If you look closely, you might see some tears in the Monday Night Football booth at Gillette Stadium tonight, because for ESPN’s play-by-play man Sean McDonough, the night means so much more than the battle that will take place on the field between the Patriots and their AFC nemesis Baltimore Ravens.
“When I got this job, one of the very first things I did was look at the schedule and when I saw there was a game in Foxborough, it really made me kind of emotional because my first thought was about my dad,” said McDonough, son legendary Boston Globe sports reporter, columnist, and pro football aficionado Will McDonough. “When they offered me the job, I got choked up in part just because of the magnitude of it. You work your whole life to try to get into an opportunity like this but also just thinking about how proud he would be, from all the nights when I was a kid, sitting on the couch watching Monday Night Football with my dad.
“I spent so much time as a kid going down to Foxborough with my dad and going to Patriots home games. Some of the most enjoyable times of my youth were those Sundays spent down there with my brother and sister and driving down and back with my dad, so to have a chance to be doing a Monday Night Football game from Foxborough, it’s definitely going be a very emotional experience and I know I’ll be thinking a lot about my dad because I always am anyway, but particularly so on Monday night I’m sure.”
During the 54-year-old McDonough’s youth in Boston, he suffered through the Patriots dog days in Foxborough where the losing came in bunches during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“My brother, sister and I used to sit in section 316 in the old stadium which was kind of the definition of a nose bleed section I guess,” said McDonough. “We were young kids and we were surrounded by characters. I‘m sure we learned a few words that we didn’t know before, but it was fun. It’s just awesome to sit there and go to the games and drive back and forth with my dad. The anticipation of going to the game when you’re driving down, then on the way back kind of rehashing the game with my dad, it was really cool. And that was the fun part of watching Monday Night Football too with him on TV, he would just engage in conversation about the game. We didn’t just sit there and blankly stare at the TV. I really think that’s where a lot of our interest in sports and our inquisitive minds came from — my brothers and me — were those conversations while watching sports.”
McDonough is only the fifth play-by-play sportscaster in the 47-year history of Monday Night Football, and the privilege is not lost on him.
“It’s a high standard to uphold and I feel very blessed to have opportunity,” said McDonough. “It’s just the magnitude of it. It’s a big production and obviously it’s very highly rated – the ratings have come down a little bit but it’s still the highest rated thing on Monday night almost every single week so from that standpoint it’s also different from what I’ve done before but it kind of reminds me of when I had the chance to do the World Series for CBS in 1992 and ‘93 just in terms of the size of the production, the number of people involved, and the size of the audience.”
One of the biggest stars of the MNF production is McDonough’s broadcast partner Jon Gruden. The two seem to be getting along well during their first season working together and are having a lot of fun in the booth.
“We do get along great,” said McDonough. “I’ve worked up over 100 analysts in all the different sports I’ve done over the years and they’re all unique in their own way as we all are as people but he is what you would think. One of the reasons why he so popular is that it’s genuine and sincere. What you see on TV is the way he is. He’s very passionate. He loves football perhaps more than anybody I’ve ever met my life. It’s an enormous part of his life.
“The first thing he said to me when I got the job is, ‘I want to get better’ and I said, ‘Coach, you do a great job, you’ve been doing this for eight years now’ but he said ‘No, you’ve been doing this a long time. I want to get better. Don’t be afraid to tell me how I can get better.’” That’s what I admire about him, too. It would be very easy to just coast on his personality because he really is a rock star. We go into these stadiums and people are hollering at him, want to have their picture taken with him, he’s a big personality for sure.”
Closer to home, McDonough is also known for his 17-year career as the Red Sox play-by-play man (1988-2004) where he spent nine seasons (1996-2004) alongside another popular color analyst in Jerry Remy.
“They’re different,” said McDonough when asked to compare Remy to Gruden. “Jerry off the air is really pretty reserved, and not really outgoing. Gruden is constantly on, 24-hours a day. I’m not sure he even sleeps. They’re different from that standpoint. I loved working with him.
“It’s like anything, a lot of the enjoyment of your professional experience is largely dependent on the people that you work with and I worked with Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas for all these years in college basketball and they’re two of my very closest friends. I did college football the last few seasons with Chris Spielman and Todd McShay, I text back and forth with Spielman ever day, I see McShay a lot as he lives here in Boston. They’re two of my closest friends so that’s the best part of it, when you feel like you’re going to work with your buddies, they aren’t associates. If you’re doing it right, they become your good friends. A couple of weeks ago, Gruden said, ‘I love you McDonough!’ and I love him, he’s a good guy. We’ve become really good friends. I admire people who have a strong work ethic and give it their all.”
A strong work ethic and ties to sports have been a staple of the McDonough family and it all started with Will, who paved the way for football writers to make the transition from newspapers to television in the late ’80s.
Sean’s brother Terry is the vice president of player personnel for the Arizona Cardinals and his brother Ryan is the general manager of the Phoenix Suns.
“Well, I think [Will] would be proud but I think he’d probably be more proud of our two sisters who are really the successful people and certainly the smartest and best looking of the bunch,” said McDonough. “Erin is a senior vice president at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Cara has a huge job in international business at Under Armor, but I think he would be very proud. When he died almost 14 years ago, he had been hospitalized about a month before he passed away and I went in to visit him one night and he actually talked then about how happy was and he just felt like we were all in a good place and on a good track and he was proud of all of us.”
Sean’s track has led him to broadcast some of the highest profile sporting events on television including the World Series, Winter Olympics, Masters, and just about every major college football and basketball game played in the last two decades.
“It’s hard to pick,” said McDonough when asked to choose his favorite game that he’s called in his illustrious career. “Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship series, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves, Sid Bream scored the winning run. Atlanta came from two runs down in the bottom of the ninth to win. A lot of people consider that one of the best games in baseball history. And I really think it was.”
Regarding his memories of Red Sox games he’s called, there’s one that stands out.
“I’ll never forget the night Tom Brunansky made the diving catch in the corner on the ball Ozzie Guillen hit down there during the last game of the 1990 season to win the AL East,” said McDonough.
That game happened before the technical advances we see in broadcasts now and many fans had trouble seeing the deep right field corner play on television back then.
“It was tough to see in the corner, the ump didn’t give much of a signal,” said McDonough. “Brunansky went back to pick up his hat so I think that’s why some of the other announcers thought that he didn’t catch it. I looked at Ozzie Guillen and I saw him slam his helmet down and stop running, so that’s when I was pretty sure that Brunansky had made the catch but I still have people at us now he’s all these years later come up to me and scream ‘BRUNANSKY!’ like I did that night, so it’s a memory that stays.
“I guess the other one that stands out is the Big East tournament where Syracuse and UConn played a six overtime game in 2009 that was unbelievable at Madison Square Garden. Or even last year at that Michigan-Michigan State game where Michigan was going to win, all they had to do is punt the ball in the final seconds, and the kid drops the snap and Michigan State picks up the ball and runs it in for the winning score.”
McDonough feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to call so many iconic sporting events.
“I’ve just been lucky to have been in the right place at the right time for a lot of awesome things,” said McDonough. “The Joe Carter walk off home run for the Toronto Blue Jays in the ’93 World Series, only the second time ever that the World Series had ended on a home run, Bill Mazeroski (1960) was the other one, so to have a chance to be there when something that big happens is pretty cool.”
Locally, McDonough will always be remembered for his presence in the booth at Fenway Park.
“I miss parts about it,” said McDonough on his Boston years calling games at Fenway. “The fun part about it was it was really one of the few things that where you can it’s OK to care about who wins and loses and have it show. When you’re the broadcaster for a team, then it’s OK. And I didn’t consider myself a homer by any stretch but I was certainly more excited when the Red Sox hit a home run than when the other team did. I want them to win but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to try to comment objectively on the games, but not I definitely wanted them to win so I miss the caring about who wins and loses because almost on the else I do I really don’t care who wins and loses, we’re not supposed to care anyway. You owe it to the audience to be objective but I miss that, and I miss Jerry Remy, interacting with him on a regular basis.”
Regarding tonight’s local battle between the Patriots and Ravens, the 34-year broadcast veteran thinks the country will be watching.
“It’s a matchup people are excited to see,” said McDonough. “The two first place teams with great histories including very spirited history head-to-head with a lot of meaningful games through the years. All the factors that go into driving somebody to watch a game are there for this matchup and I think it rate very well. The Ravens aren’t afraid to come up here, they’ve proven they can win, and as an organization they have that mindset.”
This Patriots team has come a long way from the one McDonough watched from the cold benches high above Schaefer Stadium.
“For a lot of my childhood they were really bad, one of the worst franchises in professional football,” said McDonough. “But they had those good years too, the Chuck Fairbanks teams were good. They got screwed in ’76 by Ben Dreith on the passer penalty and should have gone to the Super Bowl. I’m still pissed about that. But no one could have anticipated that it would become what it has. There’s a lot of people that need to share in that credit, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the Kraft family in no particular order. The Krafts have done a great job… the transformation of it is remarkable.”
One of McDonough’s favorite memories of calling a game in Foxborough years ago involves a famous figure who was an unknown back then.
“I did a game back in the old stadium when I was at CBS in the ‘90s with Hank Stram and the thing I will always remember about it was our booth runner, basically our gopher, was a young guy from Cambridge named Matt Damon,” said McDonough. “I wonder what ever happened to him? He was going to fetch soup for Hank Stram, and now he’s doing something that I’m sure is more lucrative. He probably got paid $50 that day to be the runner in the booth.”
Now Damon sits alongside Robert Kraft with other celebrities at Gillette and tonight McDonough will be a few feet away doing what he was born to do and making his family proud.