- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

Watch sports. Coin a few catch phrases. Try not to squint at the Teleprompter.

Like coaching the Washington Redskins or governing California, sportscasting is one of those jobs that most people think they can do better than the next guy. To say nothing of Stuart Scott.

After all, when the next guys in question babble in the manner of Chris Berman and sport goofy names such as Trey Wingo — well, how hard can it really be?

“There are some great sportscasters, smart and intelligent,” said George Johnson, an anchor on Comcast’s “SportsNite.” “But when’s the last time you saw one win a Nobel Peace Prize?”

Driven by a similar sentiment — plus the promise of a comped lunch — I dropped by the downtown ESPN Zone a few weeks ago to take part in a mass audition for Dream Job, a forthcoming ESPN reality series that will award one contestant a yearlong gig as a “SportsCenter” anchor.

Since mid-September, the network has been holding open casting calls on a 29-city tour. Ten finalists will be picked for the show, which premiers next February.

Among the early front-runners? A Hooters waitress from Philadelphia.

“She knew her stuff,” said Carol Silver, the creator and co-producer of Dream Job. “Everywhere you go, passionate sports fans say who they like on ‘SportsCenter,’ who they hate. Everyone thinks they can do it better. This is their chance to prove it.”

Would I measure up to Hooters’ finest?

I knew sports, for the most part, excluding golf, NASCAR and curling. Unlike many of my press box peers, I wasn’t morbidly obese — a big plus, given that fat folks seldom appear on the tube. Unless they’re cooking something.

Besides, if the late George Plimpton could pioneer first person sportswriting by boxing with Archie Moore, pitching to Willie Mays and quarterbacking the Detroit Lions, surely a literary bottom-feeder like me could swap a few “boo-yahs!” with the likes of Scott.

At least, that was the plan.

Out of line

The air was brisk, the sun bright. Rounding the corner at 11th and E streets NW, I was ready to take my place alongside the Linda Cohns of the world, to say nothing of those bespectacled weenies at ESPN News.

Problem was, I wasn’t alone.

Men in suits. Women in heels. Frat boys in khakis and sneakers. A two-deep line snaked from the ESPN Zone entrance to the other end of the block, some 200 hopefuls looking to beat me out.

“This is a dream I’ve been chasing since I was 13,” said Marchalo Queen, 22, a truck driver from the District. “I wanted to be like John Madden.”

Looking to size up the competition, I asked Queen if he had prepared any catch phrases — perhaps a Madden-esque “boom!”; a Marv Albert-inspired “Yessss!”; a Lisa Guerrero-like “Patrick, tell us about your ex-teammate Laveranues.”

“Nope,” said Queen, thumbing his lucky Redskins cap. “Just whatever pops in my head. It won’t be nothing you’ve heard before.”

Recalling the deceptively long wait at Disneyland’s Space Mountain, two things occurred to me

(1) This was going to be harder than I thought;

(2) While Plimpton might have been willing to suffer a helmet-to-chinstrap concussion for his art, I wasn’t about to wait in a four-hour line for mine. Not unless ESPN planned on renewing my driver’s license, too.

Flashing my expired work ID, I asked an ESPN producer if I could speak to Silver. No problem. Come inside. As I cut past my fellow wannabes, including a guy in a wheelchair, I felt a momentary pang of remorse — then realized that this wasn’t my first time cheating.

The previous evening, I called ESPN’s Scott, seeking some first-hand advice.

“Whatever your idea of a sportscaster is, don’t try to be that,” Scott said. “Just be you. The people who are successful don’t copy anybody.”

Fair enough. But what about those catch phrases? Weren’t they a ‘SportsCenter’ staple? After studying the show, I hoped to run a few past Scott.

• For broken tackles: “Get your stinking paws off of me, you dirty apes!”

• For blocked shots: “Next time, avoid the Noid!”

• For home runs: “Employees must wash hands!”

“People make a big deal about the catch phrases,” Scott said, interrupting my reverie. “But we don’t sit around making them. Really. There are some tremendous sportscasters who don’t have a single one.”

Instead, Scott counseled, an aspiring anchor should focus on writing. And speaking. And looking good in a suit or dress while wearing two pounds of makeup.

Check, I thought. And check. And … uh-oh.

“That’s not the most important thing,” Scott added. “But it is a visual medium.”

Mr. Don’t Know It All

A sportscaster also needs to know sports. Which I thought I did, until I met Mike Schaffer. A college senior from Columbia, Md., Schaffer oversaw the first part of the Dream Job audition: a seven-minute, 30-question sports quiz.

To his mother, Schaffer undoubtedly is a wonderful son. To my audition group, however, he was simply the guy with the red pen.

“I couldn’t grade any other way,” Schaffer said with a grin.

Like the average Barbara Walters interview, the test began with a series of softballs, gimmes like “who coached Seton Hall into the 1989 NCAA men’s basketball championship game?” (Answer: P.J. Carlesimo). Later questions, however, were more difficult.

Question No 28: The Calder Memorial Trophy is awarded annually to which NHL player?

Stumped, I made a play for partial credit.

Answer: “Whoever he is, he must be really, really good.”

No dice. I scored a 33 of 60, acing the first two sections but bombing on the third. Sitting across from me was Archie Harris, 38, a local attorney who looked vaguely familiar.

“I was in “The Replacements,” explained Harris, a former NFL player and part-time actor. “I turned over Keanu Reeves’ truck.”

Asked about the quiz, Harris called it “tough but fair.” Spoken like a true lawyer. Shannon Sanders, on the other hand, was shaking her head.

“I’ve always wanted to be on TV,” said Sanders, a secretary from Meyersville, Md. “But if the test has anything to do with it, I’m out.”

She wasn’t the only one. Written on the bottom of my quiz was a single phrase.

PARENT/TEACHER CONFERENCE NEEDED.

Scoring points

Following the sports test, my group headed off to a side room, gathering around six restaurant tables pulled together.

“OK, we’re gonna talk sports,” said David Jacoby, an assistant producer with ESPN. “Give us a short, 10-second play-by-play of your favorite moment in sports history.”

One guy went with Cal Ripken’s last All-Star Game home run. Another chose Michael Jordan’s final jumper with the Chicago Bulls. A woman botched Emmitt Smith’s run to capture the NFL rushing record, noting that “Walter Payton is now no longer the home run leader.”

I was next. And more than a bit nervous.

“Deep fly ball to right,” I said, nearly choking on my tongue. “Back … back … Canseco’s under it — oh, Jose, next time catch it with your glove, not your face.”

Silence. Absolute silence. I mean, even a single chuckle would have been nice.

Once my group finished, Jacoby produced a stopwatch. Twiddling the attached string, he asked us to debate the ongoing viability of the WNBA — no simple task, given that Washington Mystics star Chamique Holdsclaw was on hand to evaluate our answers.

Other topics followed.

What would happen in Boston if the Sox win the World Series?

“Pandemonium,” said the Cal Ripken guy.

“No more curse,” said a woman from New England.

“A lot of public drunkenness,” I added. “And arrests, if the police decide to enforce open container laws.”

Do you have faith in the judging in boxing?

“Are we talking about South Korean judges?” I whispered to one of the producers.

“We’re talking about the state of Nevada,” he replied.

“Same difference,” I said.

As the conversation continued, it became clear that loudest people were the only ones being heard, sheer volume trumping insight. Moreover, the most commanding speakers had an irritating habit of punctuating every cliched point by, well, pointing.

Were these minor league Sean Salisburys simply talking sports? Or were they actually trying to land an F-18 SuperHornet on the storm-tossed deck of the U.S.S. Harry Truman?

“We’re gauging charisma,” Silver explained. “You need to be quick, but with points that make sense. You need to be good off the cuff.”

Concerned that my off-the-cuff appeal had been overshadowed by a desire to cuff someone, I sought out Jacoby. Was I completely terrible?

“Not at all,” he said. “I remember at one point, you were talking about something and pointing across the table. That was good.”

Up close

A job interview followed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind I had in mind. One by one, we were taken to a closet-sized sound studio, thrust under a blinding light, put on camera and asked to interview a local athlete.

In other words, it was a lot like an alien abduction. Except in this case, only the questions were probing.

Harris talked to former Washington Redskins running back Ricky Ervins. Craig Stouffer, a 28-year-old editor from Arlington, finessed a surprise session with Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington.

Todd Bell, a 30-year-old bookstore manager from the District, interviewed Holdsclaw and Mystics teammate Annie Burgess. Wedged between the two, Bell came off like a pro, segueing from Holdsclaw’s book to Burgess’ play on the Australian national team.

Inspired, I asked Burgess about Australia’s skintight, one-piece uniforms — could they save the WNBA? Sensing discomfort, I switched to a more relevant topic: What was her least favorite question from reporters?

“When you lose a game, and then they ask you how you feel,” she said. “We just lost. Do I look happy?”

Oops. So much for my follow-up.

Determined to conduct at least one successful interview — since, technically, that was already a big part of my day job — I cornered Silver.

Question: As a reality show, will Dream Job feature nubile, college-age girls who enjoy drinking and are still trying to find themselves, even though they really miss their boyfriends back home? And will they be living together?

“No,” said Silver, squelching my hopes for a “Real World: Bristol.” “We’re leaning toward the contestants living closely together but not in the same house.”

Question: Are you looking to cast reality show staples like the nice guy, the psycho girl, the total jerk? Because I think I could make a good jerk.

“I’m sure we’ll have a group with different personalities,” Silver said.

Question: Will there be a “Joe Millionaire”-type twist at the end of the show? For instance, will the winner end up servicing Berman’s on-air bedpan?

“For now, we’re about the competition,” Silver said. “If there are any surprise twists, they will be positive. That said, you never know what will happen on reality TV.”

The moral, sort of

Tests. Public speaking. Interviews. And no smarmy “English” butlers. This didn’t sound like reality TV. Let alone a dream job.

To the contrary, sportscasting sounded like … work.

Dizzy and dazed — in part because my free sandwich never materialized — I bumped into Rene Knott, a sportscaster with the District’s WJLA-7. After four hours in the wilderness, I needed wisdom, guidance, perspective.

Barring that, I needed to feel better about my utter incompetence.

“It’s not just sitting and watching games,” Knott said. “It’s making calls, developing sources, having a universal knowledge of sports. A normal day for me is 10 hours. In football season, I basically see my kids one or two days a week. People think this job is glamorous. But really? They don’t realize what goes into it.”

Maybe not. But I sure did. Smarting from my feeble audition — surprisingly, ESPN has yet to call me back — I thanked Knott and slipped out the front door, unfinished Dream Job application still in hand.

The awful truth? I was better off watching sportscasters than trying to be one. And better off still making light of the experience.

After all, how hard could that be?

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