Sit-Downs with Schottey: Kevin Burkhardt on what goes into his dream job
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By MICHAEL SCHOTTEY
"On Sunday, really...all your work, for the most part, is done. You just wake up and you're excited."
Those are the words of Kevin Burkhardt, one of the luckiest men in the world. He realizes this, and appreciates it as much as the average football fan would love to trade spots with him. Yet, it also does Burkhardt a disservice to call him lucky, as he's also one of the most talented and hardest working men in sports. The NFL on Fox play-by-play voice is starting his third year alongside John Lynch, and the two have risen from the network's No. 4 team to their second.
Sundays, in some respects, are almost his easiest day.
Assuming he has a 1 p.m. broadcast, Burkhardt starts with a nice, big breakfast from room service as he reads the papers—hardly the start of a day for a man about to be on live television in front of hundreds of thousands of people. He'll casually go over his notes and charts one last time, while giving another look at names and numbers he'll need to call out later.
Typically, Burkhardt will get to the stadium at about 10am, then head to the TV trucks to meet with the producer, run over various reminders and record anything they may need to have prepared. They'll go over graphics the team has prepared, then he and Lynch will head up to lay out territory in the broadcast booth and talk with the spotter in order to go over tidbits they've learned from the team.
Finally, they'll head down to the field, where Burkhardt is deferential to his broadcast partner. Saying, "He's the soon-to-be Hall of Fame safety, so I'm really just riding his coattails." That may seem like a throwaway comment, but it speaks to the chemistry Burkhardt and Lynch have, and the respect between them. The two also share their hatred of rehearsing, but Burkhardt understands the need to work on timing and logistics with certain people in the crew.
The game itself goes by quickly, and he describes it in this way:
"Once we go, it's a lot like horses at the race. You do all this work leading up to it to get ready and then one o' clock comes and then boom...you're on your way and you're rolling. You don't really get a chance to stop and look back until I'm sitting in the airport with a cocktail in my hand. It just goes by like a blur."
Preparation and passion are the reasons for his success.
Burkhardt tells me he's already started preparing notes for the 2015 season. In season, it starts the second he's done with the previous week's game.
Anyone who thinks they could do what a play-by-play person does is fooling themselves. It's so much more than just showing up at the stadium and explaining what you see on the field. Burkhardt says his preparation usually starts on the plane ride home from the game he was just at. Following the broadcast and a few odds and ends, the crew is rushed to the airport so they might have some semblance of family time before leaving home again in a few days.
"Except for when you're in Chicago or New York, the last flight out might be six o' clock, and it makes a big difference getting out that night to see your family."
Burkhardt describes his time on the plane as "letting go" of the two teams he was just focused on and gaining some clarity on the coming week. It might be something as simple as familiarizing himself with the big names or trending storylines along with jotting down a few numbers or notes he thinks might be relevant. The point, though, is he can't look at the NFL as a whole and be good at his job. In many ways—though he's always an NFL fan and up-to-date on the big news and rumblings—he needs to distill the entire league down to the two teams he's working with every single week.
To that end, while he admits it's probably different for everyone, Burkhardt says he has a few tasks each day so he can feel comfortable about the coming game.
"By the time I hop on a plane to go to whatever city I'm going to," Burkhardt said. "I need to be locked onto these two teams. You can't show up at a practice and talk to head coaches and not really know the intricacies that are going on."
He could, but he doesn't.
As a bit of an editorial aside, and without throwing a bunch of shade at any broadcaster in particular, Burkhardt's preparation shows up in ways many of his peers in the business could learn to emulate. It's easy to tell when even the most veteran of play-by-play guys and color commentators are having an off week. They fall into easy mistakes with names and numbers. They rehash old storylines and hackneyed platitudes. They do it because they're not as prepared as Burkhardt demands himself to be, and it's one of the huge reasons he's made the ascendance he has.
As someone who watches every single game throughout the season, it makes his FOX broadcasts a pleasure.
His week starts on Monday with more of what Burkhardt calls "reconnaissance." FOX provides a clips service for their talent, which allows Burkhardt and his colleagues to have one-stop shopping about the teams they're covering. He's as voracious a reader as he is a preparer, and he goes back a couple of weeks to make sure he hasn't missed anything.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, he's working on preparing his game chart. He starts by getting information from team press releases and anything else he can find from those clips. He watches tape and jots down notes both about the players and teams but also things that were pertinent to previous broadcasts. He actually pays to have the skeletons of these charts preliminarily put together for him because it's such an important part of what he does.
"The charts become your life blood," Burkhardt says. "I have everything on there from names, numbers, stats, height, weight, college and any other pertinent information. It serves two purposes: a) it's an incredible way to learn these things as you're filling it out and then b) it becomes an excellent study tool."
The next thing he knows, he's headed back out of town—often by Thursday night to be at the team facilities first thing on Friday morning.
"With the internet, people can access everything else I get," Burkhardt says, highlighting the importance of these meetings with the teams, "but what they can't access is the players and the coaches. John runs the meetings. He obviously has a much better technical feel for some of this stuff, but I'll jump in and we have a good feel for each other and what the other one will ask."
With all of this preparation, the worst-case scenario might actually be to try and jam pack every single note, stat, tidbit and factoid into the broadcast, but Burkhardt admits he's actually over-preparing in order to be ready for everything, noting that maybe only 10 percent of what he prepares actually makes it into the broadcast.
"The worst thing you can do," Burkhardt said, "is get stuck in the narrative of the past couple of weeks when, on the field in front of you, it's completely changed...and one of the hardest things is knowing when to shut up and let the pictures speak for themselves."
Although he misses his family, he loves the travel and finds it hard to name a favorite NFL city because he loves going to each of them for different reasons. Still, he's enjoyed going to Seattle because it's "insane to watch a football game" and also called out Chicago and San Francisco. He also spent a lot of time talking about the family aspect of his crew, and how it's great they all get along so well.
"One thing about John is that he actually can sing," Burkhardt said. "We've had some really fun dinners with the team, and we've had some really great nights with some really great laughs. Next thing we know, John gets up and he's singing a song. The first thing he'll sing is 'God Bless America' and we'll all end up joining in."
Overall, what is so striking about speaking with Burkhardt is that balance between his talent and his sort of wide-eyed love of what he does and who he works with. His NFL knowledge is naturally going to dwarf just about analyst out there because of the insane amount of preparation he puts into his job, and yet he remains deferential. He exists in an insanely competitive profession full of alpha males, yet he continues to come off as humble and truly seems to have a handle on how blessed his life has been.
"There are, what, 14 or 15 people in the world who get to call NFL games?" Burkhardt said. "I'm one of them. So, it's something I've wanted to do since I was a kid and now I'm doing it. I mean this when I say it: I'm so fortunate to be where I am. I worked my ass off, and I've continued to work hard, but I'm still fortunate and I love to do what I'm doing."