Editor's note: Traveling to 50 states in 50 days is an enormous undertaking, involving months of planning, four separate production teams (Green, Red, Yellow and Blue), lots of flights to small airports (and some bigger ones) and hours of behind-the-scenes preparation. We've enlisted Adam Willis, one of the many ESPN production assistants working on the tour, to let us know what goes into putting SportsCenter's "50 States in 50 Days" on the air.
Sept. 4: Signing off, with tons of thanks
At 2:25 p.m. Central Time on Saturday, my flight took off from Tulsa. Sometime in the hour that followed, I flew out of Oklahoma air space, officially leaving the 10th and final of my 50*50 stops. It all started with a flight from Hartford to Chicago in the early morning hours of July 17. Forty-nine days, 33 flights, 10 hotel rooms, 9 rental cars and more than 30,00 air miles later, it's all over.
I always knew I'd love the travel, knew I'd love a seven-week adventure away from Bristol, knew I'd love seeing sights while making money. I knew I'd love seeing a lot of America, but I never thought about what I might learn while I was out there.
The biggest lesson I learned was that Americans in different regions have many more things in common than they have differences. Certainly this is true in superficial ways. Clothing, for both genders (with some nods to regional fashion), was pretty much uniform. You could take your average person in Gueydan, La., and drop them at the Mall of America and their clothes wouldn't be out of place. Almost everywhere, there's a Starbucks on the next block and a Wal-Mart less than a mile away. Fast, fried food was available (and plentiful) everywhere I went. And no matter where you go in this country, most karaoke singers should be legally barred from coming within 10 feet of a working microphone.
But it was the general similarity of character that really struck me. People were generally friendly everywhere I went. When help was asked for, help was provided. By and large, help was offered before I asked if it was evident that I needed some. I got more help carrying things and finding my way around new cities from people who offered to help than I ever needed. And more often than not the help was offered by people who had no way of knowing who I worked for or what I was working on.
And all over the nation, people love to play. The best part about going from event to event was seeing people excited about attending/competing in the event. The more local the flavor of the event, the better. In all of the non-major sports events I saw, it was clear to me that the people in attendance weren't just there to experience the event, they were there to celebrate their little corner of the world. The people at the In-line Marathon weren't just there to see skaters skating, they were there to see the St. Paul waterfront all dressed up for the day. The folks at the Prison Rodeo in Oklahoma turned the whole weekend into a block party celebrating their town and their way of life. And the people at Permian football practice weren't their just to hear pads popping; they were observing opening day of a time of year when the town stands united behind a common love.
In short, I got to see what sports aer about when it's not about money. And it was fun to experience.
Another very important lesson I learned -- if you're traveling to the Southwest or the South in the summer and plan to spend time carrying heavy loads while outdoors, pack lots of extra shirts. And bring laundry money.
I'm going to start thanking lots of people here in a minute, but first thanks are due to a certain inanimate object to which I have ascribed much scorn in this space over the last seven weeks. Despite its awkward shape, bulky base and impossibly non-ergonomic (and, I mention one last time) wooden carrying case, the ol' plastic 50*50 sign was a great traveling companion. It's the best press pass I could imagine having with me. While out shooting scenics, it would have been easy for me to start thinking I was some kind of celebrity. People would stop in their tracks, stare, and then want to talk about all things sports, SportsCenter, and 50*50. But it was clear early on that the much-maligned sign was the real celebrity. Crowds would part, accommodations would be made and rules would bend just so that sign (and its friend, the video camera) could go sit wherever it wanted.
Some people asked for pictures with the sign, others stood and stared longingly at it until I offered to take a picture of them with it; others cursed themselves for not bringing their cameras along that day. While photographer Bill Roach and I were out in Nevada's Red Rock Canyon, one guy drove past us, slammed on his brakes, and backed up a few hundred yards just to jump out and spend time with that sign. So regardless of my protestations to the contrary, the 50*50 sign was a good friend and the most low-maintenance celebrity in world history. Plus, my forearms have doubled in size in the last seven weeks.
Now it's time for the thank-yous, and many are in order. Marc Weiner and Mike Finocchiaro come first. We made up the core of Team Green. Marc usually has light duties in the summer, and left his wife and baby son behind in New Jersey for the better part of seven weeks to produce our segments. He gave me tons of freedom to shoot what I wanted to shoot and to put my favorite scenics on the air. He gave me assignments using my favorite methodology: He'd tell me what needed to be done, and just trust that I'd figure out how to accomplish the task. His trust in my abilities swelled my confidence in my abilities, and I think our on-air product was better because of it. He also played the big-brother role well, lending me money when asked and picking up dinner checks without being asked. And he made fun of me whenever I sustained (yet another) superficial injury in the ancient big-brother fashion. Thanks for everything, Marc. Good run.
Mike Finocchiaro is, without a doubt, the hardest working man in show business. But his indefatigable work ethic (the man helped build the set, stock the production truck, baby-sit VIPs, keep our drink cooler full, coordinate lunch orders, and solve many and myriad random problems for at least 12 hours a day for 7 weeks straight) is matched or perhaps exceeded by his sense of adventure and fun. Where I sat back and observed the goings-on at our events, Mike invariably found a way to experience them. His love for travel and all things new and exciting gives him the aura of a man just months out of college, an aura belied by his gray hair but not by his permanent smile. Mike also said more nice things about me (both to me and to others) than I ever deserved. Mike's going on to D.C. to wrap up 50*50, and then gets a much-deserved rest. Enjoy, Fin; it was a great pleasure working with you. We'll work on the hyphen issue later.
Senior Coordinating Producer Mark Gross had two major issues to deal with this spring. First, he'd been put in charge of making 50*50 come to life. An impossibly complicated and daunting task involving the coordination of literally every department within ESPN. Plus, he had me stalking him day and night, lobbying (OK, begging) for a spot on the 50*50 roster. Thanks for the opportunity, Mr. Gross, and I hope they give you a few months off when this is all over.
Jennifer Chase in travel had a rough summer as well, if only because I called her every time my itinerary needed a tweak. Jennifer, I'd wish for some time off for you, too, but seriously, what are the chances?
Justine DeLuco came out on the road in her role as Production Coordinator, meeting up with Team Green in Seattle and Las Vegas. Her preternatural organizational skills and unmatched ability to grease wheels both kept us on task in big cities and got us into places from which we might otherwise have been booted. Some smooth talking from Justine and a gift of a 50*50 license plate were the only reasons we got video at Hoover Dam. Thanks again Justine!
Heather Roach on the Assignment Desk got calls from me whenever it was time to feed a promo back to Bristol. Primarily, she was responsible for picking up the phone, hearing me say how lost I became on the way to some affiliate station, and then calling the station to get directions for her prodigal PA in the field. I did get Heather some nice soaps from the Omni in Jacksonville, however, so I hope all is forgiven.
Joe Dias, Jeff Spencer, Bill Roach, Jim Farrell, Cody Shimek, Kevin Deyo, Rick Mickler and Roger Gower were forced to spend one or more workdays with me in their roles as photographers. Thanks to all for the video, friendly demeanors, and for at least pretending to laugh at (some of) my lame jokes.
Jay Francis, Rick Kvietkus, Jim Ryan, Larry Kirin, Peter Lion and Kurt Ackerman all served as director for at least one Team Green stop. Thanks for always remaining patient while I was in the back of the production truck, explaining why, once again, we weren't quite ready to tape.
Dave Schoenfield was my primary editor for the blog, and the one who gave the green light for this crackpot idea of mine. Much of the blame for all content generated by me, therefore, belongs to him. Thanks for taking a chance on an unknown kid, Mr. Schoenfield. And Paul Augeri became my de facto weekend editor when he answered my phone call to the .com desk one Saturday night in August. Wrong place at the wrong time Paul -- thanks for all of your help.
And thanks to the countless individuals who helped me out along the way. From the woman in the Hood River bookstore who told me where to go for the best view of the city; to the nice lady in Surprise who force-fed our crew 1½ home-cooked meals; to the water taxi captain in Jacksonville who let us ride an extra lap around the riverfront at no extra charge; to Landry Thompson in Odessa, voluntary tour guide and apprentice sign carrier. So many people assisted Team Green in its 10-state run that I certainly can't name them all (although I seem to have tried here), but they know who they are and I thank them all for enhancing the experience as well as our on-air product.
Finally, I'd like to thank my family. The extended family, who read the blog and whose encouragement I heard/felt regardless of where I was, but most importantly to the nuclear segment.
Mom and Dad, thanks for always encouraging me to chase after my dreams and passions, no matter how poor that may have made me at times, and to my little singer/songwriter sister, whose own dream-chasing experience continues to inspire me to keep going with mine.
And thanks to any and everyone who has followed along with my trek around the country. Knowing someone's actually been reading this has made it so much fun to write.
Take care, thanks for reading, and safe travels to all.
Sept. 3: Jail time in Oklahoma
On Saturday, I got to say, "Any word from the Governor?" and mean it. Not a bad way to conclude the competitive phase of my 50*50 experience. That's right, we're now in garbage time. A quick trip home to Bristol on Saturday (after a pilgrimage to the birthplace of my hero, Will Rogers (no, I'm not 95 years old)) and then I'll be watching Alabama, Wisconsin and DC on TV with the rest of America. But before my race was run, I had to survive Friday, a day spent largely in prison.
After a mercifully late 11 a.m. wake-up call -- I was up singing karaoke (a little Randy Travis for the country lovers) until after 1 a.m. -- I navigated the 15-minute route to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in my rented blue Malibu (last of five Malibus during my 10-state run), made my way to our production truck and began to clip together video to be used in our segments for SportsCenter.
We had to essentially do two shows Friday, one in the daylight for the 6 p.m. ET show and another at night for the late SportsCenters. Putting the first show's segments on tape was a trying experience. It took us over 2½ hours to polish off 13 minutes of television, but we were rewarded afterward with free lunch (yes, there is such a thing). That made things all better.
Shortly after lunch, preparation for the late shows began. At about the same time, folks started streaming into the arena. It's an odd feeling, watching scores of Oklahomans (who purportedly have done nothing wrong) walk, of their own free will, into a maximum security prison. It's an even odder sensation when you're following them in to buy souvenirs.
The big differences between the early segments and the late segments (aside from the ambient light level) involved high school football and the governor of Oklahoma. We needed to get video from a nearby (well, 30 miles away) high school football game, so as to celebrate the beginning of the Oklahoma prep season, and I wanted to get the governor to say something to the effect of, "I'm Governor Brad Henry and you're watching SportsCenter from Oklahoma," to use in the SportsCenter opening. As I had to stay in the production truck to cut video for the late segments, I dispatched photographer Roger Gower and crack audio man Devin Williams to Wilburton, Okla., to find some Friday night lights while sending former ESPNer (and my future fiancée) Celya McCullah off to find Gov. Henry, who was supposed to be sitting among a clump of dignitaries at the far end of the arena.
The football game started at 7:30 and was a half-hour away. We wanted to start taping our segments at 8:30. The rodeo people, fearing that the lights on our SportsCenter set (which was perched right at the railing overlooking the rodeo dirt, would give those competing Friday night an advantage over those competing on Saturday night) wanted us to start earlier and get done quicker. And as we started taping (at around 8:30 as planned), Celya was still in search of the governor.
Cut to 8:45. After multiple bad takes and tweaks, our first (of two) segments for the late SportsCenter was almost on tape. All that stood between Team Green and completion of the 10-state run was the taping of Segment #2, which required that the tape containing video of the high school game make its way to our truck. And getting the governor, who had now ruled out coming over to our set to talk into the camera, to talk into our camera. Now, normally, during my 49 days on the road, obstacles like these wound up causing extensive delays and tears from grown men. But on this day and in this place and our last stop, everything worked out.
Roger and Devin got back to the truck about 10 minutes before 9. Football video: Check. Plus, with Roger and his camera back on the scene, we had a way to get footage of the governor without asking police to clear a path for him across the arena. Celya, Roger and Devin headed off to meet the Chief Executive of the Sooner State as I cut a quick football highlight. By the time we were completely done with the first segment, the three travelers had returned (mission accomplished) and our abridged account of the Henryetta High-Wilburton High gridiron clash was ready for air.
A few quick minutes later, we were all done. Segment on tape. Oklahoma, that's a wrap. Team Green, signing off.
The suddenness of the ending of our jobs for the day left the staff of Team Green with just a few things left to do. Pack up, say our farewells, and watch a bunch of inmates chase after a $100 bill inconveniently tied to the head of an ornery bull (it's called "Money the Hard Way," and it's just as weird to watch as it sounds. No inmates were harmed during the filming of this event). I took part in a little of each.
As previously mentioned, my 50*50 experience wraps up Saturday with a pair of flights and a drive back to bucolic Bristol. The job of wrapping up the blog will be completed there as well, so stay tuned for the final installment, coming soon!
Aug. 29: Dodging Katrina
First and foremost, the ESPN crew (Team Green) is now out of Louisiana and far from Katrina's influence. But Sunday was certainly a singular day for most of us.
It's an eerie feeling being in the projected path of a hurricane. I drove from Lafayette to Gueydan early Sunday morning under perfectly blue skies. No indication of any trouble brewing, except for the traffic. As I headed south, the number of cars heading the other way vastly outnumbered those headed in my direction. Reports of long backups on primary evacuation routes were already coming in as well.
The skies remained blue during our live segment for the Sunday morning SportsCenter, but ominous clouds began to appear in the southeastern sky as we worked on taping our segments to air later in the day.
Around us, the Duck Festival continued unabated. It was especially odd to see people reveling in the festival at the exact time our crew was racing to finish up and make our various runs for the Lafayette airport.
After we finished up our segments we said our goodbyes and prepared to head out. Leaving also felt a bit unnatural -- I felt somewhat like I was cutting and running and leaving new friends right when they might need my help. But I had a 5 p.m. flight from Lafayette to Houston and I wasn't about to miss it.
As I drove out of the Duck Festival parking lot (a little after 1 p.m.), already stressing a little about getting to the airport, I watched three cars park across the street. They were filled with new arrivals. At first I was confused as to why anyone would be coming to the festival at this time until I realized that locals had no reason not to party during the hours before the storm was scheduled to hit nearby.
I decided to drive back to Lafayette on what I believed (and hoped) were lesser-traveled highways, and drove back in constant fear of running into an evacuation-related traffic jam. Fortunately, none materialized (Lafayette was not expected to be severely hit by the storm). I returned to our hotel, quickly packed my bags and headed for the airport at 3 p.m.
The five-mile trip to the airport became the most eventful part of my day. Lafayette Regional Airport sits on Highway 90, which is a five-minute drive north of our hotel up a road called Kaliste Saloom. Upon arriving at the intersection of the two roads, I found I was not allowed to turn left and head west on 90 due to large ROAD CLOSED barriers blocking my path. Cars were traveling on 90 and heading west, but I couldn't cross over to them. The airport entrance was, no hyperbole, less than a quarter of a mile west on 90, but I had to drive almost five miles east on the highway until I could find a place to turn around that hadn't been blocked by barriers.
It's important here to note that Highway 90 was considered one of the primary evacuation routes in that area of Louisiana. I have no idea why there were barriers preventing people from heading west (away from the storm) on 90.
But I ended up making it to the airport in plenty of time. Of course, just to make things more dramatic, the flight was delayed by a half an hour.
I sat in the waiting area with fellow ESPNers Peter Lion, Leah Siegal, Shelley Smith and Marc Weiner, watching for the arrival of the delayed plane that would take us to Houston while also eyeing the progress of ominous and dark clouds headed in our direction. Our flight left before any rain fell on Lafayette, but we couldn't have missed it by much. Seven hours later (and after barely making my connecting flight in Houston), I was back in Bristol, 2,000 miles and a world away from Katrina.
I learned upon landing that although our 50*50 segments had aired in the afternoon SportsCenter, it had been decided they shouldn't air in the late show. Had the segments been in the SportsCenter that followed the late baseball game, those segments would have been airing during the repeats all of Monday morning -- in other words, you would have seen George Smith sitting in the Gueydan sunshine talking Louisiana sports at the same time the hurricane was causing the most damage to the state. The decision to leave the segments out was certainly the right one.
Knowing how nervous I was (and I knew I'd be pretty safe even had I ended up stuck in Lafayette) I can't even imagine the feelings of those in and around New Orleans and the other areas in the sights of Katrina
Aug. 27: Bayou classic
Coming up later: A (melo)dramatic boat rescue deep in the Louisiana Bayou!
But before we get to tales of a fun-filled Thursday, here's a quick recap of Friday's action:
Took a flight out of Jacksonville over to Houston, then from Houston to Lafayette, La. Those of a geographical bent will recognize that I actually flew past (well, over) Lafayette on my way to Houston and then had to backtrack on my second flight. I really should learn to skydive. Checked in the hotel in Lafayette. Drove to Lake Charles, La. Met up and hung out with my best-friend-since-first-grade Jason Richards at the casinos found at said Lake. Actually won money. Bade adieu to Jason. Drove back to the hotel. Told you it was a quick recap.
Saturday's action opened with my first drive down to the town of Gueydan, La., host city of the Gueydan Duck Festival (the event we're covering in Louisiana) and self-anointed Duck Capital of the World (Eugene, Ore., not OK with this distinction, I'd imagine).
I followed photographer Rick Mickler, who had detailed directions to Gueydan. Directions detailed just enough to get us nearly irretrievably lost and blundering about in southern Louisiana. With help from locals and calls to ESPN people already at the event, we managed to complete the hour-long journey from Lafayette to the Festival in just a bit under an hour and a half.
After spending some time taking in the flavor of the Festival (basically a good-sized town fair -- local food, souvenirs, live music, carnival rides and even a beauty pageant), eating some crawfish etouffee whipped up by a friendly family (delicious) and taking in the Duck Festival Parade (beads flying everywhere), Rick and I gathered up producer Marc Weiner and anchor George Smith and headed off to find a spot to shoot our promo to air for Thursday night's SportsCenters.
I had wanted to use the bayou itself as the backdrop for the promo, and newfound friends from the Festival had offered to take us into the marshes aboard their two mud boats, so we all piled into our cars and headed down to the bayou.
An interesting/germane fact: If you look at a map of southwestern Louisiana, many roads just kind of disappear as they head south. There's a big area of the map that is essentially roadless due to the existence of unpaveable, uninhabited (at least by people) swampy marshland. We drove down Louisiana State Highway 91. All the way down 91. To the very end. At which the highway turned into a mere gravel parking lot, next to which rested a boat garage containing the aforementioned mud boats.
Equipment and people were placed into the boats and we were off, leaving churning water and swaying swamp grass in our wake as we raced down the narrow lane of water into the bayou. It was a sight to behold for this suburban-born blogger -- swampland as far as the eye could see in all directions, its flatness broken up only by sporadically placed patches of trees. I was in the second boat, but was told later that the lead boat had spotted (and banged into) a few alligators during our outbound voyage. Glad I kept my hands and feet inside the ride at all times.
We motored deeper into the bayou for about half an hour and then picked a spot to shoot the promo. The idea was for Rick to set up the camera on our boat and record George as he stood in the other boat and told America what to expect when Louisiana's version of 50-in-50 ran on Sunday. Originally, this was supposed to happen as both boats floated along, but the waterway was too narrow to allow for the boats to be side-by-side. Instead, it was decided, we'd pull our boat out of the way and have George talk into the camera as his boat motored past our (stationary) boat.
It took a couple of takes and lots of ginger maneuvering in the shallow water, but in the end the promo's timing was great: George's boat drives up and never stops moving as he delivers his lines, then guns the engine and speeds away right as George finishes. Good stuff. Now all we had to do was get back to shore.
The beginning of the ride back was uneventful. I stood up in the boat most of the way, as it allowed me to see over the grasses and out over the bayou landscape. This decision resulted in the latest of my work-related superficial injuries, however, when our boat came to a sudden stop and I smacked my shin into the side of a bench. A quick glance forward revealed the cause of our abrupt braking -- the lead boat had also stopped and was spewing dark smoke from its tailpipe.
So now we had a boat marooned in the middle of the bayou. We couldn't just ditch the people in the other boat, but we were rapidly approaching our deadline for feeding our promo back to Bristol. We had to make a decision and act on it quickly. So we did the honorable thing: We transferred the ESPN people from the non-working boat over into the working boat and ditched two of the very nice and accommodating people who had driven us out there, leaving them alone in a powerless craft in alligator-infested waters as we headed back to the safety of the docks.
No need to get too angry with us, however; the story has a happy ending: The two guys left behind were able to fix the boat and caught up to us just before we arrived at the docks. Plus, we got the promo to Bristol on time!
• More serious events did interfere with our fun, however. As Hurricane Katrina and the waves advanced on the Gulf Coast, we heard over the radio that New Orleans was being evacuated. Photographer Rick Mickler, who lives with his family in New Orleans, had to leave early to get back and help board up his house.
All of us on 50*50's Team Green wish Rick, and all those in the path of this storm, safe travels.
Aug. 26: Good seats
Here's what I learned on Thursday: This job comes with some good perks. And some perilous moments.
My job responsibilities required me to have a media pass for Thursday night's Falcons-Jaguars preseason game. The pass gave me field access before, after, and during the game.
My job responsibilities did not, however, include having to do anything during the game.
So, basically, I had a pass that gave me access to the the best possible seats in the house. Not too shabby.
(Oh, by the way, I was also about 3 yards away from the nearest Jaguars cheerleader.)
I set up shop about a few yards out of bounds next to the end zone. When the Falcons started a drive at their own 20, the only one closer to Michael Vick than me was Warrick Dunn.
I admit to having felt a very strong impulse to run out and make a tackle. Fortunately, self-preservation (both in terms of my life and my job) intervened and kept me rooted to the spot as the Falcons headed down the field.
Our end zone was unthreatened for a good part of the first half. But fate smiled as the half came to an end. And if you taped/TiVo-ed the game (and who didn't?), you can see your favorite blogger up at the top of your screen during Michael Jenkins' touchdown catch.
But things really got fun once we actually started to make TV. Unlike most of our 50-in-50 stops, the plan was for us to do our segments for the 11 p.m. SportsCenter live.
Remember the old "This is SportsCenter" commercial in which the SportsCenter gang is engaged in a Y2K test of the equipment? They count down to the theoretical flip of the calendar from 1999 to 2000. "Three, two, one, uh oh." The screen goes to snow, and all hell breaks loose. That's roughly what happened to us right as we were supposed to go on the air.
Dan Patrick was sitting at the 50-in-50 set, ready to go live. Scott Van Pelt was in Bristol, preparing to throw it to Dan. Everything seemed ready. In Bristol, the SportsCenter director was counting down to Dan's live shot. "Three, two ... we've lost your shot! We can't see Jacksonville! We've lost the feed!"
Compounding this problem, as far as we could tell in the truck, we were still feeding our signal to Bristol. In other words, Bristol says something's wrong, but not only do we not know what's wrong, we don't even have any indication that anything is going wrong. SportsCenter abruptly headed off to commercial. There was mad scrambling taking place inside Alltel Stadium.
Amidst the mayhem of many people trying to diagnose our problem, our operations producer, Mike Finocchiaro, tests a theory. He thinks someone has unplugged a cable that should, by all rights, be plugged in. He checks the cables and finds that, sure enough, someone (culprit never identified) has pulled out the cable that was connecting us to our satellite feed. Thinking quickly, Mike borrows the cable that supplies Dan's on-stage TV monitor with the ability to see the SportsCenter broadcast from Bristol and uses that to plug us back into the satellite. Suddenly, Bristol can see us again. Crisis resolved ... almost.
After the commercial, Bristol confidently tosses it back to Dan in Jacksonville. In our first segment, Dan is to talk over the highlight of the Falcons-Jaguars game. The highlight was put together and will be broadcast from Bristol. Therein lies the problem. The cable that is now connecting us to the satellite was the cable that allowed Dan to see what was coming from Bristol. As the highlight begins, Dan can't see it.
Now, Dan has a piece of paper telling him what plays are in the highlight, and he hears the play-by-play audio from the highlight in his earpiece, so he starts (blindly) to narrate the highlight. Amazingly, his words fit the video so well that no one in our production truck even knows there's a problem. Crisis officially (and very luckily) averted. And America is none the wiser. As always, things went just the way we drew them up.
So ends 50-in-50's sojourn to Florida. And now, to borrow a line from the great Charlie Steiner, "Follow me! Follow me to Louisiana!" OK, doesn't have the same ring to it. But it's certainly appropriate!
Aug. 25: The island green
In today's edition: A trip to the best-looking golf hole in America.
After flying from Minneapolis to Jacksonville and spending Tuesday scouting out Jacksonville locations, I met up Wednesday morning with photographers Kevin Deyo and Ted Smelser and headed out. We stopped by at AllTel Stadium (where our 50-in-50 set will be Thursday) and picked up the infamous 50*50 sign. We found the giant jaguar statue out in front of the stadium and shot it with the sign. We jumped on the water taxi, stuck the sign on the bow, and motored around the St. John's River taking shots of the skyline and the sign. We put the sign on the shore and shot the skyline across the river.
When I was a kid, my family had a 486 desktop computer. In the days before the Pentium processor (and well before the PS2) computer golf was relatively unrefined, if still quite enjoyable. I spent many hours in my junior high days playing a game called "Mean 18," a now primordial golf game that seemed, at the time, to be the highest form of realistic computer entertainment. It was in playing this game that I first came across the phenomenon of the island green.
The course on my computer was known as PGA West. The 17th was a par-3; a low-iron shot into a medium-sized green surrounded by water. Although my luck at the hole was rarely good, I played the course over and over again specifically to experience the 16-bit "scenery" afforded by that hole. I had, at that time, some basic understanding that this was modeled after a real hole, but had never seen it on TV. By the time I played the 17th at TPC Sawgrass on Tiger Woods 2004, it was officially my favorite golf hole in the world.
Now, much like my football career, my golfing exploits were nasty, brutish, and short. My temper was a hot one as a teen, which did not serve to advance my enjoyment of golf. My most memorable moments on the course involved my wrapping a 3-wood around a tree following an errant drive and snapping a 9-iron in half and throwing it into sand trap after an ill-behaved approach shot. In the interest of my remaining clubs, I quit the game early in high school.
But it was still with great excitement that I walked up to the 17th tee in February. I was in Jacksonville for the Super Bowl, and the night-time big media party was set at TPC Sawgrass alongside the famous 17th. I got to shoot at the green twice, topping the first badly and rolling it into the water, and just getting under the second one enough to plop it into the drink about halfway to the green. Never saw the hole in daylight, though, something I decided to try to remedy on this trip.
So I engineered a plan to get my beloved/behated 50*50 sign out onto the hole. I called the folks at Sawgrass and they graciously consented to take us out onto the course to get the shot. I got an unexpected treat shortly after we got to the clubhouse -- I got to drive myself out to 17 in my very own golf cart.
After a few minutes of careening around the cart path, we were at the tee, with 17 laid out before us in sunlit splendor. We popped the camera and sign onto the tee box and shot across the water at the island green.
Aug. 23: The big skate
How hard can it be, you might ask, to find a one-legged man in a crowd of inline skaters? We'll find out later. But first let's begin at the beginning.
Now, I'm a late sleeper. If I'm working a late shift, you're better off not calling me before noon the next day. So a time of day that might be normal for your average person (say, 10 a.m.) is a time when silence and the blissful unconsciousness most often still prevail.
On Sunday morning, my wake-up call came at 4:45. Ouch.
To aide in our coverage of the St. Paul Inline Marathon, I was assigned to get some pre-race interviews with a few of the skaters, as well as getting video of the start of the race. So, more than a little bleary-eyed, I headed down to the St. Paul riverfront and met up with photographer Cody Shimek and audio man Scott Buckley to start our day.
We found our first interview subject, Eddy Matzger (who climbed both Mount Kilimanjaro and an Egyptian pyramid while wearing skates), remarkably easily amid the throng of preparing skaters. After Eddy, we talked to a couple of older skaters, including 82-year old John Burton, who we discovered had been a member of the 1952 U.S. Olympic Cross Country Skiing team, and remains in terrific physical condition.
We were finishing up our interviews as race time (7 a.m.) approached. We grabbed up our belongings and hurriedly made the half-mile walk from the staging area to the starting line. We were seconds too late to catch the first wave leave, but got plenty of good video of skaters starting up and racing past the camera. Cody even got to take his camera on a motorcycle ride to get video of the skaters.
Chris Bretoi's competitive skating career is remarkable primarily because it began more than a decade after he lost most of his left leg after being hit by a car while changing a tire in 1989. On Sunday he sported a prosthetic leg designed specifically for sports, fitted with an inline skate.
He was the only amputee in Sunday's marathon. This uniqueness made for an interesting story, one we were determined to tell on SportsCenter. The problem was, we couldn't find him.
As Scott and I returned to the staging area, we were met by the large throng of non-elite skaters preparing for their 8 a.m. start time. The staging area had taken on a bazaar-like atmosphere, with hundreds of people milling around, swapping stories and equipment and visiting sign-in booths. But none of the folks we talked to knew where to find Mr. Bretoi. And we had to talk to him before he headed to the starting line, which gave us a window of about 10 minutes. Scott and I split up to search.
I wish I had video of myself searching for this man. I walked through the crowd, feeling like Richard Kimble with a press pass, staring groundward in the hopes of catching a glint of metal among the hundreds of legs. My stress mounted as my search yielded no results. The clock was ticking, and the one interview I had to have was at risk of going permanently AWOL.
I called my producer, Marc Weiner, to inform him of my plight. While I was on the phone, my call-waiting beep went off -- it was Cody. I crossed over to hear the best three words I could possibly have heard at that moment: "We found him."
Scott had spotted Cody at the edge of the crowd and told him that we were looking for an amputee and that the search was not going well. It was at time that Cody suggested that perhaps Scott should talk to the man right behind him, who happened to be wearing a prosthetic leg.
(For his find -- and for again finding and filming Chris as he started the race -- Cody wins the prestigious "MVP of Minnesota" Award.)
Chris was very accommodating, telling us the story of the accident that caused the loss of his leg, as well as about his other athletic pursuits (the guy plays some mean hockey, as well) and the few limitations of the artificial leg, such as its lack of a knee joint gives him less of an ability to push off than other skaters possess.
With our key interview in hand, I triumphantly headed back to our production truck to edit a highlight of the race (won by Bret Whitman in a time of 1:11:27.8) as well as an item on Mr. Bretoi (who finished in a very respectable time of 2:10:43.8).
The benefit of an early start is an early finish; we were done for the day at 11 a.m.
The downside is sleepiness and the accompanying loss of focus and judgment. I blame this, in part, for the fact that I walked face-first into a (very, very clean) plate glass window while entering the restaurant where we ate lunch. But I'm feeling much better now.
Farewell, Minnesota. Off to Florida!
Aug. 21: Moving forward using all my breath
I've been out of contact for a spell, so here's a quick recap of recent days:
Wednesday: Left Odessa, flew to Houston. Flight was late leaving Odessa, missed connection in Houston. Got switched from Continental to Northwest. Caught next flight out to Minneapolis. Bags did not. Arrived in Minneapolis. Waited in longest rental car line of my life. Arrived at hotel at 8 p.m. Bags caught later flight, arrived the next morning.
Thursday: Being the irrepressible fan-boy that I am, I spent a considerable amount of time and energy finding the Eden Prairie Center, a mall in the Minneapolis suburb of the same name. Eden Prairie Center was the setting for Kevin Smith's critically skewered film, "Mallrats." As a fan of Kevin Smith's movies, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I bought cookies at the cookie stand, searched in vain for "Fashionable Male," and took a picture of the elevator made famous by Jason Lee and Shannon Doherty. Good times. That night, feeling a bit peckish, I had an urge for fast food. Being in the upper Midwest, I figured there had to be a White Castle around. I'd never been to one, and making the drive in search of White Castle fit so nicely with my live-the-movie theme of the day. Sadly, I found the place on the first try. Love those juicy little burgers. Then, for reasons not known even to me, I drove to and past the Wisconsin border, turned around and drove back to the hotel. Your Disney dollars at work.
Friday: Drove around town looking for places where we could shoot scenics on Saturday. Found a bunch. That's about it.
Saturday: Time to shoot the scenics. Along with photographer Cody Shimek and audio man Scott Buckley, I subjected our faithful and hardy 50*50 sign to a day of terror like it had never known.
We perched the sign high up on a recycling bin next to a railing overlooking a three-story drop to the ground floor at Mall of America. We forced the sign to ride a Ferris wheel at Camp Snoopy. We balanced the sign on the ledge of a five-story parking garage in a stiff breeze to get a good shot of the nearby Metrodome. And to top it off, we (well, Scott, actually) stuck the sign into water up to its neck in Lake Calhoun. Just to see what would happen.
(I'm happy to report that the sign took to water like a duck to ... OK, bad metaphor choice. When I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong.)
Then it was time to head to St. Paul to shoot our promo to air on Saturday's SportsCenter. As Steve Berthiaume is only now fully mentally recovered from his promo in the Phoenix wind-tunnel, we decided to give him a break and not make him do the promo for the Inline (skating) Marathon we're covering while actually on skates. It would haven been too cruel to ask him to again don a helmet on national television. So instead we had actual skaters race in front of Steve as he talked into the camera. Far safer, lower probability of legal action being necessary.
As our event begins at 7 a.m. Central Time on Sunday morning, there was little time after shooting the the promo for anything but dinner and bed.
Tomorrow morning, I'll wake up at 4:45 in order to be at the race site and fully prepared at 6:15. I'll be on about 5 hours' sleep. I'm also getting the chance to help actually produce a couple of our segments tomorrow. Hilarity will certainly ensue, and I may well be in need of a new job by Sunday afternoon. Stay tuned.
Aug. 17: Mojo madness
First off, let me discuss the wackiness of the weather during my trips this summer.
Portland: No rain. Hood River: No wind. Seattle: Rain-free. Pacific Northwest: Not living up to its stereotype.
OK, Vegas was stereotypically hot, but then we delved deeper in the Desert Southwest.
It rained like crazy in Phoenix. We were dodging thunderstorms one day, standing in six inches of mud in the middle of a monsoon the next. Umm, aren't deserts supposed to be hot and dry?
And then we have Odessa, Texas. Right smack in the middle of West Texas (always capitalize the 'W,' folks). It's supposed to be one of the driest places on Earth. A half an hour after we got to our hotel, we were under a flash flood watch. On Monday, in an effort to get a shot of a pump jack oil rig, we drove out onto a "dirt," road and almost lost our minivan in a fathoms-deep lake cleverly disguised as a puddle.
OK, enough about the weather.
I read "Friday Night Lights" in preparation for our trip to watch Permian High's football team practice here. The book describes a bleak, forbidding landscape dominating the West Texas scenery. I was worried that I might be stymied in my effort to find beauty shots of Odessa and its surroundings.
As I (and photographer/artiste Bill Roach) left the hotel Monday morning, we knew only that we needed a shot of a pump jack (horse head) oil rig and that Odessa supposedly was home to the "World's Largest Jackrabbit." Due to a certain Griswoldian streak in my soul, we headed off first to visit the jackrabbit.
The rabbit is actually a relatively unremarkable statue of a rabbit no taller than six feet (which nevertheless puts it on the pole in the race for largest jackrabbit). But as Bill and I were preparing to leave the rabbit behind, serendipity and good ol' Southern hospitality caught up to us.
Landry Thompson, an Odessa native and student of Texas State University, spotted our big 50*50 sign (still heavy, by the way) and came over to talk. Within minutes, Landry (named after the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry) had offered to drop what he was doing and become our de facto tour guide.
It was Landry who found us our pump jack (you'll see it on SportsCenter on Wednesday). It was Landry who took us to Sand Hills State Park (the shot of the towering dunes didn't make the show, but it was fun dragging the 50*50 sign to the top of one). It was Landry who took us to Rosa's, a great Mexican restaurant in Odessa where we ended up finding great subjects for interviews, parts of which you'll see on the show. (Many thanks to the folks at Rosa's, who invited our camera into the restaurant on two straight days and gifted us with more free food than any eight people could have eaten.
In a nutshell, Landry was our MVP. This despite the fact that he was an Odessa High alumnus and we were there to heap even more glory upon archrival Permian. Plus, he helped carry the sign.
We taped our segments at Ratliff Stadium on Tuesday, with the Permian Panthers (MOJO!) practicing in the background. We stuck around until after dark to shoot the field under the lights. Sadly, we were three days too early for the whole thing to be all that poetic. But as we wrapped up, I found myself alone on the field, standing on the 50-yard line, bathed in artificial light on a warm West Texas evening. My own football "career" was a spectacular failure, but maybe I caught just a whiff of that fabled Permian Mojo.
I was ready to run. I was ready to hit. I was, quite simply, ready to play ball.
I could have sworn it was Friday.
Thanks for everything, Odessa.
Aug. 12: First pitch
A lot of things go into throwing out a ceremonial first pitch. Especially when you're trying to televise it.
Anchorman (and reputed Bullwinkle doppelganger) Steve Berthiaume was asked by the Golden Baseball League's Surprise Fighting Falcons if he would throw out the first pitch of Thursday game against the Mesa Miners. Steve agreed, and the fun was on.
I figured Steve needed to warm up a bit. He'd had a rough day flying in the wind tunnel on Wednesday (see below) and I worried his arm might be a bit tight. Unfortunately, we were without a ball and also had no mitt.
We solved this problem by brazenly storming into the home team dugout and "borrowing" a catcher's mitt and a practice ball. Then, just as brazenly, we headed out to the visitors' bullpen.
Steve had some control issues early, but by the end of our brief practice session he was consistently throwing strikes. I know they were strikes, because had they been off the plate I would've had no chance of catching them. I played catcher in the ESPN softball league for one season. I wasn't asked back.
With Steve now dialed in to throw strikes, producer Marc Weiner threw a curveball of his own. He asked Steve if he might say a few words into the camera right before throwing the pitch. Something to the effect of, "We're here in Surprise, Arizona as part of 50-in-50, it'll be great, you should watch. Now here's a surprise -- I'm throwing out the first pitch!" And then turn and pitch. If everything worked out, what we taped would be used at the end of "Inside SportsCenter" (the tease at the end of the first segment of each SportsCenter show). Steve accepted this mission. I was asked to stand near Steve and take the microphone from him before he threw the pitch. Mission accepted.
Steve and I were guided down a back hallway and into an elevator that would take us down (one whole floor) to the field entrance behind home plate. Then, suddenly, the whole thing turned into a "This is SportsCenter," commercial.
Our companions on the elevator ride: A giant walking taco, an upright-walking cow, the Surprise Fighting Falcon himself, and another large creature I believed was supposed to be a moose. As we reached the ground floor the giant taco began gesturing vigorously in my direction. I have no idea what the giant taco was trying to say.
We exited the elevator and walked through the home-plate gate and onto the field. Steve was actually slated to throw out the fourth ceremonial first pitch (a logical inconsistency best left unexamined), giving our photographer time to come out onto the field and get set up. But as First Pitch No, 2 was thrown, I realized that the photographer had been sent out onto the field without a microphone. Steve was about to talk into the camera and throw his pitch, and we had no way to hear him do it.
I ran off the field in search of our AWOL microphone. After half a minute of random running, I found one of our audio guys holding a wireless microphone, fiddling with some buttons at the mic's base.
Apparently electronic interference from the nearby air base had knocked the mic out of commission. So now I had a non-working mic, an abandoned anchor standing on the field with a ball to throw, and a growing number of fans in the stands wondering why Steve was just hanging out on the field.
Also, the microphone didn't have our mic "flag" (the plastic piece that has the big letters "ESPN" on it), and neither did our audio guy.
So as the mic was fiddled with, operations producer Mike Finocchiaro (the hardest-working man in the history of show business) sprinted 200 yards from our truck to me, mic flag in hand. As he arrived, the microphone was given a clean bill of health. I ran back onto the field.
Microphone now in hand, Steve asked, "Can you hear me?" not knowing the mic was hooked into the PA system. The stadium crowd happily let Steve know he could be heard.
Steve turned back to the camera, said what he needed to say, handed me the mic (just like we planned!), turned to face the catcher, and threw an uninspiring one-hopper about a foot to the left of the plate.
Steve got some verbal punishment from members of the Mesa Miners as we left the field, but the finished product looked great on TV. Just like we drew it up.
I left Phoenix and have one glorious day off back in fair Bristol. On Sunday, the rest of Team Green and I head off for Odessa, Texas, home of the Permian Panthers of "Friday Night Lights" fame. MOJO!
Aug. 11: Flying high
On Wednesday morning, I got to fly.
I leaned forward into a 120-mph breeze, stretched out my arms like Superman, and floated gently on a cushion of air for about two minutes.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm a bit of a motion-phobe. I have to spend a few hours just to psyche myself to hop aboard even fairly mild roller coasters. So no, I didn't go skydiving.
What I did do, along with photographer Jim Farrell, audio man Joe Bohannon and anchorman Steve Berthiaume, was play inside the vertical wind tunnel at Skyventures, Arizona. Four giant fans suck air upward at speeds from 120 to over 150 miles per hour inside a tube that's approximately 20 feet in diameter.
The wind speed allows those inside the tube to experience freefall-like conditions. In other words, you get to feel like you're skydiving without having to deal with the inconvenience of jumping out of an airplane.
We were dispatched to Skyventure (in Eloy, about an hour southeast of Phoenix) by our producer, Marc Weiner, who had a vision of Berthiaume riding the column of air while promoting Thursday's 50-in-50 stop in Arizona.
Steve came straight from the Phoenix airport to take part in the project, and seemed gung-ho about the airborne promo idea until he saw skydiving pro Rusty Lewis pop into the tube and shoot to the top like a lit bottle rocket. Steve turned a bit green, but was convinced of the tube's safety by the Skyventure staff.
Then we got to take our turns in flight. Steve was our guinea pig, and although he was not quite as gracefully under control as Lewis, he was able (with Rusty's help) to float comfortably and even do a few spin moves before being guided to the exit door.
I went in third, very excited but with apprehension. The small amount of lingering fear quickly dropped away, however, as Rusty towed me out into the Category 5 hurricane-force vertical winds.
I could not stop smiling (well, partially because the wind was buffeting the hell out of my face) as I struggled to control my movements. The most unexpected thing I learned in the tube is how little you have to alter the position of your limbs to create a dramatic change of direction as you're floating. Straighten out your legs a bit, up you go. Tilt your hands slightly, meet Mr. Wall. Give the camera a good thumbs-up (as I did several times), your head pitches down and you look silly on camera.
Steve then got back into the wind, looking like General Patton -- or so he thought. The consensus in Bristol was that he more resembled Bullwinkle.
Our promo ended up looking really good, finishing with Rusty guiding Steve to a position directly above our famous 50-in-50 sign, where Steve smiled and yelled "SportsCenter!" (Which was almost audible over the engine noise and wind.)
Thanks go out to Jamie Lindsay at Skyventure, who set the whole thing up. And also Shropshire, England's own talented Rusty Lewis for potty-training all of the rookies from ESPN. If you're headed to Arizona, check out www.skyventureaz.com and plan your trip to the wind tunnel. Tell 'em I sent you.
And remember -- keep your mouth closed in the tunnel.