How a thunderstorm 3,000 miles away from Michael Sam's California location almost kept ESPN from airing the most memorable moment in NFL draft history
“This is a crazy story, so follow me,” says ESPN coordinating producer Seth Markman, who is explaining the behind-the-scenes drama of how Michael Sam’s reaction to being drafted by the St. Louis Rams ended up on ESPN.
Or nearly didn’t.
“In our production truck outside of Radio City, we had a camera on Michael all day Saturday from noon to after 6:30 p.m.,” Markman explains. “I watched him on his couch. I watched him walk around. I watched all the people who were with him all day.
“So it’s now a little past 6:30 p.m. and all of a sudden I look up and the feed from where Michael is disappears. Gone. Totally black. And there are only a few picks left in the draft. We’re in the truck in New York basically freaking out. It turns out Bristol [ESPN’s headquarters] had thunderstorms that had come through and knocked our feed out. So I immediately call [executive producer of the ESPYs] Maura Mandt, who is onsite with Michael. I tell her, ‘Maura, we lost the feed! We lost the feed!’ ”
Mandt was the key to ESPN’s access. She had spent Friday and Saturday with Sam and his camp. She and a cameraman were in the den of the LaJolla, Calif., house, belonging to the parents of Sam’s agents, where the Sam party was watching the draft.
“At that point I am standing next to our cameraman saying, ‘Seth can’t see you. Is it you, or is it the satellite truck?’ ” Mandt says. “The cameraman confirms he is rolling. So I ran out to our [production] truck and found out it was on Bristol’s end. Okay, fine. So as we recorded the moment of Michael getting the phone call from the Rams, which Seth was not seeing, we had to prepare to feed that back to Bristol before the next moment happened. And that next moment was seeing Michael’s name called at the draft.”
ESPN had waited all day for the possibility of Sam being drafted. The network had something no other media outlet had—a camera on Sam and his friends and family. Markman said there had been a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations for that access. Mandt had embedded with the Sam camp on Friday and Saturday as part of the feature leading up to the Arthur Ashe Award, which Sam will receive at the ESPYs on July 16.
“All of a sudden I look up and the feed from where Michael is disappears, and there are only a few picks left in the draft. We’re basically freaking out.”
“He was comfortable with that group,” Markman says. “Maura helped ease their camp’s mind that they could trust me, because they didn’t know me at all. If he was not drafted, we were not going to be able to show anything. That to me was a fair agreement and not unique.”
So the moment finally comes in the seventh round, and Markman is freaking out inside an ESPN production truck outside of Radio City Music Hall because he has no idea how Sam reacted.
“We don’t have the feed as Michael is getting drafted,” Markman says. “I’m communicating with Bristol and also on the phone with Maura in California. She says she is going to feed the footage to Bristol and it is a great, emotional moment. I trust Maura and I think she would have told me if there was something I had to be careful with. We didn’t have time to have a discussion about it. So that’s why it took a few minutes for us to get it on the air after he was drafted. At one point we put up a still photo of Michael on the phone with the Rams. As it turned out, that still shot was pretty poignant.
Back to Mandt, who had to upload the footage to Bristol so it could eventually be sent to New York for the producers of ESPN’s draft show. “Seth and I were in contact all day, and I told him as the moment was happening that it was very emotional and there were great reacts from Michael,” says Mandt, who runs her own production company, Maggievision Productions. “I didn't provide a shot sheet as there wasn't time. But I told Seth that what I was seeing was real, raw emotion and a powerful reaction from a young man who had just realized his life dream.”
For what seemed like an eternity to those in the truck, there was still no video of Sam. Finally, Markman got word that reaction video was available for air. But he had no time to preview it.
“It was essentially live to us in the truck when we rolled it,” Markman says. “The only thing I knew was that Maura described it as ‘emotional video.’ So we got in [host] Trey’s Wingo’s ear and told him basically, Here is the video, look at the monitor and describe it. To Trey’s credit, he laid out [stopped talking], which was ultra-professional of him. So the tape is rolling, the moment with Michael is happening, and honestly, in our production truck out of everyone, there was only one person who asked ‘Is this going too far?’ We all thought: This is a great, emotional, historic moment. Let it go.”
“I could tell Mel Kiper was like, ‘What am I supposed to talk about here?’ I said, ‘Mel, talk about him like a prospect, just like you would everyone else.’ ”
Wingo began to talk over the footage but abruptly pulled out and let the sound of Sam's weeping take over. The Missouri defensive lineman held the phone close to his ear as he spoke with Rams coach Jeff Fisher. Viewers saw Sam's boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, consoling him and then wiping his own tears. They heard Sam say “Yes, sir” twice and then “thank you.” That was followed by Sam kissing his boyfriend and both men embracing. Then another kiss, more hugs and the raw footage running out. It was unlike anything viewers had ever seen on sports television, let alone an NFL draft show. Viewers later saw additional images of Sam and his boyfriend smashing cake into each other’s faces and kissing again. ESPN went 17 minutes on the selection, including a smart discussion with its panelists. It led them up to the final pick of the draft.
“We didn’t preview any of the later Sam footage either,” Markman says. “We just said, Let it roll. We thought it was spectacular, emotional video. I can’t tell you we thought it was groundbreaking because none of us had that conversation in the truck.”
The production group first learned just how powerful the reaction to the video had been when they looked at Twitter after the draft.
“That’s when it was like, ‘Wow, that was groundbreaking, controversial or whatever you want to call it,’ ” Markman says. “Some of the first tweets I saw were angry, which I understand. I don’t want to sound clichéd, but we have always been in players’ homes, we have documented it and seen hundreds and hundreds of hugs and kisses with loved ones.”
But this was different, and the video went viral immediately. It also aired on the NFL Network. Markman says that NFL Network executive Mark Quenzel had reached out to Mandt earlier on Saturday to ask if they could use ESPN’s footage if Sam was drafted. Markman says, after the conclusion of the draft, he heard from his immediate bosses as well as from ESPN president John Skipper, who told him that he was proud of the way the crew handled it. Mandt says the Sam camp told her they were pleased with how ESPN presented his selection.
“When I talked to our crew on Friday I told them the biggest thing about Michael Sam is to stay in your lanes,” Markman says. “I love Mel Kiper, and he is a legend when it comes to this thing. But I could already tell Mel was like, ‘What am I supposed to talk about here?’ So I said, ‘Mel, you are supposed to talk about him like a prospect, just like you would everyone else.’ That kind of eased his mind. Same with Todd McShay. Bill Polian said he could give the front office view and Trent Dilfer was prepared to talk about it from a locker room view. We wanted to talk about football with just a little bit of how meaningful it was. I thought they all handed it really well.”
“It was one of the greatest honors in my career to be in that room,” Mandt says. “I think we all knew this was historic in this draft. The takeaway from me being around Michael was that it was a totally genuine and normal reaction, no different than any other draftee who turned to the person they cared about. That’s what I was seeing in that moment, someone so overwhelmed with emotion about something he had worked for his entire life. On top of that it was [a Missouri team that drafted him], which is home for him. In that moment I learned so much about Michael. This is a man that always lives his truth, and he did so in that moment.”
Markman says the one thing he kept thinking about the day after the draft was how much of a discussion would have existed had ESPN chosen not to show Sam and Cammisano embrace and kiss, and merely ended the video after 10 seconds or so.
“In the end, I am glad our team made the decision we did,” Markman says. “It was a just a really cool moment to be involved in.”