Do Da Dirty Bird: Goin' Off to the Press Box in the Sky

John McCurdyCorrespondent ISeptember 4, 2009

Although there are many deceased media members who deserve a tribute, this article is not about paying homage to one who's passed on, as the title might suggest. It's basically a "Dear Diary" entry describing a young professional's ascension.

Last week, I was lucky enough to be hired to the position I interviewed for back in early July: I am now the full-time sportswriter for the Atlanta Jewish Times. My first week was great. I met coaches, A.D.s, and players at several nearby schools and got to see some excellent volleyball and soccer action. Shout out to Weber School and Yeshiva Atlanta!

But it didn't compare to this second week. On Tuesday, boss man came over to my workstation, and put it simply and directly: "You will be at every Falcons home game."

Oh, wow. What?

Ends up, Mr. Adler, the AJT's owner, once worked with Arthur Blank at Home Depot. Mr. Adler had expressed interest in me speaking to Blank after games, but I did not realize quite where that was gonna go.

Oh boy. To be honest, I didn't really believe the media pass for preseason home Game Two (versus the Ravens) would be there waiting for me. It just seemed too good to be true. But alas, after wandering around outside the Georgia Dome for what seemed like an hour (good thing I was there, oh, two-and-a-half hours early; nervous much?), I finally found the right desk and received an envelope with my name on it.

I proceeded to go to the back of the nearest line. After waiting for about, let's see, 10 seconds, an event staff member approached me and asked,"Whaddya got there?"

"Uh, buh, media pass, sir," I stammered as I had trouble getting it out of the envelope.

"Well come right on 'round here then!"

Are you kidding me? Just the first instance of special treatment in a night full of it.

I wander in on the bottom floor of the Dome noticing the locker room as I follow some other journalistic types to the elevator. They're all ladies, probably pretty close to my age, but I'm staring at the ground with my Adam's apple bouncing up and down as I swallow surreptitiously.

The doors to the 'vator open up and there's an attendant. Now, she's not wearing a coat and bowtie or anything, and the walls and floor are all grey steel. Still, I've never been in an elevator with an attendant before!

Top level, ding, and I stumble into the sparkling box. There's a spiral staircase in front of me, going up to the broadcast booths, but I'm way more interested in the seats just in front of me: The three rows of "trenches", where the game reporters sit and do there work.

This is why I went to college.

To my right is a friggin' buffet; it's only 5:30 and I have two hours to eat and get comfortable before kickoff. Like a doofus, I try to serve myself while simultaneously holding my laptop case and a drink. Everyone behind me in line is patient, but I'm holding things up here as I try to juggle the burger, slaw, and chips with one hand.

Think I'm ready to sit, and then a voice behind me cracks:

"Same old stuff, huh?"

Jeff Schultz of the AJC, who I have been reading since I was about six years old, has just stepped up to the line.

"Oh well, a burger's a burger's a burger," he says. I'm too scared to introduce myself right now, so I decide to grab a seat, smear my face with food, and work up the guts later.

I plop down in the front row of the box, sliding the neatly placed program and flip card to the side to make room for my plate. Focusing on my food, I know I'll get a chance to soak it all in.

Looking at the Dome, which I haven't been to in over three years. Looking at the info in front of me, a free glossy game guide! Looking at Mr. Schultz, now next to Orlando D. Ledbetter (OMG! also of the AJC).

Once I finish eating, I notice something else in front of me: a name card. "Morris," it reads.

I jump up like my pants are on fire. There's assigned seats?! How come nobody told me?

I gather my belongings (or rather, belonging; there's just my case) and head up to the front. Who the heck am I supposed to ask? I don't know, how about this security officer. He'll be gruff like any law enforcement, but he's gotta know.

"Well, let's just take a look here then."

I'm just not used to people being friendly and actually being able to help me, I guess.

Of course there's no seat labeled for me, but the officer points me towards a Falcons P.R. guy (first I talked to someone else, having not clearly seen where the officer pointed, but I find him), and he's even nicer.

"You're not on here [the seating chart], but let's go ahead and get you a seat down close and on the 50. I'll get you a program and a flip card."

"Uh, biddabuhbuh, OK, thank you so much sir," I manage as I slide into my prime real estate, now just on the other side of my favorite hometown writers.

It's still a long way to game time, so I read for a while, and with about half an hour till kickoff, I finally just stand up and go talk to Mr. Schultz. Tell him how much I like his articles, etc., you know, be a kiss-ass.

"I've been reading you since I was a little kid," I say.

"Oh, thanks, that makes me feel great," jokes Schultz, who's by no means old, but is probably startled by how young I look. I part pleasantly after apologizing needlessly, glad I went ahead and spoke with him. It's all about networking, folks.

Kickoff is nearing, but unlike the rest of the stands, the press box is actually getting quieter. Just something I'm going to have to get used to, I guess, in addition to sitting down during games, not sweating, and generally being comfortable (not saying I'd trade my UGA game experiences for anything, but this is a whole new way to enjoy the gridiron).

We've got our own personal P.A. guy in the box, who tells us not only who's in on every play, but also the total yardage and drive summaries. I copy down a lot of the stuff he says, only to be handed it in typed, printed form at the end of every quarter. Oh well.

The game is pretty long and boring, with subs playing the entirety for Baltimore (they handed out a "Did Not Play" before the game, and I thought it was the Ravens' starting lineup; oh, it is, just not for yesterday). Still, Peria Jerry and Kroy Biermann are showing up on defense, even if Ravens third-stringer John Beck is tearing apart our secondary (you might just have earned yourselves another column, boys).

More food is brought to us at halftime, but I pass. My stomach hasn't felt normal since I got off the MARTA train at 4:45, though it probably would have felt a lot worse if I hadn't eaten before the game started.

Fresh stat sheets, and I mean fresh as in still warm from the printer, come my way. How many trees died for this?

The game progresses, the Dirty Birds are struggling (John Parker Wilson is overplaying terribly; he looks about as young as I do to all these people in the box), so I'm focused on what our P.A. guy said at the beginning of the contest. We can go down to the locker room area at the fourth-quarter two-minute warning.

I'm supposed to talk to Mr. Blank tonight (he is, after all, the man who got me here), and I was told I could probably find him down there. I see a few people leave when the whistle blows, but a lot stay, so I wait until the the clock goes all the way down.

Down the elevator I go. Every time I pass someone in a staff shirt, I expect to get turned back, searched, or at least checked. But nobody bothers me, and soon enough I find myself in the gosh darn press conference room, Mr. Ledbetter behind me.

"Let's get this done quick," one of the security guards is saying with a smile. Soon enough, coach Mike Smith is walking to the podium!

Everyone else has a recorder (Mom and Dad, are you reading?) and sets it up there, but I'm rocking the pen and legal pad. Good enough for my first run through. Mr. Ledbetter asks most of the questions (well, he's the hometown paper's Falcons beat writer, so I guess he can) and even calls coach Smith "Smitty."

Smith's answers are polite but pretty ambiguous; yeah, cuts are always hard; yeah, both D.J. Shockley and JPW did some good stuff; yeah, there's a long way to go before the real opening week.

But he does say something interesting, at least something I haven't thought about before:

"In these games, you call plays not necessarily to win the game, but to put players in certain situations so you can evaluate them."

In other words, one dude might be put in when he has a disadvantage, or when another set that he's not a part of makes more sense, or when someone above him on the depth chart would much more easily succeed.

Hmm, preseason football, you are a curious beast.

The conference is wrapped up soon enough, and everyone high-tails it, especially coach.

Please, Mr. Blank, walk through those doors...

My hoping is to no avail. And so I resume my wandering (I can't claim to have walked with purpose at all last night; I had no idea what was next for me half the time), hanging out next to the locker room doors, pulling on locked doors, and staring at closed doors. I feel the whole time as though some big guy is gonna come up to me and say, "What're you doing?", pick me up, and throw me against a wall.

But I'm safe and entirely intact. I get over my nervousness enough to start asking people where they think Mr. Blank might be, and I follow every pointed finger ("He just went back there"), yet never find him. It's pushing 11:30, and I've seen Thomas Brown, Tony Gonzalez, Justin Blalock and Curtis Lofton all walk out in normal streetclothes, greet their girlfriends/wives, and move towards the parking deck (holy crap, they're real people?!), but no sign of our fearless owner.

Eventually, I am put to the curb (in the nicest of fashions, of course: "The Dome's closin' now, sweetie. Where'd you park?"), but not before finding the Falcons P.R. rep I spoke to earlier and asking him the same old:

"Sir, do you have any idea where Mr. Blank might be tonight?"

"Did you talk to [so-and-so]? Were you in the press conference? Were you by the locker room? Who was supposed to facilitate this?"

I'm kinda dumbfounded by all the questions, and though he's asking in a friendly and helpful way, all I can get out is a "yes."

"I heard he headed out early tonight. If you didn't get to [so-and-so], he probably didn't get to talk to Mr. Blank and he probably already left."

Ah, durnit. Well, you live and you learn, and next time I'll know who to speak to.

Best thing is, though, that there is a next time. Once again, I'll kinda have to see it to believe it (Is this really mine?, I'll probably think every time I see that tag), but God, am I looking forward to doing my paper proud and being a professional again.


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