In a city where people will take out second mortgages to pay for their New Orleans Saints season tickets and schedule weddings, christenings and bar mitzvahs around regular season games, I had a job that many New Orleanians might not view as a job at all. I did what plenty of people choose to do when they are not working or when they should be working — watch and talk about sports.
For 10 years, I was a television sportscaster in New Orleans. During that time, I covered everything from the Super Bowl to a cricket match in eastern New Orleans. But it's not the games I remember most vividly — it's the people. The players, coaches, fans and fellow media members were more entertaining by far.
One of the oddest things you experience as someone who makes a living on television is the looks from strangers. Not the looks from people who know exactly who you are — those are obvious enough — but the ones from people who think you look familiar but have no idea why. People have asked me if (a) we went to high school together, (b) I used to babysit their children or (c) I am the weatherman. (No, no and no.) But my daughter was even more perplexed when, at 2 years old, she recognized me on television and proceeded to wander around behind the TV to try to find her father.
One of the other things you need to know about membership in the sports media is that you spend an awful lot of time engaged in the bizarre ritual of the locker room interview. Generally the place where people change their clothes is their most private sanctum. For us, it was a job site.
Every locker room has its own vibe; every player adheres to different conventions. For instance, we all knew that after a game, former Saints receiver Joe Horn would never take questions until he was completely dressed. Fair enough. Win or lose, Horn was always forthright with the media (except when he was engaged in one of his periodic self-imposed gag orders), so, in addition to being a star player, he was always an in-demand interview. But Horn was also something of a clotheshorse and meticulous in his grooming. The image still makes me chuckle: a dozen reporters crowded around Horn's locker as he, in no particular hurry, donned one of his flamboyant suits complete with fedora and matching luggage, until, finally ready to proceed, he would turn and nod.
When Horn did open his mouth, he provided plenty of memorable material. Always candid, there seemed to be no question he would not answer, even if he was at a loss for words. Inevitably, the occasional malapropism ensued. My favorite was when he was describing the way an opposing defense would pressure quarterback Aaron Brooks, saying they would "try to dismangle Aaron, as they would call it." I loved that he not only invented a new word, but that he added a disclaimer on the end, as if to escape culpability.
No player was so active to engage a media member as former Saints defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, who mercilessly teased reporters about their choice of clothing. Thomas would survey the locker room, generally wearing nothing more than a towel, and lob insults at any visitors unfortunate enough to enter his field of vision. The orange gingham shirt I wore one day made me an obvious target. "What is that, a tablecloth?" Thomas asked. "Are you going on a picnic?"
Former Saints defensive end Charles Grant was often at his boastful best when the camera lights came on. Grant would guarantee victory with such frequency, it became less of a guarantee and more of a speech pattern. One year during training camp, Grant predicted that the Saints defense would be "a wrecking crew. We'll be like the Dome Patrol (the famed Saints linebackers of the late 1980s and early 1990s)." When asked which member of the Dome Patrol was his favorite, Grant paused, obviously stumped, but that didn't diminish his bluster. "Man, all them guys," he responded.
Former Saints running back Ricky Williams' peculiar relationship with the media was well-documented. He had the exhausting habit of answering questions with a one-word query of his own. Ricky, are you encouraged by your performance? "Encouraged?" he would respond. Williams was the only athlete I've ever heard complain about the small light affixed to the top of most broadcast cameras. "Can you turn that off? It's right in my eyes," he told my cameraman. It's so the people at home can see you, Ricky.
Many of the most compelling and humorous responses are relayed when the cameras aren't rolling. Former Saints coach Jim Haslett was well-known for regaling reporters with stories after he stepped down from the podium in what we referred to as his "second press conference."
One day a few of us were chatting with Haslett and someone brought up musician Rick James, who had died recently. In one of the most incongruous tales I've ever heard, Haslett proceeded to tell us that he used to live next to James in Buffalo, N.Y., when Haslett was a linebacker with the Buffalo Bills. Haslett said James threw wild parties during which he'd leave his front door wide open in the middle of western New York's notoriously snowy winters. Super Freak indeed.
In 2000, Haslett took his first NFL head coaching job — with the Saints. Apparently there was an initial get-to-know-you period with the players, because during training camp, former (and now-deceased) defensive tackle Norman Hand referred to his head coach as Coach Haze-lett — as in "Coach Haze-lett is doing a great job. You got players flying around, coaches flying around, you can't help but fly around yourself." Whenever I think of that line, I can't help but wonder if he was describing football or Quidditch.
Working in the sports media means sometimes doing so alongside former players who have transitioned to a second career as broadcasters. One ex-player was working as an occasional analyst on a weekly Saints highlight show I co-hosted. Part of the set backdrop was a bar with bottles of real alcohol. One night after the show, I saw the analyst heading for the door with a bottle of Crown Royal under his arm, presumably considering it to be a parting gift, until I told him he was making off with a part of the set and the booze would have to stay.
For obvious reasons, the 2006 home opener against the Atlanta Falcons was an unforgettable night. It was the only time I've ever seen tears shed in the press box. But what I'll also remember was the scene on the sideline prior to the game. We were broadcasting live from the Louisiana Superdome floor as a parade of rock stars, actors and clergy walked past.
Former New Orleans Hornets star Baron Davis wandered by while we were on the air and we conducted an impromptu interview. During a commercial break, a woman claiming to be a representative for rapper Lil Jon (not that I doubted this assertion; who would claim to be this if she wasn't?) asked me if we would be interested in having Mr. Jon make an appearance. In spite of his diamond-encrusted smile and famous exuberance for life, we declined. Endymion was still months away, but that night it felt every bit like Carnival inside the Dome.
I will always remember Saints fans for their wicked sense of humor and their pursuit of the unvarnished truth. Under NFL protocols of old, reporters were allowed to leave the press box and access the field within the last two minutes of the game. At game's end, after the players headed off the field into the locker room, media members would follow them to conduct post-game interviews.
After one Saints loss, there was little more than a murmur inside the Superdome. As I was walking into the tunnel, I heard a piercing voice call out, "Hey, Adam, ask Aaron Brooks why he's smiling about all those completions ... to the other team!" I looked up to see a scowling woman no younger than 65 years old, fleur de lis earrings swaying as she shook her head in dismay.
Regrets? I have a few. I regret I was never able to use my nickname for former Saints tight end David Sloan. Sloan was a hulking man who resembled a bodybuilder. He arrived in New Orleans after some productive seasons, including a Pro Bowl appearance, with the Detroit Lions. When I noticed his hometown was Tollhouse, Calif., I thought the "Cookie Monster" was the perfect sobriquet for Sloan. Unfortunately, Sloan, plagued by injuries, spent one unproductive season with the Saints and was waived, never providing me with the opportunity to unveil the "Cookie Monster" nickname
I also regret never following through on an idea involving Saints third-string quarterback Tyler Palko hatched during one steamy training camp practice (there was really no other kind) in Jackson, Miss. One of the few ways to keep your mind off the suffocating heat in training camp is to devise obscure story ideas about the third-string guard and the off-the-field hobbies of the backup deep snapper. Palko's jerky left-handed passing motion seemed strangely familiar, and it dawned on me it bore a striking resemblance to the release of White Goodman, Ben Stiller's muscle-bound antagonist in the movie DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story. My training camp-inspired stroke of genius was to show simultaneous slow-motion video clips of the two men in action during the evening newscast to illustrate the similarities. Why? In my sunstroked mind, it seemed like a vaguely amusing way to break up the monotony of camp. In retrospect, maybe it was best that bright idea remained confined to my own imagination.
I do not regret, however, that I did not forsake personal comfort back at the office. On most of the summer weekends I sat behind the anchor desk delivering a sportscast in my uniform of coat and tie. The truth is I was also wearing shorts.
Adam Norris, a former sports reporter for WGNO-TV and WVUE-TV, is a frequent Gambit contributor.