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Inside an NFL Press Box


A journey behind the scenes at the Metrodome

@BreakTheHuddle

This little card will get you places.

Last Friday night I found myself working at a Minnesota Vikings home game with my father-in-law, in the press box. A purple card dangled from a lanyard around my neck, granting me access behind doors that regular spectators routinely pass by without a second thought.

Because I’m obsessed with details, and because I love feeling like I am peeking behind the curtain at things I’m not supposed to see, I looked forward to the evening immensely. I was not disappointed. What follows are descriptions, observations, a near-catastrophic bathroom faux pas, and the unfortunate truth about an iconic Minnesota sportswriter.

Enjoy.

1. The job

For years (he believes it’s eight, now) my father-in-law has been an employee of the National Football League. He is the crew chief of the Player Participation Crew which works every Minnesota Vikings preseason, regular season and playoff home game.

The crew consists of four people. Two photographers, one in each end zone, take six to eight photographs of the pre-snap alignment of the players on the field. Two data entry clerks sit in the press box, examining the photographs and enter into a computer program the jersey numbers of all the players on the field during a given play.

The data is verified by someone at the league office who audits the crew on a weekly basis and lets them know just how well the crew performed. Sounds simple enough, right?

There have been a few different photographers over the years, but by and large, the data entry clerks have been my father-in-law as well as one of his children. Lo and behold, all six of his kids passed on the opportunity, leaving me to volunteer for the task, an idea my father-in-law had to warm up to.

Why, you may ask?

I am an unrepentant Green Bay Packer fan, and (I imagine) he didn’t want to spend seven hours at the Metrodome allowing some Cheesehead behind enemy lines. But, alas, he had no other options, so I took my all-access pass and a decent evening’s paycheck and I ran with it.

I wheeled our equipment, a giant black case containing the photographer’s cameras, our laptops, and various other items a few blocks to the Metrodome. I think my father-in-law  enjoyed watching me awkwardly maneuver the equipment around pedestrians and traffic at 5:30 PM on a Friday afternoon . We entered through the player’s entrance and went immediately to the press box, semi-camouflaged on a mural wall of Vikings “greats”. (I told you. Unrepentant and unrelenting.)

There, I got the lay of the land: a wide open view of the football field, the stands almost entirely empty (it was still an hour and a half until kickoff). A smattering of people in the press box sat on their laptops, passing the time idly. A youth football game was occurring on one half of the field as the kickers from both teams took aim at the uprights on the other end.

That was the first (and certainly not the last) time I caught myself staring, and had to remind myself I was there to work.

Not a bad view of the game.

2. Sportswriter Interaction Number One

As we made our way towards a small anteroom on the far side of the press box, I couldn’t help but peek around to see if I recognized any of the faces.  Despite my disdain for the local football club, I’ve come to respect and enjoy the work of the sportswriters and radio hosts in this city; and as you can probably tell, I want to be a sportswriter, and I sort of wanted to see what a real live one looked like up close. It was like I was going to a zoo or something.

I didn’t see anyone who I recognized from billboards, newspapers or the web, so I helped drop the obnoxious case in the anteroom before setting up camp at our assigned seats.

Before long, I made my way to the second level of the press box because I needed to use the rest room. The signs on the door on the level above said things like “Vikings – Offensive Coaches”, “Bills – Defensive Coaches” and “NFL Instant Replay Control Center.” For the first (and certainly not the last) time that evening I considered finding out just how “All-Access” my all-access pass actually was, but I decided against it.

I opened the bathroom door and saw, standing at one of the two urinals, my favorite sportswriter in the Twin Cities. I instantly became nervous, for some reason. For half a second, I considered saying something to him as I sauntered up to the urinal next to him (the stall was occupied) but I quickly regained my focus. I was an idiot for being nervous about being in the presence of a freaking sportswriter, and an even bigger one for even considering telling him how big a fan I was as we took a leak twelve inches away from one another.

Alas, I did not. I said nothing. The rest of my bathroom adventure passed without incident.

3. Food

Unbeknownst to me, there is a pregame spread, a halftime spread, and leftovers are brought to the press box for those who labor well after the ballgame’s done. My wife did not inform me of ANY of this (she’s worked several games before), so I had eaten dinner before I went to the stadium. Did it stop me from indulging? Well, no.

The food was down near field level, and as we marched towards the grub I peered over my shoulder and spotted twenty or so players in full getup walking briskly behind us. Again, I was just happy I kept my wits about me. I got to the end of the hallway and got out of the way, watching them head to the field. Even the “smaller” players are huge human beings. I couldn’t help but stare.

Pregame spread: good, not great. But it was free and I ate it. End of story.

4. On the sideline

Next, one of the photographers and I headed down to the field, just because we could, while my father-in-law trekked back to the press box to make sure the laptops were up and running. We stood on the sideline as the players went through warm-ups; quarterbacks playing catch, receiving drills, etc.

What stood out the most was watching the lineman do drills- offense versus defense. One Viking left an indelible mark on my brain – right tackle Phil Loadholt. He’s a head taller, and broader, than every other offensive and defensive lineman, and that’s already the biggest group of players on the field. The sheer size of the man astounded me. I barely noticed GM Rick Spielman or Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, arm in arm with a woman who has had way too much plastic surgery AND was wearing too much makeup – a regular rich lady double whammy.

 5. Time to work

Finally, it was time to start the actual work. The photographers retreated to their respective end zones and I sat down with my father-in-law to watch a quarter of Vikings football. Since we have to retrieve the sim card containing the first quarter’s photographs at the end of the quarter itself, we had nothing to do, really, besides watch the first quarter.

Press box etiquette calls for no cheering, though muted jubilation is not punished in any way. It was hard for people to refrain from at least raising their arms or pumping their fists as the Vikings marched down the field for a score.

With three minutes left in the quarter, we each made our way to one of the photographers to retrieve their sim card. Since I was wearing an official-looking polo shirt with the NFL Shield emblazoned on it, I was concerned about the trip. I got some stares and only one person asked me where a bathroom was located, so the trips through the Dome’s cramped concourses went off mostly without a hitch.

When we returned, the sim cards were inserted and we began dissecting the photographs. Here’s what stood out about the nuts and bolts of the job:

a)      It was a preseason game, meaning both teams dressed ninety players, as opposed to 53 on regular season game days. Players with identical numbers littered the rosters. It was usually simple enough to keep them straight for data entry purposes – 61 was number 61 on the defense, 61O was number 61 on the offense – but on special teams all bets were off.

b)      Football players ought to be disallowed from growing their hair so long that it obscures their names and numbers. The Vikings have two defensive backs – Chris Carr, who wears #25, and Reggie Jones, who wears #29 – with hair down to damn near the middle of their backs. Couple this with the fact that they play the same position, and that ’25’ and ‘29’ look pretty similar from far away, and these two yahoos were a giant pain in my ass the entire night.

c)       The starters for both teams played well into the second quarter. This was nice, because once the scrubs came in, particularly on defense, our jobs became a whole lot tougher. No one seemed to know what they were doing – for the starters, we’d have several pictures of all eleven guys standing, facing the line of scrimmage, ready for the snap – unless, of course, someone went in motion. Therefore, the numbers were easy to see. For the backups, it looked like mass chaos; several of the pictures featured guys moving parallel to the line of scrimmage, pointing and hustling to get into position before the snap.

 6. More Food

Halftime spread: great, not spectacular. Though I wasn’t hungry I still managed to find room for some rosemary potatoes and delectable desserts. Speaking of the desserts…

The next entry in this ‘Behind the Scenes at the Dome’ series might just be, “I tried to work as a beer man and I got drunk instead.”

7.  Sportswriter Interaction Number Two

I don’t want to mention his name, but there is an aging gentleman who is a legendary sports writer in the Twin Cities. But whoa, he is mean. I saw him three times throughout the evening, and every time, he was being gruff and dismissive towards the blue collar folks – a security guards, interns, wait staff, etc.

At halftime, he was rather upset that he couldn’t find the dessert table, which was, admittedly, in a strange location, far away from the rest of the food. Eventually he came storming over, led by a terrified young employee, who was leading him to the desserts and trying his best to make light of the situation.

“Here, Mr. _____, try the blackberry pie, it’s delicious,” he said, attempting to be helpful. The sportswriter looked over the table, grabbed a cookie, took one bite out of it, threw it in a trash can and hurried away… well, as hurriedly as an 80 year old man can hurry. The poor kid shook his head and got back to work.

 8. The Interns

Throughout the night, I couldn’t help but notice a few 18 to 21 year olds hanging out in the press box, mostly girls, looking bored, overdressed and very much out of place. At first I thought they might be wait staff, but they weren’t really doing anything terribly useful. Next, I figured they were the children of important people and were thereby granted access to a restricted area – but why would they pick the press box? That’s what luxury suites are for.

After the game it became clear just who they were – public relations interns, whose job it was to record postgame interviews with the players and coaches, then return to the press box to transcribe them on laptops. I had only noticed five or so during the game, but after the game was over, I looked up and there were at least 15-20 of them, listening to tape recorders, hammering away on their keyboards.

At one point, they were all called into the anteroom for a meeting, where I heard their boss instruct them to “clean up” the quotes by taking out unnecessary words or phrases, such as “man”, “um”, “ya know”, and gratuitous “yeah”s. “Gonna”s had to become “going to”s, “hafta”s had to become “have to”s… you get the idea. I had always wondered why the players sounded so much more eloquent in print than on television, and now I know part of the reason.

9. More food

For those of us working long after the game was done, they brought in leftover sandwiches from earlier in the night. Postgame spread: Soggy and inedible. But I can’t complain.

10. The end

Finally, at about 12:15, we submitted our entries to the National Football League, made sure the upload went through, agonized over how many times we had confused Chris Carr for Reggie Jones a little bit more, and called it a night. Walking back to the parking ramp, the streets of Minneapolis were as empty as the Dome was two-plus hours after the game was done.

I was tired, and my hands were sore from the rapid typing (I’m such a sissy), but my curiosity was satisfied. I had gotten to peak behind the scenes at an NFL game – at least, one part of an NFL game – and I was grateful for the opportunity. As we loaded the giant black case into the vehicle, part of me felt sorry for the interns, who were still plugging away, trying to decipher the players’ postgame comments.

But part of me wanted to give that job a trial run, too. In fact, I’d be up for giving all the Metrodome jobs a chance – security guard, ball boy, beer man, caterer, p.r. department intern.

And that’s the enduring lesson I learned from the whole experience – every game day is just another work day for countless people at NFL stadiums around the league. To be one of them, for just one evening, might be a mundane experience for many, but for me, it was an entertaining, informative way to spend a Friday night.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

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