MIAMI — You can’t host a Super Bowl without three things: a stadium, an airport and a convention center. Jacksonville even proved that you can host a Super Bowl if those are the only three things you have in place. And I’m not bringing this up as an excuse to mock Jacksonville again OK, maybe I am but because I’m always amazed by the ratio of “time media members spend in the convention center” versus “times the convention center ever gets mentioned.” It’s the single most underrated location of the week for every media member and you never hear one thing about it.
So why don’t we ever hear about convention centers when every other Super Bowl angle has been beaten to death? That’s simple every convention center looks exactly the same. The outside looks the same. The signs look the same. The escalators look the same. You always have to walk between 1,000 feet and 26 miles to get from Point A to Point B. It’s always much harder to pick up credentials than it should be. There are always coffee places and mini-restaurants all over the place that are inexplicably never open, and if you’re thinking about asking a security guard for directions, you’d probably have a better shot asking the fire extinguisher. In fact, the first time you find yourself lost in Generic Convention Center during Super Bowl Week, the déjà vu moment is practically suffocating. Wait, which year is this? Where am I again? What event is this? Is this the Major League All-Star Game?
Only one thing changes in the Generic Convention Center from year to year: Radio Row, the place where all the visiting sports radio shows gather to do their daily broadcasts.
Radio Row can go one of two ways either everyone gets shoved in one place in a gigantic square, or the shows are staggered throughout a bigger area that has a few twists and turns so the biggest names are up front. Two years ago, I compared the latter setup to a porn convention, how the best booths are stationed in the front, and then it starts getting seedier and seedier, and by the time you reach the back of the room, suddenly you’re looking at bestiality videos and snuff films. I was hoping for the same setup this time around, only because it’s always entertaining to walk through the bowels of Radio Row and write down the cities that were given snuff film status (“Hey look, it’s Rochester!”). But the Miami people crammed everyone into a huge square and none of the big shows received preferential treatment. It was strangely enjoyable to see Jim Rome chattering away right near shows from Memphis and Baltimore like seeing Jenna Jameson taking photos at the porn convention right near a trannie star and Elmo the Greatest Dane.
Still, spending too much time in Radio Row is like watching the three “Saw” movies back to back to back you can do it, you’re just not going to feel right afterward, and there’s a decent chance you might eventually commit a homicide. Remember the PBS documentary “Scared Straight,” when they brought troublemaking juvies to a New Jersey penitentiary so they could be properly terrified by the convicts and their vivid tales of prison life? Every aspiring broadcaster should be forced to visit Radio Row during Super Bowl Week. The place reeks of fried food, diet soda and mothballs. If you spend an hour there, you’ll absolutely see at least three bad toupees, two 300-pound guys stretching in their seats and inadvertently exposing their hairy potbellies, and 30-35 shirts that have a ketchup, mustard or coffee stain on them. It’s the kind of place where you step in the men’s room to pee, see six pairs of legs and shoes entrenched underneath the toilet stalls, say to yourself “Oh, God, no!” and immediately sprint out of there so you don’t inhale the ensuing miasma.
And I knew this. All of it. But that didn’t stop me from heading down there Monday afternoon, to see how many interviews I could do in a four-hour span without intentionally swallowing my own tongue. Looking back, this was a great column idea that was poorly executed, and here’s why: First, I picked the wrong day. Monday is always the slowest day on Radio Row half the shows haven’t even gotten there yet. And second, I should have gotten a “handler” (like the bubbly Ellie Seifert from ESPN’s PR department) to set up interviews for me and done the thing right. Instead, I had to settle for doing laps around Radio Row, hoping someone anyone would recognize me, almost like a girl repeatedly circling a pickup bar hoping someone will buy her a drink.
Fortunately, Dan Le Batard was there. Not only do we know each other from an ESPN connection and our respective appearances in People Magazine’s “Sexiest Bachelor Alive” issue, but 790 AM in Miami was dumb enough to give him a drive-time radio show on which I’ve made a few appearances over the years. So that was one guaranteed spot for me. After I told him about my plan, Dan introduced me to the station’s midday host, Boog Sciambi and I was so desperate to get started, I didn’t even care that Boog graduated from Boston College. They gave me the 1:35 p.m. spot and we banged out a rollicking 15-minute interview about the big game, Ben Affleck, the Boston teams and other stuff.
Well, here’s what happens on Radio Row when you make a cameo on a show. The other shows can sniff the fresh meat, almost like coyotes in the wilderness. Remember, they have 3-4 hours to kill and need to land as many interviews as possible to justify their trip to the Super Bowl. When they see a fresh face slipping on a set of headphones, they start circling the same way those coyotes would if a deer was caught in a bear trap. By the time I wrapped it up, I had the Comcast network hoping to interview me for TV and a station from Memphis hoping for 15 minutes but I had to hold both of them off because Jim Rome’s producer promised me a 2:05 spot. And I love going on Rome’s show, mainly because it’s just about impossible to make him laugh. If you can crack him up during his show, you’ve really accomplished something in life. It’s like trying to beat Scottie Pippen off the dribble in Pippen’s prime.
Fortunately (unless you’re a horse lover), Barbaro had just died, so I made an educated guess that Rome (notoriously cynical about any sports-related story) would appreciate a good Barbaro joke to start things off. If I could get him good at the beginning, he’d be punchy the rest of the way. When he introduced me and asked how I was doing, I quickly jumped into the whole “such a tragic day, do we even play the game now, do we need another week for America to heal” routine and boom! Rome was cracking up. After that, it was smooth sailing and I got him at least three more times throughout the interview. I’m telling you, they should change the format of “Rome Is Burning” to “Rome is Laughing,” then steal the old “Make Me Laugh” premise and just have bad stand-up comedians come on and try to make him laugh. That would be some riveting TV. They could even have Roger Lodge as the Bobby Van-type host.
Anyway, now it was suddenly 2:20 and I was looking at a pace of two shows per hour. Not good. The Memphis producer couldn’t find his host, the Comcast producer was nowhere to be seen, and nobody else was grabbing me to come on. (Here’s where the handler really could have helped.) My grand idea was going up in smoke. I made a quick lap around Radio Row, hoping somebody would recognize me no dice. Meanwhile, Le Batard and his crew were heckling me and saying that I was walking around “looking like Gil Brandt.” “What did that mean?” I asked. That nearly caused a riot with Le Batard’s crew as everyone raced to tell their favorite Gil Brandt stories. If you don’t remember, Brandt built the Cowboys dynasty during the Tom Landry era, then got unceremoniously dumped when Jerry Jones bought the team. Now he’s in his early 70s and makes a living as well, we’re not sure what he does, but he’s always introduced as “former longtime Cowboys GM and NFL expert Gil Brandt.” And he’s a mortal lock to show up for every Super Bowl, then perform laps around Radio Row almost like a long-distance runner waiting to be grabbed by any radio show that will have him.
“Gil Brandt doesn’t walk around Radio Row,” Le Batard explains. “He meanders.”
“We call him The Frog,” his producer Hoch chimed in. “When he meanders around, he has the haphazard movements of a frog. You never know when he’ll go left or right.”
Le Batard’s crew even claimed that Brandt rides up and down escalators hoping to get noticed by someone heading in the opposite direction. Now I was delighted. Where was The Frog? Why wasn’t he here yet? I needed to see this for myself. In the meantime, they slapped a headset on me and taped an interview for Le Batard’s show (always enjoyable), followed by some more discussion about Radio Row, with Hoch summing everyone’s feelings up: “There’s an energy here that’s almost equivalent to a casino.” All we were missing was the cigarette smoke.
While we waited for The Frog’s arrival, I banged out another interview with Darren McFarland’s show in Nashville, which was highlighted by some Pats-Titans talk (I compared them to the Crips and the Bloods), some lottery talk (we discussed the spellbinding battle for pole position in the Oden-Durant sweepstakes between the Grizz and Celtics) and Darren asking me, “You a big Red Sox fan?” Something tells me he’s not a regular reader. After that wrapped up, I realized we were nearing 3 o’clock and I was averaging 2.5 interviews an hour. Could I even get to 10? Desperate, I did one more lap (no nibbles and only about 15 shows that seemed to be on the air) and ended up at Le Batard’s table to regroup. This was becoming humiliating.
And then something magical happened. The Frog arrived.
He was wearing an orange windbreaker and had the intensity of someone about to run a triathlon. Almost on cue, The Frog started his first lap, circling right behind us as Hoch whispered, “Watch out, he could jump left at any time,” meandering at a fixed pace and keeping his head held high. That spurred a series of jokes about Gil coming to Super Bowl Week before they even had radio stations, when he rode to the convention center in one of those Flinstones cars and did his interviews in morse code. Much to our delight, The Frog eventually landed at Hank Goldberg’s table, which was funny on about 40 different levels and enabled us make up their conversation as it was happening. Hey Gil, remember when we were in Miami for Super Bowl III and Emerson Boozer took a swing at Tom Brookshier?
I never thought anyone would trump The Frog and then Super Bowl Don arrived. Wearing a Super Bowl hat and carrying a bag filled with mementos, Super Bowl Don’s claim to fame is that he’s one of five people to attend every Super Bowl. Kinda sorta interesting, right? Well, Super Bowl Don arrives at the beginning of Super Bowl Week, somehow finagles press passes for him and his handler yes, he has a handler and spends Monday through Friday walking around Radio Row and hoping to get interviewed. There’s no way I would have believed this if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. Who should we feel worse for, Super Bowl Don, or Super Bowl Don’s handler? It’s probably a toss-up.
Now I was reeling and felt like my head might explode. Desperately needing a break, I stepped out of Radio Row and walked around the rest of the media center, where the Arizona Host Committee was handing out free all-purpose power adapters to promote next year’s Super Bowl, Coldstone Creamery was handing out free ice cream (and practically causing a riot with the reporters), and Graham Bensinger was walking around trying to line up interviews for his Sirius show and Sunday Conversation pieces. Two interesting notes about Bensinger: First, he’s only 20 years old, which means he’s either going to be the next Bob Costas or the Todd Marinovich of sports broadcasting, and frankly, it’s going to be one or the other (with no in-between). Second, he attends Syracuse right now and somehow took off a week from classes to come down here (explaining to me, “I cleared it with all my teachers”). If you’re in college right now, or you ever went to college I mean, do you know one person who could have pulled that off? Be very, very careful of Graham Bensinger. There’s a decent chance he could end up ruling the world some day. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
After paying homage to Graham (mainly because I’m convinced he will eventually destroy everyone who snubbed him on his way up the ranks), I jumped back into Radio Row and taped another interview with Mike Felger’s ESPN Radio show back in Boston (which wasn’t coming on the air for another half-hour). While we were waiting to go on, Felger leaned back, looked around in disgust, rubbed his belly, shook his head and said, “This place is so freaking depressing.” That led to a conversation about radio life and Felger (a Boston Herald writer and a relative newbie to the business) admitting, “I’ve put on 15 pounds in the last year.” Then we glanced around at all the fast-food bags and sodas on the various radio tables and it all made sense.
Felger’s interview was memorable for the Boston talk and the exceptionally loud headphones, which had my ears ringing for the next three hours, like I had just endured a Limp Bizkit concert. Just as I was slowly regaining my hearing, Jamie Mottram (from Sports Bloggers Live on AOL — I like those guys) roped me into a 20-minute interview about the Super Bowl, the blogosphere and everything else. For the first time, I felt like I was fading partly because I’m battling the flu (I’m convinced that the Sports Gal pulled an Adebisi and pricked me with an influenza-infected needle right before I left Los Angeles), partly because it’s just not healthy to wear radio headphones for three straight hours under any circumstances. Maybe that’s the quality that separates the Gil Brandts and Super Bowl Dons of the world from us mortals they have a reservoir of energy that’s almost superhuman. Not me. I was ready to admit failure and head home.
But before I abandoned Radio Row, I had to head over to Mike and the Mad Dog’s area to say hello. You know where I stand on Mike and the Dog not only do they have my favorite radio show of all time, I even devoted a running diary to them last year. Never, ever, ever did I imagine making an appearance on their show. It was just too surreal. Like a struggling actor watching “24” for six years, then getting hired to play the new director of CTU and suddenly doing a scene with Jack Bauer and Chloe.
So you can imagine my reaction when the producers said, “You have to come on with us, come on at 4:25!”
(Umm sure. OK. I think I can swing that.)
Within 90 seconds, a giddy Dog was shaking my hand while Mike was sitting down pretending to snub me, repeatedly saying “I’m not havin’ Simmons on, not havin’ Simmons on” before grinning and gruffly saying, “Siddown.” He was just about as gregarious as I’ve ever seen him; it was like one of those “Sopranos” scenes when Tony suddenly seems happy in the back room at Bada Bing and starts breaking everyone else’s balls and nobody knows how to properly react. Meanwhile, there were two YES cameras pointed at us and Dog has a giant welt on his face (which I thought was a pimple and never brought up — only later did I find out that it was a bug bite and they’d been joking about it all day). I felt like Rex Grossman looking at a third-and-22 and an all-out blitz. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I almost started hyperventilating. It was just too surreal, the whole thing.
Somehow, I survived. The 20-minute interview was highlighted by three things: Mike repeatedly busting my chops about not writing enough, making crummy NFL picks and everything else (he was merciless); me repeatedly busting Mike’s chops for never traveling for his show, never changing diapers and having PAs pour his diet soda (I wasn’t quite as merciless, although his producers were delighted); and Dog asking if I’ve ever thought about expanding beyond ESPN.com and maybe writing for ESPN The Magazine. Of course, when it came time to unveil my impression of them which is something my friends and I have been doing for 15 solid years, as I detailed in the column about them I got too excited and choked during the Mike impression, quickly redeeming myself with a solid impersonation of Dog. (Which was weird because I’m usually much better at imitating Mike.) All in all, it was a career highlight for me and my friends were delighted. The only way I would have enjoyed myself more was if Gil Brandt and Super Bowl Don had joined us.
So after further review, maybe Radio Row isn’t that bad. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s horrible. It’s a train wreck. But where else could you fulfill one of your career goals, see The Frog in action and gain two pounds just by glancing around the room? Thirty-five years from now, when I’m doing laps around Radio Row while wearing an orange windbreaker, I just hope that I’m smart enough to remember to hire a handler.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.