Behind The Scenes

“Soccer Blizzard” World Cup qualifier becomes world class test for Bob Ley and ESPN’s production team

It was the type of visual that freezes your thumb from changing channels upon landing at ESPN. A driving, sideways snow creating a white blanket on the pitch where the US National Team faced Costa Rica in Friday’s prelude to USA-Mexico on Tuesday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Here, in a special to Front Row, host Bob Ley recounts the incredible evening of soccer captured and distributed for all fans to see on ESPN. (More on the incredible conditions from others involved in the telecast will be included in our Monday Weekend Tweetback on Front Row.)

We knew going in we were going to have to deal with this. You always check the weather a week or so out, especially at this time of the year. The logistical challenge began with packing. Two climates, one week, (Denver, then Mexico City, with temps in the 80’S) and the need (for me at least) to carry on my bag for a quick connection in Detroit and the need to scurry to the team hotel in Denver for a scheduled interview. I’d [overnighted] my overcoat, scarf, etc. on ahead of me, with space at a premium in my carry on.

What makes the Friday broadcast all the more remarkable is that with the 35 to 40 mph winds whipping through the stadium in Commerce City, our original broadcast location where we had already taped one SportsCenter report had to be taken down. It was a simple tent, and the winds were lifting it off the ground as the afternoon went on. So with only 90 minutes to air, our technical staff began performing a heroic miracle. They struck the tent in the blinding wind and snow; moved the desk, cameras, and the cabling for power, video, audio and communications about 100 feet under a permanent roof on the concourse.

Well, yes, a permanent roof, offering great protection for anything falling out of the sky straight down. But this snow was coming in horizontally at first, and not really sticking until about 20 minutes before air. The wind abated a bit, but the snow continued to fall – sideways.

Okay. The hats.

When I turned around in the press room about two hours before air and saw Kasey Keller standing there like Elmer Fudd about to go hunting (‘Be vewwy vewwy quiet. I am hunting wabbits’) I thought it was a joke. But no, our all-star production coordinator, Gabriella Robuccio, had procured those now infamous hats for Kasey and Alexi Lalas.

In fact, we had to get Kasey a slightly smaller hat because his first hat was too large for his head (believed to be a first for any goalkeeper anywhere!), and we couldn’t see his smoldering eyes.

For me, there was provided a lovely camouflage hunting hat with fur earflaps. I had already done several reports out in the early snow and elements, and had sprayed, gelled, cajoled and beseeched my hair into staying put, and I feared the combination of those chemicals, interacting with (faux) animal fur, might cause spontaneous combustion. Besides, know your limitations. Some folks look good in a hat (see Sinatra, Bomani Jones, the Pope). I’m in the other camp. I eschewed the hat.

I’m not really sure who got us the hockey pucks as our paperweights, but it was an inspired decision.

We were fighting the wind (and it was bad) and, as we signed on at 7:45 p.m. local time, increasing snow. Just a coating on the desk to begin with. And, since we’re in a visual medium, why would we want to clear the desk? God has given us a prop. Who are we to say, no thanks?

Besides, as the evening wore on, clearing the desk would become impossible. By the end of the night, as I attempted to keep an eye on some of the notes on my folder I needed for highlights and promos, the folder was being obscured within 15 seconds of clearing it with my glove.

Inside our gloves, we did have small warming packs, and they were essential. We also had electric blankets available. That’s Kasey’s wrapped around him, as he turned TO the field, directly INTO the driving wind and snow to watch the game in the second half. Alexi and I turned our backs to the field and watched our monitors.

We had spent part of the first half upstairs in the press box after anchoring the pre-game show, and following our halftime report, with the snow thickening by the moment, went back upstairs to attempt to warm up again. Alexi and I were standing in our broadcast booth, directly behind Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman, as they were calling the early moments of the second half. I plugged my dual-ear IFBs (interruptible feedback device) into an audio box so I could hear their commentary (while marveling they were calling a game they could barely see), when the stoppage of play occurred, and the question of possibly suspending the match was raised. With that, I unplugged, and Alexi and I began sprinting (as best as one can in snow gear through a concourse full of US Soccer fans) back to our outdoor set. Kasey was en route from his press box perch.

As it turned out, it was a false alarm. The match continued. But we stayed in place, not knowing if there would be a lengthy stoppage of play or a suspension. And the snow just got worse and worse. The microphones on the set were being covered in snow. I glanced over at Kasey and saw him glued to the game, face into the raging storm, as if standing guard at Stalingrad in 1942, and I took off my gloves and fished out my phone to take and tweet the shot (above). That cost me sensation in my hands for about 10 minutes.

But through it all, the important story of the evening – the necessity for the USA to keep its lead and win those three points – became more and more magnified as the minutes ticked down and Costa Rica continued to threaten to score. It was a remarkable performance under impossible circumstances by the US National Team, just as the men and women on our broadcast’s technical crew rose to the moment in bringing the pictures of that night.

And yes, Kasey and Alexi are keeping those hats.

And we all get to keep the memories. As I noted after the final whistle, borrowing from Mr. Dylan, ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’ and that night the soccer winds were most certainly – and literally – at our backs.

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