The art of the play-by-play man
by Jarrett Rusnak
On Friday night I took in the Canadian Football League’s Eastern Division first-place showdown between the Toronto Argonauts and the Montreal Alouettes, along with 874,000 other television viewers. About 34 seconds into that broadcast I felt something unexpected wash over me – and that feeling never left. Let’s call it ‘astonishment’. Matt Devlin, a veteran play-by-play man of the Toronto Raptors, two Olympics, NFL & Major League Baseball on FOX, and NBA on TNT, was in the booth calling the game next to Glen Suitor for TSN.
Also, the Argos won in Montreal for the first time since Rob Ford took over as Mayor.
I rarely miss a CFL game on TSN and over the years I’ve grown accustomed to the familiar voices of Chris Cuthbert, Rod Black and Gord Miller. Not only are they great announcers, but after so many years, they’ve become the play-by-play equivalent of my grama’s hot chocolate. Familiar. Comfortable. Reliable.
Suddenly there’s Tennesseean Apple Pie in the mix. If I were a dog, my ears would have snapped forward. I was spellbound the whole game. “Who’s this new guy?” I kept asking myself. “He sounds… ‘big time’!”
To my ear, a good play-by-play announcer is a combination of ‘6 o’clock news anchor’, ‘TV screen writer’, and ‘scat jazz singer’. Describe the event accurately, weave a story into it, make it sound good – but do it live, improvised, and off-the-cuff for three hours or more.
I first met one of these creatures at the beginning of my documentary filmmaking career in 1996. Rod Pedersen was calling games for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League and I road the bus with him, as I followed the team through its ’96/’97 season. I was trying to figure out how to weave a 45 minute story out of 31 hours of footage, accumulated over 8 months of shooting. I was amazed at how Rod did that exact same thing every other night, live on the radio – without the benefit of hindsight, or second thought.
Rod has since gone on to call three Grey Cups as voice of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and was coast-to-coast last winter, doing play-by-play for the World Juniors. I learned a lot about telling a good sports story from him, and my appreciation for a brilliant play-by-play man has never wavered.
I thought about Rod as I listened to Matt Devlin call that Argo/Alouette game on Friday. Both have big time voices – though Rod has a better face for radio. Devlin is known as an NBA guy, while Rod got his start in hockey. Both faced challenges as they prepared for their first CFL game.
“Having not played a down of football, learning the game was the biggest challenge,” Rod told me recently, “Certain coaches in my first year in ’99 were a big help like Cal Murphy and Greg Marshall and later on Danny Barrett was a huge help.” He then added that buying ‘Football For Dummies’ by Howie Long was also invaluable.
While Rod found himself mired in a strange new world, Devlin was able to lean on his experience calling NFL, and Big 10 Football games. Despite the high profile of those leagues, he never once took Friday’s game lightly. “I felt the CFL was a fantastic opportunity,” began Devlin. “It’s a much faster paced game than the NFL or Big 10 Football. Things happen so quickly and the challenge is to stay on the ball while still finding ways to weave in story lines.”
In preparing for the game, Devlin spent time talking with Argos GM Jim Barker, Argos head coach Scott Millanovich, as well as Argos defensive coordinator and fellow Tennessean Chris Jones. He later spoke to Als head coach Marc Trestman upon arriving in Montreal. “The prep work I did was similar to what I did in the NFL,” added Devlin, “but there were areas where I needed to be a little more thorough.”
Devlin reached out to the league’s head office, receiving a crash course in CFL history from Head Statistician, Steve Daniel, while also tapping George Black, Senior Advisor, Football Operations, for a brush-up on the Canadian game’s rules.
Once in the booth, the whole TSN broadcast team took him under their wing. “TSN really looked after me,” Devlin told me. “I reached out to Chris Cuthbert and he was very welcoming. Glen Suitor was tremendous to work with. We talked earlier in the week and got to know each other – in the booth it felt like we’ve been working together for years.”
Throughout my career, I’ve interviewed Hollywood celebrities, major sports figures, and everyday folk for different documentaries. Given all Matt Devlin has accomplished in his career, I found myself quite nervous and intimidated as I picked up the phone in a feeble attempt to be a journalist. It turns out Matt Devlin has one other thing in common with my friend, Rod Pedersen – they both come from humble beginnings.
“It wasn’t that long ago when I was riding the bus and calling high school football games in Texas for little money, or no money,” Devlin told me this morning. “It makes you grateful and appreciative for where you are now.”
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