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Q/A with Rich Eisen: His on-camera emotions about Sabol; progress of NFL Network; the Real Deion

Note: I’m going to be out for a couple of weeks. However, I’m leaving behind some gifts for the holidays: The best of my Q/As. I’ll feature a new one each day through Jan. 2. Please check in. Happy Holidays to all.

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Posted on Sept. 24

Rich Eisen tried stand up comedy in a former life. Humor is a big part of his repertoire as the signature host of NFL Network.

Viewers, though, saw another side of Eisen last Tuesday. Eisen was visibly emotional in announcing the death of NFL Network President Steve Sabol. Here’s the link.

Eisen knows how much Sabol meant to his life. Without Sabol, he said, there would be no NFL Network.

Eisen has been there from Day 1 in 2003. He brought the channel on the air, saying “Your dreams have come true.”

Nine years later, it has become a dream job for Eisen, who took a considerable risk by leaving a fairly great gig at ESPN. In addition to his hosting duties on NFL Network, he also has a popular podcast that allows him to hang with stars like Larry David, Matt Damon, Jon Hamm, among many others in Los Angeles. And he ventures even further out of football by hosting a reality show, The Great Escape, on TNT.

In my part 1 of my interview, Eisen discusses Sabol, his on-air reaction, the progress of NFL Network and working with Deion Sanders.

What was is it like going on the air to announce the news of Sabol’s death?

I’m like everyone else my age. I grew up on NFL Films. My love of the game was stoked by NFL Films. I had the fortune to actually meet the man, and call him my colleague and know how he affected my career. Without him, the NFL Network never gets on the air. It wouldn’t be an embryo without him and his dad (Ed Sabol).

So to be the person on NFL Network given the assignment to break the news, it was moving to say the least.

How did you feel about becoming so emotional?

I got a call earlier in the day that this could happen. On the drive in, I’m thinking, ‘Is this really happening? He’s larger than life.’ It just caught me.

My philosophy in broadcasting is if there’s an emotion to the story and you’re feeling it, there’s no shame in showing it. I didn’t even give it a second thought.

Were you thinking about how he impacted your life?

It wasn’t just me. I always have Twitter open. I love to see the reaction from everybody on Sundays. Sabol was trending on Twitter within 15 minutes of the announcement. There was a collective mourning, and people were tuning into our network as if they were laying a wreath on a public memorial.

When I wrote my book about joining NFL Network, I asked Steve to write the foreword. Within 90 hours, it was in my hands. And it was a take on a topic of the book that I never would have thought of.

He’s one of those types of people who are inspirational. I’m not talking about professionally. I’m talking about personally. When we first went on the air, I never met the guy. Within six weeks, there’s an envelope. And it’s a hand-written note from Steve Sabol, saying, ‘Great job.’ Wow, to think this guy would take the time to do it. It was inspirational.

You took a big step leaving ESPN in 2003.

In the grand scheme of things, you could say that. But at the time, if you were going to bet on a start up, a channel about the NFL, run by the NFL, specifically Steve Bornstein, you’d make that bet.

How far have you and NFL Network come in nine years?

I’m thrilled with the way everything has turned out. I love being at the center of the NFL. The idea of the NFL as a year-round venture has become more of a mainstream idea. At one of my last SportsCenter idea meetings in April, ’03, somebody brought up an NFL story and was laughed out of the room. Now ESPN has two live NFL studio shows. This network was created to raise all boats for the NFL.

It’s been great and getting to plant a flag on the podcast. I love the free-form format.

How important is it for the network to go from 8 to 13 Thursday night games?

We all understand it is a valuable commodity. The fact we’re entrusted with more games means a lot. Means more travel. It means a lot of work. But we all understand the value of live NFL programming.

To me, what we do on our postgame show is very special. Watching the players run off the field and come to our set. Some of them just want to hear from Deion, Marshall and Irvin. ‘Tell me how we did.’ That’s great.

We’re in a good place now with 13 games and our Sunday morning show. I’d put that show up against anybody’s. And our game coverage. We’re all very proud of it.

What is it like to work with Deion Sanders. Is he the same off camera?

He’s the same. The most successful people I’ve met are the same on and off the air. Chris Berman. That’s not an act. When I got there in ’96, I observed Berman do a SportsCenter. He only did a couple a year at that point. And the guy who walked into the room for an idea meeting was the same guy I had seen on TV for a decade.

Deion is the same thing. He’s a great broadcaster and teammate. He’s always aware of what other people want to say and how to set it up. Some of my favorite converations with him are about baseball. Listening to him about riding the bus in the minors. I just love everything about him. I’d go through the wall for him.

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