Hits keep coming, even off camera

The Baltimore Sun

BRISTOL, Conn. -- A spread of food lines a table on one wall, four computers are on the opposite wall, and in between are rows of tables and chairs, all facing a block of televisions. There are eight smaller TVs side- by side and three big-screens underneath. On Sundays at the ESPN studios, the on-air talent, producers, researchers, dot-com chatters and radio blabbers all gather in one giant room. Sometimes it feels like a sports bar without the beer. Other times, it's like The View, without Barbara Walters. But for the entire afternoon, everything revolves around football.

1:25 p.m.: "Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh!" says Shaun King, sitting in the third row, his voice getting louder with each iteration.

Emmitt Smith, sitting next to King, yells: "Go! Go!"

On a television on the far left, Devin Hester fields a punt for the Chicago Bears. There are no TV cameras in the room, but that doesn't stop the play-by-play. "He's going," says Tom Jackson, an ESPN analyst for the past two decades. "He's walking ... couple more yards ... and - Bam! - he's out the gate! Oh, my God."

But as the replay of Hester's 89-yard punt-return touchdown airs on one television, on another Chris Mortensen spots Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell scamper 6 yards for a touchdown. He alerts the room to this development by singing, "Hail to the Redskins."

Mortensen alerts the room to most of the game updates, typically through rapid-fire announcements: "Brett Favre!" when he sees the Green Bay Packers quarterback drop back. Or "Joey Galloway!" when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver shakes his defender.

1:33 p.m.: "Oh, we gotta get Tony Gonzalez in there for a touchdown," says Mark Schlereth, leaning back as he watches the Kansas City Chiefs approach the goal line against the Cincinnati Bengals. Schlereth isn't rooting for a friend or a team. Gonzalez is the tight end on Schlereth's fantasy team.

1:35 p.m.: Adrian Peterson breaks loose for a 67-yard touchdown run for the Minnesota Vikings, and the room erupts into whoops and hollers. Mostly, they seem to just enjoy seeing a big play, regardless of the player or team. When the noise settles down, Jackson says, "Yeah, yeah, but now the bad news: They have to kick off again [to Hester]."

1:45 p.m.: "Why are you running, [Donovan] McNabb?" Mortensen yells at a television. "Stay in the pocket!"

Asks Jackson, "Oh, you gonna tell him?"

Mortensen replies: "Well, we do have the same number of Super Bowl wins."

Smith, sitting in the third row, spots another quarterback on another screen, also unnecessarily scrambling. "Mort, you see that?" Smith says, pointing to the Tennessee Titans' Vince Young. "Keep it on your hip."

Says Mortensen, "Well, he's young."

Smith replies, "Yeah, literally."

1:58 p.m.: "Jeff Garcia!" shouts Mortensen. Bill Parcells sits to Mortensen's left and Mike Ditka is at his right. The three huddle and whisper much of the afternoon, but most of the room's talking is left to guys such as Mortensen, Jackson and Chris Berman.

2:05 p.m.: Smith gets up from his seat and prepares to leave the room. He was on the set in the morning but has to catch an afternoon flight to Atlanta, where the next day's Monday Night Football set awaits. He gets stopped near the door. "Come here," says Schlereth, who played 12 years with the Redskins and Denver Broncos. "I want to see that suit. I saw it on TV and it looks great." Schlereth holds the cloth of Smith's jacket and studies it closely. "A little chocolate, a little pinstripes. Whoo-hoo-hoo." He smiles and fist-bumps Smith.

2:14 p.m.: Seth Markman, the network's senior coordinating producer, is talking about the day's pre-game show, Sunday NFL Countdown. The show features plenty of talk and debate, plus a feature in which Kermit the Frog interviewed football fans in New York and Philadelphia, a behind-the-scenes look at a Ravens road trip, a tongue-in-cheek report on Tom Brady's weekly spot on the injury report, and an in-depth report on Bill Belichick's gray sweat shirt. Markman says he especially liked four segments: the Brady piece, a dissection by Parcells and Keyshawn Johnson on defending Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, discussion of the two wide receivers ... and that suspect sweat shirt report.

"Oh, I thought that was bull!" Jackson says.

Mortensen chimes in, "Yeah, that was the bigger piece of BS we had on the show."

Says Markman, "Well, you can't always go through a show and say you see four things that stand out."

Russell Baxter, the network's NFL research coordinator, says, "Especially one of your shows," drawing laughs from all corners of the room.

2:29 p.m.: Mortensen spots the St. Louis Rams-Ravens game. It is halftime and the teams are walking off the field. "Look, they have to escort Billick off the field because they're afraid of the fans."

2:50 p.m.: "There's [Willis] McGahee," Schlereth says. "Going backwards again."

Says Merrill Hoge: "He is, isn't he? Geez."

Berman asks, "Yeah, but when are the Rams going to score in this game?"

Schlereth tells him, "They're not."

2:58 p.m.: "Brian Griese!"

"Charles Woodson!"

"Carson Palmer!"

By now, Mortensen has seemingly named at least half of the players in the NFL. His eyes are trained to watch games this way, scanning from screen to screen, big play to big play.

"Maurice Jones-Drew!"

Jackson chimes in, "Jones-Drew-Smith-Lewis-Johnson ... "

3:06 p.m.: "Look at this guy!" Jackson shouts. "Look at this guy!"

In the Tampa Bay game, there's a crowd shot showing a Bucs fan with his face painted and football pads featuring Chucky dolls on both shoulders.

"He's got a mother," Mortensen says in amazement. "That's a grown man."

3:09 p.m.: The Ravens are approaching the goal line, facing second-and-two.

"They got to kick a field goal right here. I'm telling you," Schlereth says.

McGahee plows into the middle of the pack. Loose ball. But the Ravens recover and now face first-and-goal.

"OK, Hogey," he says to Hoge. "I'm still saying they got to kick a field goal."

McGahee runs for no gain, followed by a Ravens 10-yard penalty. Second-and-goal from the 11-yard line.

"Kick it," Schlereth says again.

The Rams intercept a pass by Kyle Boller at the 6, spoiling the Ravens' scoring chance.

"See, see!" Schlereth says. "What did I tell you? Nobody listens to me. It's like talking to my wife."

3:47 p.m.: In the far left-hand corner, the Vikings' Peterson has just run for his third touchdown of the day. "Hey, Mort," Berman calls out, loudly enough for the whole room to hear. "You might have to get on that story."

3:51 p.m.: In the Titans game, Young leaves early with an injury and is replaced by Kerry Collins. The room seems to have a special interest in watching Collins. He has brought Tennessee within spitting distance of the goal line. "OK, now I-formation, then dive, dive, dive," Jackson says, calling for running plays.

Says Schlereth, "That's right, three straight dives."

Berman says, "No, better make it four straight"

Two plays later, LenDale White barrels up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown to tie the game.

3:57 p.m.: "T.J. Houshmandzadeh!" Mortensen says.

3:59 p.m.: As the afternoon wanes, most in the room are focusing on two tight games, Redskins-Packers and Bucs-Titans. In the Tampa Bay game, tied at 10, Bucs wide receiver Ike Hilliard catches a pass over the middle. Hilliard wears No. 19, the same number Johnson wore when he played in Tampa Bay.

"Key! Key! Key!" the room chants when Hilliard makes the catch.

"Go, Keyshawn!" Jackson says, spinning around to make sure Johnson can hear. Johnson barely cracks a grin.

It's Berman's turn: "Look. At. Key. Shawn. Go!"

Finally, Johnson acknowledges the joke. "Tee-hee-hee," he says.

4:02 p.m.: Hoge spins around and borrows a laptop. As the 1 o'clock games draw to a close, it's time to check on fantasy numbers, and he logs on to Yahoo.com.

"Adrian Peterson is off the hook!" Hoge says. "Thirty-two fantasy points. I don't even need anybody else. This is unbelievable."

4:06 p.m.: The late games are starting, and the room has a collective interest in Carolina Panthers-Arizona Cardinals.

"Look, it's Vinny!" Berman shouts, pointing to Vinny Testaverde, 43, jogging onto the field. The room claps.

Markman, the producer, asks, "Who would have ever thought that Vinny would outlast Keyshawn in the league?"

4:10 p.m.: The Panthers offense takes the field, and Schlereth lets the room know: "Here comes Vincenzo!"

After a false start against the Panthers, Schlereth explains that they're not familiar with Testaverde's cadence. He then mimics an old man's quivering, soft voice: "F-o-o-o-rty-six, e-i-i-i-ghty-thr-e-e-e-e ... "

4:15 p.m.: In the back-and-forth Bears-Vikings game, Minnesota kicker Ryan Longwell trots onto the field to attempt a 55-yard field goal that would break a tie at 31. For the first time all afternoon, the entire room is silent and all eyes are focused on a single TV.

As the final seconds tick off the clock, Longwell's kick is good and the Vikings win.

The room erupts. "OHHHHHH!" And just above the din, one voice is a bit louder than the rest. It's Mortensen's, and he's alerting everyone else, "Ryan Longwell!"

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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