It's All Play, All Work for ESPN's Berman

NEWSDAY

It's a little after 10 o'clock on a crisp autumn Sunday morning. The newsroom at ESPN is buzzing with talk of football even though the World Series ended in dramatic fashion the night before. The task at hand is the production of two live hourlong studio shows--NFL GameDay at noon and NFL PrimeTime at 7 p.m.

In one corner of the newsroom, the sounds of someone typing feverishly come from behind a partition. There is some mumbling, something about being way behind.

"Boomer, how you doing?" asks GameDay producer Steve Vecchione.

"I'm doin'," is the reply from behind the partition. "I'm doin' it for the team."

Boomer is Chris Berman, unquestionably the leader of the ESPN team and one of the hardest working and most recognizable sportscasters in the business.

"I'm sorry, I'm running way behind," says Berman, emerging from his cramped cubicle to introduce himself to a reporter. "We'll have time to talk later.

"Great view, huh?" he says, standing up and gesturing toward the window before shaking hands. "I get to look at the back of a satellite dish. That's ESPN."

Some would say Berman is ESPN. At 6-foot-5 and nearly 250 pounds, he's about the size of a satellite dish and his signal is just as strong. He dominates a room when he's silent, so imagine what he can do once he opens his mouth.

"The true test," says Keith Olbermann, ESPN2 anchor and longtime friend of Berman's, "is when Chris is on, turn down your TV and open your window. You will hear him. The microphone is nothing but a prop."

SportsCenter anchor and PrimeTime partner Robin Roberts takes it further. "You wouldn't want Boomer any other way. He is ESPN SportsCenter. I remember coming in one morning around 7 and Boomer was all disheveled. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, 'It's the pressure of being me.' It was the funniest thing. You knew he was right. He carries a lot of weight around here. He shuts off the lights at the end of the day."

Berman, 38, has been a mainstay at ESPN since the birth of the 24-hour all-sports network in 1979. He has ridden pop culture, rock 'n' roll references and more than 600 nicknames that are his trademark to the top of the sports world and a paycheck that is closing in on $1 million per year. The brains behind ESPN last month rewarded Berman, a two-time National Sportscaster of the Year (1989-90), with a new contract that runs through 2001.

"(Berman) has something special," says one of those brains, managing editor Steve Anderson. "He loves what he does and brings the right approach to (ESPN) viewers."

Berman's approach is simple.

"I love what I do," he says. "I may talk too much, but that's me and it seems to be working. I'm a basic guy and people are more apt to pay attention and like someone who likes what they're doing."

In 1989, NBC reportedly made Berman an offer for $800,000 per year. ESPN came back with less--a five-year deal worth $3 million--and Berman remained.

"Look what we have here," Berman says, hands flailing away. "I do sports at a place that does sports better than anywhere else. It's right here in Connecticut, where I'm from. It's 15 minutes from my house and I never have to go to New York."

That aside, questions remain whether the networks would let Boomer boom. "The networks wouldn't let him be himself," Roberts says. "They want more control. You wouldn't want him any other way."

*

It's 11:20 a.m., and Berman is 20 minutes late for the GameDay dress rehearsal. He is rushing around, getting makeup and putting on a jacket and tie.

"You better run if you're gonna follow me," Berman tells the reporter. And just like that, Boomer is lumbering through the newsroom like a big tight end, through the airwalk, to an adjoining building where the set is located.

When he arrives on the GameDay set, co-hosts Tom Jackson, Joe Theismann and Chris Mortensen are just about finished. There is quick banter between them and enough time for Berman to kick off his shoes. He has about five minutes to relax before doing a live Game-Day promo and World Series commentary on SportsCenter with Roberts.

He slides across the room to the SportsCenter set without his shoes. There is no rehearsal, but the session goes smoothly. At the commercial break, Berman slides back to the GameDay set and reviews his scripts.

"And a top o' the morning to you," Berman says as he opens the noon broadcast.

GameDay is one of ESPN's great success stories. It is in its seventh year of the current format, has won two Emmys (1989, 1990) and has received two CableACE Awards (1989, 1993). The show starts at noon, hoping to hook viewers before CBS and NBC come on the air with their studio shows at 12:30. It seems to be working. Game-Day drew its best rating ever Oct. 31 with a 4.0, reaching 2.5 million homes. CBS' NFL Today drew a 5.1 and NBC's NFL Live was at 4.2.

"We are getting stronger every year," says Bob Rauscher, coordinating producer of GameDay and PrimeTime. "We are in direct competition with the other networks. We want to be as good or better than the networks. We know we are being judged in the industry, and Chris shares in that."

Says Berman, "I like to think the ratings going up is an indication that people are finding us. I'll put up our product against the others."

*

It's 1:20 p.m. and Berman enters the conference room where the staff is eating lunch and watching the 1 o'clock games on a wall of televisions. Call it a football war room. Berman's entrance could be compared to Norm walking through the door at Cheers.

"Boomer!" everyone says in unison.

The dressed-down Berman, who has shed his coat and tie for casual shirt, takes his seat next to Jackson in front of the TV sets. He puts on his wire-framed glasses and turns his attention to lunch, football and Jackson, who is filling his left ear with chalk talk.

"Now is as good a time as any," Berman says to the reporter. "Don't mind me if I get away from you."

The first question is interrupted by a Deion Sanders interception against the Saints. Chants of "Deion . . . Deion . . . Deion" fill the room.

"The NFL needs 20 more Deions," Theismann says. "He is an exciting player."

Berman returns his attention to the reporter. "This is what we do best," he says. "We have a lot of yucks, but nobody gives you as much football X's and O's."

*

It's a long week for Berman, whose X's and O's were interrupted when he spent Monday through Thursday at the World Series in Philadelphia. On Friday, he was in the office more than 12 hours doing scripts, research, radio commentary, his "Swami" football picks and segments for SportsCenter, GameDay and Prime Monday, a new show this season hosted by Mike Tirico. Saturday is much like Friday, but includes the three-hour production meeting for GameDay. "I guess you can call Monday my day off," Berman says with a smile, "because I might as well be brain dead.

"My secret is there are more than one of me. It may seem like I am everywhere, but I'm really not. I only do football and baseball and an occasional SportsCenter. I don't want to be an octopus. (Howard) Cosell and (Brent) Musberger were everywhere. I'm not like that."

It just seems that way, especially when he shows up on the networks plugging Budweiser. "I don't do all the ads that come along," he says. "But Budweiser is Budweiser.

"This profession isn't all rosy. I didn't do it to get rich. I did it because it was fun and it paid the bills. When I started here it was at $16,500 to do the 2:30 a.m. SportsCenter and I had to bargain for that extra $500."

*

Berman's resume was short when he joined ESPN. As a history major at Brown, he was the voice of college radio station WBRU. In 1978, he was working two jobs, at WVIT-Channel 30 in Hartford as a weekend sports anchor and radio station WNVR in Waterbury, Conn., where he met his eventual wife in Boomer-like fashion.

The story goes that Berman spotted an attractive woman driving in front of him. Her name was Kathy Alexinski, a fourth-grade teacher in Waterbury. Berman followed her and then faked car problems. When she asked him what was wrong, he asked her to have breakfast with him.

Alexinski told People Magazine earlier this year, "He was tall and dark and handsome and looked harmless enough." She joined him for breakfast, she joined him in wedlock and today they have two children (Meredith, 7, and Douglas, 6).

"That might be the toughest thing about my life in this business," Berman says. "I'm away from my kids a great deal. I wasn't able to spend Halloween (a football Sunday this year) with them. I feel like a jerk. I feel bad because I can't be there. That's going to hurt."

*

It's 4 p.m. and time for the PrimeTime production meeting. After that, Boomer disappears into the recesses of the ESPN complex to do voice-overs for the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, PrimeTime and Prime Monday.

He returns to the war room a little after 6, dressed for PrimeTime. He summons Russell Baxter, the staff statistics guru. The two discuss which graphics will be used on the PrimeTime broadcast. That lasts all of nine minutes and attention is turned to reviewing videotaped highlights of games earlier in the afternoon.

But wait . . . on one of the televisions the Rams have just benched quarterback Jim Everett and replaced him with rookie T.J. Rubley.

"If his initials are T.J., then he can't be all bad!" says Jackson, who has gone from Pro Bowl linebacker with the Broncos to one of Berman's co-hosts on both football shows.

"We need a nickname for him," Boomer booms, his mind ticking away like a time bomb. The new moniker came from more than one source in the room, including Berman. "T.J. Rubley Tuesday," came the explosion.

It is met with approval from others in the room and another nickname is born. The Rolling Stones are a Berman staple.

There are eight minutes until PrimeTime and Berman still is in the war room getting a fresh face of makeup. Roberts and Jackson already are on the set.

"Chris reminds me of the term paper being done the night before," Rauscher says. "He thrives on deadlines. He'll wait until the final two minutes to get down there."

But to the untrained eye it all seems to work flawlessly.

"Chris is a goofball," Vecchione says. "But he brings so much intelligence to the show and he would be the first to recognize that everyone makes it work."

*

There is sweat pouring off Berman's brow as he hastily makes his way from the conclusion of PrimeTime to the radio booth for an 8:06 p.m. commentary on the day's games. "You're welcome to come in," he says to the visiting reporter as he enters the radio room.

Minutes later, a weary Berman is back where he began the day, working over his computer keyboard.

"I haven't seen my family in a week," he says, not looking for sympathy, "but I've still got work to do. I can't complain. How many people like what they do? It's like getting a promotion every year and never leaving."

And with that he's back, back, back, back, back . . . to work.

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