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Volume 23 No. 18
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Rigorous boot camp offers broadcasting hopefuls a taste of what it takes to succeed

Every year, in what’s been called the “four days of hell” known as NFL Broadcast Boot Camp, the league has a session it calls “American Idol” in which players in the camp audition for real network executives by interviewing other players.

It is one of the toughest assignments in the 14-hour-a-day, four-day camp, because the network executives are brutally honest, says Glenn Adamo, NFL vice president of media operations. One year, he said, a strikingly large offensive lineman was in the camp, and although that player worked his hardest, “He was always perspiring,” Adamo recalls, declining to name the player.

“It is a toughie,” Adamo added. “You are in a new career, and I will never forget [the offensive lineman] turned to us, and he said, ‘It is very obvious: I am a radio guy. I am not a TV host.’”

Former Giants lineman Shaun O’Hara on the set at boot camp with CBS’s James Brown
That offensive lineman did go on to get radio gigs after his NFL career was over. In fact, of the first about 100 NFL players who have been to Broadcast Boot Camp in its first five years, 67 of them are working in television, radio or some kind of broadcasting, Adamo said.

Some of the graduates of boot camp who have gone on to get television or radio jobs include Tim Hasselbeck and Damien Woody, who work for ESPN; Dhani Jones, who has worked for NFL Network, Big Ten Network and Fox; Derrick Brooks, who has worked for SiriusXM NFL Radio; and Orlando Pace, who has a weekly Rams pregame show on the St. Louis Fox affiliate.

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus calls boot camp “a great learning step” for NFL players who want a second career in broadcasting.

“The ones who go through the boot camp understand it takes a lot of work to be a broadcaster,” McManus said. “You can’t just go from the field to the broadcast booth. You really have to work at it.”

Boot camp is held over four days in June at the NFL Films facility in Mount Laurel, N.J. Players who are selected to come to the camp — the NFL and NFL Players Association get hundreds of applications for the 20 to 25 slots — are picked up from their hotel at 7:30 a.m. and returned to their hotel at 9:30 at night.

To participate in the program, players first have to submit applications that include a résumé, audio and video clips, letters of recommendations, and a personal statement or essay. Those applications are then reviewed by a group of representatives from the league and union, who ultimately select the players who will participate — and be put to work — in each year’s camp.

“We basically designed a curriculum in a very intense four-day period,” Adamo said. “I mean, we put them through four days of hell.”

The lessons include tips for play-by-play work, how to prepare to cover a game and advice on storytelling. Players are put in front of the cameras and they take turns interviewing each other. They are watched and critiqued by real network executives.

The players, who may have made several hundred thousand dollars a year, or millions, annually on the field are also told that if they want to make it in broadcasting, they might have to work their local college or even high school games — jobs that pay a couple hundred dollars a game.

NFL Broadcast Boot Camp is about the reality of going from the field to the studio, and the reality isn’t always rosy.

“It’s an entirely new profession,” said Eric Weinberger, executive producer at the NFL Network. “They are starting an entirely new profession that they didn’t go to school for; they didn’t go to training camp or mini-camp for. If you ask some of the great players and not-so-great players who jump from the field to the studio, they will tell you that it is a lot harder than they ever thought it was going to be.”

Ross Tucker remembers the first time he looked directly into the camera, at the first NFL Broadcast Boot Camp. It was 2007, and Tucker, an offensive lineman who retired in 2008 from the Washington Redskins after first making the team as an undrafted rookie out of Princeton University in 2001, wasn’t sure at the time that he wanted to go into broadcasting.

That first time, Tucker said, looking into the lens was somewhat jarring. “As a player, you don’t really look at the camera; you look at the person interviewing you,” he said. “I remember looking at the camera for the first time, and for a split second it was really strange because you are not used to looking at a piece of metal. You are supposed to pretend it is a person and make it a third person in the conversation.”

Tucker made it through boot camp and today could be considered the epitome of the new breed of sports broadcaster. During the football season, he works for five different employers: ESPN, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, YES Network, Sports USA and NBC Sports Network. His jobs have him covering both NFL and college football, so Tucker is constantly traveling and isn’t home much in the fall. “During my busy time of the year, I am only home Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights,” said Tucker, who lives near Hershey, Pa. “Those are the nights I sleep in my own bed.”

One of the things that Tucker didn’t expect about his broadcast career is how much work it would be, including memorizing all the names of the players on the Ivy League teams he covers for YES and NBC Sports Network.

Tucker also, despite his multiple assignments, is not making what he did when he was in the NFL. He would not discuss his salary as a broadcaster other than to say, “Everybody takes a pay cut, that is for sure. It has taken me several years to have as many opportunities as I have now to get to this point.”

And it’s a point, he said, that he enjoys.

“I thought I would enjoy it,” he said, “but I didn’t know I would enjoy it this much.”

Sports broadcast agent Mark Lepselter, owner of Maxx Sports Entertainment, said that times have changed, and networks are demanding more from athletes than just having been a name on the field.

“The networks prefer talent with name recognition, but they also want individuals who are going to work their rear ends off,” Lepselter said. “The other thing you are seeing more and more of: They will give you an opportunity, but more so than in the past, if you do not earn the dollars, you will not last very long.”