Honor Them in Your Calls, and They Will Honor You
by STAA Contributor Jay Murry
It is June 27th of 2013, and country music star Kenny Chesney performed a concert in St. Louis tonight. I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I did make sure I spent time watching the YouTube video of the song “The Boys of Fall”. It is my favorite Chesney song, because it encapsulates the experience of a senior year of high school football in a few minutes better than any other song that I have heard about the subject. The song brings back great memories of football at St. Charles High School in St. Charles, Missouri; and it also serves as a reminder to bring the passion, pageantry, and love of the game at that level to my football play-by-play broadcasts each fall.
Those who broadcast high school and small college football games can fall into the temptation of going through the motions of their calls, with little or no zest. Some who aspire to call games of NCAA Division I college football or the contests on Sunday in the NFL may think that being in a high school press box on a Friday night for a few bucks is beneath them. They may be in the very early stages of their broadcasting career, and as a result treat their early-season broadcasts in a cavalier fashion–with the intent of saving their best efforts for a state playoff game and an audition tape that will propel them to the bigger and brighter stages of the NCAA and the NFL.
Or, they may be older broadcasters who have become jaded and disappointed; providing listless calls because they never got a chance to become a network radio or TV voice. As if they might be thinking, “What’s the use of getting excited about prep or small college football? Nobody cares about them anyway.” Since the big-time network broadcast circus passed them by, those announcers may be tempted to make a minimum emotional investment in their play-by-play calls, believing that there is no point in getting excited about broadcasts that may not be sampled by viewers or listeners beyond the county line.
However, the “Boys of Fall” that Kenny Chesney honors should be similarly honored by the broadcasters who chronicle their gridiron efforts every Friday night or Saturday afternoon. For those who have had the opportunity of playing high school or small college football, it should be easy to apply the excitement of your playing days to your weekly play-by-play broadcasts of the local teams you cover. If your days of football glory have receded too far into your memory vault for easy review, I suggest listening to Chesney’s tribute song before the upcoming football season. I guarantee it will bring the sights, sounds, and smells of your experience back to you, in a big vivid wave of emotion. That, in turn, can be harnessed to add more spice and flavor to the broadcast chili that you prepare every week in the press box.
In 1979 and 1980, there were seminal moments in my time as a high school football player that were happily seared forever in my mind, which later served as the bedrock of my approach to broadcasting such games after my playing days were finished. In those years before the advent of the Internet, airing high school and small college games were reserved for local radio stations. Those who played in small towns that had radio stations were treated to weekly broadcasts of their endeavors; but in larger cities, radio stations rarely broadcast high school and small college sports because there was very little interest in them. Especially when compared to the broader interest in large-university NCAA teams and professional franchises in the region.
In the St. Louis area of the 1970s and early 1980s, media interest in the football and baseball Cardinals, Blues hockey, and the University of Missouri and St. Louis University far exceeded the interest in high school and small college sports. So, on the rare occasion when a radio station decided to come out to your school to air the upcoming game, it gave student-athletes like me a rare opportunity to feel the vibrancy and taste the passion that was normally reserved for the large college and pro teams.
On one occasion in ’79, a Friday night of being involved in high school football would eventually serve as the cornerstone of my broadcasting philosophy and approach to each game. I was a junior on the St. Charles High School football team that was hosting Fort Zumwalt High School in an early-season football game. I was not a starter, but for a night I felt like a player on a nationally-ranked team that would be featured on an ABC Sports college football broadcast anchored by Keith Jackson.
The University of Missouri was getting ready to visit Champaign, Illinois to take on the Fighting Illini for an early autumn Saturday afternoon college football encounter. Mizzou’s marching band normally traveled to the destination of an away football game, stayed overnight, and played the next day before returning home. However, on one magical night, arrangements were made for the band members to stay Friday night in St. Charles with host families; since several of them were from St. Charles and surrounding towns. As a result, Marching Mizzou and its Golden Girls would perform with our high school band, at our football game! And, for icing on the football cake, the Lindenwood College radio station (KCLC-FM) was coming out to broadcast the game!
Well, you can probably imagine the electric atmosphere that followed. With Marching Mizzou and our St. Charles High band playing in unison, the Golden Girls dancing, and a radio station unfurling its banner outside the press box window to broadcast its “Game of the Week”, the pre-game warm-up on the field had such high static electricity that the hair on the back of my neck practically stood on end for an entire hour. And, we all had goofy grins plastered on our faces, and perpetual laughter coming from our grins—as if we couldn’t believe our good fortune of being able to feel like we were a part of a big-time college or pro football broadcast, if just for one night. It was more than a game that night…it was a community football festival. That festival feeling has never left me, and I use that wonderful memory as the basis of preparation for each of my play-by-play broadcasts.
Likewise, the following season as a senior was forever etched into my mind, as I was a starting defensive end for half the season while filling in for an injured player. I made sure I took several mental snapshots that season…of the sunsets casting warm ribbons of sunlight on the football field for pre-game warm-ups, the marching band playing Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”, the thrill of running onto the field emotionally stoked to the brim as my number and name were called during the announcements of the starting lineups, and all of the ingredients of high school football games that Kenny Chesney depicts in “The Boys of Fall”—with the addition of the joy of beating archrival St. Charles West in the season finale for the conference championship and a ticket to the state playoffs. All of those snapshots were later pieced together in a mosaic that would become the blueprint for each of my play-by-play broadcasts, to try and create informative and entertaining broadcasts of high school and small college football.
By using a similar approach, you can create similar festivals that honor the efforts of the Boys of Fall, and you can become a part of a soundtrack to the players’ season that will be long remembered and appreciated by the players and their families and friends. Perhaps that lively and entertaining soundtrack can also help you move on to a network play-by-play gig. But, at the very least, your calls with dutiful energy and effort could become a part of a future Kenny Chesney song—or, half-hearted play-by-play efforts could be largely forgotten by an unimpressed audience and local community.
The choice is yours.
I feel that chill, smell that fresh-cut grass
I’m back in my helmet, cleats, and shoulder pads
Standin’ in the huddle, listening to the call
Fans goin’ crazy for the Boys of Fall…
If you put your heart and soul into your play-by-play, the fans will go crazy for your calls as well. That’s a feeling just as special as being a player on the field, celebrating a championship…and that’s how you want to be remembered, if the broadcast is your last.
Some summer food for thought, while we await the emergence of this season’s Boys of Fall.
–Jay Murry, Play-By-Play Announcer, Washington University in St. Louis