or less — Shanks at Fox, Zyontz at CBS. They both have tons of Madden stories from when they were both on the bottom rung. Shanks is now Zyontz’s boss, but Zyontz runs the meeting. Shanks isn’t usually here.
Everyone is dressed casual—thin V-neck sweaters, layers, zip-neck sweatshirts. Aikman is on a corner, the furthest away from everyone else, barely looking up from his laptop. He dives in and out of the conversation, involved when he wants to be. No one really addresses him at first, letting him watch his game film, type up his notes.
But then a question about his record on Thanksgiving—Aikman was 6-4; he guesses he won eight times (“I counted Jason [Garrett’s] win,” he jokes)—has him talking about football. Not the games he calls for Fox. The games he played. Aikman tells a long story about the Cowboys not drafting Randy Moss and then subsequently getting killed by him during the receiver’s rookie season. Moss caught three passes that day, all for long touchdowns. He mentions that Thursday games aren’t as special now that the NFL Network broadcasts regularly on Thursday nights during the second half of the season.
Shanks asks how he looks at tape. Aikman explains that he watches the center and guards, the interior first then works his way out. Right now, he is specifically looking at Dallas’ guards. “They’ve been struggling lately.”
Zyontz takes over, prompting Aikman with questions, some of them leading, some of them not. They talk about Tony Romo, out with a broken collarbone. (Aikman will repeat his answer about why Romo didn’t defend then-coach Wade Phillips almost verbatim on the broadcast the next day.) They’re trying to figure out a storyline. It’s a conversation/interview/fishing trip. What will we show tomorrow? They wonder why tight end Martellus Bennett isn’t working out. “What about Felix Jones?” Zyontz asks. Aikman explains to the room why the Cowboys didn’t draft linebacker Rey Maualuga—Roy Williams didn’t pan out so they had to get Dez Bryant.
The game is about more than just what happens on the field. It has characters, a plot, themes
This is how sports broadcasting has been since Roone Arledge invented Monday Night Football in 1969. The game is about more than just what happens on the field. It has characters, a plot, themes. This is the assembly line first built by Arledge; Zyontz is simply the new foreman. So every week they do this, trying to guess the script the game will follow, while also nudging it in the direction they’ve chosen.
The main point of these meetings, besides for Zyontz peppering Aikman with questions, is so they can all review the graphics package they’ll use tomorrow. Steavpack has it ready now. Everyone turns to the big screen at the front of the room.
The screen is black except for the graphics that appear on screen before and after every play: “Cowboys on Last Four Thanksgiving Games,” “DeMarcus Ware 2008 Galloping Gobbler Award Winner,” and so on. A graphic comes up detailing how well the Saints are doing on third down. Prior to the game, they are converting at a league-leading, and faintly incredible, 50.4 percent. Aikman wonders what the record for third down conversion percentage is. Rich Gross, the broadcast associate who just arrived with the credentials for tomorrow, tells him he’ll look it up. Aikman wants third-and-longs, too.
Another graphic hits the high notes of Cowboys coach Jason Garrett’s most notable game as an NFL quarterback. Because of injuries to Aikman and backup Rodney Peete, Garrett started on Thanksgiving in 1994 against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. He completed 15 of 26 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns, leading a second-half comeback for a 42-31 win.
“You know, they were going to bench him at halftime if Rodney Peete could go in,” Aikman says. I don’t have to look over to see Zyontz adding the note to his script. Then there is a brief clip of Garrett at Princeton.
“No wonder he didn’t get drafted,” Aikman says. The line gets maybe a bigger laugh from the room than is absolutely necessary. If Aikman—and Buck, too—have any misconceptions about their comedic chops, it’s because, for several months out of the year, they are surrounded by people who laugh too hard at their jokes or anything that even seems like a joke. The next day, Aikman makes the slightest quip about the size of the enormous screen that hovers above the field at Cowboys Stadium—certainly strip-mined ground even a couple of months after the place opened. The reaction he receives would seem improbable even if Louis C.K. had delivered the line.
“We get here and they say, ‘I think you guys are parking up top and they’re going to shuttle you down,’ and Troy goes, ‘No,’” Buck tells me. Aikman drove them here in his black 750 BMW. “So they say, ‘Where would you like to put it, Mr. Aikman?’ ‘Right here would be fine.’” Buck laughs. He is tieless, suit coat in a bag over his shoulder. Just then, we pass Aikman’s car, the lone luxury vehicle among the concessions trucks and golf carts in the concrete cavern beneath the stadium, in the I’m-Troy-effing-Aikman spot.
It’s 12:30 p.m. Game day. I’m in the bowels of Cowboys Stadium, walking from one of Fox’s production trucks to a service elevator, en route to the broadcast booth to meet Aikman and the rest of the crew. With me: Buck, Fox Sports V.P. of communications Dan Bell, and Steve Horn.
Horn is an editorial consultant, providing input on the ubiquitous storylines along with general, nuts-and-bolts research. He is the capable other end every time someone in the booth says, “Hey, do you remember …” He also works with Buck during baseball telecasts.
“He’s our Good Will Hunting,” Bell says.
Horn is in his early 60s, with shaggy hair, a black leather jacket and boots, and little glasses that are rimless on top and never make it all the way up the bridge of his nose. He looks like a version of Bill Wyman from a parallel universe, the one who gave up the Rolling Stones to become an accountant and plays bass in a weekend-warrior cover band. Horn carries with him a beat-up black rolling suitcase with a dozen or so paper bands around the handles—orange, gold, yellow, royal blue—with the names and dates of various games and stadiums, credentials from his travels. Inside, he has plastic bags stuffed with pieces of scribbled-on cardboard, folders and filled-up notebooks, scraps of random paper, old USA Todays. This is editorial content.
“He has the same mentality he had as a player as a broadcaster”
Aikman is already in the booth when we get there—jacket on, tie knotted—highlighting the sheets of notes he was typing last night. Bell nudges me and calls Aikman “relentless.” “He has the same mentality he had as a player as a broadcaster,” he says. Telling me this is Bell’s job, but doesn’t make it any less true. He doesn’t make the same kind of points about Buck, or at least not ones that don’t also involve Aikman. But then, Buck doesn’t have any Super Bowl rings.
Not long after arriving, Horn and Buck also set to work. Horn has a color-coded binder open. He speaks out of the corner of his mouth and his eyes dart around the room, like he’s telling a secret. Buck listens and writes in his notebook.
Over Buck’s shoulder, on the countertop in front of the monitors he and Aikman use, there is an oddly symmetrical array of snacks and other provisions. A bag of honey-lemon flavor Halls, a can of Planter’s nuts (heart healthy mix), a can of Blue Diamond almonds (wasabi soy), an EZ-Pack of Juicy Fruit gum, two more cans of Blue Diamonds (roasted and salted and honey roasted), another EZ-Pack of Juicy Fruit, yet another can of Blue Diamonds (habanero BBQ), a can of Planter’s cashews, and, finally, another bag of honey-lemon Halls—in a prefect, evenly spaced row. It’s like the product of the tamest contract rider in rock and roll history.
The arrangement is obsessive-compulsive and unnecessary, since—aside from the Halls and maybe one handful of nuts—I never see anyone touch them.
“They got Kid Rock in Detroit, huh? Sweet,” Aikman says, watching the halftime show of the Lions-Patriots game. He met Kid Rock at the Kentucky Derby. “He was by far the coolest.”
It’s 1:15 p.m. Players from both sides are down on the field in T-shirts and shorts, stretching and warming up. It’s time for Aikman to go down to the field. He’s already met with the teams, but this is where he gets his last-minute tidbits.
Aikman does this before every game, but it’s certainly different here, where half the fans still wear his No. 8 jersey and the broadcast booth is located three levels beneath his name in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. We walk the 50 or so feet to the elevator that will take us down to field level, and everyone on the concourse immediately stops what they’re doing and stares. As we wait for the elevator, a woman makes her niece stand behind us as she hustles up front to get a picture of her and Aikman.
“Send that to your mother,” she calls out.
“Oh. My. God,” I hear behind me, less filled with awe than abject embarrassment. Aikman just keeps talking. He is long since past being used to this, especially in Dallas, where his every jog down the Katy Trail results in multiple tweets and Facebook posts.
We get on the elevator with a group of fans and Gil Brandt, the former head of personnel for the Cowboys and now a senior analyst for NFL.com. He and Aikman chat on the way down, but one woman can’t help interrupting.
“You announcing today?” she panic-asks. Aikman answers with his TV laugh, an abbreviated, almost internal chuckle, and says, yes, he is.
We walk to the field through the tunnel the teams use. Fans are lined on both sides. Flashes pop. Everyone is yelling. “Troy! Troy! Troy! Troy!”
“I was, in some ways, a little bit intimidated,” Buck says
Now suspended Saints coach Sean Payton walks over. He’s in slacks and dress shoes, with a Saints long-sleeved t-shirt. He greets Aikman and Brandt warmly and fires fleur-de-lis at me with his eyes. I am not invited to get any last-minute tidbits.
Sideline reporter Pam Oliver is also down here, getting familiar, meeting and greeting, posing for photos, working the crowd. She hugs receiver Miles Austin, then chats up Cowboys P.R. man Rich Dalrymple. She’s getting her information, too.
Once he’s done with Payton, Aikman comes over to Dalrymple. I get close enough to hear them talking about Dez Bryant, then Bell suggests we head back to the booth, since Aikman will probably be here for awhile.
The walk back through the tunnel and the ride up the elevator is a little different without Aikman in tow.
“When he and I first started working together, I would say I was, in some ways, a little bit intimidated,” Buck says, when I get back to the booth. “I mean, he’s three years older than me—it’s not a rip, I did grow up watching him. In the ‘90s I was in my 20s and I was watching him star with the Dallas Cowboys. And so I knew how great he was; all of a sudden, now we’re partners.
“I’m a pretty straightforward guy and he’s a pretty straightforward guy, and I’m willing to share anything I can to make our broadcast better,” he continues. “And I think once you know that, then you start getting to the personal stuff, and you realize that we have a lot in common. We both have daughters. We’re both humans; we’re not robots on television so we actually have lives. We’re two guys in our 40s who enjoy hanging out and playing golf together. He’ll beat me. I’ll beat him. One of the great joys of my life that I can actually beat Troy Aikman at something.”
Whenever Fox cuts to a shot of Aikman and Buck in the booth, there are three guys just off-camera.
One is Dave Schwalbe. He’s Buck’s spotter, using a hand-lettered poster board with the depth charts of both teams—Cowboys offense and Saints defense on one side, vice versa on the other. Schwalbe has a goatee, glasses, and a middle part, and to this point he’s worked 16 Thanksgiving games in a row. “My daughter’s 13. Never had a Thanksgiving together.”
Ed Sfida handles stats in the booth, silently conveying notes on the play that just happened and overall trends via a small erasable white board. Sfida has spiky, gelled hair, a black-on-black striped shirt, and more or less serves as Buck’s cue card guy. He and Schwalbe stand side by side, just to Buck’s left.
Scott Schneider is working as Aikman’s spotter today, stationed at his right elbow. Normally, he works with Thom Brennaman on one of Fox’s other broadcast teams, but he joins Aikman for Thanksgiving and the postseason. He has glasses and wears a complicated set of Cabela’s binoculars that strap around both of his shoulders and, as far as I can tell, Aikman never really needs him.
There is also Ally Muntean.
“Four minutes. Four minutes until on camera,” she says. Muntean is based in the Dallas area and has worked the past 10 Thanksgiving games; she’ll celebrate the holiday tomorrow, like she always does. It’s 2:58 p.m., time for Aikman and Buck’s appearance on the Fox pregame show. The show is off schedule so they need to do this one faster than in rehearsal.
Schwalbe is having a minor crisis. He’s having trouble correctly identifying who the inactive players are for the game. He has two sources telling him different names, and he needs time to update his depth chart if need be.
It’s dark in the booth. Then the twin banks of klieg lights that flank the camera glare to life and Aikman and Buck are on the air.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Buck says, then ad-libs: “Terry forgot to pack his tie.” Since the pregame show is only audible in their earpieces, it’s a one-way conversation, but you don’t have to try very hard to imagine Bradshaw’s over-laugh here.
As soon as they are finished, Buck gets the attention of Ben Alltop, the gruff booth manager. While Aikman and Buck were on camera, three kids were standing on their seats and jumping up, trying to stick their hands, or as much of their bodies as they could, into the shot. He wants them to knock it off. “They can either do it or go home,” Buck tells Alltop.
Meanwhile, Schwalbe has finally locked down the final rosters. He sits in an alcove where the equipment cases are stored, busily fixing his boards.
It’s 3:17 p.m. Aikman carefully lines up his printed and highlighted notes on the countertop in front of his broadcast position. He arranges them next to each other—a grid of four, with a fifth page on the side—and folds the bottom pages so they fit snugly under the top ones. Then he secures the entire thing to the table with white gaffer tape on the corners. He’s wearing his Super Bowl 30 ring on his left hand. It’s the only one of the three Aikman owns that he wears on camera. “Because it’s the biggest,” he says.
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders come out and do a routine to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”; Aikman hits the bathroom. As soon as he leaves the room, one of his commercials for Reliant Energy soundlessly pops up on the monitor carrying the local Fox broadcast.
“It was apparent to me, within two weeks of working with him, I knew exactly why he won three Super Bowls”
“It was apparent to me, within two weeks of working with him, I knew exactly why he won three Super Bowls,” Buck says, when Aikman leaves the room. “It’s not because he can throw the ball better than others or that he was as accurate as he was. He’s a leader and he’s a guy that will out-prepare everyone around him, and it drags everyone with him. That’s what I’m sure it was like as a player.”
Buck’s speech doesn’t sound disingenuous so much as it is unnecessary. It’s like he’s trying to convince me that I like the car I’ve already purchased.
“Three minutes,” Muntean says. Aikman and Buck again gather in the center of the booth, warming up with silly voices and exaggerated pronunciations. It’s not exactly Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy saying “the Human Torch was denied a bank loan,” but it’s close.
And then, we are live.
Aikman and Buck do another version of their stand-up—I think everyone can perform it by memory now—and then the show really starts. The complicated machinery of broadcasting even a single play of an NFL game locks together, and the benefits of nine years together as a crew becomes apparent and another nearly seamless telecast is the result.
Aikman watches on his telestrator monitor, sitting—the crew had to switch out his tall rolling stool for a taller stationary one just before the coin toss—and scanning his notes. As soon as a play ends, he re-watches it on his monitor; by the time the network feed actually shows a replay, Aikman has seen it two or three times. He doesn’t take it easy on the Cowboys. If anything, he’s probably (unintentionally) a little bit harder. Or maybe it just seems that way. He tears into the center after a botched shotgun snap in the first, and later, after a Saints flea flicker that results in two Cowboys defensive backs missing an easy interception, he’s even harsher.
“These guys can’t catch,” Aikman says, his voice rising. “That has been proven over the last few years. That’s why Drew Brees is not afraid to throw it up for his guys. Somebody should have caught that.”
While Aikman has studied improv, Buck has sort of a rolling, mutable script. He stands, leaning over, one leg back. He watches the field, as well as the monitor in front of him, but just as often, if not more, Buck’s head is turned to his left. He’s looking for whiteboard notes from Sfida and player names from Schwalbe. Every play is like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but Schwalbe and Sfida are making most of the choices.
Buck, after a short running play by the Saints: “Here is”—Schwalbe points at No. 29 Chris Ivory—“Ivory. He stumbled forward for”—Sfida holds up his sign; he’s written a 4—“four yards.”
It’s like a shadow broadcast of the game, happening all day just
Having worked together for years—they’ve both been on the crew since 2002—Sfida and Schwalbe keep up their own running commentary. It’s like a shadow broadcast of the game, happening all day just off-mic.
“What kind of play call is this? Seriously?” Sfida says, after Marion Barber, who has since retired, is stuffed on a fourth-and-1 sweep.
“Just throw it to Dez Bryant every time,” Schwalbe answers.
Another play ends. Schwalbe points. Buck talks. Sfida points. Buck talks again. Then it’s Aikman’s turn. Then Buck sometimes incorporates one of the notes Horn keeps adding to the stack at his elbow. Then another play, and it all happens again.
It’s different but repetitive. It’s the same different thing over and over and over.
Steve Horn can’t stand still. Throughout the game, he is a shadow moving around the booth, never really talking to anyone, only occasionally to Buck. He communicates generally via the stacks of white cards located here and there. He takes out a stapled sheaf of paper from his battered suitcase that says “Thanksgiving Clips and Capsules” on it. He paces and flips though it, squats, scribbles on a notecard. He crouches in a corner, scanning a USA Today sports page, writing on another card, then stows the paper back in the rolling bag.
Buck motions Horn over. Kids are trying to get into the shot again. “These fucking three kids …” Buck says to Horn.
Alltop jumps up, ready to carry out Buck’s bidding, but Muntean rushes over to explain it’s not the same group as before.
It’s 4:50 p.m., and we’re deep into the second quarter. I know it’s almost halftime because Muntean sets a few hot dogs on the rolling grill. And another platter of sushi arrives with another little pale green football of wasabi.
The graphic about Jason Garrett’s Thanksgiving comes up. “Troy was mailing in that week,” Buck says. Aikman laughs, but does not tell the story about Garrett potentially being benched if Peete felt healthy enough to go.
Halftime. After finishing another plate of sushi, Aikman stands at the front of the booth and hovers over his BlackBerry, sending texts, tweeting. Country singer Keith Urban comes out for a pyrotechnics-filled set. Aikman takes a few cameraphone photos.
No one talks much.
Just before the half ends, Aikman pops another Halls in his mouth and bobs his head to the Black Eyed Peas song playing over his headset.
At the half, it appeared as though the Fox crew was going to need every bit of Richie Zyontz’s script work and Horn’s editorial content to make it through the third and fourth quarters. Close games are easy; blowouts take work. And it was trending toward the latter: the Saints led 20-6, Dallas only managing to get on the scoreboard with a pair of David Buehler field goals in the last five minutes.
Aikman and Buck perform like Simon & Garfunkel—always in harmony, never looking at each other
Then the third quarter begins, and it becomes a game again. Miles Austin scores on a 60-yard end-around less than a minute into the half, and everything starts going Dallas’ way. Aikman and Buck have more than enough material to work with, and a suddenly awakened crowd only amplifies it all. Everything is in sync. Aikman and Buck perform like Simon & Garfunkel—always in harmony, never looking at each other. The rhythm is hypnotic, the managed chaos in the booth making the time melt away. Schwalbe points. “Felix Jones up the middle—“ Buck begins. Sfida holds up a sign with a “2” on it. “—a gain of 2,” Buck says. Aikman breaks the play down like a fraction. The teams line back up. It starts again. The same different thing. Over and over and over. It’s like watching the production line on an episode of How It’s Made, each play speeding into the next one. A Jon Kitna completion to Jason Witten for 20 yards into a 4-yard gain by Felix Jones, into a pair of Kitna incompletions into a Mat McBriar punt. Box it up, ship it out, start a new batch. Rewind and repeat.
It almost matches up with their storyline without even trying. In the third, Sfida holds up a note on his whiteboard:
Biggest comeback on Thanksgiving 14 (circled) points 11/24/94 vs GB. Jason Garrett was QB.
Just as he has been doing all afternoon, and just as he does in every broadcast nearly every time Sfida writes anything on the whiteboard, Buck says a (very) slightly reworded version a few seconds later. And midway through the fourth, the Cowboys have matched that total, taking a 23-20 lead. But the Cowboys can’t hold it, a fumble leading to a Drew Brees touchdown with about two minutes left in the game. The Saints win, 30-27.
Aikman, the former Cowboys QB and forever hero, is not bothered. In the booth, a few levels below his name on the wall of the stadium, he dances to the generic pop music that plays during breaks and fist-bumps his partner. That’s not his team on the field anymore.
His team is here in the booth. And next week in New York or Chicago or Philadelphia, just like this week in Dallas, and every other week, they’ll know when to bring his sushi.