Growing up in Ballentine, John Howard dreamed of one day providing a network’s play-by-play account of the Super Bowl. His second choice? To serve as color commentator for tonight’s game from Indianapolis.
Howard, a Dutch Fork High and Newberry College graduate, never realized those dreams. So he took a different route to being part of the biggest game in all of sports. Howard will work his fourth Super Bowl tonight as NBC’s technical director for instant replays.
“It’s part mind reader and part magician and a whole lot of playing the coolest video game in the world,” Howard said this week of handling replays from 40 cameras on a master panel with approximately 1,300 switches. “I somehow landed the dream job.”
That dream job has included working the NASCAR circuit for Fox Sports since 1997, four BCS national championship games, various bowl games and an NFL wildcard playoff game each of the past three seasons. His work in Indianapolis this week was preceded by handling TV replays for the Pro Bowl in Honolulu.
The 38-year-old Howard’s schedule puts him on the NASCAR tour every year from February through June. After a couple of months off, he picks up the 17-week NFL schedule from August through December.
He will work tonight in one of about a dozen NBC production trucks, this one in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium. The Super Bowl is different from regular-season games in that Howard’s production truck will be dedicated solely to instant replays.
NBC’s producer oversees the overall direction of the telecast, calling on each play for the technical director, who essentially executes the vision and cutting of the show while sitting at a gigantic Video Production Switch board.
After nearly every play, the producer and the technical director call on the replay director – Howard – to tap into one of his available cameras to produce an instant second, third, fourth or sometimes fifth viewing of the play that was just shown live to the national audience.
“The best way to describe the recording system is it is the neatest TiVo system you’ve ever seen,” Howard said. “Each camera goes into a channel of a server, and that channel can be backed up and played in real time while it continues to be recorded.”
That is a far cry from the early days of instant replay when a video recorder was first rewound, then played back. Instant replay was introduced to sports for the 1963 Army-Navy football game. Only the game’s winning touchdown was shown on instant replay and commentator Lindsey Nelson advised viewers, “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again.”
Today, instant replays from numerous angles are taken for granted by fans watching on TV. Game officials also use the network’s instant replays to verify or overturn plays that are reviewed.
While the challenge of Howard’s job is to be on top of every replay of every play, the reward comes when the production crew “nails” – his terminology – a particular play for the viewing audience.
Nothing may ever top the instant replays of David Tyree’s spectacular catch for the New York Giants on their game-winning drive late in the 2007 Super Bowl. Tyree caught the ball behind his own helmet to complete a 33-yard pass from quarterback Eli Manning to the New England 24-yard line. Fox Sports immediately showed the catch from one end zone, then the other, followed by two views from one sideline.
“There was some question on the field whether he caught the ball when they watched it in real time,” Howard says. “The officials relied on us to have the best look possible.”
Then there was the off-field shot from the 2011 Super Bowl when Howard was instructed to keep a camera on the luxury box where actress Cameron Diaz was seated with baseball star Alex Rodriguez.
“We were on another shot that was coming through my switchboard,” Howard recalls. “The director saw what was happening. He saw the two of them together. He readied the shot. He said, ‘Stand by to take camera 28.’ “
Howard began previewing the shot instead of waiting for the call from the director. That is when Diaz grabbed a piece of popcorn and popped it into Rodriguez’ mouth. It might have been the most poignant and memorable shot from that Super Bowl.
With his eyes trained to watch several cameras at once from play to play, Howard sometimes has a difficult time tracking the winner and loser of a game. He has left many stadiums without knowing the game’s final score.
His work during timeouts also precludes him from seeing the much-anticipated commercials during a Super Bowl telecast. So, he will watch a replay of the game sometime this week in Columbia with his wife, Mira, and 3-year-old daughter, Nadia.
It is not exactly what he dreamed of years ago, but it is a close enough second.