Holidays Away From Home

Football is as synonymous with Thanksgiving as turkey. For the behind-the-scenes NFL broadcast staffers, it means celebrating the holiday in non-traditional ways—like bowling with Phil Simms—so millions can get their pie and pigskin fix
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The Phil Simms Turkey Bowl is one of the highlights of the CBS Sports calendar but it’s not a competition you’ll be seeing on television anytime soon. For the past 15 years, on the Tuesday night prior to Thanksgiving, Simms, the lead NFL analyst for CBS, invites around 80 of his colleagues to a bowling alley in either Detroit or Dallas for a night of eating, drinking and semi-serious competition. The offer also extends to the officials of the game that CBS will broadcast as well as front office members of the hosting and visiting teams.

Staffers are broken up into two and three-person teams, with the top-scoring teams meeting in an end-of-the-night bowl-off for ultimate Kingpin honor. (Along with bowling in the tournament, Simms’ on-air partner, Jim Nantz, is charged with setting the scene publicly for the final frame.) Simms goes so far as to order T-shirts for everyone with the year and the title of the event on it. (He used to order bright pink and neon-green bowling shirts but has since morphed to T-shirts because, as Simms says, “people could no longer wear the bowling shirts in public.”) The following day, at the annual Wednesday night Thanksgiving dinner organized by Lance Barrow, the network’s coordinating producer for the NFL, Simms hands out bowling pins to the top bowlers, as well as more offbeat awards such as best fashion statement on the lanes, funniest bowler and who made the biggest fool of themselves.

“Every year since I’ve been in the business we have always something on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving,” Simms says. “We first started with a touch football game on the field of the game site, but that ended after a couple of years due to pulled hamstrings and other assorted injuries. So now we bowl. It’s a nice way to thank all the people that work with us.”

Adds Mike Arnold, who directs the Simms-Nantz team and will work his 10th consecutive Thanksgiving Day game for CBS when the network airs Raiders-Cowboys on Thursday: “Some guys take it so seriously that they even bring their balls on the road, or sneak in practice rounds in the previous week. Phil pays for the bowling and all the food. It's something we really look forward to every year.”

The Phil Simms Turkey Bowl is a holiday tradition for CBS Sports staffers. (Andy Freedman/CBS)

The Phil Simms Turkey Bowl is a holiday tradition for CBS Sports staffers. (Andy Freedman/CBS)

Those who broadcast NFL games, much like a NASCAR team, are a traveling family and one that often works major holidays. This year crews from CBS, FOX and NBC Sports will work the Thanksgiving Day games. (NBC picked up the primetime game from the NFL Network last season.) The common theme in interviews with The MMQB last week was that no matter the network, everyone views the assignment as an honor rather than a burden. Traditionally, the top announcing and production teams at each network are assigned the Thanksgiving game.

“You are obviously away from your family and from a personal standpoint, it kind of makes it feel less like a holiday because you are not celebrating at home and working like all the other people who have to work on that day,” says NFL Network sideline reporter Alex Flanagan, who worked Thanksgiving games in 2010 and 2011 and has also worked Christmas Eve and Christmas Day games. “Once you get to the game and are working it, though, it really feels like a regular game.”

Perhaps Fred Gaudelli, the producer of Sunday Night Football, put it best: “As Hyman Roth said in The Godfather, this is the business we chose.”

Barrow worked his first Thanksgiving Day game in 1977 as a spotter for Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier on the CBS broadcast. For the past 10 Thanksgivings he’s served as the producer for CBS’s top NFL team, and part of that job responsibility means Barrow organizes a Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel where CBS Sports employees stay. The tradition goes back to Summerall and Brookshier and continued with Summerall and John Madden. Barrow said the dinner honors those at CBS who came before him, especially Summerall, who Barrow said he loved like a father.

“We are all away from home and if we can’t be with our family, this is probably the closest to a family we will be with,” Barrow says. “I say I have two families—my immediate family and the men and women I get to work with at CBS Sports, especially the ones I get to travel with for 40-plus weeks a year (with golf).

“John Madden’s big deal at the dinner was that we always needed to have a carved turkey, none of this sliced turkey with gravy on top of it. There had to be someone carving the turkey and giving you turkey form the carcass of a turkey like you would have at home. I think if it wasn’t a carved turkey, somehow and some way, John Madden would find out about it and never let me hear the end of it.”

Rich Russo, FOX’s top NFL director and a former member of the Madden-Summerall crew at CBS, has worked the past 12 Thanksgiving games. He said the FOX crew traditionally eats Thanksgiving dinner together either on the Tuesday or Wednesday prior to the game. “We are a very close-knit crew and people are away from their families so it’s important to have this kind of dinner and camaraderie, and make the week feel as special as you can,” Russo says.

John Madden’s big deal was that we always needed to have a carved turkey," Barrow said. "If it wasn’t a carved turkey, somehow and some way, John Madden would find out about it and never let me hear the end of it.

In some years NFL broadcast staffers are able to get home immediately after their game (Simms said in years past he has made it home to New Jersey on Thursday night to eat leftovers with his family at 8 p.m.) but CBS’s top crew is immediately flying to Kansas City (for the Chiefs-Broncos on Sunday) after it airs its Thursday game in Dallas. NBC’s top team also has an abbreviated schedule. After they broadcast the Steelers-Ravens in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, they head to Washington to broadcast the Giants-Redskins game on Sunday night.

The major content difference for Thanksgiving NFL games is that each broadcast weaves in more history during the broadcast as it relates to previous Turkey Day games. Both Gaudelli and Sunday Night Football director Drew Esocoff said broadcasting on Thanksgiving feels mostly like another primetime game, but NBC does have to promote the game heavier because many in the audience still are not aware that the Thanksgiving primetime game has moved from the NFL Network to NBC.

“It is one of the simpler games to do for us because it’s the only game the network will air that day,” says FOX Sports NFL producer Richie Zyontz, who will work his 12th straight Thanksgiving on Thursday. “There are not any other games on our network and we don’t have to deal with any game breaks. It gives us a chance to dip into the history of that day.”

Zyontz said the first Thanksgiving game he ever worked was for CBS in 1982 as a production associate. It was also his most memorable. “I was the young kid on the crew and I got an on-air credit from Pat Summerall as the director of entertainment because I planned the party the night before,” Zyontz says. “I’m 25 years old, a New York City kid, I don’t even know what I am doing in this business yet and just hearing Pat Summerall call me the director of entertainment on TV was awesome.”

Something many viewers—including this one—appreciate that happens during the Thanksgiving Day broadcast is when CBS airs photos selected by its crew (they often consist of their children) during its closing credits. FOX also does something unique by airing live shots of its behind-the-scenes staff in and out of commercial breaks.

“We try to get shots of our crew at the positions they are working during the games,” Zyontz says. “They work hard all year and this is their day to shine.”