Behind the Scenes with FOX NFL crew: Mixin’ it up in the Big Easy

By Richie Zyontz
FOX NFL Lead Producer

Editor’s Note: Richie Zyontz has been an NFL producer for FOX since 1994 and the lead producer for the last 20 seasons. He has more than 40 years of experience covering the league and has produced six Super Bowls. Throughout the 2022 NFL season, he will provide an inside look as FOX’s new No. 1 NFL team makes its journey toward Super Bowl LVII.

NEW ORLEANS — Producing live sports television is a constant barrage of quick decision-making.

The senses are pushed to the brink as you sift through all your options within split seconds. Make the wrong call and you might let down the entire crew. The responsibility is enormous. And I’m just talking about where to go for dinner.

The crew dinner is a longtime staple of our business, as old as leather helmets and dropkicks. This is where bonds are formed and friendships are made.

I’m surprised to learn it’s a dying art form at other networks because at FOX, it’s part of our fabric. It’s an opportunity for all parts of the production organization to mingle, laugh and chow down.

The crew dinner is a staple of every road trip, forming bonds within the team. (Photo courtesy Richie Zyontz)

I’ve worked with some champion eaters in my 40 years on the road. My great pal, Matt Millen, who I spent nine years working with at CBS and FOX, knew his way around a fork — his and mine.

Millen wasn’t choosy about the cuisine — quantity trumped quality. Uneaten food was not safe, and Millen would attack it the same way he tracked down ball-carriers at the goal line.

John Madden was another legendary fork man. Nothing fancy — but Tabasco sauce was required. Always.

In fact, John so loved Tabasco sauce, he once took a detour on his way to New Orleans to visit Avery Island in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, where they make it.

Long before he put “Turducken” on the culinary map, Madden had a favorite restaurant in New Orleans that was convenient to the hotel and usually empty. John liked empty.

John Madden, right, was a man of simple tastes. The Hall of Fame broadcaster did introduce the world to the “Turducken,” and that rare delicacy was cooked up this week for the FOX crew by Glenn Mistich, left.

Well, it was empty for a reason — the food was awful. But he was happy, and a happy John Madden could make bad food taste good for us all.

These New Orleans anecdotes are relevant because in Week 2, we ventured to the Big Easy for the Saints’ battle with the Buccaneers and Tom Brady.

The 45-year-old legend has signed a deal to call games with FOX once he retires. When that will be, I don’t know. What I do know is, in the not-too-distant future, Brady will be part of our crew dinners.

I don’t know Tom, although I’ve produced many of his games including three Super Bowls. People often ask me, “Have you met with him? Have you discussed broadcasting?” The answers are “no” and “no.”

Brady currently has a job, and I’m sure is laser-focused on getting back to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, I’ve got my hands full producing games and making sure people are well-fed.

Game-changing technology

Several modern innovations have changed the way football is televised.

The constant score and clock on the screen, and the superimposed yellow first-down line are two of the most important.

But let me name a third: It’s called SkyCam. This is a robotically controlled camera suspended on cables that hovers behind the offense but is free to surge forward once the ball is snapped.

SkyCam engineer Tim Wagner sets up to capture all the action at the Superdome. (Photo courtesy Richie Zyontz)

The SkyCam offers a view of the play that the quarterback sees, looking right into the teeth of the defense. This is often the angle analysts want to work with on replays. By league rules, the SkyCam can’t be lower than 12 feet off the ground.

The SkyCam first came to football in the 1980s, and it became a staple on our crew 20 years ago.

Our Skycam crew consists of three people: cameraman Vinnie Scaffidi, pilot Alex Milton and the engineer in charge, Tim Wagner.

The SkyCam crew has its own channel for communication throughout the broadcast. (Photo courtesy Richie Zyontz)

This crew has its own back-channel communication system during the game, all the while listening to the direction of Rich Russo.

In addition to actual game coverage, the SkyCam is used by directors for “hero” shots, reactions on the sidelines and big sweeps of the stadium.

It makes every game feel bigger.

The SkyCam team of Alex Milton, left, Tim Wagner and Vinnie Scaffidi regularly captures some of the game’s best pictures. (Photo courtesy Richie Zyontz)

Long day for TB12

A week ago, we covered a frustrated Aaron Rodgers.

On Sunday, Tom Brady’s ornery side was on full display in the Bucs’ hard-fought 20-10 victory. Our camera crew followed his every angry step, culminating with a sideline spike of both helmet and tablet.

Tempers flare in New Orleans

Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and New Orleans’ Marshon Lattimore were both ejected from the game after this fourth-quarter skirmish.

We try to be aware of not overdoing a given storyline, but Brady left us little choice. In a game that lacked offense, these pictures can provide a broadcast with its signature moments.

And then all hell broke loose early in the fourth quarter, when a major skirmish broke out. At this point, every camera was focused on the melee.

When there’s a failure, once things calm down, each replay operator cues up a different aspect of what transpired. Your goal is to show how it started, who was involved and what took place.

Cameraman Brent Putnam captured Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans flying off the sidelines to attack his fierce rival, Marshon Lattimore of the Saints. Each member of our replay room offered up a slightly different image of the brawl. That’s teamwork.

Bucs receiver Mike Evans, left, battles with the Saints’ Marcus Maye during a fourth-quarter incident during Tampa Bay’s victory Sunday. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

These moments don’t often fall into our laps, but when they do, it’s crucial to visually do them justice.

Russo instructs his higher cameras not to be too tight, so as not to miss other altercations that might start up. Meanwhile, the field-level cameras will stay tight for the angles shown as replays.

After Sunday’s failure, associate director Jordan Wolff offered up highlights of Evans and Lattimore going at it all the way back in 2017 and again last season.

Our entire crew knew the storylines going in, and the bad blood between those two players was high on the list. Play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt sent the team a story earlier in the week that noted the history of their feud, preparing our camera crew to watch for that angle. Again, teamwork was crucial.

(Evans was suspended one game Monday for his actions.)

In the season’s first two weeks, we’ve seen two legendary quarterbacks not play up to their standards. Amidst their struggles, both Brady and Rodgers provided the fire and emotion that any broadcast craves.

Next week, we’ll get to see these two legends square off in Tampa (4:25 pm ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App) in one of this season’s marquee matchups.

And just to bring it full circle, any visit to Tampa demands a trip to Ybor City for some delicious Cuban food.

So, while most of you will have Rodgers and Brady in mind as Week 3 approaches, I’ll have Rodgers, Brady … and black beans and plantains. Can’t wait!

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