BEN MURPHY (AGE 31)
Day Job: High school history teacher, boys' basketball coach, Kapolei, Hawaii
Assignment: Assistant basketball coach for the University of Illinois
For nine hours over two days, I was knee-deep in discussions and preparations for the Eastern Michigan game on Dec. 28, 2008. Me, assistant basketball coach at Illinois? Why not? The night before the game, around 10:15, I attended a scouting session led by real assistant Wayne McClain. To prepare for a nonconference game against a 2—9 opponent, McClain spent Christmas in his office, watching five of EMU's previous games, compiling more than 20 pages of notes. After a couple hours of meetings, I knew more about EMU than I do about my roommate. For Big Ten games, I found out, the coaches scout everything from their opponents' defense to their off-court hobbies. Hello, trash-talk. I've been an Illini fan since I was 6, so I get a rush whenever the team hits the court in Assembly Hall. But actually walking out with them and looking up at 16,000 people? That was my all-time greatest sports experience. During the game, Coach Weber loves to yell, and nothing gets his goat like players not executing the offense, or silly defensive lapses. In the first half, forward Mike Davis launched a contested 18-footer from the top of the key; Weber pulled him pretty fast. I think a little of that was not respecting the opponent. The day before, when Coach McClain was telling them that EMU had pretty good bigs, most of the team was like, Yeah, right. So you could tell that mentally the players weren't all there for this game. And in the end, we won a close one: 62-53.
SHANNON PATINKIN (AGE 27)
Day Job: Shopping-Mall Leasing Rep, New York City
Assignment: Ice Girl for the New York Islanders
I'm an Islanders fan by association. My boyfriend, Jon, is from Long Island and has been dragging me to games for years. I have to admit, I'm starting to get into it. I was a competitive skater growing up, so I thought being an ice girl would be easy. Just skate out there, shovel some clumps of ice, then skate around. Turns out, I wasn't nearly the best skater out there—some of these girls are still pursuing careers in Ice Capades or Disney on Ice—and we weren't allowed to do tricks, because the NHL says using our picks creates big holes in the ice. Bummer.
The ice-girl uniform is usually a tight jersey and navy pants, but since the game against the Capitals was a few days before Christmas, the team made us wear horrible Santa dresses. Even the players thought they were ugly. The opposing team usually makes comments about the ice girls' looks, but this time they were all snide. Like, "Hey, nice outfits."
Speaking of players, we were not allowed contact with the Islanders. We even entered the rink from the visitors' tunnel and always had to keep a distance from the home team. But it wasn't the athletes I had to worry about. Before the game, we ran over to a season ticket-holder event and took photos. The fans clearly didn't think we had any brains at all. And there was a little too much hugging. Being an ice girl was fun, but I wouldn't quit my day job. They didn't even let me keep the ugly outfit.
DANIEL SHAY (AGE 38)
Day job: Bar Manager, Harrisburg, Pa.
Assignment: Cornerman for The Ultimate Fighter Season Eight finalist Efrain Escudero
The UFC prefers all fighters be backstage five hours before they fight. So after getting to his dressing room at the Palms Casino Resort in Vegas at 4 for a late-night bout against Phillipe Nover, Escudero had plenty of time to sit and think. That's where I came in. I was the so-called boredom coach, the guy who keeps a fighter from getting too antsy in the lead-up to a fight. To keep Escudero occupied, I talked to him about everything: his classes at Grand Canyon University, cutting weight, my 4-year-old daughter, Maria—and how I've become so addicted to the UFC and its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, that I dropped everything (including a wife who was eight months pregnant with our second daughter) to be his boredom man. There were some pop-ins to break things up—UFC prez Dana White; Escudero's coach, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira; and another fighter using the dressing room, Jason MacDonald, who shuffled in after getting beaten up in the Octagon.
About an hour before the fight, Escudero's trainer taped him up and opened a new package of five-ounce gloves. They were unbelievably hard. A guy from the Nevada State Athletic Commission came in to inspect them before signing the gloves. Two minutes before the walk-in, Efrain went to a corner to piss himself off. All I could make out was grumbling and cussing. It must have worked, because Escudero executed perfectly, winning a three-round unanimous decision. As soon as we got back to the dressing room, he invited me to the after-party. I declined, saying I had an early flight. I am the boredom coach, after all.
JEFF GREEN (AGE 33)
Day job: Homeland security consultant, Washington, D.C.
Assignment: game operations for the Washington Wizards
Being a Wizards fan, I was excited to work in "game ops" at a real game. It sounded important. Turns out, it was one of the great letdowns of my life. As part of the Chipotle Fan Patrol, I had to dress in an ugly gold-and-black outfit. First we were instructed to carry flags that would spell W-I-Z-A-R-D-S during player intros. I was the "I." Then, a few minutes before we ran out, this guy said, "I'm doing the 'I.' I'm always the 'I.'" So I took the "A." The whole thing was very territorial.
When we weren't on the court, we stood behind a curtain, right off the floor. One of the guys kept snapping it shut because, I got the feeling, for some bizarre reason we weren't supposed to watch the game. We also tied hundreds of T-shirts into knots, then dropped them down from the rafters of the Verizon Center. I beaned a fan. Needless to say, they never let me fire the T-shirt gun. Then there was the Chipotle burrito dash, in which you run into the stands with burritos. There was a lady wearing a headset saying things like, "Sales will be on our ass if that section doesn't get two burritos."
And while LeBron and the Cavs were in town, and it was a close game, I never saw much of it. I was glad it didn't go to overtime. I'd had my fill.
JOSH COHEN (AGE 25)
Day job: Bartender, New York City
Assignment: Photographer's assistant at an NFL game
My first season as a Jets fan was 1996. We went 1—15; I guess I just like losers. So I was psyched to follow a game photographer, Rob Tringali, on the sideline for a Jets-Dolphins game this season. I carried his equipment and took photos. We shot in the parking lot, the tunnel and even on the roof of the stadium. It's funny, the only guys on the roof when we arrived were fire marshals and the guy who does the fireworks. They were like, "Don't fall." There was no guardrail or anything. It's amazing how big the game seems from up there.
On the field, the work is physically straining. You're always running somewhere, then stopping to kneel and put the camera on a one-legged tripod (the one leg makes it easy to pick up and carry). I don't know how photographers get shots of wide receivers; you have to guess where they're going and keep them in the frame. I couldn't do it. Every time there was a big play, I'd forget about the camera; I wanted to watch guys like Kris Jenkins, the Jets D tackle, who's a beast up close, or Brett Favre, who jumped up and down on the sideline urging the defense to make stops. I thought he'd be more nonchalant. After getting that close to the game, I don't think I can go back to the stands.
JASON SUSALLA (AGE 31)
Day job: Graduate student, San Diego
Assignment: Assistant at the Tony Hawk Foundation
I've skated my whole life, and I'm a fan of Tony Hawk's from way back. I remember his being in Thrasher when I was growing up. As I got older, I started to respect what he does for the community and how he's changed skating's business side. I was really stoked to meet him. But before that, I had to start with foundation work. His group gives grants to skate parks, and my job was putting together the congratulatory packets for about 27 winners.
After that, I got to meet Tony. It impressed me how much he has input on the parks. He's not just giving out money; he goes through each design and suggests improvements. Tony was looking at one and said, "This needs to flow better. You can't come off this rail and then hit this box. There has to be more space between them." He told me he wants the parks to be places skaters actually feel comfortable, so the project will be a success. If a community goes through a lot of trouble to build a park and people don't use it, it creates an even more negative impression of skateboarding.
Then came time for Tony and some of the other people he works with to do a demo. I had to set up and sweep the ramp so the skaters wouldn't break their necks. His headquarters is basically a bunch of offices surrounding a half-pipe and a little skate park. In fact, it's the same park that they set up for the Boom Boom HuckJam. When they're not on tour, that's where they keep it. Now, that's a place you want to work. The foundation staff says that every day the best skaters in the world come by and drop in. Bucky Lasek, Andy Macdonald and Kevin Staab came out and skated, and I was standing on the ramp the whole time. It was sweet. I've been to the X Games, but to watch those guys go off right in front of you is amazing. They make it look so effortless, putting tricks together back-to-back-to-back. Standing on top of the ramp, everything looks bigger and scarier and gnarlier, especially the 720s. But the best part of the day was finding out that Tony was the dude I hoped he'd be.
STEVE BULLARD (AGE 34)
Day job: Farmer and landscaper in Chester, SC
Assignment: Party Planner for driver Scott Speed
I've been around NASCAR all my life, but since Dale Sr. passed, I don't really have a favorite driver. I get to about two races a year, mostly at Darlington or Charlotte, sometimes at Bristol or Talladega. So I was excited about helping Scott throw a New Year's Eve party at his new house for all the guys who work on his car. He likes to sleep in; he was just waking up and snacking on oatmeal when I got there, around 10 a.m. We got outside 30 minutes later. There was a question of who was going to drive. I can't be a passenger in a car. I hate it. Scott didn't mind letting me drive. He had a Toyota SUV with lots of gadgets and stuff I wasn't used to. I know everything about Charlotte, how to get everywhere, but he wanted to punch everything into the GPS.
We went to Rec Warehouse, where we made the big purchase of the day: a poker table. I was surprised he dropped that much cash on it—over $1,500! The highlight, though, was going to Party City. I picked up a Hannah Montana microphone and interviewed him as if he'd just run into the wall at Talladega. Then a clerk came over and put an end to that. We got kicked out.
After lunch, we went to the Red Bull warehouse and got a whole slew of stuff: barstools, a DJ booth, everything. Then we made a stop at a nice place in NoDa, Charlotte's arts district, and got a cool, trendy hat for Scott to wear at the party. Once we got back to his place, we spent some time down in his basement, where he has some DJ turntables. He had lots of music loaded on them and looked like he knew what he was doing. It was very impressive.
He invited me to the party, but I didn't end up going. It would have been late and a long drive. I get up early.
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