Eye on future

The Baltimore Sun

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J.-- --They've touched up his makeup and straightened his suit, and now someone's rolling a lint brush all over Mike Flynn. His shoulders are so broad, and the brush is like a John Deere tractor over a large field.

A voice in the control room tells Flynn to take a deep breath and treat the camera like someone in his living room. Flynn, the bulky center recently released after 10 seasons with the Ravens, says he's "99.9999 percent" sure that he's played his last football game, which is part of the reason he's sitting here in a South Jersey studio on Day One of the NFL's Broadcast Boot Camp. The four-day crash course, which is in its second year, is designed to help players make the transition out of football and into broadcasting.

Even though this studio performance will be seen by no one, when the red light atop Camera 1 shines, Flynn looks slightly hypnotized. He soon chooses to lock eyes with co-host Rich Eisen.

"Please look at the camera," pleads a producer. "Please. Please, say hi to the camera." Flynn's words, at least, are clear and succinct.

"On TV, you don't have any time," he explains a bit later. "You can't slouch. You're thinking about what to say and what the guy next to you is saying and what you're doing with your hands. And everyone's watching you. It's completely nerve-racking."

Flynn is the first to sweat the red light. Current Ravens Derrick Mason and Daniel Wilcox are here, too, at the NFL Films campus. When they learned about the boot camp, applying for a slot was an easy decision. They've read the reports detailing the struggles of many retired players.

"I can't fool myself - my career will come to an end, and I have to be able to transition myself into something else," says Mason, a Ravens wide receiver who begins his 12th year in the league this fall.

At the start of Day One, the 20 players are divided into four groups. Mason and Wilcox are in Group B and are assigned to Edit Room 6. There they watch two minutes of Matt Ryan footage expertly trimmed to 30 seconds. Mason volunteers to practice reacting to the video.

"I think it's pivotal to sit a quarterback his first couple of years," he says. When he finishes, Wilcox turns and gives Mason a fist-bump.

They're all here for a similar reason - each senses the end is near. Wilcox is 31 years old, coming off toe surgery and in the final year of his contract. It's to his credit that he's thinking about the future. On average, the typical NFL career lasts about as long as ice cream spilled on a summer sidewalk.

Though the skills are different, a career in broadcasting is an easy jump to make. Last year, 12 of the 20 boot camp participants found work. In recent years, Ravens Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Qadry Ismail, Tony Siragusa and, most recently, Brian Billick, have headed into TV gigs.

Group B had four work stations to hit before lunch, and at each stop a new fear seemed to emerge. Flynn, for example, says he's comfortable discussing the role of a lineman, but can he read defensive coverages or dissect offensive plays?

"I look at everything first through a lineman's eyes and then work my way out from there," he says. "The farther I get away from the middle, the less I know and the less comfortable I am."

Some players, including Mason, already host radio shows and appear regularly on local TV. But at the boot camp, they sense the scrutinizing eyes and ears.

"I feel like a rookie all over again," Mason says.

Discussing film study with ESPN's Ron Jaworksi, Group B broaches a subject that every player-turned-analyst struggles with: how to handle insider information. Players don't want to burn former teammates but recognize that privileged information is what sets them apart.

Mason mentions that he was bothered last year when the media reported that the Ravens locker room was fractured, even though he didn't think that was the case.

Jaworski pipes in that at an ESPN production meeting, a Ravens player volunteered that the locker room was in disarray and that the player said he had told Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti that a leadership change was needed.

"Sometimes, you're only as good as your sources," Jaworski tells the group.

After spending the morning in T-shirts and sneakers, the 20 players slip into expensive suits and sit in the makeup chair. Time will tell what the boot camp leads to, but their first day culminates in a studio appearance, which means each has to stare down that red light.

Sitting next to the venerable James Brown, Mason tries to keep his cool. Surprisingly, it's Brown who stumbles over his words and calls for a second take. Mason lets out a huge sigh of relief.

"At least it wasn't me that time," he says in a hushed, relieved voice.


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