December 04, 2009

When my TV show, Sports Jobs with Junior Seau, assigned me to be a Sports Illustrated reporter for a weekend, I didn't realize I'd have to squeeze it in around another sports job. I had planned to retire from the NFL to enjoy the cushy lifestyle of a full-time reality TV star, but I wound up getting run over by a bull. The NFL seemed a safer primary career, so when the Patriots called, I listened.

I wound up completing my SI assignment during my bye week, between games against the Bucs (in London) and Dolphins. So where did SI send me? To Florida. For a football game.

But this wasn't like any football game I'd ever seen. We had some wild crowds at USC back in the day, but nothing like the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. One half of the stadium wore Florida's orange and blue. One half wore Georgia's red and black. And at least 75 percent of the people were drunk.

I was assigned to shadow writer Andy Staples, who took me around to meet some of the quirkier tailgaters before we headed up to the press box. The press box is where the magic happens, Andy told me. It didn't look like much magic was happening to me. When the Bulldogs and Gators took the field, I was ready to leave that sterile, quiet box and put on some pads.

Once the game kicked off, though, I got sucked in. Andy kept telling me to keep an eye out for my story, and it didn't take long to find it. Florida middle linebacker Brandon Spikes caught my eye almost immediately. I'm a linebacker, and I know what a quality linebacker looks like. Spikes had it all. He's a dynamic player. He's basically the quarterback of that defense. It's nice to see someone who has God-given ability who uses that ability to make his teammates better.

Obviously, he has the respect of the huddle. That's going to help Spikes on Saturday when he and the Gators play Alabama in the SEC championship Game for a shot at the national title. But that goes deeper than just game time. In order to gain the respect of your players in the locker room, you can't just perform on Saturday. You have to do it consistently during practices, meetings, and in the weight room. He's able to do that. You can tell. And the players all react to him.

Andy told me that even though I know quite a bit about playing linebacker, I couldn't just go spouting opinions. I needed to interview the coaches and players. So we headed downstairs. In a meeting room in the bowels of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, I jotted questions on my notepad while we waited for Florida coach Urban Meyer to begin his press conference. They were good questions. I was sure I was ready.

But when Meyer came in, it was a free-for-all. Trying to slip in a question was like fighting for a loose ball at the bottom of a pile. One by one, other reporters asked my questions. I could have asked coach Meyer the question, but it was hard to ask that question under the circumstances with the people around me. There were national media there covering the game. And here I was, a rookie in this arena. Everyone was throwing out questions. I was a little afraid as to how I was going to get my question across. More importantly, I would have felt some type of embarrassment if he didn't answer my question. It was like a challenge.

Finally, I found an opening. I asked Meyer about Spikes. Needless to say, he was a little surprised to get a question from me. He got a little excited. It's OK. I understand. Meyer loves my coach, Bill Belichick. When he calmed down, he actually gave me a great answer.

"Spikes is a monster," Meyer said.

Now, stop with the jokes about Spikes' eye-gouging incident during that game. We didn't find out about that until we got back to the press box, so I didn't get to ask any questions about that. The kid made a mistake, and he paid for it. He's still a heck of a football player. And Meyer confirmed what I'd been saying in the press box.

"[Quarterback] Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes, we have two guys who have the unbelievable ability -- a little bit like [Tedy] Bruschi and those guys -- that can raise the level of play of people around them. Kind of like you do," Meyer said. "The other guys play harder for those guys."

Andy said the coaches don't usually compliment the reporters so much in their answers. I'm just glad Meyer didn't shoot down my question.

It was weird being on the other side. Instead of holding a helmet with my wrist taped and my fingers taped, I was holding a tape recorder and a notepad. That was different for me. To tell you the truth, it was nerve-racking.

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