ST. LOUIS — There is a form of sushi strictly for advanced users that Andrew Siciliano orders regularly at a sushi bar near his house.
“Omakase,” Siciliano said. “Chef’s special. You sit down at the bar and order the omakase, and the chef is like, ‘I’m going to give you what is fresh and what I like today, and you’re going to eat it.’”
The concept relies upon the customer’s trust that the chef knows what he’s doing and the chef’s trust that the customer is acting in good faith as he signs up for a surprise. Siciliano has such a relationship with at least one Los Angeles sushi chef, a man who may or may not know that he is serving Andrew Sicliano the only real treat he’ll allow himself on a fall Sunday.
You might recognize Siciliano from a few different broadcasting gigs. He used to guest host for Jim Rome quite a bit. He was on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, and now he is the voice and the face of DirecTV's Red Zone Channel, which is pure, uncut American dopamine.
The Red Zone Channel theoretically shows the viewer every NFL touchdown as it happens. It succeeds almost all of the time. For that reason, it has become one of the hottest crazes in football geekdom.
There is an important distinction to make in all this. There is DirectTV's Red Zone channel, and there is an NFL RedZone channel, and they are not the same thing. Siciliano works for the former, the one that was a new concept when it debuted 10 years ago. The NFL Network produces a similar show called NFL RedZone, which is available to subscribers of any service that has NFL Network.
Siciliano, 39, wears a black T-shirt and yawns as he sits down for breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown St. Louis. A couple of people give him a long look, and it seems like the waiter might recognize him, though he doesn’t say anything. That gives you an idea of the level of fame we’re talking about here. However much there is, it is mostly owed to DirecTV.
“I knew the Red Zone Channel was finally catching on when I had multiple players approach me separately at the Super Bowl, about three years after we started, and tell me they watched the show when they were on their bye week,” Siciliano said. “I figured, at that point, we were probably doing something right.”
Siciliano is a remarkably alert man even before he starts in on the coffee, which he uses as a performance-enhancing drug.
On a fall Sunday, he has what he describes as a robotic routine: He wakes up at five-something and turns on NFL Network, then he eats oatmeal and a banana and goes to his Starbucks where he orders a five-shot Americano—that’s a regular coffee with five shots of espresso added to it.
As he pulls out of the Starbucks, he calls his dad. The conversation lasts exactly six minutes, because that’s how long it takes to get to the studio. Once he arrives at DirecTV, it’s on. He even tries not to take in much food or drink because his bathroom breaks, he says, “are limited.”
But on this Friday in St. Louis, he takes it slow. He’ll be doing play-by-play for a St. Louis Rams exhibition game later that day, and as tempted as he is by the omelet, he refuses to eat heavy this day: “not on game day.”
Siciliano grew up in suburban Washington, D.C. His father was an attorney at the Federal Reserve and tried to make everybody Washington Redskins fans because he felt rooting for the home team was an honorable thing to do, but it never quite took—not even on him.
He was from Cleveland. He loved the Browns, and nothing could ever change that.
The wife and kids picked it up, too. Siciliano’s mom, Abbey, grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from Penn State in 1968. Abbey’s loyalty to her alma mater and Joe Paterno, in case you’re wondering—and she knows you are—is unconditional, and her young sons knew her as mom, sure, but also as the fourth football fan in the room.
This was the '70s and early '80s, and Abbey tells charming stories of finding Andrew in his room late at night listening to baseball games on the radio.
“The Indians were on 1100 WWWE out of Cleveland, now 1100 TAM,” he said, “and you could get that in on a 50,000-watt signal in Northern Virginia late at night.”
He has an extraordinary memory bank for sports trivia, which he thinks may have something to do with his upbringing. He has, for example, Joe Carter’s 1986 baseball card stat line stored somewhere in the front room of his brain: “He hit .302, 29 home runs, stole 29 bases and drove in 121.”
He knows Earnest Byner’s 1985 rushing total (1,002) and Kevin Mack’s (1,104). The arrangement in the Siciliano house was such that everybody seemed to be watching a different sporting event on a different TV in a different room. So Andrew would often come running into whatever room his dad was in and give him a quick recap of what just happened.
“Maybe that helped me memorize s--t,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe it didn’t.
"Maybe I drink a lot of coffee on Sunday, and that helps.”
Then, the morning paper. Dad with the big wide gray newspaper open next to a cup of coffee and an English muffin. The scene Abbey remembers is Andrew sitting on his dad’s knee, elbows up on the table.
“He learned to read by reading The Washington Post sports section,” Abbey said.
So he set out to be a writer. Mike Wilbon, not Mike Tirico. When Siciliano decided in 1993 he was going to attend Syracuse and study journalism, that somehow wasn’t because he planned to attend the university's legendary broadcasting school.
To look at him now and see the polished marble of a talking head who used to fall asleep to radio broadcasts and think that this wasn’t necessarily his dream? Well, that’s confounding.
And yet when as a college student he told his mom he wanted to go into broadcasting, she was worried about him.
“I thought, ‘What is he doing?’” Abbey said. “It was like you threw somebody in water, and they could swim.”
At the risk of putting it too simply, Siciliano’s freshman year of college was the moment in his life that he figured out who he was. He got a little taste of that broadcasting sugar, and he set about doing everything he could possibly do to contribute to any broadcasting operation whatsoever.
Siciliano’s climb was based on a willingness to do the odd jobs. Making McDonald’s runs, producing shows on late notice, just generally hanging around looking for something to do. He was a studio rat, unknown to anybody, as far as he could tell.
He certainly wasn’t known to Jeff Joniak. Now the voice of the Chicago Bears, Joniak was then running a local radio station. He was combing through job applications early one morning, and one included a VHS tape of their work.
Joniak said he listened to Siciliano's tape “for about 10 seconds and I said, ‘I’m hiring this guy.’”
That was at 5 a.m. He waited an hour and called with a job offer.
“I woke him up,” said Joniak. “And he hung up on me. He thought it was a prank. He calls back when he woke up, panicked that he just blew it. I had never seen him, I never spoke to him, I never interviewed him. When he showed up at work, it was to the NBC tower in Chicago. When the elevator opened up…he looked like he was 10 years old. I said, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?’”
Siciliano did what he always did, which was look for something to do. More or less immediately he came up with a breaking-news story and earned his way into the broadcast.
“He hadn’t been on the air yet—he was training,” Joniak said. “I hear him coming through the speakers on the radio, and I’m like, ‘What the heck is he doing?’ And he got on there and nailed it.”
From then on, it was more hunting and clawing to get his work on the air. So Siciliano bought a bunch of music rights and started producing a musical highlight package that Joniak loved. Things were great. He was a guy doing satisfying work by day and being a single twentysomething man living in Wrigleyville by night.
Things were so good in Chicago in the year 2000 that he turned down a radio gig with the startup Fox Sports Radio in Los Angeles.
“Chicago’s an amazing town to be 22 in,” he said. “I didn’t sleep much.”
That would be the third time Siciliano nearly shattered his broadcasting career—he wanted to be a writer, he hung up on Joniak and he told Fox no—before his 30th birthday. That seems strange now, but then again, Siciliano had not been an overachieving child.
He was shy. He never raised his hand in class. He did OK in school and all, but he was more or less just floating along. He collected baseball cards and Sports Illustrateds—those are still in his mom’s attic—and played second base on his Little League team.
“I probably should have kept playing baseball,” he said. “I was good enough to keep playing baseball, but I quit—for reasons that escape me.”
Everybody who talks about Siciliano talks about how tiny he is. His smallness does leave an impression on you; it is not surprising that people commonly describe him that way. But Andrew Siciliano probably wouldn't be the smallest guy you know. He has the physique of a guy who watches what he eats and hikes a lot, which is because Siciliano is that guy. He has traveled the world hiking.
He’s not a mountain climber, but he’s right below that. He’s hiked Kilimanjaro, for example. He’s hiked in South America, too. He says he goes all over the world, mostly by himself, looking for good hikes and good food.
Last year he went to Rome, Prague, Vienna and Berlin. Siciliano mentions a woman, but he isn’t married and has no kids. He has a lot of jobs hosting various things year-round, but the main job, the Red Zone job, demands hypersensitive focus for an entire Sunday.
“I enjoy my independence,” he says.
The degree to which the Red Zone Channel is a technological advancement could be subject to plenty of debate. There is, after all, nothing strictly new at work here. It’s cameras and airwaves and a guy telling you what’s happening.
But when it began in 2005, it was a completely new way of broadcasting football. The success of it all has made Siciliano famous enough that he gets recognized once a day, and sometimes his brother gets mistaken for him.
Football junkies love the broadcast, but there is a difference between loving the broadcast and loving the broadcaster. Siciliano gets plenty of hate mail, usually from someone accusing him of bias for or against one team or another. By admitting he does still root for the Browns, he commits what used to be a faux pas in journalism.
That norm of total non-allegiance has faded, and Siciliano concedes to feeling maybe one little extra surge of elation when Cleveland scores a touchdown. You get the sense he’d rather not make a big deal out of that, but he won’t apologize for being a fan.
He doesn’t think it would be possible to do his job without loving football at least as much as the broadcasting.
He offers a hypothetical anecdote that works as something of a mission statement:
“We need to go to Game 7, because Peyton [Manning] is one completion away from a record, let’s say,” he says. “So, we’re always thinking ahead in that regard, so we can go to Game 7 coming out of a commercial and sit there and hope we get a chance at history.
“Even if it’s a minor bit of history, we want you to see it. We want to show everything at once. You can’t sometimes, but that’s our goal. It’s a good show Sunday if we walk out of there knowing we didn’t miss anything.”
“Sometimes it’s lightning in a bottle. We have gone to games where I’ve said, or a producer has said, ‘Hey, so-and-so has two picks. They have 3rd-and-8 coming up. Wanna go there and see if he throws three.’ And we go there and get a pick-six for 60 yards. We’re all high-fiving. Seriously. We’re celebrating, not because the guy threw a pick but because we were able to get the action, get it live.
“I don’t want to show it to you 10 seconds later and say, ‘This just happened at Reliant Stadium.’ I want to show it to you live, and that’s what the viewer has now come to expect...and it’s not a bad thing; it’s a great thing. I’m a viewer too.”
But after a Red Zone telecast, he is not a viewer anymore. He is a man who throttled himself through a day of football games on caffeine and kinetic energy. When it’s over, most of the time, it’s over.
“I usually don’t make it past halftime of the night game,” he says.
On a good night, though, Siciliano’s crash-landing is at the downtown sushi bar, where behind the counter is a sign that says, “Trust us.”
He likes that. It’s what he tells his viewers every Sunday.
“Hand us the remote,” he says.