Making the Call
"J.J. McDermott has a rocket arm -- he can really hang it on a line," says Lonnie King as he looks down from his press box perch onto a football stadium filled to capacity with screaming fans. "At six foot four and 220 pounds, he's got good size, and as long as he doesn't rush plays or get flushed out of the pocket, he can pick defenses apart."
Lynn Michaels, King's broadcast partner, nods. "And you've got Michael Fuda -- five eleven, 175 pounds. They say he runs a four-five 40, but we've actually got it clocked at four-four, and that's a big difference. He's just fast."
Some flashy sound effects and a "We'll be right back," and Michaels and King get ready for the next play. Everyone in the stadium is on their feet. "Third and 15," says Michaels in a perfectly nasal, ESPN Classic announcer baritone.
The player stats and dramatic calls are apropos for a big-time collegiate bowl or even a Sunday afternoon NFL matchup. But this is Saturday afternoon, and Michaels and King are calling a regular-season high school game between Katy and neighboring Cinco Ranch.
These days, high school football is getting major media love, with entire sections devoted to it in daily newspapers, morning and evening coverage on local TV news, and in movies and on TV shows such as Remember the Titans and Friday Night Lights. But that wasn't always the case, even in a gridiron mecca like Texas. And so back in 1988, Lynn Michaels created the Texas Sports Radio Network. Michaels, a 34-year sports broadcasting veteran who has called hundreds of college and pro football games, wanted to bring big-time coverage to high school sports. He brought in expensive, high-tech equipment. He assigned sideline reporters to run-of-the-mill, regular-season games. He did pre-game shows and extensive halftime interviews.
Anson Massey, a TSRN alum, sits next door with partner Danny Vara, handling SportsRadio 610 AM's broadcast of today's game. The duo hosts the station's play-by-play online high school football coverage. "It wouldn't be considered revolutionary now," he says of former employer TSRN, "but back then, it was unheard of."
Years after establishing a radio presence with TSRN, Michaels saw the future of high school broadcasting, and it was the Internet. "Houston's a pro city -- you've got the Astros, Rockets and now Texans demanding coverage," he says. "There's no way a high school game is getting airtime. But with the Web, it was a whole new ball game." Suddenly, locals who couldn't travel around the state could follow their squads anywhere. Fans could listen to broadcasts and watch football playoff games from the Astrodome and the Alamodome, thanks to TSRN's feeds. In short, by securing just enough advertising and sponsorships to make ends meet, Michaels created big, expensive productions for local games that at times had no more than 1,000 people in the stands. "No one else was doing it," he says.
Massey admits his major-market 24-hour sports station is just now catching up to TSRN. "We're trying to get more involved with the Internet broadcasts, but it's just one game a week. TSRN is doing this statewide." Getting corporate radio ad revenue for high school games is near impossible, which is why many local radio stations have been slow to jump on the bandwagon. High school football may be the gateway to big-time collegiate programs and the NFL for players and coaches, but for broadcasting, it can sometimes be no more than a glorified hobby.
Nowhere is that more evident than when stadium PA announcers recap plays for the stadium audience. Here at Jack Rhodes Stadium, Rick Nordstrom delivers public service announcements and describes halftime shows (Katy's program is "Romeo and Juliet-inspired"). Nordstrom, a Cinco Ranch High School golf coach, started announcing JV football games "sitting on the top of the bleachers with a microphone." His biggest challenge back then: "trying not to be distracted by parents sitting next to me." Now he sits in a crow's nest that overlooks the 35-yard line, and his biggest challenge is "not screwing up" players' names. "We have a kid named Lugo," he says, "and I was calling him 'Loogie.' His parents didn't think that was too funny."
It's halftime. Nordstrom vacates his seat so Cinco Ranch teachers can make announcements to the crowd. In the press box, Michaels and King go over stats, while next door, Massey tries to liven up 610's broadcast show with college scores and some banter: "Anson Massey here with my sidekick Danny Vara, who's fresh in this morning from Las Vegas." The groggy Vera doesn't miss a beat. "I wouldn't say 'fresh,'" he says during a score roundup. "Virginia Tech hands it to Clemson at home. Thank you very much, Virginia Tech -- I love being in Vegas for football games."
The action in high school football can change in a split second. But it's those long moments between plays that can be brutal. And for announcers, a little homework goes a long way in making sure a big game doesn't sound bush league. "This is the toughest job in sports broadcasting," says Michaels. "We have no media guides. We have no sports information or PR guys. We have no game notes to pick up. Doing pro sports is the easiest thing in the world: You have to read and memorize. Here, you have to dig. I mean, this is still a neighborhood game."
So Michaels and King talk to coaches and players. "They have the stories. You get to know them and their families," says Michaels. He and King are walking almanacs and sports guides. Need a guy's weight? They've got it. Want to break down a QB's passing style? King can do it on the spot. How much faster is Michael Fuda than his brother Joey, who also plays offense? King will tell you each of their 40-yard-dash times. The only thing that seems to stump the TSRN squad: Where did Katy QB Bo Levi Mitchell's name come from?
"We have to be precise," says Michaels. "The greatest compliment we receive is when game officials and coaches tell us they listen to our archives as a measuring stick for the next game they're working, or that they're scouting a team -- based on our words. So we really can't take it easy or even have an off day. People are relying on us."
The game is over: 17-3 Katy. "Another typical Katy game: close at halftime, make adjustments, Katy kicks your butt in the second half. So to me, it felt like just another ball game," says Massey. Michaels and King struggle to come up with a player of the game during a 30-second commercial break. "Dean? Mitchell?" asks King, shrugging. Michaels has an epiphany: "How about the Katy Tigers defense? They played great." Just like that, Katy's entire D gets player of the game.
Michaels and King have packed up and are the last out of the stadium. Outside, Michaels dissects the future of high school football and its coverage. "By 2015 we're supposed to have 8.5 million people in Houston," he says. "When I first started, there were two schools in Humble; there's gonna be six. There were four schools in Cy-Fair, now there's eight. That's a lot of names to memorize. I love it. I wanna see everybody -- north, south, east, west. Big schools, small schools, all of 'em." Katy players are enjoying the win, and they should, says Michaels. "Moments like what Katy's going through now are fleeting. Aldine, Kingwood, Humble, Cy-Creek, Stratford, Hastings, Elsik, Galveston Ball -- every school will have its run. Coaches move, areas grow old, kids grow up."
The grizzled veteran is off to watch "anything but sports now," except for tomorrow. Sunday's a big pro game, and he's going to catch up with a player whom he called a star before anyone else on the radio did. Some kid who caught his eye because he was "head and shoulders -- literally -- above every other kid on the field," says Michaels. "Some kid named Vince Young."
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