MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. – It’s the first day of mandatory minicamp for many pro football teams, but six NFL veterans are indoors working on a totally different type of conditioning drill. Rather than running sprints or participating in 7-on-7′s, each member of the group, which includes retirees Sage Rosenfels, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Antonio Garay, free agents Deion Branch and Brady Quinn and Detroit Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky, is seated alongside each other in a converted kitchen at NFL Films’ South Jersey headquarters. With their large frames squeezed into medium-sized chairs, the players are instructed by vocal coach Arthur Joseph to “get back in stature” before cradling their right hands around their necks.
Each guy moves his left hand up to his face and jams two fingers into his mouth. In unison, they all bellow out the word “hat,” letting the obstructed middle letter hang in the air for six long seconds. The “vocal yoga” exercise is just one element of Joseph’s “Your Studio Voice” class at the NFL Broadcast Boot Camp, a program sponsored by the league’s Player Engagement office which completed its eighth annual edition last week.
The four-day curriculum gives participants a crash course in how to break into broadcasting, with panels and classes on subjects like show preparation, radio game coverage, the television studio show, interview technique and even tape study.
“One of the biggest misnomers that people have is that [broadcasting] is going to be easy,” ESPN senior coordinating producer of NFL studio production Seth Markman tells a packed conference room last Tuesday morning, the first of two 12-hour days.
“It’s not. I promise you it’s not. Everybody’s mentioning how much work you guys have put in to get to this level of play. It’s the same thing. It’s preparation. It’s reading. It’s watching the film.”
There are 19 first-time attendees divided into three groups (the above sextet is Group C), along with five returnees who were selected to come back as part of an advanced group. Admission into the program isn’t easy. About 100 people applied for 25 spots (newly signed Colts safety Mike Adams had to vacate his at the last minute due to the team’s minicamp) by submitting resumes, one or two essays as well as any examples of any initial steps they’ve taken in doing media work (local radio appearances, etc.) while playing.
Each application is reviewed and scored by the Player Engagement office, with many players applying multiple times before finally getting in. Ayanbadejo, a 13-year NFL vet who retired last offseason after winning Super Bowl XLVII with the Baltimore Ravens, says this was his third try. In the year since his playing career ended, he’s written regular columns for FoxSports.com and made several television appearances on FOX Sports Live, factors he feels played in his favor this time around.
The experience is often worth the wait. By the time they wrap up on Thursday, each of the 24 attendees will have participated in a mock studio show, interviewed each other live on SiriusXM NFL Radio, written and read scripts for a teleprompter and done standup segments from a local Sports Authority store.
All of these activities are overseen by top executives, producers and announcers from ESPN, FOX, NFL Network and more, with network studio hosts James Brown and Curt Menefee working with the players in the studio and ESPN’s Ron Jaworski helping them explain how to break down game film for mass audiences.
“This group seemed to be very aware of football on television,” Jaworski told For The Win. “I got the sense that these guys are really interested in making it a career. They aren’t just here kicking the tires. They want to make it a profession.”
A number of past graduates of the program have done just that. SiriusXM NFL host Ross Tucker was a member of the first class in 2007 and returned this year to sit in on two panels as well as interview players live on the air. ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck is an alum, as are Rocky Boiman and Derrick Rackley, who both called national games for Westwood One Radio last season
“They’ve done a tracking and between 35 to 40 percent of players who attend within a couple years have some sort of broadcasting job,” former NFL director of broadcasting Dick Maxwell, who originally helped develop the program before his retirement and still returns every year as a consultant, said. “It may be a local radio station but it’s something. In years past, we had a lot of active players so they couldn’t automatically go into another profession.”
While a Ray Lewis (or sometime in the near future if he chooses, Peyton Manning) may have a number of broadcasting offers waiting upon retirement, recently retired players without a Hall of Fame resume need to do whatever they can to make themselves stand out as future broadcasters.
The bulk of this year’s boot camp class fits that description, but a few participants are getting started before they’ve officially called it quits on the field. 34-year-old Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Branch joined the Colts for a week during last year’s AFC playoffs but had already started planning for life after football when he was cut by New England in November 2012.
Former 2007 first-round pick Quinn, 29, spent last season with three teams, landing in St. Louis for the final nine games after Sam Bradford went down with an injury.
“I always told myself when I was playing football that I was really focused on football,” Quinn said. “I’ve always done that. Now, when you don’t have as much opportunity and you’re trying to figure out where your opportunities are in the longterm, you transition to ‘I need to start thinking about the future.”
Three of the key lessons that are drilled into the attendees throughout the program echo the messages they often heard during their playing careers. Be coachable. Be willing to work. Get in as many reps as you can.
All of those qualities are immediately required by the end of the day last Tuesday as NFL Network director of media talent Marc Watts begins to critique Group C’s studio show tapings from earlier that afternoon. Watts, who as a CNN correspondent in the 1990s did over 1700 live shots from the O.J. Simpson trial, informs the group that he plans to give them the “Simon Cowell” treatment. “Don’t call him sir,” Watts tells Branch, after his Georgia-bred manners get in the way of a response to Menefee. A few seconds later, he pounces again when Branch refers to the NFL commissioner as “Mr. Roger Goodell.” “There’s no ‘Mr. Roger Goodell’,” Watts says. “He’s just commissioner Goodell. We don’t call people ‘mister’ on television.”
Over the next 45 minutes, Watts points out Ayanbadejo’s loose tie knot (“I can’t get past the distraction”), Orlovsky’s frequently clasped hands (“You kept coming back to this like you were being a good boy listening”), and the noticeable differences in eye level between Menefee, Rosenfels and Garay.
“You never want to look based on posture that you’re better, brighter or get paid more or are more important than anyone else on the set,” Watts says. “You watch any Sunday set and you’ll see that everyone’s eye level is the same.”
Even though most exercises at the boot camp are mainly done to provide the players with clips to show potential future employers, the SiriusXM radio broadcast earlier Tuesday afternoon was live, much to the group’s surprise just several minutes before going on the air.
Many of that morning’s early sessions reiterated how everything they say as broadcasters about other players on the air or on social media will be immediately dissected by the public. Quinn provided a real-life example after his response to a question from Tucker about Johnny Manziel ended up on dozens of sports sites later that evening. Asked the next morning if he was surprised his opinion made headlines, Quinn said he wasn’t and then went on to make the same argument convincingly without a camera or microphone anywhere in range.
In an earlier panel, both Brown and Markman warned participants that audiences can tell when an analyst doesn’t fully buy into what he’s saying on air. “If it’s what you believe, you should say it,” Markman said.
Each player ends up being further tested in that regard Wednesday by having to compose a 90-second script that they’ll read from a teleprompter. While Ayanbadejo frequently writes web columns, he struggles with trying to shoehorn a well-formulated opinion on HGH testing and marijuana use in the NFL into an easily digestible TV segment, soliciting pointers from ESPN producer Jason Romano and even this For The Win writer.
After whittling it down into broadcast friendly soundbites, Ayanbadejo now finds himself alone in front of the camera trying to read it while keeping in mind all of the various instructions he’s received from Watts, Joseph and the other teachers.
By the time he has to do a one on one standup interview with Rosenfels later that afternoon, it’s clear that his attempts to master all of the nuances he’s quickly picked up are distracting him from appearing naturally invested in the segment. It’s the broadcasting equivalent of a linebacker focusing so much on his footwork during a game that he can’t pay full attention to the play in front of him.
“The entire time you’re in your head, but you can’t go too deep because you have the subjects you have to address,” Ayanbadejo says. “If you’re in your head, you’re not engaging with the camera or the subjects so you have to almost subconsciously position yourself the right way and do all the things we’re coached to do.”
One way the participants can overcome this once they leave broadcast boot camp is to keep getting in reps at home, even if there are no cameras around. Sirius XM senior VP of sports programming Steve Cohen suggested during a Tuesday panel that they take notes while watching games on the couch, then practice writing and delivering a monologue about it afterwards, even if no one else will hear it.
Ayanbadejo confesses that it’s a drill he’s started doing even before enrolling in boot camp. “The place where I do it is the shower,” he says. “It’s the only place in my house where I can have quiet time with two kids. My wife will come in and go ‘Who are you talking to?’ ‘I’m just practicing!’ So I already do it. I envision I’m going to be doing a lot more practice after this.”