CHARLOTTE – It’s the night before Dick Stockton’s 619th NFL game in the broadcast booth, his penultimate broadcast of the 2018 season, and he’s celebrating with a little trivia. The production team, along with Stockton, Mark Schlereth, and sideline reporter Jen Hale, are enjoying a light dinner while running through talking points for the Carolina Panthers’ Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons on Fox. After noting all the milestones Christan McCaffrey is close to hitting – with graphics to match – Stockton quizzes the team on a little MAAC fun.
“Anybody know the mascot for Canisius?” Stockton asks.
The room has no clue. One voice offers up the Purple Eagles (that’s Canisus’ biggest rival, Niagara), and there’s a few shaking heads before Stockton smiles and delivers the answer: the Golden Griffins.
A phrase that follows those who last in the industry as long as Stockton has is “he’s forgotten more than you’ll ever learn,” but in the case of Dick, it doesn’t seem as though he’s forgotten much of anything. He’s as sharp on his college basketball team names as he is on the golden era films he’ll still watch on TCM, or lyrics to showtunes he plays at home after self-teaching himself the piano his senior year of college.
And despite a Hall of Fame career that’s seen him call Super Bowls (for the NFL’s international broadcast), NBA Finals, the Olympics, Villanova basketball’s historic upset of Georgetown, and Carlton Fisk’s epic home run in the 1975 World Series, he’s still able to get up for a game between two underperforming, playoff-missing NFL teams on a sunny December day.
“I really enjoy what I do,” Stockton says. “Doing the three hours of a game, when it’s over it’s like it went 10 minutes. That’s what it seems like to me. I really relish the blank canvas and then not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Schlereth and Stockton started a routine neither had done with any other broadcast partner prior to this season. The day of the game each week, they’d get up and have breakfast. It wasn’t some grand gesture; it started with Mark asking Dick to do so. It’s become tradition, and it’s allowed the pair to grow more comfortable with one another, both personally and professionally.
It’s important for the pair to talk, not even about the game, but just talk to each other and foster their relationship. They take turns paying, but they order the same thing each week — Mark’s taken to calling it “eggs and ham” — at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday during the season.
“I tell him every week: ‘You know what’s going to happen?'” Schlererth says. “He’s like, ‘What?’ It’s a running joke. I go, ‘They’re going to kick the ball off and a game is going to happen, and you and I are just going to get to talking about it.’ What a blessing. How cool is that? But he’s been an incredible mentor, and I have just so much respect for him as a human being, as a partner.”
Stockton relishes the opportunity to serve as a mentor in this stage of his career. There’s always going to be another young broadcaster gunning for the big call, but Stockton’s had the big call, time and time again. At this point, he gets more pride out of making others around him better, whether that be Schlereth now, Ronde Barber a few years ago, or Troy Aikman, who he helped mentor before the Hall of Fame quarterback teamed up with Joe Buck.
Mark and Dick have become an unlikely pair, and Schlereth beams when the production crew presents Stockton with a bottle of Angel’s Envy at the close of the production meeting.
“This is one of the best groups I’ve ever had,” Stockton tells the room. “And I’ve done a lot of games.”
Schlereth gets with Stockton after the meeting ends, and double checks that they’ll be together bright and early for breakfast the next morning.
“My best friend is 76 years old,” Schlereth says.
From interviews with Stockton, Schlereth, Fox Sports producer Eric Billigmeier, and Fox Sports director Scott Katz, certain pieces of wisdom kept coming back up. Here are a few lessons we picked up from Dick Stockton on broadcasting – and life.
1. Don’t overtalk
It seems counterintuitive to becoming a play-by-play guy, but Stockton and the production crew stressed how important it was not to try to seem smart or force your own knowledge into things. Use the medium wisely, and act accordingly.
As Katz puts it, “Know when to shut up. Know when to get out of the way. Know that you’re part of a big picture.”
It’s basic, but it’s a hard thing to do.
“It’s important not to fill the air with talk because people don’t listen then,” Stockton says. “They don’t listen. It’s like being in an elevator with Muzak playing. And if you let the pictures and the sounds really dictate what goes on, you’re using the medium at its best.”
2. It’s not about preparation, it’s about reaction
Preparation is important for anything. You have to know what to expect, what to gameplan for, and be informed. But as with anything in life, if you try to stick to a script, it won’t ever go according to plan. For Stockton, it’s about putting in the work ahead of time, and then being ready to throw it all away if the game dictates that.
“It really is not about preparation, but it’s about reaction and how you react to what happens on the field,” Stockton says. “Whether it’s a weather condition, whether it’s crowd, whether it’s whatever. And that’s the fun. I enjoy it because it tests your mind. If you have a quick mind, which I think I’ve developed over the years, you could react quickly and have the right words come out at the right time. So anyway, that’s the appeal.”
But Stockton has always been focused on getting better, and tinkering with the formula if things aren’t quite working.
“But I have to say in the last 15 years,” Stockton says, “I’m always seeing what I could do better. I prepare less now. I prepare much less now than I ever prepared, and even think I can prepare even less. I really think I can. But I just want to have something there. But at least I know this now, if I prepare, I’m not going to use it all because I prepared for it. I know the timing and just a sense that if my partner is saying something, this will work right here. Or stay away. So it’s an innate thing.”
3. Know your role
This is something Stockton emphasizes frequently. He takes an old school journalist’s approach to broadcasting. The play-by-play guy does his job, and his job is to move the broadcast along like a maestro, set up the analyst, and react to what happens on the field. Trying to impress the audience with knowledge is not what he’s here for.
“I work with an expert,” Stockton says. “I work with a guy who played the game. So for me to have to impress upon the audience that I know a lot, or that I have lot of information takes away from the time that he has to explain what he wants. If it’s about the things that I did, then it’s not the way it works. I have a role. My role is to set the tone of the broadcast, to be a reporter. That’s what I do.
“I’m going to do the play and I’m going to get out,” Stockton continues. “He can go anywhere he wants with it. And if there’s time, I can put an exclamation point on what he says. If not, I go onto the next play. And it seems to work out that way.”
4. Launch the boat
There are so many things to worry about when starting a broadcast it can be dizzying. But that’s where Stockton’s experience comes in. If you’ve done Olympic speed skating, a critical World Series at-bat, or a deciding NBA Finals game, you can determine how to keep things calm and treat every new kickoff like an opportunity.
“He’s taught me so much about just broadcasting,” Schlereth says. “We have hand signals, because I tend to get a little excited, if I get too excited he’ll just give me a, you know, calm down. Even how you approach a game, like when you walk into the beginning of the game, sometimes I just want to sprint into the game.
“No, you’ve got to launch the boat,” Schlereth continues. “We’ve just got to launch the boat. Let’s get the boat in the water, let’s let this game happen, as opposed to trying to make the game happen, just let the game happen. There is a constant, like there is a constant learning curve, and sometimes you walk out of a game, you feel like it was great. Sometimes you’ll walk out of a game, you’ll feel like ah, I did such a horrible job. But like I said, he’s been there kind of every step of the way, mentored me through it.”
Stockton’s steady hand works with guys who are so passionate about the game, they want to share all their knowledge. But audiences can’t absorb all that in a three-hour broadcast. You may only get to use 10 percent of what you know. The important thing is in how you start, and where you go from there.
5. Make those around you comfortable
This is one of Stockton’s key points, and it comes back to the breakfasts he and Schlereth have shared. The same tactics that work for one person won’t work for another. You have to get to know somebody, learn their habits, and communicate accordingly. Stockton won’t force the issue with his partner; instead, he’ll work to understand where they’re coming from and offer them gifts, just as actors do on the stage.
It’s a good rule of thumb on how to treat anyone in your life.
“Treat them decently, treat them with respect,” Stockton says, “and listen to them, and make them comfortable. You can always tell if you make someone nervous or comfortable. I’ve worked with announcers, analysts in sports that did not make me comfortable. And there are all kinds. And I’ve run across them, I won’t name them. But I remember all the ones that were good to me.”
6. Don’t worry about anyone coming for your job
The evils of late-stage capitalism may send off warning signals daily or hourly that if you aren’t getting ahead, you’re falling behind. But if you are so focused on getting ahead that you forget where you are or how you got there, you aren’t being true to yourself. Constantly looking over your shoulder or comparing yourself to others is poisonous, and won’t keep whatever’s coming for you from happening anyway. Stockton is a perfect example of how to keep things in perspective.
There will always be someone younger, better, stronger, or smarter than you. That’s the natural evolution of things. But Stockton isn’t worried about that. His role has evolved over time, and he’s comfortable with what he’s responsible for now. He can still make an impact on others’ lives, and in this industry, and he’s freer — and happier — in living the way he lives.
“I remember that there was an occasion where a prominent play-by-play man who happened to be at CBS was doing a local team and was edged out,” Stockton says. “And he was very upset and he was going to do something. And I told him to calm down. I said, ‘Things are going to work out for you. Don’t make waves and just accept it.’ Because that’s what happens. And things have worked out for them. You know what it is? It’s all the trail, all the circumstances. Highs and lows. And everyone has them. When you’re younger, it’s harder to deal with. When you’re older, it’s easier to deal with actually.”
7. Listening is the key to anything
Stockton loves old movies and stage plays, and he takes a lot of his cues from those classically trained actors.
“I’ve watched a lot of YouTubes about acting,” Stockton says. “I’m fascinated with that profession and I wonder whether I could have been a decent actor, and I watch Michel Cain and I see acting coaches, and I see actors talk about acting, and it has nothing to do in a given scene whether you’re just there listening, and actually the key, which we go back to which they say is the key in acting, so maybe the key in what we do, is listening. Now if you listen to your partner, the chemistry is automatically better. Just like in a scene in film or on stage, if you’re listening, you’re a better actor. You’re not thinking of, ‘Whats my next line?’ Or if he’s talking on the broadcast, I’m not thinking, ‘Okay, when he’s done I’m going to talk about Cam Newton.’ No, I’m listening to what he says. The listening may be the key to the whole thing. It’s the key to anything.”
We can all be better about listening, and it goes back to avoiding “overtalking.” If you aren’t listening, you aren’t learning.
8. Work is what you do, not who you are
There’s a tendency among young people to pretend to love work, or to put way too much of themselves into what they do. It’s part identity, it’s part trying to find oneself, and it’s part survival. But it’s not sustainable — a company does not care about you, a company won’t take care of you, a company won’t bring you joy. You have to do that for yourself. It’s possible to love what you do, and to love the people you work with, and to love where you work, but that starts from inside. No one job will accomplish that for you.
Stockton has made a career out of broadcasting sports. He’s been on the call for thousands of games. But he’s not a broadcaster; that’s not how he identifies himself. He’s a person, with interests, hobbies, and drives.
“I like film and I love reading,” Stockton says. “I love reading mystery novels and spy novels primarily. I love reading and I love seeing movies. I play the piano, it’s my hobby. And I sing when I play and stuff. And I love what I do. But it’s what I do, it’s not who I am. So there’s a difference there.”
He adds, “I love what I do. I love covering, broadcasting sports. But it’s not like if I didn’t do a game on a given week, I’d go nuts.”
Uproxx was hosted by Fox Sports for this story. You can find out more about our policy on press trips/hostings here.