Joe Tessitore possesses a magical ability to spark fourth-quarter comebacks and crazy last-second endings. At least, it seems that way.
During the 2010 season, Tessitore and his broadcast crew began a tradition. When the moment feels right, just as it seems like one team is about to pull away from the other, Tessitore turns to the in-booth camera during a commercial break and sprinkles imaginary pixie dust on the field.
"I don't care who wins," said the ESPN play-by-play announcer. "The only thing I want to see is the craziest, closest, most outlandish finish we can -- with an emphasis on overtime."
Tessitore remembers sprinkling the dust on the night of Nov. 26, 2010, sometime toward the beginning of Nevada's comeback from a 17-0 deficit en route to an improbable overtime upset of third-ranked Boise State. Though he'd called games for ESPN since 2004, including three seasons of Friday night games with partner Rod Gilmore, Tessitore had remained largely unknown among football fans until that fateful night in Reno. "NO ... GOOD!" rang Tessitore's tense, stentorian voice when Broncos kicker Kyle Brotzman inexplicably missed a chip-shot game-winning field goal. The Wolf Pack wound up ruining Boise's Rose Bowl and national title hopes.
"That," recalled Tessitore, "was the pinnacle of dusting."
"The Tessitore Effect," as it soon became known on Twitter, returned the next Friday when Miami of Ohio quarterback Austin Boucher completed a tipped pass on fourth-and-20 en route to the game-winning touchdown in the MAC Championship Game. Then, on the first Friday of 2011, Tessitore called Baylor's wild 50-48 upset of TCU. He was in Tempe, Ariz., a few weeks later when Missouri coach Gary Pinkel curiously iced his own kicker, helping Arizona State beat the Tigers in overtime. And most broadcasters go their entire careers without experiencing what Tessitore did on consecutive nights in November, first calling Iowa State's overtime upset of undefeated, second-ranked Oklahoma State in Ames, then Robert Griffin III's game-winning touchdown to beat No. 5 Oklahoma in Waco.
"It's fun to consider," said Ed Placey, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for college football. "Do games like this follow Joe around?"
For the first part of his 10-year run with ESPN, Tessitore, 41, was most familiar to boxing fans for his role as host of Friday Night Fights. Now, he's among the rising stars on the network's football roster. This fall he'll move to Saturday nights, calling a mix of mostly Pac-12 and SEC games with analyst Matt Millen. He already serves as the network's "Heismanologist," and in June, he became the regular host of College Football Live, giving a much-needed identity to what had been a mishmash of a show.
"You obviously have your Chris Fowlers, your Kirk Herbstreits, et cetera, but you have to consider Joe one of the faces of the sport at this network," said College Football Live producer Nick Sciallo. "If he isn't already, he certainly will be."
No one can say Tessitore hasn't worked for it.
At 7:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in July, while making the drive from his home just outside New Haven, Conn., to ESPN's studios in Bristol, Tessitore is on the phone with Sciallo discussing topics for that afternoon's show. He'd sent his last e-mail to the producer at 12:37 a.m., and he was up again before 6 scouring the web for newsy nuggets. To prep for the season, he leaves himself voice memos on his iPhone -- a recitation of USC's two-deep, for example -- that he later listens to on planes.
"He has a ravenous hunger for this stuff," said former on-air partner Gilmore, a close friend with whom Tessitore speaks almost daily. "We talk so much about college football that by time we get on the air it's just an extension of our week-long conversations."
Tessitore's house -- he lives with his wife, Rebecca, son John, 12, and daughter Nicolina, 9 -- is a shrine to three lifelong sports passions. The walls are lined with paintings and posters of college football, boxing and horse racing. The centerpiece, which he calls his most prized possession, is a 1974 Leroy Neiman artist's proof, "Alabama Handoff," gifted to Tessitore by his late grandfather. In the painting, Bear Bryant can be seen watching a play from the sideline.
The first time Sciallo visited the house with his wife, he watched in amazement as Tessitore grilled him about college football while simultaneously baking homemade pizzas.
"He's a hyper, hyper intense guy who's passionate about what he does," said Sciallo.
Tessitore's mother, Anna Miranda, immigrated from Dragoni, Italy, in 1954 with nine sisters and brothers and was among the last to be processed at Ellis Island. His father, Buster, was a second-generation Italian American. Tessitore grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., surrounded by family members who barely spoke English. "One of the ways they assimilated was watching American television," said Tessitore, "and sports was something they gravitated toward."
Tessitore's grandfather, Joe, a corner barber in the neighborhood, often took him to the races at Saratoga. "I would do a Howard Cosell impersonation to get my grandfather to laugh," Tessitore said. As a teenager, his father took him to see fights, most notably Mike Tyson's professional debut in Albany. But the sport that truly captured his imagination -- that led him to devour books on its history -- was college football. On Saturdays, Tessitore and his father would attend games at nearby Union College, then "race home to listen to Keith Jackson," said Tessitore.
"I watched all the ABC college football -- a lot of Penn State and Alabama," he said. "We'd watch Notre Dame. I was as football obsessed as any kid can be."
Today he can recite all 77 Heisman winners -- and their bios -- as if he's rattling off the alphabet.
Tessitore's own football career ended abruptly as a freshman at Christian Brothers Academy, an all-boys military school. During a scrimmage in early September, he tried to spin free of a tackler wrapped around his leg and shattered his left ankle. "You could hear it splintering like a celery stalk against a chainsaw," he recalled. Forced to spend most of the next year on crutches, Tessitore began listening to local sports radio and working the PA at his school's basketball games. Upon enrolling at Boston College, he quickly became the student radio voice of the Eagles. His first job out of college was back home as sports anchor of a TV affiliate in Albany-Schenectady-Troy, followed by an eight-year stint in Hartford, where he called occasional UConn games during their transition to Division I-A.
ESPN execs -- many of whom lived in Hartford -- took notice, but they hired Tessitore primarily for his boxing expertise. He's called pay-per-view fights, HBO specials and lent his voice to the EA Sports Fight Night video games.
"One day [Tessitore] stuck his head in and said, 'If you ever need a guy to do a football game or two for you, I love the game, I'd be happy to help you out,'" said Placey. "So I filed that away. What I didn't realize was just how serious he was about that."
Tessitore's first game broadcast was a Nevada-Louisiana Tech game for ESPN2 on Sept. 3, 2004. It was Chris Ault's first game back as Nevada's coach after coming out of retirement, an interesting coincidence "considering he would play such a major part in my career down the road," said Tessitore.
After several seasons filling in on football between boxing and horse racing assignments, Tessitore took on the full-time Friday night role with Gilmore in 2008. That meant mostly a mix of Big East and WAC games, with an audience comprised largely of two groups: coaches and players stuck in hotels the night before their games, and truly devout football junkies.
But Tessitore eventually garnered more exposure, in part by calling more games than anybody else.
When ESPN began producing separate 3D broadcasts in 2010, Tessitore volunteered for as many assignments as Placey would allow. Most play-by-play guys work one game per week; Tessitore called six in a 15-day stretch that September. Last season he called 23 games, including 3D and radio broadcasts.
Exhausting travel itineraries don't seem to faze him. Following that Friday night TCU-Baylor game last year, Tessitore and Gilmore traveled to Morgantown, W. Va., for a Sunday afternoon game between West Virginia and Marshall. Severe storms caused two stoppages totaling four-and-half hours before the game was finally called around 10:30 p.m., at which point Tessitore and sideline reporter Quint Kessenich drove four hours to College Park, Md., for the 3D broadcast of Monday night's Miami-Maryland game.
"I feel it after the season; your body wants to shut down," said Tessitore. "But during the season, you cannot assign me enough. I would do a game every other day if I could."
His craziest jaunt to date came last bowl season. After calling the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Tessitore flew to San Diego for ESPN's New Year's Eve stunt jump, an event he's called the past five years. After the broadcast, a speed boat took him from one side of the marina to the other, where he hopped in a golf cart that took him to an SUV that took him to the airport -- where he caught a redeye to Washington D.C., then a connection back to Orlando in time to emcee a Capital One Bowl luncheon (he called that game the next day). Rebecca met him at the hotel with his suit.
"I think Joe kind of shelters me from some of the parts that would create nervousness because he really wants to do it," said Placey. "When Joe lands, it's 'Hey, no problem, things couldn't have gone any better.' Eventually you hear the details."
This season, Tessitore will begin with a more modest three games in nine days: Mike Leach's Washington State debut at BYU on opening night, Thursday Aug. 30; Oregon-Arkansas State two nights later; and Missouri's SEC debut Sept. 8 at home against Georgia.
"I think we could have one of my crazy ones in Week 2," said Tessitore. "Based on the atmosphere [in Columbia, Mo.], knowing the kind of offenses on the field, I think Week 2 could be one of those classics."
His 2011 slate could have made for months of ESPN Classic programming. In addition to TCU-Baylor, Missouri-ASU, Iowa State-Oklahoma State and Baylor-Oklahoma, there was also a Utah State-BYU game decided by a tipped catch in the end zone with 11 seconds left; a 37-yard San Jose State pass with 36 seconds left to beat Hawaii; an unexplainable Syracuse rout of 11th-ranked West Virginia; and another dramatic MAC championship game, with Northern Illinois rallying from a 20-0 deficit to beat Ohio on a last-second field goal.
That's some serious dusting.
"I like being in awe of what I am seeing," said Tessitore. "I don't know how it is that I've ended up with a lot of games that ended up in that fashion -- that do have that sense of dramatic anticipation, where it feels like it's all on the line. Maybe it's what I'm drawn to.
"As an Italian American, our dinners tend to be loud, our debates tend to be fierce. We're not ones for long-form narratives."
Tessitore does have another passion.
"Its always food and football," said game producer Steve Ackels. "We get our schedule in August and he sends me menus for the Oct. 7 game in Provo. 'This is a must have. You've got to try this.'"
On a warm evening in July, Tessitore has invited a group of 10 colleagues for a specially prepared eight-course meal at Ludal's, an Italian restaurant in North Haven, Conn., owned by his brother-in-law, Dalton Velez. The waiters are serving plates of Arancini, a southern Sicilian specialty best described as a rice ball, which Tessitore is explaining to his guests in that familiar, dramatic voice.
"It's risotto rice, stuffed with freshly baked mutzerella, and a breadcrumb coating on the outside -- flash fried on a bed of fresh marinara sauce."
"What is this?" says one of his guests. "One of your [game] opens?" The table laughs. Tessitore takes the bait. "Stay tuned! Coming up after the break..."
Paul Finebaum, the syndicated radio host in Birmingham, Ala., first met Tessitore in May 2011 during a planning visit for the ESPN documentary Roll Tide, War Eagle, which Tessitore co-executive produced with Bruce Feldman.
"At that time, if you had said to me, this guy works at ESPN, I'll give you $5 million if you tell me his name, I couldn't have done it," said Finebaum. Tessitore sat in and observed the host's show for four hours while barely saying a word. "That's what made the next four hours so shocking," said Finebaum.
That evening, Finebaum took Tessitore and Feldman to Highland's, the most acclaimed restaurant in Birmingham, and quickly found out that the East Coast lifer knew as much Iron Bowl history as a 30-year Alabama native -- and even more about the cuisine. "He turned the meal into a religious experience," said Finebaum. "I introduced him to Frank Stitt, the owner, and [Stitt] never looked at me again. They were talking about vegetables from Italy."
Like many, Finebaum started taking notice whenever Tessitore called a game. He was hardly alone in not recognizing the broadcaster's name just months earlier, and while Tessitore's role hadn't yet changed, his profile was already rising. Three other networks approached him last winter, said an industry source, and he entertained one particularly intriguing offer but ultimately opted to sign a new deal with ESPN.
"He could potentially go from being unrecognized at virtually any college football stadium in America to very well being the next great voice of the sport," said Finebaum. "He could read the Manhattan phone book and turn it into the second act of Macbeth. It's such a rich style. You look at the landscape -- [Brent] Musburger and Verne [Lundquist] are both in their 70s. I think [Tessitore] is the next voice of college football."
For now, he'll simply be one of several voices on college football's increasingly cluttered Saturday night lineup, no longer working with close friend Gilmore (outside of College Football Live) but with the controversial Millen, who drew scorn for his on-air commentary during the Penn State scandal this summer. They first paired up on Baylor-Oklahoma last year. "Given how dynamic that game was, it revealed much more [than usual] of what our chemistry will be like," said Tessitore.
He'll continue working with the same production crew, led by Ackels -- which means the pixie dust tradition should continue. Tessitore doesn't do those 4 a.m. drives and cross-country flights to see a 51-17 result.
"My taste in sports tends to be full on, lots of anticipating," said Tessitore. "I like a lot to be on the line -- guys risking injury, pushing themselves to the limit. ... That doesn't mean I'm going to be reckless and over the top, but you're going to hear from the passion in my voice how much it means to me to be seeing this."