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Monday Evening Quarterback

A lot goes on behind the scenes at 'Monday Night Football' to make each week's broadcast appear seamless, and Al Michaels is the ringmaster

October 10, 2005|Sam Farmer

It's a fall Monday, the sun is down, the pulse rate is up, and millions of Americans are tuning in to "Monday Night Football," the longest-running live prime-time show in television history.

Filling the air is the familiar baritone of play-by-play announcer Al Michaels. Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, is filled to capacity and rocking. Twenty TV cameras are rolling, poised to capture the action from every conceivable angle. A crescendo is building.

Are you ready for some ... roast beef on a French roll?

Hey, a guy's got to eat, even when 20 million people are listening to his every word. It's 9 p.m., and Michaels, John Madden and the crew have been in and out of production meetings for the last 12 hours. Michaels typically snacks during the first half, washing down Snackwell cookies, Junior Mints and green grapes with cup after cup of coffee, then has a light dinner in the second half, stealing bites during commercials. He's a discreet eater and a picky one; he never lets a vegetable touch his plate, let alone his lips.

The millions of football fans watching the game have no idea that Michaels is eating dinner along with them. After more than 40 years in the business, the last 19 with "Monday Night Football," his delivery is so fluid, so close to flawless, it's hard to believe that he's concentrating on anything but what's happening on the field.

But he is. In fact, it's astounding he has time to glance at the field at all, what with all the information flying his way. He's talking through his headset to the main production truck and to statistician Steve Hirdt in another truck, interpreting hand signals from the spotter just off camera to his left, and being handed a steady stream of in-game promos on index cards from the stage manager.

In front of Michaels are 14 monitors -- seven for him, seven duplicates for Madden -- each showing a different aspect of the game, among them team stats, individual stats, the game clock, what the network is showing, a shot looking back at them in the booth. Each also has his own Telestrator, allowing him to use a finger to draw on the screen.

The job of processing all that information, producer Fred Gaudelli said, is for Michaels like "being an air-traffic controller who's trying to land his own plane at the same time."

Last Monday, for the first time in its 35-year history, "Monday Night Football" allowed a reporter to observe a broadcast from the booth. The program is in its last season with ABC and next year will switch to ESPN, bringing Michaels along for the ride. Madden will head to NBC next season for "Sunday Night Football." As for the rest of the "Monday Night Football" crew -- a group 75 strong on game day -- the future is uncertain. Everyone's treating this season as a last hurrah.

Are you ready for some ... shameless lobbying?

About an hour before kickoff, a member of the officiating crew working the game makes his way up to the broadcast booth and introduces himself to Michaels. The zebra wants to make sure Michaels knows what the officials will be watching for, what calls could arise. Everyone wants to be understood, everyone wants to be heard, and Michaels is the main conduit between the league and millions of viewers.

Maybe that's why it's common for coaches to clue in Michaels and Madden on what plays they'll see in the game, or even the deficiencies of players. Often, the announcers have been told long before kickoff what the first play, or first series of plays, will be. Players also saunter over and introduce themselves to Michaels and Madden as the two separately work the field about an hour before kickoff.

In Carolina last Monday, Michaels spent a few minutes before the game chatting with Green Bay rookie quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was wide-eyed and smiling. Madden was across the field investigating what songs a Carolina player had on his iPod. ("Didn't even recognize one of them," Madden reported later.)

Both men get the celebrity treatment at every game. They arrive by limousine, wear credentials that get them just about anywhere and draw a crowd of onlookers wherever they go. By agreement with the league, their booth is on the 50-yard line at every stadium. Not a bad gig.

Are you ready for some ... sign language?

Sitting to the left of Michaels is a man holding a "spotting board," which looks like a homemade periodic table. Study the cheat sheet's 10-point type and you'll notice a separate box is assigned to each player on both teams, from the stars to the scrubs, and each contains a player's height, weight, years of experience, and so on. The boxes also feature a couple of fast facts about the player (such as, Carolina returner Rod Smart went by "He Hate Me" in the XFL) so Michaels will always have an interesting factoid at the ready.

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