There Is Access Right There In Front Of The Croissant Table

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This morning I attended the "ESPN NFL Kickoff Breakfast and Session with George Bodenheimer" in New York at the Bryant Park Hotel where " executives, producers and on-air commentators " were made "available to discuss the upcoming season..." and I still don't know why. I phoned Leitch about coming into New York today for this "ESPN breakfast thing" and was vague about the details and it wasn't until I was in the downstairs Cellar Bar, with its dungeon-y looking chandeliers at the Bryant Park Hotel staring into the gleaming eyes of ESPN's Executive Senior Vice President of Studio and Event Production, Norby Williamson (Norby!), counting his teeth, firmly gripping his hand, that I realized maybe I'd fluttered too close to the damn sun. This was a "press event" to the nth degree, with a roomful of ESPN's top brass and most of the Monday Night Football crew here to officially "kickoff" the new season: There's Ron Jaworski laughing like a Sesame Street character. There's Tirico looking like a bank owner. There's Cris Carter looking surly and confused. No Kornheiser. This is dangerous, unsettling ground. This is "access." I should really take more time to read press releases. Or, better, not read them at all.And it's not for the reason you would think. This was a perfectly suitable "Monday Morning Breakfast" private press junket. It was most likely highly informative for those who needed to know "what the chemistry's like between everyone" or "underrated match-ups on the schedules this year" or "Favre....?" And everyone at ESPN is perfectly nice and sharply dressed and ready to getcha "anything you need" at a moment's notice. This wasn't what I was expecting, though. Really. I thought it would be more of an carnival-like public atmosphere with plenty of New York's Midtown drones milling around and asking for autographs, their only hope for an eventful Tuesday hinging upon whether or not they got to shake hands with Jaws or walk away with a Tony Kornheiser mousepad. Unh-unh. This was work. A job, for most people in that room. There's the Associated Press. There's the Wall Street Journal. The New York Post. Neil Best from Newsday. And then there was me, with a name tag splatted to a shitty Gap sports jacket that was a crumbled mess in the bottom of my closet just two hours before my train left Philadelphia at 6:37 a.m. "A.J. Daulerio: Deadspin." And, no, Deadspin wasn't the only blog invited. Pro Football Talk got one. Fanhouse. The Big Lead. Probably more. None of them showed, though. Perhaps it could be perceived as a calculated maneuver by ESPN to begin actively courting relationships with these once undesirables — for "protection" from salacious commentary or damning critique of their product — but it's nothing that slippery. No, now, with sports blogs generating enough eyeballs to be their own army of "needle movers" it's just...good business. ***** So, I'm standing there face to face with Norby(!), smiling, listening to him praise Deadspin and how its practically "mainstream" right now and "a lot less salacious" than it used to be and thanking him and wondering how on earth this has happened and how Will would probably (weakly) punch me in the face right now for just standing there like a sweaty fool taking this all in. But I was captivated; I gazed into those bulbous Norby eyes — which oddly do resemble a pair of exclamation points — and his gleaming teeth and his expensive-looking haircut and I'm slowly remembering back to the infamous memo...the bike rack...keep the trees.... "Hey, I believe in transparency," he said. " I understand people think it's funny but I think employees like to be kept up to date on things that are going on..." or something like that. Then Norby invited me to Bristol. "You should come see the offices!" In person, Norby seemed like one of those guys who grew up entirely cloistered off from normal people, yet had a childhood that was incredibly privileged. Like his 10-year-old birthday party probably had fireworks and a cake that played music and giraffes running around the lawn and shit. Or he could be an orphan for all I know. An orphan raised by Great Gatsby impersonators. ***** Cris Carter has been escorted over to me. Cris meet A.J. (from Deadspin!). And Cris stood there, sizing me up, ready to answer the standard MNF fluff, but I just stood there blabbering and asking him odd, Philadelphia Eagle-related questions that he didn't seem too into answering, like, "So, what was it like playing in the Fog Bowl?" Answer: "Really foggy." It was like an awkward first date as I sat there rambling about Randall Cunningham and what he thought was the best Buddy Ryan team and Cris stood looking around the room trying to get help or talk to someone who would ask him the important questions about "joining the Monday Night Crew" and all that. "I only played in Philly three years, man." (On drugs, ahem). He seemed tense, though, like he was waiting for me to spray him with a water pistol or fart on his leg. First ballot Hall of Famer! And then there's Jaws, who is car salesman-nice to everybody and spends a lot of time laughing and talking about footballfootballfootball! like a man who's suffered some sort of seizure. He's really happy about the "(Fightin') Philadelphia Soul, though. Ask him about that and it's like asking him if you could see pictures of his grandchildren. Last two minutes of that championship game? Intense. Then Jaws proceeded to "fucking" and "holy shit!" (under his breath, though) his way through the anecdote of what it was like waiting for those final seconds to tick off the clock...Philly Curse...not wearing the hat in the tunnel... Bon Jovi. ...Good guy...Charitable....Rich... Fun to be around.... Bought a very big championship ring. Got it. ****** At this point, a man with a suit grabs a microphone on the top of the small staircase, encouraging the 40 or so collected in the room to huddle close and listen to Norby (Norby!) take the microphone. He does. He's excited. He can't wait for the Monday Night Football season to start....dumb luck about getting the Jets against the Chargers so early...there's an "unpredictability" to the NFL.... And then my phone rings. Loud. In the middle of this small ESPN press conference being held on the top of a tiny staircase my cellphone is blaring "The Trooper" at a volume slightly higher than Norby's corporate rally cry. I finally get the thing to click off only a short time after he finished. I apologize to those in attendance who didn't get the last minute of the speech. Last thing I got was something about the NFL being "unpredictable." Then Tirico gets up to the microphone. He's smooth. He's a Toastmaster General. He hits all his spots and engages the audience with his enthusiasm and humility about being part of such a cultural icon like Monday Night Football. He's like everyone else....and is that what you had playing on your cellphone? Huh? "Was your ringtone the Monday Night Football theme?" Oh. He's asking me. Right now. In front of the ESPN elite and the assembled press. "Sorry. It was Iron Maiden actually." Laughter. (Blogger...) After the speeches, I was introduced to Mike Tirico who apologized for signaling me out. I apologized for being "unprofessional". He's a disarmingly genuine guy who went out of his way to compliment blogs and Deadspin. "That's our audience," he said. Somebody's read "God Save The Fan", I thought. He has that good-guy handshake and I believe I even returned his handshake with the equally political shake-plus-forearm grab. Good guy, that Mike Tirico, I thought again. I left before the George Bodenheimer session. It was because I both had to and wanted to leave at that point. I felt like I'd just did something wrong, like I'd accidentally pushed a button that made part of Deadspin disintegrate into ash. I don't know why. I've been to press conferences before for this site and for various other publications, but I found this one both fascinating and troubling at the same time. Is the access we so desperately never, ever sought being offered now? And did I just fuck up by leaving too early or staying too long? Don't know yet. But the croissants, like Tirico, were genuinely good.