Rich Eisen

Rich Eisen, left, Steve Mariucci, Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner, Warren Sapp and Michael Irvin on the set of the NFL Network's "NFL Game Day Morning." (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times / October 27, 2013)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Even the face of the NFL Network occasionally gets stopped at the line of scrimmage.

Sportscaster Rich Eisen is trying to get across the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium, where he's supposed to host his network's coverage of the Arizona Cardinals vs. the Seattle Seahawks.

On the field are current and former NFL stars, including Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who treat Eisen like royalty. But the security guard who stands between Eisen and the stage at the other end of the stadium apparently doesn't recognize the man NFL Network President Steve Bornstein simply calls "the franchise." The guard wants to see his field pass.

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"For the wrong TV personality, this could put them in the fetal position," cracks Eisen, while looking futilely for his badge before realizing he left it back on the set and has to be escorted there by the guard to prove he does indeed belong.

This is as close as the 44-year-old Eisen comes to a miscue these days in a career that has been as smooth and crisp as a Peyton Manning pass. Not only is he the frontman for the Culver City-based network that has turned into a cash cow for the NFL, his just-right combination of quick wit, everyman appearance and encyclopedic knowledge of the game has won him the respect of coaches and players, and made him a fan favorite.

"I'm like the fly on the wall," Eisen says while sitting on the Seahawks bench after offering a history lesson on all the great moments that happened on the field, including David Tyree's legendary catch that set up the New York Giants' stunning upset of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in 2008. "It's my job to take the fans sitting at home on their couch and put them in my shoes."

If this all seems to come naturally to Eisen, it's probably because he's been preparing to wear those shoes his whole life. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Staten Island (his New York accent comes out "in fits of road rage on the 405," he says), Eisen loved sports but knew the microphone was his ticket into the stadium.

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"I realized early on in my life that I couldn't hit the curve or throw the 50-yard post pattern, so talking about it would be my way in," he says.

Indeed, videos of Eisen on YouTube throwing a football and attempting a free throw confirm this. His annual 40-yard dash in a suit during the NFL combine where college players are scouted has become must-laugh TV.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, where he was sports editor for the Michigan Daily, he landed his first journalism job at his hometown paper, the Staten Island Advance. But Eisen soon realized the police beat (typical turf for a rookie reporter) wasn't going to provide a quick path to the press box.

"I once went from one precinct to another listening to the police codes and an ambulance blew by," he recalls. "I followed it and I remember thinking to myself there's no other way to parse what I'm doing except ambulance chasing."

Eisen decided to go back to school to get a master's degree and after a brief stint at a local station in Redding, landed at ESPN at the age of 26. That's where his real education began at the hands of "SportsCenter" legends Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick.

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Having done some work as a stand-up comic in the 1980s — his go-to bit was an impersonation of Howard Cosell reading letters to Penthouse Forum — Eisen initially treated ESPN like a night in the Catskills.

"I made everything a joke," Eisen says. "I over-performed."

His shtick caught the eyes of Olbermann and Patrick, but for the wrong reasons.

"We were worried he might get in over his head before he realized he was underwater," Olbermann says.

Olbermann remembers that when Eisen would ask for an assessment of his work, he'd reply, "Half."