HOUSTON – In the ongoing quest to systematically monetize every corner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell and his minions have turned media day into Opening Night, a production complete with fireworks, an alleged crowd of 10,000, and a midpoint concert by a band (X Ambassadors?) none of the trudging sportswriters desperate trying to gather anecdotes for a week’s worth of stories have ever heard of.
Media night — making its prime-time debut on the NFL Network, live from Minute Maid Park, with the Patriots not settling in for their interviews until nearly 10 p.m. — was absurd and subdued at once this year. I’m honestly curious if this looks interesting on television, because in person the whole thing looks like the Star Wars bar scene, but without any helpful beverages. It seems to me it’s a you-have-to-be-there event, but the NFL seems to believe you want to watch.
I can report that there were fewer cartoonish characters in costume than in recent years, at least in the recent years when the Patriots were a participant (2011, ’14) and I’ve been in attendance. Pick Boy from Nickelodeon, a media day staple in recent years in his discount Robin costume, was a notable no-show, perhaps because he has no show. There was a man in a dress who looked vaguely like Shaun White who called himself The Empress of Austria, Elizabeth I, but no one demanded his ID or green card and instead took his word for it. Everyone is welcome at media day . . . er, Opening Night.
For the most part, the players gamely answered the usual weird questions. The Falcons’ Jimmy Staton helpfully informed us that the weirdest question he’s ever heard in the huddle is, “Why does your breath smell so bad?” Dwight Freeney, a longtime Patriots rival, passed on a word-association opportunity to connect Tom Brady to “dead meat” or “must kill” or “I can admit he’s better than Peyton,’’ and instead went with the boring if true answer: “legend.”
Elsewhere, Patriots receiver Danny Amendola, who is enjoying a Houston homecoming, revealed a firm grasp of his fan base: “Patriots Nation is loud, they have sick accents, they drink a lot of Dunkin’s, and they’re awesome.” And Bill Belichick was at his deader-than-deadpan best. When asked whether he was enjoying Opening Night, he replied: “I can’t tell you how much of a highlight it is.”
Perhaps the strangest — and certainly the most unexpected — development of media night is that a moment of poignancy emerged from it all. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, good-naturedly navigating the frivolous, goofy, and even controversial (read: President Trump-related) questions aimed his way, suddenly found himself revealing a real glimmer of emotion.
A young boy, who was escorted around the festivities by former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer as part of a sports card company promotion, caught Brady’s attention from the 25-deep scrum around his podium. He asked a question he had asked many other players throughout the night. None gave a more emotional response than Brady.
“Many people say you’re their hero,’’ the boy asked. “But who’s your hero?”
Brady, responding in that engaging tone parents often use when they’re trying to encourage their own child, replied: “I think my dad is my hero because he’s someone I look up to every day.” Then he stopped. And despite his efforts to stop, he teared up and his voice cracked, much like he did in the telling moment in the Brady Six when he began to cry while talking about the crushing disappointment of falling to the sixth round in the 2000 NFL Draft and what it felt like in the moment.
It was the warmest and truest scene in a night that is more than a hail mary’s distance away from seeming authentic. There’s no way a candid, sentimental moment with Brady is what Goodell and the like had in mind when they turned media day into a show. They probably miss Pick Boy. But it’s by far the best thing they got.