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How the big-timers cover sports

Jan 27, 2014 - By Randy Tucker

It's a lot easier than doing what I do during high school football season.

You might call it a sportswriter's dream.

Or, from another viewpoint, maybe just another day at the office. Over the Christmas break wife Sue and I traveled to a Pittsburgh suburb, North Huntingdon specifically, for a week with our daughter Staci and son-in-law Adam.

Contrary to the opinions of many who have never traveled to the Steel City, it is far from an urban jungle. Most of outlying Pittsburgh has deer, raccoons, fox and even coyotes roaming in and out of back yards. For a city, it's quite a rural atmosphere.

But it is a city.

We had a touch of culture on the trip with an original Sunday afternoon date to see a performance of the "Nutcracker" at the Benedum Theater in downtown Pittsburgh. But a conflict arose. A welcome conflict.

On a whim I contacted Nathan Castellanos in the Pittsburgh Steelers front office. I had worked with Nathan in 2008 and 2012 during interviews with Brett Keisel of Greybull at Steelers' training camp, but I had never tried to get a press pass to a regular season game. To my surprise, he returned my initial e-mail in under five minutes and instructed me to contact a press representative.

I did, and in less than 15 minutes had sideline and press box access for myself and Adam.

Oh, yeah, the "Nutcracker" performance was scheduled at the same time as the game. Adam works in the IT department for the University of Pittsburgh and gets discounted tickets as part of his job benefits. We were able to switch our ballet tickets to Saturday, and all was well.

Ballet and football, isn't that how everyone spends a holiday weekend?

The ballet was impressive, with dancers from all over the globe complementing the Pittsburgh Ballet Company in a truly memorable performance. Yes, the athleticism displayed on stage was the equal of that at Heinz Field the following day and that resemblance is one of the reasons football played in slow motion to classical music is so fascinating.

Our press passes were readily available after a check of our identification at the will-call window. Waiting just inside the door, stadium scanners and metal detectors began security checks. They searched our camera bags as well, but after those few minutes the entire stadium was ours to traverse.

We took the elevator to the fourth floor and met Nathan. The pre-game buffet was in full swing, with uniformed chefs and waiters offering ham, salad, an assorted breakfast menu, and a full complement of drinks. It was quite a contrast to the atmosphere present at most of the high school games I cover.

The press box at Heinz Field was a trip to another realm in terms of a sportswriter's daily grind. Stretching between the 40-yard lines and rising eight full rows from the huge windows in front of the booth the press box was a whir of activity -- most of it dedicated to Facebook and Twitter.

On any given night during high school football season I take photos early in hopes of utilizing available light before the limiting options of darkened football under dim lights makes shooting difficult (flash photography isn't my specialty). I always carry a Sharpie marker with me in case snow or rain make it impossible to use another pen in taking notes.

Balancing notes, keeping my own play-by-play statistics (because a growing number of high school coaches don't seem to realize that statistics are part of the game), and taking photographs in between -- and, finally, writing the story, too -- is part of covering local sports.

It's not quite the same for the guys with NFL beats.

On every play a team of spotters relayed information to a public address announcer.

"Heath Miller, four-yard completion from Roethlisberger on second and eight. Third and four. Miller's second reception. Roethlisberger is four of nine attempts," the announcer said.

At quarter breaks, every play, including down and distance, time and tackler or defender who broke up the play was passed out in written form. The same statistics were available on a dozen video monitors spread throughout the press box.

Three full-time reporters showed up to cover the game for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Wow, incredibly hard work.

At the half pretzels, hot dogs and soup were available just down the hall.

Most of the guys in the box were online reporters for various NFL associated websites. They spent most of their time posting on Facebook and Twitter and didn't pay attention to the game at all.

During post-game interviews the same indifference was displayed in the locker room. Just a couple of reporters asked questions, and everybody else recorded the responses on their smartphones.

Shouldn't writing for the big time be more difficult than the local beat?

It's not.

The complacency and redundancy of the dozens of reporters working the game gave me pause. It is much ado about nothing for most of them, but I called it a great weekend trip to the big time.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator.

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