"Holy monkeyballs!" Taylor Twellman exclaims as he steps into the air conditioned production trailer.
Alexi Lalas and Bob Ley guffaw and pull out their phones to snap a photo of Twellman, whose get-up, which erects a Berlin Wall between the concepts of business and casual, creates a sort of sportscasterly mermaid motif. The top half is sensible--a sand-colored blazer with a smart silk tie--but the bottom half is where everything goes to Abercrombie: White and blue plaid shorts best described as Nick Saban Golf Outing chic and a pair of running shoes.
"I can wear this tomorrow," Twellman chirps, having gotten permission, which is why he's more pleased than embarrassed. The mermaid effect is worth not having to wear slacks in the oppressive Washington heat.
Twellman's wearing his boss-sanctioned ensemble the next day while he and Ian Darke sweat inside a cramped RFK broadcast booth, prepping for a Sunday afternoon friendly between the US and German national teams. They've got a few sheets of paper marked up with multi-colored highlighter blood and marginalia laid out in front of them. Darke pulls me over and explains that he writes down little notes for each player -- so-and-so hasn't scored in his last 12 matches, such-and-such tweaked a hamstring in training last week, etc. -- so he has something to say in a pinch. He doesn't reference them for, say, Clint Dempsey or Miroslav Klose, but if some unexpected sub wanders onto the pitch, he can glance down and tell us what Germany's new right back did in the league this past season.
This is the last bit of preparation Twellman and Darke have left before they do the part of their job we see and listen to on television. As you might imagine, 95 percent of Twellman and Darke's jobs consist of not actually calling soccer matches, and, in my experience, what feels like about 94 percent of their jobs is standing in the crescent-shaped shade patch of a sun-baked concrete dinosaur of a stadium while only mildly interested soccer players run through stretching exercises and technical drills. And sitting through press conferences. Which, well, you've watched press conferences before, and are familiar with their dubious utility.
"It's quite boring, isn't it?" Darke said to me after I had spent a couple hours hanging out with the ESPN crew on Saturday. But you try to be like a sponge, Darke tells me: By just sort of being around the teams and the coaches and enduring the boringness, you hope you can find some bits of information or insight that come out while you're commentating on the match. He's noticeably subdued while explaining this, not nearly as chipper as he is on- and off-camera on match-day. But he's taking notes and making observations, putting in the yeoman's work that allows him to sit in a booth and talk off the top of his head for two hours from a place of familiarity and confidence. "It's better than working for a living," he says, which is a common refrain among the talent when their job requires them to suffer tedium or annoyance. Some append an "...I guess" to the phrase if they're in a particularly sour mood.
* * *
We move into a big-windowed room that's adjacent to the one Darke and Twellman will be calling the game in, because RFK's commentary booths are like black-walled tree-forts and the broadcasters need to record a match preview in a space that doesn't appear to the viewing audience like there might be a sweaty pile of nudie mags and lukewarm Miller Lites just off-camera. The two are sketching out, on the fly, how the brief segment is going to unfold. (The crew is ad-libbing a bit more often than usual, since they didn't hold their morning production meeting.) Twellman's badgering Darke -- his default match-day state is that of frantically badgering his colleagues, like he's trying to impart a novella's worth of information and feeling to them in three concise phrases -- about the need to discuss Fabian Johnson, while Darke runs through a few versions of what he plans to say. They eventually--"That's perfect, Ian! Say that!" -- decide how their exchange -- "And then we can breeze through the Germany stuff" -- is going sound once they step in front of the camera.
The fruit of their work is an anodyne two-minute clip that you may or may not see depending on whether you're the type to tune into pre-game shows, but they work as if asynchronously disarming a bomb, busy hands cooperating and occasionally getting tangled until a producer takes them by the shoulder and frantically ushers them towards what you wouldn't quite call a set. Broadcasting a sporting event is a jagged experience in that it's all sleepy, half-interested preparation until something needs to happen right now.
Perhaps athletes take to broadcasting -- every one of ESPN's ex-jock analysts told me they fell into television work one way or another; it's not something they had been planning for years -- because you're used to watching game tape, catching a nap on the team bus, running around at practice, mumbling clichés to reporters, then all of a sudden, everything being on fire, and what you do is rely on all the not-terribly-enthralling stuff you've been doing for the past days, weeks, and months to carry you through the ordeal of performing an improvisational job in front of millions of people. Not that jockdom prepares you to be a particularly useful broadcaster (insert whatever player-turned-analyst makes you cringe here), but the knife's edge against your skin must feel familiar.
* * *
The game starts up, and it turns out the enthusiastic Twellman I've been observing for the past 24 hours was apparently set on "medium." During his playing career, his greatest asset was a certain unperturbedness. "Work rate" isn't really the term for something that seemed to have a degree of pathology to it. He remains imperturbable in retirement, which is both his greatest asset and weakness. Twellman understands the game not just because he played it but because he works tirelessly to advance his understanding of it. Darke told me that he has worked with former players who thought they could simply show up in the broadcast booth and their playing experience would carry them. Twellman isn't like that. But perhaps because he puts in the work, he tends to speak on-air with a degree of certitude and authoritativeness that can border on abrasive, like an overconfident college freshman who just read Foucault for the first time and is eager to explain to everyone, whether they want to listen or otherwise, the way in which sexuality is constructed.
What you don't see from at home while you're listening to Twellman is that, when he speaks, he often turns, as if Darke were his imagined audience, and places his hand on Darke's shoulder or punches him lightly, affecting body language that expresses, I'll paraphrase here: "I am explaining something incredibly important to you." He is compelled to tell you -- and, his tone indicates, even the players on the field -- what should have happened on the defensive lapse or flubbed counterattack that just occurred. Twellman can often be quite insightful, but his insights sometimes get lost in the process of articulation. On a bad day, he achieves Reggie Miller-ish heights of pomposity, and through picking out every mistake each player makes, he can seem like a nag.
I think what Twellman means to do is teach. When Bryan Curtis wrote about Tim McCarver's retirement for Grantland, he described color commentators as belonging to one of two camps: Regular Guys and Professors. For all his brotasticness, Twellman clearly strives toward Professordom, and it comes from a clear desire to educate and a strong sense of what is and isn't proper soccer. He's irked when the game isn't played perfectly and gets doubly upset when it's the U.S. Men's National Team, for which he played 30 matches, playing such thoroughly imperfect soccer.
When Jozy Altidore fails to move towards the ball as Jermaine Jones slides a swiftly intercepted pass into the box, Twellman does a squat little hop, which if he weren't hooked up to a microphone surely would have been followed by something along the lines of "C'mon, Jozy!" He cares deeply, but you can't be a constant explainer and corrector without getting on the viewer's nerves from time to time; the audience begins to see you as a criticism delivery mechanism rather than an actual person. Commentating isn't easy, and it's not always a fun, but the best commentators -- Vin Scully, Bill Raftery, Cris Collinsworth -- are astute without being self-serious, and whether jet-lagged or hungover or just in a bad mood, they always seem to be having a good time. Humanity, even if it's highly performative, is what audiences crave.
Darke has always, from my side of the television, seemed to be having a good time. ESPN's sideline reporter and former Mexico defender Monica Gonzalez characterizes him as simple, which is often a polite term used to describe someone who is reserved and perhaps not the smartest, but it fits when we're talking about Darke, where it almost means ascetic. Darke likes soccer and likes talking about it. At various points during my visit, he pepped up and the grain in his voice grew a little more pronounced when he got a chance to discuss a stat he found interesting or a player he enjoyed watching. During downtime on the set, he often thumbed through his Twitter timeline and announced transfer rumors and coaching exits to the people in his immediate area. I assume he has non-soccer interests, but living on the soccer-heavy diet his profession requires of him seems to be all right with Darke.
And you can hear in Darke's voice the joy he takes in punctuating the momentous turns of a match. When a side-footed volley causes our lree fort to shake, he rips into a goal call -- Oh yes! Jozy Altidore! -- and it's the sound of elation getting caught in a blender. I'm not sure what happens in the lottery ping pong ball jumbler of our brains when an announcer's call makes everything click, but Darke makes it feel sudden and simple.
Announcers are, for the most part, disembodied voices that narrate a series of pictures, and if you're a devoted enough sports fan, you develop a relationship with the voices that you hear most frequently. If I met Marv Albert in a bar somewhere, I feel like I'd call him Marv and treat him as if we were friends, because he's played a significant role in my sports-watching life, and because I've built an understanding of what I think he's like in real life based solely on hearing his voice for so many years. Darke, Twellman, Lalas, Ley, and the rest of the ESPN crew are very much like what I expected from having their voices live in my head and in my television for significant stretches of time.
There's no curtain to pull back, really. For all that television can obfuscate, the people you see in there are only slightly fictionalized versions of the actual people. So long as you're not creating wild Ian Darke/Game of Thrones slash-fic in your head, your idea of what he'd do and say if you met him in a bar somewhere is probably accurate.
* * *
I'm in the back of the production truck for halftime, where it's mercifully not "Holy monkeyballs!" hot. For a few minutes, I'm a bad reporter and ponder what I would do if I had to choose between being loved or having air conditioning. A brewing argument snaps me out of Stupid Plato Mode. The tiff itself is not special to television, though the fact that these guys (and it's all dudes) are cobbling together something that's being beamed into a million televisions in almost-real time doesn't help the overall level of tension. You've seen a co-worker chew someone out, right? Imagine it happening aboard a storm-battered ship and you get the picture.
You're watching the halftime show at home -- or making a sandwich and faintly hearing Alexi Lalas talk in the background, whatever -- and what's happening in the truck that's producing the halftime show is Chris, a tall, bald, goateed man, who outside the context of his job is exceedingly pleasant, is about to yell at Joe, a young, hair-gelled fellow, who even within the context of his job is exceedingly pleasant. Joe's letting the halftime show run too long, and Chris is having a restrained conniption fit because he needs to run a clip of President Obama discussing the US Soccer Federation's centennial. "Is it terrible if I cut the President?" Chris ostensibly says to the room but actually to Joe.
After the Obama clip runs and the audience has missed the first few seconds of the second half, Chris concisely -- he has to get back to doing his job in 15 seconds -- tears into Joe. "You were two minutes heavy, at least!" What's implied is the sort of insult that burns through you if you're thin-skinned. (Which I am. It hurts my feelings just to watch.) Chris probably doesn't mean for his reprimand to come off as harshly as it does. He's just in the midst of the stress hurricane of producing live television. Joe makes a yeesh face and steps outside the trailer for a minute.
The rest of what happens in the truck is what you've seen on television shows about television shows, more or less. There's an animating force of a man in the middle of everything, calling out cameras, wipes, and replays. A stopwatch-holding fellow counts down commercial breaks. Once in a while, someone on a computer pipes up and recites a relevant statistic, which is then fed into Darke and Twellman's ears. It's chaotic, to an extent, but it's chaos orchestrated with all the flair of a perfunctory task.
I duck out of the production truck with ten minutes left in the match because I have a plane to catch. A Fat Trel line about DC summers suddenly feels relevant. I had thanked Ian Darke for his generosity about a half hour previous. We had one of those muddled exchanges where the "thank you" and "you're welcome" overlapped, both so eager to be polite that neither one of us was listening to the other. The whole weekend ran together like that. I walked down the scorched block like I'd been punched. A little giddy. Sportscasting is strange and mundane.