Ever since Fox had told him two weeks earlier that he would be the network’s color commentator for the Detroit Lions-Washington football team game, his stomach had the same swirling feeling that he used to have as a player the days leading up to the games.
“As if I had to perform,” he had said earlier in the week. “It’s show time on Sunday.”
Then he’d got up early on Sunday, put on the brown bespoke suit he’d picked out last Wednesday, and been at the stadium at 9:45 a.m. hoping to impress network executives to give him a contract as the reported $ 17 million a year CBS pays former quarterback Tony Romo of Dallas Cowboys. “I’m trying to get myself a Romo!” he had said. Now, in his hurry, he had left his phone in the hotel and had to go back.
Former players fill in-game analyst roles on television networks. But these players are generally not like Aqib Talib, who was famous for his interception, suffocating coverage of opposing receivers, five Pro Bowls, and a Super Bowl title – and also outrageous statements that, in unprintable words, four league bans and a handful of off-site incidents.
The word several Fox people have used to describe him is “raw”. Even so, he was always serious – a strong loyalty to teammates, an obsession with learning and preparation, and a warmth that always made him one of the most popular players wherever he played.
“It’s contagious and real and that’s contagious.” Jacob Ullman, senior vice president of Fox Sports, said.
So Fox gave him an opportunity on a Sunday when the network had an extra game. It came with no promise. NFL analyst slots among the three major networks are so sought after that Ullman said someone had “a better chance of being an NFL quarterback than an NFL analyst”.
But a chance was a chance. At the stadium, phone in hand, Talib – butterflies spinning in his stomach – was preparing in the broadcast booth only to look down to find he had no board, a huge card with information about everyone Players who all use announcers. It was back in the hotel. This time Fox sent a runner to get it.
“Improve the Show”
Back in the spring, Fox asked Talib to do color comments while watching half of a 49ers Saints game. Talib’s audition wasn’t perfect, but there was enough for Ullman to see “that something was different”. The network told Talib that it would try to find him for a game or two in the fall.
When the stake came for Sunday in early November, Talib started preparing by watching one of the last three games for each team each day. Not knowing exactly how a television commentator studies teams, he decided to look at the way he did it as a gamer: the game’s main broadcast first to hear what the other analysts say about the team, then the one compressed version of the game that was stripped of everything But the games and the All-22 version shot out from behind the end zone – like a coach’s tape – so he could look for trends in what teams like to do.
But there was still so much to learn.
He called Gerry Matalon, an Emmy-winning sports media advisor who had worked with many of the best broadcasters in the business and helped Talib prepare for appearances on the NFL network. On a Zoom call that lasted nearly two hours, Matalon warned him not to talk about the crack of the ball or the referees announcing penalties, and to stay away from vague references to jargon like “Cover-Two” without explanation , what they mean.
“Your job is to improve the show, not to penetrate,” Matalon told him.
As the game approached, Talib’s phone rang with calls from network managers and producers. There were conference calls and conference calls on logistics, graphs and schedules. It was a lot.
Most of the time, Talib wanted to keep watching the film. As a gamer, he raced home after the games to watch a replay of the games and see what the broadcasters got right. Did you “show him love” or did you tear him apart? Often times he was shocked to see that the analysts got it all wrong and accused the wrong players. There was no way a player from Detroit or Washington would go home and hear Aqib Talib doing something wrong.
“I’m not going to be there and say a few things that are not true,” he said.
“I have a feeling he wants to curse so badly”
Then suddenly it was show time.
Everything was racing in Talib’s headset. To his left, he heard play-by-play announcer Dan Hellie describing the pieces, but there was also Rich Gross, the producer, who spoke from the outside in the production car and a statistics person who handed over notes, and a spotter, the number indicated on the board of the players who made tackles.
The games passed quickly and Talib tried to keep up. Sometimes he said nothing. He could feel the silence and wondered if the people watching it could feel it too.
Slowly he began to relax. He imagined having 12 to 15 seconds to speak after each game and began adjusting his thoughts to that timeline. Playing on the booth felt like playing on the field. The old aqib came out.
He said Lions quarterback Matt Stafford found “the honey hole” in Washington’s defense.
He defended a punished lineman by saying, “I’d stop before I gave up a sack, too.”
He yelled “What is it, Jack ?!” with Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio before an important third-down game.
He was feeling good now and people noticed.
“Aqib Talib sounds like my uncle calling a national TV game,” tweeted one man, adding a meme that read, “I love it.”
On the field below, Washington had come back from three touchdowns to end the game between 27-27. Overtime became apparent. And then it was suddenly over, on a 59-yard field goal at the last second.
Fox quickly switched to his late games, which were about to start. The microphone died. The TV lights went out. Talib was delighted, but there was no time to linger. His flight home to Dallas took 90 minutes. He ran out the door, remembering taking his cell phone with him.
‘I am different’
He woke up early Monday morning and was excited to see how he had fared. The response on Twitter had been intense.
Someone said listening to him and playing Hellie the game was like being in the room while two people were watching on a couch. He liked that. Some said he pointed out things they had never seen. Others said they loved the way he spoke like he wasn’t just another broadcaster on a long day of football.
But there were others who hated it and didn’t find it funny or informative. Many of these people’s Twitter avatars were whites, and it wasn’t hard to see where the gap lay between those who found Talib refreshing and those who didn’t. If that bothered him, he wouldn’t say it.
“Hey, some people will like it, others will not,” he said on the phone later that day. “I played the game so I know. … The only person I can be is Aqib Talib. So this is the person I will be forever.
“I’m different,” he continued. “We come from different countries, we don’t talk in the same way. … I’ll go up there and try to speak as professionally as possible on TV because I know a lot of people are listening. At the end of the day, I’ll speak what I know and I’ll speak what I see. I was told this at audition, and the audition was good enough to get me on Fox so I did it. “
He first watched the TV show while he was still in bed, ready to tear himself apart. Noticing the painful silence at the beginning of the game, he winced as he cut himself off fearing he was going to talk about the snapshot. He said too much “man”, he thought.
Even so, there was a lot he did well. He didn’t misunderstand the defense, mix up formations, or blame players for mistakes that weren’t their fault.
“I was on the money,” he said. “I don’t throw anyone under the bus or anything. Everything I said they did. “
Later that day, Ullman would say that he found Talib to be “authentic” and “knowledgeable”. He enjoyed reading the tweets and hearing the following buzz. “You want a reaction, don’t you?” he said.
“I don’t know where the next opportunity is [to do a game] it will be, ”continued Ullman. “He’s certainly someone we would consider. He’ll do a great job. “
But not a Romo. At least not now.