As is quite frequently the case, my co-host, Jerome, took me on a trip down memory lane today by way of a pre-show tangent. We share a love for stream-of-consciousness discussion, and having both worked for the Home Shopping Network in some capacity, we got to chatting about which celebrities we'd met and what they were like. I was lucky during my stint at HSN, in that most of the celebs within my sphere of influence were pretty tame, many of them downright nice. None more so than long time Dallas Cowboys running back, Emmitt Smith. (who could have gotten me fired, but for some reason didn't. Although Cowboys owner Jerry Jones did kick me off an elevator. A different story for another time...)
It was my first full football season with the Home Shopping Network where I was hired to help produce merchandising programming for the NFL. "NFL Shop" was the name of our flagship show, and we were taking it on the road for the first big weekend of the regular season. Our backdrop would be the field at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Irving, Texas, not empty, but chock full of the most enormous men I had ever seen in person - the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.
For one full day we "pulled cable". That is to say, we drug heavy, rubber-coated cables from a satellite truck parked outside the stadium, through never-ending underground tunnels and onto the field where they would attach to an enormous board, the hub for our small but mighty operation. During that day, inside the un-air-conditioned home of God's chosen team, I sweated more than I ever have in my entire life (and that is in combined years, not single episodes of sweating). I almost passed out once. I smelled like a high school locker room. I also laid on the 50 yard-line and looked up through God's window...the one He once used to see his boys play. Now, He watches them on the world's biggest HD jumbo-tron housed inside a spaceship. When that day was over, I only had enough energy reserved to devour an entire order of Taco Cabana tortillas and queso with my family before falling into bed by 9 p.m. I've never been so tired in my entire existence, and I have completed two half-marathons. Live, remote television is exhausting.
But it was all worth it, because I was scheduled to be the one to attach a microphone to NFL legend, Emmitt Smith.
Two hours prior to kick-off, we were all in place. I had struck up a friendship with the Cowboys merchandising manager (we'll call her Andrea....) and we were chatting alongside our little makeshift set. Behind our show host, the Redskins were warming up. The offensive line was spaced out in the end zone doing drills of some sort, and watching them, I became convinced that giants do, in fact, exist. Granted, they were adorned in their game time padding, but still...the sheer mass of these men was overwhelming. I felt very intimidated and incredibly tiny.
I was handed a headset which would allow me to talk to the producer in the truck outside. I felt very official and important. I nodded at people a lot. I gave my colleagues the "thumbs up" at random. I saluted the officials as they took the field. I waved at the fans who had flocked to the lower level in order to potentially wind up on camera. I was like a beauty queen in a parade, but sweatier and wearing jeans that seemed to be shrinking the hotter I got.
Before I could really process everything, we were handing our host his first piece of memorabilia to sell and the countdown to the start of the show commenced. By the date of the Cowboys shoot, I had already been working in television for four years, but the overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by the home of the legendary and revered Dallas Cowboys made me feel like a total rookie. I was all nerves. My hands were shaking. I was short of breath.
But, I was focused. I was in constant communication with our supervising producer, Gerry, hoping that an opportunity would present itself for me to shine in some capacity. That's when a well-dressed African American couple and a woman who appeared to be their grandmother entered the field. They were all wearing the coveted VIP passes I had seen on several equally well-adorned individuals in the bowels of the stadium en route to the field. The elderly woman was spry...she bounced around excitedly, her escorts looking on lovingly. She wore a Cowboys jersey that she had clearly doctored up herself. It bore patches from Super Bowls and signatures from players. Among them....Emmitt Smith.
Speak of the devil....my attention quickly turned from the adorable trio to the man of the hour who was being rushed toward me by a couple of large gentlemen dressed all in black. May I take this opportunity to say that Emmitt Smith is one snappy dresser? When I shook his hand, I couldn't help but stare at his sparkling diamond inlaid cuff links. I wanted them. I could have worn them for earrings.
I pulled myself together, retrieved Mr. Smith's microphone, wound it through his zillion-dollar suit jacket and clipped it on his tie. I stood next to him until I received the appropriate cue, then gestured for him to enter the "set" to join our host on the air. Everything was going smoothly. A senior VP patted me on the back.
I noticed that the merchandising representative I had befriended was talking cheerfully with the three guests who had entered just before Emmitt. They laughed together, and she motioned for me to come over. As I walked toward them, she was called away to handle a business issue, and I was alone with the feisty grandmother and her friends.
I introduced myself as best I could without disrupting the show, speaking in an exaggerated whisper to be heard over the din of the filling stadium. The man and woman shook my hand, but neither offered a name. The older woman continued to bob up and down quietly exclaiming, seemingly to herself, "that's my boy! That's my boy!"
I inquired of the well-dressed man as to the woman's association with Mr. Smith, to which he replied, "she's his momma." I turned to look over my shoulder. Emmitt waved at the woman, and she clasped her hands over her heart as if she would faint. Tears were filling her eyes. An epiphany hit me like an out-of-control train.
I pressed the button that allowed me to speak to Gerry and quickly informed him that I had Emmitt Smith's mother standing by. Gerry, who always loved to fly by the seat of his pants in the midst of a show, didn't think twice. He conveyed the message directly to our host, who became animated and motioned for the woman to join himself and Emmitt on set. Naturally, she was thrilled to do so. She rushed over as quickly as her feet could carry her (which was much quicker than I thought possible) and threw her arms around Emmitt who gave her a good squeeze and proceeded to cast me a death glance over her shaking shoulders. His look told me everything. This was NOT his mother.
I looked behind me at the young couple. They were smiling and waving at the woman like proud parents. They showed no signs of embarrassment over the announcement our host had just made, declaring this woman Emmitt Smith's mother. I was befuddled, stricken and sure I was about to lose my job. But, there is no professional in the world as calm under strange and confusing circumstances as Emmitt Smith. He informed our host that this was not his mother, but that she may as well be....she was like his SECOND mother. He said that the woman was known by the Cowboys organization as the "super fan". She had been to every home game since before he had been a part of the team. She showed up every summer at training camp. She was at every parade. She had accumulated all of the signatures on her jersey by way of persistent attendance...not by being the mother of a player. But, Emmitt treated her like family, just the same. He knew her by her first name, which escapes me now.
The minutes while the woman remained on camera felt like hours. The combination of increased adrenaline and excessive heat I was suffering threatened to knock my legs out from under me, but I held on to what little composure I had left. Tears stung the backs of my eyes. And, then it was time for me to remove the microphone from Emmitt. The moment startled me. I was busy planning what I would do once I was banned from television production forever when the hulking mass of sweet-smelling, silk-clad football legend materialized before me again.
"What the hell was that?" he demanded.
I didn't stutter which surprises me still.
"She said she was your mother, sir," I replied.
He looked down at me blankly for a moment, as if maybe he had heard me incorrectly, then he laughed.
"That is SO not my momma....sure as hell, she is not my momma!" If he was angry, he was hiding it well. He couldn't stop laughing. When the moment finally passed, he dropped his forehead into his well-manicured hand for a moment, and shook it. Then, he looked me in the eye, and patted my shoulder.
Then, he was gone. I had no idea how to react. Before I knew it, we were taking a short break, and the host was yelling at me. I was in a daze. It was Gerry's voice that snapped me out of my reverie. He was giggling.
"That'll probably be the best moment of the night, kid. Next time, ask for her driver's license. But, no harm done."
I was still convinced of my inevitable firing until I saw the senior VP that had patted me on the back, drunk in the VIP suite hallway later in the evening. I had just endured the crew dinner hour in Jerry Jones' massive, luxury dining hall, during which I ate literally nothing. I was thinking of vomiting out of mortification, when she clapped me on the shoulder and slurred cheerfully, "good job tah-night, kid."
I slumped against the wall of the hallway, lost in the lesson that was slowly and laboriously forming in my head. I have to relearn it now and again, but for the most part, it has stuck with me over the years and helped me to endure the oddities of a business like no other.
Whatever IT is, it is NOT the end of the world. Emmitt Smith suffered losses in his illustrious career, but that didn't make him any less of an outstanding player. If he had given up every time he fumbled, the NFL would be without one of its all time greatest rushers and ambassadors of the sport.
I think about Mr. Smith and that lesson all the time. And, hell, if you turn the whole thing over on its head, I gave one dedicated super fan the most glorious experience any Cowboys die-hard could ask for...to be mistaken for Emmitt Smith's mother on live television, in front of millions of viewers.
It's all about perspective, I suppose.