Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

November 6, 2007

Calling the Play of the Year

Trinity play-by-play announcer Jonathan Wiener talks about his role in the longest two seconds of football ever played.

dan fleschner

For a football team to pull off a last-second gimmick play to score a touchdown and win an important game, it takes preparation, skill, and a hefty dose of luck. In the case of Trinity University's unbelievable 15-lateral winner, those same forces were at work for the person who shared the play with an awestruck nation.

Jonathan Wiener, a sophomore play-by-play announcer at Trinity, wasn't even supposed to be there for his school's pivotal game with rival Millsaps College on October 27. He didn't think he'd be back in time from a journalism conference, but a last-second audible and some maternal intervention got him to Jackson, Mississippi, to see—and call—the most talked-about play of the year in sports.

Jonathan Wiener
"I'm watching ESPN, and all of a sudden, I heard my voice. I don't want to cheese it up too much, but I basically flipped out."

Jonathan Wiener

For days afterwards, the play showed up on sports and news shows across the country, and we're going to keep seeing it, well, probably forever. The video is just that good, and, fortunately for Wiener, the call measured up to the action. Eight days after the "Miracle in Mississippi," Gelf spoke with Wiener to find out what the experience was like, how he celebrated, and how his life has changed.

Gelf Magazine: What has all the attention been like?

Jonathan Weiner: It's been surreal, to be honest. You can use any adjective to describe it, and it wouldn't do justice to what's happened.
Now, having played a football game since then [Trinity defeated Centre College on Saturday] and look back on it a little better, I can see that it changes your life in so many ways. Not in grand ways yet, but it's been awesome.

GM: Who's the most interesting person or the most interesting media outlet to contact you so far?

JW: Getting interviewed in the New York Times was pretty cool. You never really anticipate being in the New York Times. I was on NPR's Weekend America show. That was a thrill. Sports Illustrated, too. You can't even sum it up in a few words. It hasn't sunk in quite yet. We're gonna see this play forever.

GM: You're just a sophomore at Trinity, so how many times had you done play-by-play before this game?

JW: I've been doing games on the radio for two years. Well, less than two years, actually, but this is my second year. I had started as a freshman. One of the things about being a Division III school is that there are more opportunities to get on the air and do games.
I stepped in during the third game of my freshman year and did color commentary when the regular guy couldn't make it. I guess for play-by-play this was the eighth or ninth time. I only do home games and some of the road games, but I've probably done about 14 or 15 total.

GM: This was a road game, and I understand you weren't originally going to do it. What's the story there?

JW: Tuesday, I was reading the press about it, and I was getting really excited for the game. But I was going to be out of town at a journalism conference. When I saw I could make it on time, though, I decided to go for it.
I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi [where Millsaps College is located], and my mom was willing to pay for the plane ticket. So she came through with that to see her baby boy and have us eat dinner on Saturday night. I had a nice visit with them.

GM: So in some ways, you owe all of this to your mom?

JW: I owe everything to my mom, anyways. She'll love that. It is true, though. It was all fortuitous. It all worked out in a flash, and we got ourselves "Lateral-palooza," or whatever they're calling it.

GM: You were obviously familiar with the players because you nailed pretty much every name when things got crazy. What did you do to prepare, and how much preparation did you do during the week?

JW: Getting good sleep on Saturday morning is imperative. I try to sleep as late as possible. People ask me how I know all the numbers. I think that a basic element of broadcasting, whether it's a running play in second quarter or pass in third quarter or anything, you gotta know the numbers and the players. If you don't, you're defeated from the start. You gotta be able to focus on what's going on on the field. I've spent more preparation time at the beginning of the season to learn all the players, so now I don't have to spend so much time preparing.
During the week, we go over game notes, but it's not like Fox prime-time preparation. We do work, but it's really just knowing the teams and knowing about both teams.

GM: Tell me about the game for the first 59:58. Millsaps was obviously winning, but what was the story of the game to that point?

JW: It was such a great 59 minutes of football, and it was fitting to have an ending like that. The other thing was, this game was basically for the conference championship. Both teams were 7-1 coming in. We had won the SCAC championship 13 years in a row, prior to last year, when they beat us in Jackson.
[Former University of Alabama head coach] Mike DuBose is the coach, and he did a great job last year to win the championship. So it was going to be a huge game for Trinity this year, a shot at revenge for last year. And the game lived up to it, with easily the two best teams in the conference.
It was a tremendous 60 minutes. It was 24-16 and we had to go 75 yards in no-huddle with five minutes to go just to get back in the game. We had to convert two fourth downs on that drive.

GM: So the play begins…you know it's the last play…your partner mentions that laterals could be in the offing…and then they begin. What were you thinking at this point?

JW: A number of thoughts. I mean, we were so dejected, it was such a huge game, and I remember thinking, I don't even want to call this game. I wanted to take my headset off, I was so demoralized. But as a broadcaster, you've got to call it until it's finished.
You're not thinking you gotta call this game because something crazy might happen. You just have to call it until it's finished.

GM: Now we get up to five…six…seven laterals. The ball hits the turf, linemen are touching the ball… did you just think it was a matter of time before the play ended?

JW: With every lateral until he passed the dern goal line, you think it's going to end. The odds, objectively, if you think about it…it's just obscene. Every play you think he's gonna get tackled. It was miraculous—but at the same time, our players had to make a lot of plays. It looked like [running back Riley] Curry was gonna get tackled, but he split three or four defenders, saw the hole and went for it.

GM: Do you remember anything from when the last guy broke for the end zone and scored?

JW: Pandemonium. We were just going crazy. You try to keep your head, but I don't really remember what happened. We were just going wild. Just couldn't believe it.
The play had spanned the 30-yard line all the way to the end zone. Everyone on our team ran on the field, just hysterical. All the Millsaps players were exhausted and laid out all over the field.
People said it looked like a battlefield. I try to stay away from equating football and war, because I think that's a dangerous thing to do, but that's what people were saying.

GM: What was happening in the press box? Were you in your own booth or were there other people up there with you?

JW: We didn't have a skybox, we just had a little booth about as big as half a subway car. We're on one end of the booth, the Millsaps guys were on the other end. There were some officials and scorekeepers in the middle. It was weird—everybody was just amazed. Even though Millsaps had lost, they were amazed, in total shock. I was doing what I could just to broadcast it.
We had good congratulations about it. The Millsaps people are great people. They were shocked though. We all knew we had just witnessed something we'd never see again.

GM: So you get off the air and take your headset off. What's the first thing you did?

JW: I helped [our producer] Big Bob take down the equipment and unplug the radio wires. Justin Thompson, who was the color commentator, is the brother of #80, Shawn Thompson. So Justin was out of there right off the get-go to go celebrate on the field. Bob has trouble moving around sometimes, so I stayed to help. We just were screaming. From that moment on, it's been like a life high. Exhilarating. From that two seconds, my life has changed. I can't stop thinking about it.
Walking around and seeing the players, you can feel them smiling behind their eyes still.
The whole team went out afterwards to have barbecue. The scene at the barbecue place was amazing. People there must have thought we had just conquered the world.
We probably played the video clip 100 times. Everyone in the whole restaurant watched it. There were even Jackson State players there, who had just played their homecoming game down the road, and they were into it.
After that, I went home to see my mama and have a beer. It's just been one thing after the next. Unfathomable.
Now my picture's in the Times. Shoot…

GM: Did you feel good about your call? Did you think you nailed it?

JW: Yeah, I thought so. They put it on ESPN and let the whole thing run. I knew the video would be on ESPN, we just didn't know when or in what context. From a personal note, I was holding out a little hope that they would use my call, but I didn't expect the audio to be fully cemented with the play.
So I was watching ESPN with my parents that night. Of course, my dad was asleep on the couch and missed it.
So we're watching and it comes on, and they played the whole call. At that point, it set something off in me, and that was really cool. I'm watching ESPN, and all of a sudden, I heard my voice. That moment—I don't want to cheese it up too much, especially since I want to be known as a good broadcaster, more than just the guy who called one play—but when it did go on ESPN, I basically flipped out. Which was warranted, all things considered. I had always dreamed of hearing my voice on ESPN, and then there it was.

GM: Aside from going out for barbecue and having dinner with your parents, did you do anything to celebrate?

JW: Hell, yeah. I can't go into detail with what, though. We celebrated, you bet we did.
We don't get a lot of publicity, so for everyone involved, the whole school has been in a great mood around campus. We're now one win from the playoffs. It was a huge win in terms of that. It kept the season going for a lot of these seniors, our quarterback specifically.
We've got one game on the road on Saturday, and we're in. It's an exciting time to be a part of this football program. We've got a veteran coaching staff, 18 years, Steve Mohr—they've done a good job of putting it behind them. They take football real serious down here in West Texas. It's all about championships.
But we got T-shirts made and the whole nine yards.

GM: What do the T-shirts say?

JW: There's one that says "Miracle in Mississippi" and has a diagram of the laterals and the whole play. That's pretty neat. On the back it's got the whole roster, and it's got my name on there, which is nice.
There's another shirt that was inspired by them beating us last year. Millsaps is called the Majors, so we had a shirt that says, "Miracle in Mississippi—We Kicked Major Butt."

GM: Do you want to do be a broadcaster as a career?

JW: It's one of the things I'd like to do. I like to write. I'm an English major, and I've always wanted to do sports journalism. Whether writing or broadcasting, it's been an ambition, and I love doing it. Football's great, but I also love baseball and basketball.
I'm on the newspaper here and did some internships writing about basketball. I can't think of anything much better than to talk about sports in a very simple form. That'd be pretty great. But I've got a lot of school to get through. My mom told me not to drop out just yet.
I always wanted to be on ESPN, and I knew it wouldn't be as a player. I was always good, but I was never big enough or fast enough.
This was a highlight, but I hope this isn't it for me.

dan fleschner

Dan Fleschner is a producer at NBC's Today Show.

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Article by dan fleschner

Dan Fleschner is a producer at NBC's Today Show.

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