- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Jess Atkinson spent a couple of decades in front of TV cameras — first as a kicker for Maryland and the Washington Redskins, then as a sportscaster for WRC (Channel 4) and WUSA (Channel 9) among other outlets. Now he’s behind the cameras, and loving every minute of it.

“This is the side to be on,” Atkinson said. “I got out of TV because I saw the direction of local sports on TV in the future. There is no future.”

Atkinson’s current gig is running a Web site that purports to — and does — show Maryland football literally from the ground up. As a print journalist, I probably should be cold toward fridgetv.com — but I can’t. In a word or two, it’s terrific.

Maryland is the nation’s first university to have this innovative Internet outlet, and the idea is sure to spread. Coach Ralph Friedgen has granted Atkinson virtually unlimited access to his team’s practices, locker rooms, strategy sessions and sidelines, giving fans a chance to see the team from a totally different standpoint.

Recently, after watching a 15-minute tape of seasonal highlights that is headed for the site, Friedgen said, “I thought it captured the soul of the team, and it got me pretty emotional. What Jess is doing is cutting edge, and because of his creativity I gave him the freedom to show the inner workings of our program.”

For Friedgen, who is less paranoiac about team security than many of his peers, there is a personal side, too. His daughter, Kelley, is a graduate student in Hamburg, Germany, “and this way she gets to see what’s going on with our team.”

The Web site is a boon, of course, for Maryland fans living outside the area, and its potential effect on recruits is staggering. Said Atkinson: “All kids today have access to computers, and they know how to use them. And this is football with pomp and circumstance, not the gritty, routine stuff you usually see.”

Complete with music from “Gladiator” as background. (You were expecting, maybe, “Mary Poppins”?)

Said kicker Nick Novak: “It’s a great idea to show people what we go through — the seriousness, dedication and heart that goes into football.”

And if that’s a trifle corny, well, so what?

The other day at Byrd Stadium, fridgetv.com also supplied a nice touch of irony for Atkinson. He spent 15 minutes taping an interview with Novak, who is six points away from the Maryland career scoring record of 308 points set by Guess Who from 1981 to 1984.

Afterward, with a big grin, Atkinson told a bystander, “If I bump into [Novak] before the game, I’ll step on his foot.”

The university pays nothing for all this exposure in cyberspace. The content is produced by Atkinson and partner Rich Daniel for 11-month-old Atkinson Co. and then sent to TV Worldwide, a Chantilly Web hosting company that refines it and posts it on the Internet.

“But Jess is in charge,” said Daniel, a former longtime executive producer at WJLA. “He’s still the kicker, and I’m his holder.”

Atkinson said fridgetv.com has had thousands of visitors in its early months and noted, “The average staying power for a Web site hit is 30 seconds. Ours is 18 minutes.”

Links include “Real Time Terps: The Show,” detailing preparations for each game and offering pregame, halftime and postgame locker room scenes; Friedgen’s postgame news conference and TV show; game highlights, with links to top runs, top passes and top defensive plays; interviews; and quite a bit more.

The locker room stuff is perhaps most interesting, because how many non-players have violated these sacrosanct precincts? Maryland players are shown resting or reflecting before combat, readying themselves for the intensity that is so much a part of football. And fans get to hear Friedgen exhorting his troops: “You gotta get it done!” … “There is no easy win.” … “No matter what happens, hang together as a team.”

Atkinson shoots most of the footage himself with a mini-cam, then edits it at his Bethesda home with Daniel. The operation, including equipment, is relatively inexpensive. Right now fridgetv.com seeks funding through ads and sponsorships. The future might lead to pay-TV and subscriptions, but at the moment everything is gloriously free for fans.

Nearly a year after his contract as sports anchor was not renewed by WUSA, Atkinson notes rightly the increasingly brief nature of local sports on TV.

“We show 21/2 to 51/2 minutes of highlights every game, not a few seconds like you might get on broadcast TV,” he said. “It used to be if you were, say, a Maryland or FSU fan, all you could do was turn on ESPN and hope your team would be on the highlights. As this Web thing grows, it could do to cable what cable did to [over-the-air] TV.”

Friedgen’s only instruction to Atkinson was, “I don’t want to see any kid embarrassed.” The coach reviews the material before it is posted but relies almost totally on Atkinson’s judgment.

“I’ve had to start over so many times,” said Atkinson, a local guy who was cut by Maryland’s soccer coach before becoming the football team’s kicker as a walk-on in 1981, was dropped by the Redskins in favor of Chip Lohmiller in 1987 and was shown the door by WUSA after two years. “I take great pride in being able to start over, and I’m so grateful to Ralph for allowing me to start over with this.”

We don’t know where sports on the Internet eventually will take us, but as Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said, “The Terps like being first, and this is definitely a first. I’d love to see more of our teams on the Internet.”

Starting with men’s basketball this season on garytv.com? Gary Williams, the Internet ball is in your court.

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