That old mantra of jobs you like not actually feeling like a job wasn’t ever something I was able to wrap my head around back as a kid. Perhaps it was because I’d never met anyone that was truly in love with their employment or perhaps it was because I’d never had any sort of job other than going to school, but now, as a seventeen-year-old that played his cards right and is now unofficially employed as an NFL-style color commentator for the Upstate Dragons arena football team, I can proudly say that my past mindset was incorrect. I’ve poured hours and hours of my time into that organization, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
Now the Dragons organization has only existed for about eight months, and before its public inception in December of 2016, I was kind of in limbo. I knew that I wanted to be employed for something relating to media, but had nothing other than that broad preference to guide me along my path. I’d dabbled in a handful of fields at that point - mainly digital and written media with a bit of broadcasting mixed work mixed in - but couldn’t find much of a way to tie any of it together. It was my junior year and I knew that my test scores were starting to turn heads at some local colleges, but to them I had no selling points other than what I’d managed to do academically. I knew that smarts weren’t going to be enough to land big college scholarships, and until I could find an opportunity to get out in the community and really do something unique, my school transcript was all I had going for me.
Fortunately for me, things were about to change. Right at the turn of the new year I stumbled upon an announcement online that a new arena football team - then named the Greenville Dragons - would be coming to the Upstate in 2018. Their 2017 season would be spent exclusively on the road, where they could start to garner a fan base without breaking the bank. The potential for a major opportunity was there for the taking - like most days-old sports franchises, the team didn’t have much of a public following when I found out about it - but at the time my only thoughts about the organization concerned whether or not I should risk getting too attached to a team that, if proven to be like nearly every other arena football team in US history, would stick around for a year or two - perhaps even less - and then crash and burn violently and never be heard from again. I sent an rather solemn email to a team representative and actually managed to get a reply from them about a half-hour later. I was assured, if not guaranteed, that the Dragons’ owners had learned enough from the Upstate’s failed arena football teams to know what not to do as an organization, and that because of that, they’d be sticking around for a good, long while.
That single message was really all it took to ease my cynicism about the team, and with some newfound
confidence, I let them know that I was a big arena football fan and that I’d be open to supporting the Dragons in any way that I could manage. I told him that I’d made a perfect score on my ACT writing exam and that I’d be totally open do some writing or record some interviews for the team, and that served to intrigue the team to some extent. A team representative, Mickey Goodin, asked to talk to me over the phone about my proposition. After a forty-five minute conversation , I was set not only to serve as the team’s official beat writer, but also as their primary interviewer, website proofreader, team videographer, and chief video editor.
It was quite the load for a sixteen-year-old - but it was also something that would look outright amazing on a college resume. My father and I were invited to the team’s first tryouts in Greenville. Mickey wouldn’t be there, but Kent Merideth, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne and former arena football quarterback now set to serve as the Dragons’ head coach, would. Mickey seemed to have let him know that I was coming but didn’t tell him much else, as my first handshake with the man seemed to throw him for a big loop - I assume the information about me still being in high school hadn’t gotten relayed to him at that point.
As odd as it was, though, that tidbit of information regarding my age was discarded almost as quickly as it was introduced. Prospective players, many of which had never even heard of the game of arena football, began arriving in herds, and despite some of them being more than twice my age, we hit it off pretty fast. It was clear that football was something that everybody on the field had a common interest in, and that provided a topic of conversation that everybody could engage in. I was actually able to provide guidance for some first time arena players by giving them a dose of what our coach has called my “supreme knowledge of arena football,” and while that classification may be a bit of a stretch, it’s been something that the players - many of whom I now consider some of my best friends - have been quite thankful for.
I’d followed enough arena football teams in the past to know that exposure is extremely difficult to come by without some sort of online presence, but I also knew that a Facebook and Twitter account wouldn’t be enough to round up dedicated fans. I’d seen how the YouTube sports community had evolved to cater to livestreamed events, and saw that as an opportunity for exposure that the franchise simply couldn’t pass up. Kent got really excited about the concept and wanted to get things started right away, and without knowing anything about what to do or how we were going to pull it off, I set up a YouTube page for the team and started advertising that all of our games would be streamed live through the channel.
In retrospect it wasn’t too smart of an idea to dive right in without any prior knowledge, but fortunately my father, who prides himself on being a technology guru, was able to get us on track. He watched hours of video guides and read what seemed like hundreds of articles about livestreaming, and he was the one that worked everything out - the unseen brains behind the operation.
A short few weeks, an Amazon cart full of equipment and one practice stream later we had everything sorted out and ready to roll, and I was set to take up the helm as the Dragons’ livestream color commentator - the same job held by big-time broadcasters like Chris Collinsworth and Gary Danielson. I wasn’t jumping straight into the fire - I had experience providing public address for Chapman High School’s JV football games and had jokingly provided commentary for some of my Madden games in the past - but up until April 9th, 2017, I’d never sat down at a table in front of a field and talked over a game of football. I’d be relying solely on that “supreme knowledge of arena football” and the “announcer voice” that had landed me the PA job at Chapman, and it was admittedly a bit nerve-wracking.
Fortunately, though, I wasn’t alone in my new line of work. I was assigned a partner in crime in Bob Fitzpatrick, a 72-year old veteran that seems to have provided the PA for every team in the Upstate at one point or another and now serves as the PA announcer for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. He took up the helm as the Dragons’ play-by-play commentator (it’s much more similar to public address than the more numbers-oriented color commentary job) almost as soon as our coach called him in, and that gave me a lot of time to breathe during my calls - I’d previously been under the impression that I’d be flying solo and providing both play-by-play and color commentary for the team.
Bob and I also got a good bit of practice done during training camp. During scrimmages at practice the two of us would sit in the bleachers at our practice field in Greenville and act like we were calling a game, which probably distracted our players a good bit more than either of us would like to admit. Nobody could really blame us, though - it was “practice,” after all, and everyone has to get in their reps one way or another.
And then came the big day. April 9th, 2017 - the Upstate Dragons embarked on the four hour drive to Fayetteville, NC to play their franchise opener against the Cape Fear Heroes, a triple-A arena football team that’s been around for six years (which, in arena football, is the equivalent of about ten decades). The players were ready, all the technology for the livestream was set to run at the drop of a hat, the clock had nearly struck 7:30 and the teams were beginning to take the field…
And the Dragons lost 38 to 6.
Strangely enough, I was by far the most disappointed member of the team after the contest concluded. The few players and coaches I could bring myself to talk to seemed rather at peace with the loss, whereas I’d seen the whole thing from two to three hundred feet in the air, unable to do anything but watch and tell a microphone why the Dragons’ offense was having so much trouble against a Heroes defense that wasn’t nearly as much of a threat to the Dragons as they were to themselves. The game was all but over after the Dragons managed to turn the ball over twice and surrender twenty points in less than a minute’s time, and anyone who goes back and watches the contest (which is still archived on the team’s YouTube channel) can hear that hopelessness reflected in my commentary.
But for all the doom and gloom that came with the first game, there seemed to be a lone saving grace - the live broadcast that I’d helped put together.
Viewers had apparently called in during the game and asked who was providing what some of them so graciously referred to as “primetime-level commentary” and were shocked when they found that the men behind the microphones included a 72-year-old retiree and a high school junior with social anxiety. When I found out that the stream had actually been watched by more than three people I was as surprised as anyone, and was elated when I found that well over a thousand people had tuned in to watch the game.
And that was a trend that’d continue for the rest of the year. Our other five games that got streamed all netted over a thousand viewers, which, when put into perspective, means that over a thousand people that may not have ever heard about the team were able to learn about it and see their season unfold right in front of their eyes, with TV-style commentary there to move things along and fill in the gaps during halftimes, quarter breaks, and that one time that a power surge knocked the lights out in Fayetteville’s arena.
The Dragons’ inaugural season ended on June 3, 2017, when they lost their final contest at the hands of the Raleigh-based Triangle Torch. The Dragons are now looking to 2018 and have already put numerous building blocks in place to make the team almost infinitely better than it was last year, both on the field and off. We’ve now got an arena to call home in the Anderson Civic Center. We’ve got a new, well-run league to play in, and we’ve got players calling in from California and Hawaii asking when tryouts are (November 18th at the field behind the Anderson Civic Center, if anyone’s wondering - check the team website at www.dragonsfootball17.com for more details). We’ve got new cameras and computers for the livestreams. Rumors even suggest that we’ve got NFL legend Jerry Rice and some of his friends tuning in on game days to watch the Dragons duke it out against teams all across the southeast.
But there’s some things that aren’t going to change next year, and hopefully won’t change for a good while. At least three spots on offense and three on defense are set in stone. Kent Merideth is still our head coach and Mary Ann Hamby Rivest is still our general manager. We’ll still be wearing teal, black and white on the field. We’ll still be playing against a lot of the organizations that we went head-to-head with last year. We’ve still got players trying to make time for the team between their busy work and family lives.
And Bob, my father, and I will still wind up sitting at a folding table high above all the action, streaming all of the Dragons’ games for the world to see.
And that’s something that I simply can’t wait for.
In The Booth
by Luke Ruff