They arrive as individuals, impeccable in matching blue uniform tops, steaming styrofoam coffee cups in hand. They gather in a semicircle, bright eyes fixed on their field general, awaiting his direction. They've blended into a team.
On an early morning four days before Super Bowl XLII, on a street of red-brick ranch homes in Baltimore County's Nottingham neighborhood, the six key players of Direct Audio & Video huddle for their version of a game-winning drive before screaming throngs.
If the NFL title game has become a bona fide American tradition - a spectacle with Roman numerals - it's contributing to the rise of another: the surge in last-minute purchases of HDTVs, now seen as a virtual prerequisite for any half-decent Super Bowl bash, and the ensuing rush by specialists to install the sets, much bigger and more complex than their predecessors, before kickoff.
For Direct Audio & Video, a custom home-theater company run from the kitchen of founder John Holthaus and his wife, Aimee, it's the busiest, most pressure-packed time of the year.
"Things are a blur," says Holthaus, 42. "Obviously, there's a lot of interest in the game, since football's so great in [high-definition]. We've been on the job 12 hours a day, six days a week. But we function best under pressure."
It's all part of the tsunami of HDTV traffic the Super Bowl now generates. Where Americans bought 8.8 million high-definition sets in 2005, they'll end up purchasing 2.4 million in the weeks leading to Sunday's New England Patriots-New York Giants game alone, totaling $2.2 billion in sales, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group.
"The Super Bowl is big-time, and it's getting bigger," says Paul Ryder, vice president of Amazon Electronics, a major seller.
That means big-game pressure for outfits like Direct, much of whose business centers on the spike in installations that starts each Thanksgiving and continues through the eve of each Super Bowl, which attract TV audiences of 90 million-plus. Most big-box sellers hire smaller companies like Direct to do installations. A few stores, like Soundscape in Baltimore, do their own.
The Holthauses and their four top players gather near a kitchen table, John perched at the computer that serves as nerve center. Fat cinnamon rolls sit uneaten in a pan on the stove.
Holthaus, the operation's Bill Belichick and Tom Brady rolled into one, lays out the day's game plan: two jobs in Pikesville (a 52-inch Panasonic for satellite, a 50-incher for cable), one in Hunt Valley (a 50-inch LCD, or liquid-crystal display, set with Bose surround sound), a fourth in Annapolis (42 inches of plasma, with its electronics to be tucked away in a closet).
They'll split into two teams of two, he says, each of which will handle two jobs.
He resists the urge to yell "break!"
"We'll be at it till past 8:30 tonight," he says.
On paper, the jobs should take three hours each. But as they say in sports, that's why they play the games. As a defense might call a blitz or stunt, technicians can encounter steep or serpentine stairwells, vinyl siding that must be popped off, then reinstalled, or layouts that differ from the way they were described over the phone.
"There's always a surprise," says technician Geno Hamrick, a two-year Direct veteran who's as wiry as a wideout and whose description of the challenge almost sounds like football coach-speak. "You deal with different locations, equipment and houses, different personalities. Every day we figure out the best way to do this 'install.' Forget what you did yesterday."
That's a bit of a stretch on this particular morning. The day before found the whole team in Cockeysville, where a well-heeled football fan, still at his winter home in Florida, is having a manse built. The place won't even be finished by Sunday, but that's where he'll be hosting a Super Bowl bash.
The job is bigger than most, perhaps worthy of Roman numerals itself: It will include 10 HDTVs, all networked through a central cable box, as well as radio and DVD capacities in each of 10 rooms, all separately operable by touchpad. The crown jewel: a theater with step-up seating and a 110-inch, front-projection screen, where the owner and his pals will see not just Eli Manning's passes, but the sweat on his face as he lofts them.
They've been working for days on the project, which Holthaus says could cost $125,000.
The main factor driving the HDTV sales boom - Americans will buy 25 million this year - is the behemoths' declining price. Five years ago, Holthaus says, a 50-inch plasma (the size is measured diagonally) cost about $20,000. Like most such items, they've dropped in price about 20 percent per year. Today, good ones go for $2,000 or less. A good 42-inch set (the most popular size in plasma, a gas-based viewing technology) can be had for between $1,000 and $2,000.
"Before, device-based electronics were only affordable for white-collar workers," Holthaus says. "Now, there's a whole new realm of people who can enjoy them."
Today's jobs should fit the standard price structure: $300 for basic installation (TV hung and wired, programming done, electronics set up within 20 feet) and $100 more for concealment of the wires. Add hundreds more if you want your central unit in another part of the house or for a mount that's "articulated" (the TV can swivel horizontally) or above-the-fireplace (a Direct specialty).
Add thousands for any of the latest trick plays - a flat-screen that pops up from a piece of furniture or one that drops from the ceiling through Bombay doors ($3,500 for the mechanism alone), all the more stylishly to bring a Randy Moss catch, a Michael Strahan sack or a Belichick scowl to life in 1080 lines of vertical resolution, if possible before a gaggle of awestruck pals.
Big-TV lust skews male, in the Holthauses' experience, with far more men than women angling for real estate in the living room or funds from the family budget. But flat TVs can bridge the gap, he says. Many women like the fact that they hang on the wall and unsightly wires can be hidden. And the allure for males? "The screens are still big," he says.
The Direct team first felt Super Bowl pressure before the Ravens' appearance in the game in January 2001. As soon as the team made the playoffs, the orders poured in, and 18-hour days became the norm.
Desperate customers wanted installations as late as game day. "One guy called and said, 'I'll double the price'," Holthaus says. "He didn't even know what the price was."
The Hail Mary didn't work (Holthaus refuses bribes), but they worked till 2 a.m. the night before the Ravens' 35-7 victory, installing a system as a deliriously thankful customer set up tables and chairs for his party the next day.
"One of the great things about this business," Holthaus says, "is you provide something almost magical for people. In situations like that, you're not a contractor. You're the guy's best friend.
"When I was a kid," he recalls, "you had four channels, a rotary dial and rabbit ears on top of the set. Amazing how much it's changed. You have to stay out front."
He barks out instructions from a clipboard, and the team heads out. The Super Bowl's approaching. All that's missing is the headset and the hooded sweat shirt.