Behind-the-scenes look at Super Bowl sideline team
Michele Tafoya's existence is not unlike that of a sprinter's: countless hours of work spent preparing for only a few electrifying moments.
And if the audience doesn't know where to look, they'll see just the visible peak -- the dash around the track, the 20-second on-camera delivery -- and forget about all the work that led to that point. On Sunday, Tafoya will work the sidelines of her second Super Bowl. She'll be on camera for a minute, maybe two, and none of those seconds can be wasted. She's been preparing all week (and, really, all year) to make sure NBC's world-wide audience receives calm, informative sideline reports that appear almost spontaneous in their delivery.
Here's a quick view of pre-spotlight moments:
• Tafoya works all week with her sideline producer, Michele Froman (both are former employees of ESPN). They are a tag-team, bouncing potential ideas (the over-confident statements of the New York Giants, the injured ankle of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski) off one another, both reading as many stories and news articles as possible so they're not overlooking any intriguing storylines.
On game day, Tafoya will be on the field and Froman will be in the production truck, serving as a conduit Tafoya and the director and getting in his ear when an update is needed. ("It's like a game of telephone," Froman explained, "and I'm in the middle.")
• People have occasionally asked Tafoya what she "does all game" because her job appears to consume only a few minutes. So what does she do when she's not on air? She stands even with the line of scrimmage -- on the sideline of whatever team had the most recent injury -- and charts each down with a pen and paper. She makes note of certain plays she thinks might be game-changers. ("I'm not relied upon for that information, but it's for me, to be constantly focused," Tafoya said.) It's rare she'll be able to chart the game uninterrupted because every injury, of which there are many, sends her chasing information. Which is what happened when the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Kansas City Chiefs on Thanksgiving weekend ...
• In the first half, Steelers star defender Troy Polamalu banged his head on the knee of an offensive tackle. He left the game, and the Steelers were saying it was a "blow to the head" and he was "being evaluated." The team made no statement regarding Polamalu's potential return, so when the NBC broadcast swung down to Tafoya, she relayed that information, adding Polamalu was still wearing his helmet and appeared to want to go back into the game. (Froman said Tafoya's specialty is adding observational context to her reports, refusing to rely solely on the team's official statement.)
During halftime of every broadcast, Tafoya walks off the field with one team's head coach, and onto the field with the other. On this day, Tafoya walked off with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who told her Polamalu would be evaluated in the locker room and if it was determined he could re-injure himself, he wouldn't return to the field. Tafoya delivered this information to Froman, who directed the sideline assistant to stand guard outside the Steelers' locker room.
Polamalu's injury was the game's most pressing news, but the sideline team had no definitive answer about his status until less than a minute before Tafoya was set to go on air. Seconds before the hit, the assistant determined Polamalu had not left the locker room, meaning he was almost certainly out for the rest of the game. The assistant delivered the information to Froman, who put it in the ear of Tafoya. Seconds later, in front of millions of people, Tafoya delivered a concise, clear, impromptu message. ("We might usually talk through some of the specifics of what she's going to say, but she's been doing this for a long time ... I'm always confident it's going to be good," Froman said.)
• The night before Sunday's game, Tafoya will be a "tad" more nervous than usual. She'll turn in early to study after making flashcards with the name and jersey number of every Patriot and Giant. ("I want every single jersey number to come to me, like that," she said, snapping her fingers.) She'll go through her set interviews and make sure each question is perfectly crafted. Then, she'll relax and try to separate herself from the gravity of the moment and focus.
Tafoya explained the night before: "'OK, here I am, me, here's my stuff, here's what I need to know, here's my checklist. 'Have I gone over everything? What am I forgetting?' I'm just getting myself really polished and prepared."
• Tafoya runs on the treadmill most days in the hotel gym. She usually runs intervals, either 30 minutes or an hour depending on her schedule. She'll start by walking, then she'll "ramp it up, ramp it up, ramp it up more, and ramp it up even more," and then she'll bring it back down. She'll repeat that process until time is up. ("Running helps me a lot," Tafoya said. "It helps me settle.")
• Broadcasting the Super Bowl is different only because of the intensity of those initial postgame moments. Everything else remains essentially the same: a pregame report (or, "hit," in television lingo), a hit at halftime, potential reports in between. But the nimble postgame dance -- capturing the moment for your audience, yet staying out of the way -- presents a challenge unlike any other broadcast. There are also more cameras capturing every angle of the field, meaning Froman, with access to those views in the production truck, can see more of what's happening off screen and on each team's sideline, and pass along any observations for Tafoya's further investigation.
• None of Tafoya's in-game hits are fully scripted; they are reactionary to what's happening on the field. Tafoya will observe something -- a trainer working on a player's knee or a verbal altercation between two players -- and discuss it with Froman.
"We talk through things and say, 'Is this worth presenting?' Once we decide that it is, I'll get in [the director's] ear at some point," Froman said. "When he decides he wants a report from her, I'm basically having her ready to go and letting him know she's ready."
And then, it's time for the spotlight.
Kate Fagan is a columnist for espnW. You can follow her on Twitter @katefagan3.