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America's Game: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Sunday Night Football with Michele Tafoya

Posted Dec 27, 2015

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – I’ve been waitin’ all day for Sunday night.

The opening chorus line of the Sunday Night Football theme song is iconic for football fans, but the reality is many people have been working much longer than “all day” to prep for tonight’s game – they have been working all week.

Last Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals matchup wound down around 10:30 p.m. CT. Sideline reporter Michele Tafoya and the Sunday Night Football crew finished postgame interviews with Arizona’s Carson Palmer and David Johnson, wrapped up the show, and slipped in a quick night’s sleep in a Philadelphia hotel.

By Monday morning, Tafoya was on her way back to Minneapolis. Born in California, Tafoya now lives in Minnesota and didn’t mind the flexed Sunday Night game, as it allowed her to stay home for Christmas. Even so, the flight home was spent preparing for tonight’s Vikings-Giants game.

“It’s just a constant,” Tafoya says this snowy Saturday morning after attending the Vikings day-before-a-game session. “You really come out of a game, we all do, wired and exhausted. Your mind has been spinning the entire game. It’s just a lot of focus…”

Tafoya trails off, her eyes moving to the doorway of the Winter Park cafeteria. Quarterbacks coach Scott Turner has come in, and his toddler son Harrison teeters through the room, clutching a football almost as big as he is. Tafoya laughs, gives a little wave, then leaves her seat and crouches down to say hello. The two interact for a minute, playing, before Tafoya returns to the table.

“I’m sorry,” she says, smiling. “Now where were we?”

During the season, Sunday Night Football is the most-watched show on primetime television. It’s a time for fans to relax at home with friends and family, to squeeze the remaining minutes out of a weekend with a football game. What we don’t often consider, however, is the behind-the-scenes work and preparation that goes into production.  

Play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, color commentator Cris Collinsworth and Tafoya began their research Monday morning, and there have been no days off leading up to tonight’s game at TCF Bank Stadium. They familiarize themselves with each team’s roster, then take it a step further and read each player’s history.

“It’s kind of nice when you have the same team more than once in a year,” Tafoya says. “That helps.”

This week will be the first time the Vikings have been featured on Sunday Night Football since they played the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 27, 2013. Needless to say, the team has changed a lot since then.

Due to the holiday, production meetings typically held in person took place over the phone with Head Coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on Thursday. Tafoya also made contact throughout the week and scheduled one-on-one phone interviews with additional players from each team that may have interesting storylines accompanying them into the game. From the Vikings, Tafoya spoke with wide receiver Stefon Diggs, cornerback Terence Newman and defensive tackle Linval Joseph; from the Giants, wide receiver Rueben Randle, running back Rashad Jennings and former Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley.

Tafoya explains that the phone interviews are a little more informal, letting the conversation take a natural direction; maybe interesting tidbits or angles will come up that may be of use during the game. In the end, it is all about preparation.

“The thing working in our favor on Sunday Night Football is that our audience is so huge, and you’re including a lot of people that have never seen the Vikings,” Tafoya explains. “On one hand, you don’t want to insult the die-hard Vikings fans and repeat stuff they already know. But on the other hand, there’s a whole different audience out there who doesn’t know the things Vikings fans know.”

The crew walks a careful line each week, working to find a good balance of material for its coast-to-coast audience.

“We all prepare this much,” Tafoya says, spreading her arms out wide in front her. She then holds up her thumb and index finger, about an inch apart from each other. “And maybe this much gets on the air.” 

As broad as the Sunday Night Football viewership is, its staff and production crew is equally as wide-reaching. This week, the Vikings’ PR department set up 250 credentials for the group that will work together to cover Sunday’s game. Within that pool, staff members come from all across the country, both from major cities and small towns, to deliver images back to their respective hometowns.  

Spotter Wade Junco fares from Winchester, Indiana, a town of about 5,000 people, and now lives in Dallas. Junco is in his 19th season in the NFL, originally starting as part of John Madden’s FOX crew. Field producer John Howe, originally from Los Angeles, now lives in New York and commutes to NBC’s Stanford, Connecticut, location.  For each and every game production, hundreds of individuals come together to make sure things run smoothly.

On Sunday, all hands are on deck. An early morning production meeting and breakfast will start things off, and all day is spent squeezing in any remaining prep work possible.

“It seems like we’re never ready. At a certain point, you have to say, ‘OK – the game’s about to start,’” Tafoya says. “It’s constantly trying to find new ways to present these teams to the nation. We want to do it creatively, and we want to do it well.”

When kickoff rolls around, the players won’t be the only ones with adrenaline pumping – the Sunday Night Football crew works at a frenzied pace during the entirety of the game.

As a sideline reporter, Tafoya is responsible for multiple moving parts simultaneously. During the game, she will stand at the line of scrimmage, scribbling her own play-by-play in a notebook. At a moment’s notice, however, she may need to step away from the on-field play to follow a developing storyline. If a key player goes to the sideline with a sprained ankle, Tafoya follows the injury while also trying to pay attention to the game. At halftime, Tafoya will interview both Zimmer and Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin.

“You’re always aware that you’ll talk to both coaches, so I’m preparing for that in the back of my mind as we’re creeping toward halftime,” Tafoya says. “We don’t do our [coach interviews] on camera; we think we get better stuff when we’re off camera. That’s just our philosophy.”

Besides keeping track of the game as well as providing injury updates, Tafoya and the production crew are working to decide which player or players will be interviewed live on the field after the game. If it is a lopsided game, Tafoya may identify the interviewee well before the fourth quarter ends. Other times, she won’t know until the clock hits 0:00.

Ultimately, Tafoya says working with such a great staff is what really makes Sunday Night Football come together the way it does week-in and week-out. Coordinating Producer Fred Gaudelli worked as Tafoya’s producer for Monday Night Football before both transferred over to Sunday Night Football.

“Every single week, we look for ways to make ourselves better,” Tafoya says of Gaudelli and the crew. “To make ourselves more capable in some way of doing the job better.”

Gaudelli is certainly the man for that job. The first game Gaudelli ever produced was a Joe Montana-Troy Aikman matchup. Now in his 26th consecutive year as the lead producer for an NFL primetime game and 10th season as Coordinating Producer for Sunday Night Football, Gaudelli has built quite the resume.

The New York native has produced five Super Bowls (XXXVII, XL, XLIII, XLVI and XLIX) and is the recipient of 19 Emmy awards, including for Super Bowl XLIX. Since Gaudelli took the reins, Sunday Night Football has been the most-watched primetime show for four straight Sept.-May TV seasons and was named an Emmy Outstanding Live Sports Series 2008-2013.

“Everyone says this, and I get why. You become like a family,” Tafoya explains. “You’re spending so much time together, and you’re getting to know each other’s really weird personality quirks.”

Tafoya works most closely with Michaels and Collinsworth; to her, it still seems surreal at times that she works with such a wonderful and accomplished team.

Millions of Americans watch the broadcast every week, and many want to know what they are like behind the curtain, per se. Tafoya smiles at the question, clearly happy to talk about two very close friends of hers.

“Cris is just a great guy,” Tafoya says. “[…] He’s so able to take a play, give you a replay with some drawing, and make it understandable to everyone without dumbing it down. It’s common sense the way he presents things, and I’ve found that remarkable. I’ve worked with so many analysts in a number of sports, and to me, there’s just no one like Cris.”

Michaels is like a big brother, she tells me: protective, caring, a great person. Not to mention, one of the most storied personalities in the business. Tafoya says the thing most impressive to her about Michaels is that, to her knowledge, he’s never repeated the same huge call twice.

“Because he’s living in the moment,” Tafoya says. “There’s nothing planned. ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ [at the Lake Placid Olympics] was not a plan. He never plans it. He lets it come out as though he’s just watching it as a fan at home. It’s unbelievable.”

Heading into Sunday, one thing is for sure. No matter where they are watching from, Vikings fans will be hoping for one of those iconic Al Michaels calls from TCF Bank Stadium prior to the game’s end.

And for the rest of the Sunday Night crew?

Tafoya chuckles. “After the game, I’ll wake up Monday and start right in on the next one.”