I played my first game against the Detroit Lions in the old Pontiac Silverdome back in September of 1978. Winner! Coached my first game with the Chargers in 2002 against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Winner! My first NFL game as a broadcaster was for the Carolina Panthers at Clemson Stadium on a hot, hot muggy evening in August of 1995. I sweated through my jacket! (Winner? My dry cleaner.)
I had another first this past Monday night: guest at a Monday Night Football party. The men in my neighborhood each host (with the wives doing the real work) two games per season at their house. Nice system, food and drinks — all that stuff that you see on the commercials.
I finally got invited (been living in the same house for 7 years) and I arrived at 5:30 Pacific – about 10 minutes before the real kick off. Just a short walk across the street for me. The den was empty and I was the only guy there. A couple of the wives were setting up the spread.
Now, you have to understand, since that first game in 1978 pro football for me has been a job, my life’s work, my career, my means of employment. I took my job as a player and later as a coach very seriously and always considered myself a student of the game. The same goes for my role as an analyst for Sunday Night Football with Westwood One Sports. I was going to this party to study. Couldn’t help it, it’s my job. The guys started to filter in midway through the first quarter and by the time the Chargers had built a 17-0 over the Broncos the den and kitchen were full. Full of food, full of beverage and full of sound – you could barely hear the announcers.
Half of the guys were into the game, the other half wanted more beer and guacamole. Can’t argue with that.
The Chargers headed into the locker room at halftime up 24-0 – game, set, match. Peyton Manning or no Peyton Manning, teams don’t blow 24-point leads. The big conversation was how this Chargers win was going the affect the neighborhood pool. There was plenty of trash talk from the hometown guys who had picked against the Chargers.
I fielded tons of questions about Norv Turner and what kind of coach he is. How about Rivers as a potential Hall of Famer? Is Peyton washed up? This was all before the second half started. Obviously.
As I watched the second half as “just one of the guys,” witnessing history of what would become Manning’s biggest comeback of his storied career, I started thinking about the movie Six Degrees of Separation. The premise of the movie is you’re only separated from anyone else by six people. Well, I know Peyton, so everyone there on Monday night was just +1 – even the tortured and torched Chargers fans. Even better, my first Pro Bowl game my quarterbacks were Roger Staubach and Archie Manning, Peyton and Eli’s dad. It’s like I’m part of the family. Okay, maybe not quite, but by the time the comeback was complete I was in full throat and fired up rooting for both teams at once (that’s what announcers do).
So my first Monday Night Football party features a historic Peyton Manning comeback. I didn’t really need any reminding that the NFL is a heck of a lot fun, but it was a pleasure to see it from a fan’s perspective. In the immortal words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait” for the next Monday Night Football party. I’m hooked.
– James Lofton
James Lofton is the analyst for Westwood One’s coverage of Sunday Night Football. This week James and Dave Sims will be in Cincinnati to bring you all the action as the Bengals host their AFC North rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coverage begins Sunday at 7:30 PM Eastern.