'This is what football, period, is all about': ESPN's 'Monday Night Football' announcers talk Lambeau with fans, without and its mystique
GREEN BAY - The one thing more unfathomable than watching a “Monday Night Football” game from a Lambeau Field with no Green Bay Packers fans in it?
Last season was the first for Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese as ESPN’s newly assembled “MNF” commentator team. Not only were they new to sharing the announcer booth as a trio, but not anywhere in their more than 45-plus years of combined broadcasting experience had calling games in empty NFL stadiums week after week during a pandemic ever come up.
It was as surreal as it sounds, and perhaps nowhere more so than at Lambeau Field for the Packers-Atlanta Falcons game last October.
“One of the most hallowed stadiums in the league, if not the most, and it looked like a high school game,” Griese said. “That was not something that I ever thought in my lifetime I was going to have to experience.”
“Going to Lambeau Field is spectacular anytime," Levy said, "but it was just weird."
It will feel and sound much more like old times when the "MNF" crew returns to Green Bay for the Packers-Detroit Lions matchup at 7:15 p.m. Monday — the first full-capacity (81,441), regular season game at Lambeau since January 2020.
Packers fans have their work cut out for them if they’re to match the energy and electric atmosphere of the “MNF” opener on Sept. 13. The Las Vegas Raiders beat the Baltimore Ravens 33-27 in a wild overtime win in the team’s first game in front of fans at the new $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium. You couldn’t have scripted a Week 1 game for a national television audience any better.
“The crowd was ridiculous. It was insane,” Riddick said. “It came back to you quickly just how special and how you should never take for granted the impact and the power of the crowd ever again, if you were one of those people who did.
“It was exciting, slash, emotional, a breath of fresh air,” he said. “You kind of exhaled and said, ‘Oh damn, we’re back. It’s back to the way it should be.'”
“There’s nothing like calling a game in a stadium that is buzzing, that is engaged in the game, that is cheering at the right moments, that’s affecting the outcome of the game, whether it's a quarterback on an opposing team that can’t communicate or false starts, any of that stuff,” Griese said. “That’s all part of the game. This game was meant to be played with fans, in front of fans.”
Pulling off 'MNF' during a pandemic
For Riddick, Griese and Levy, the 2020 season wasn’t without its challenges both in the booth and behind the scenes. Safety protocols meant they were under the same COVID-19 restrictions as the players. They traveled to each city, but there was no going to team facilities to watch practice or interact with coaches or players. No in-person production meetings.
“Everything was Zoom, Zoom, Zoom,” Riddick said.
Due to quarantining and testing, they seldom left their hotel rooms. Except for the occasional chance passing in the hall, they didn’t see each other until they arrived at the stadium on game day, and even then Riddick, Griese and Levy traveled in separate cars to make the short ride over from the hotel.
“It was hard doing games without fans. It’s hard doing games without being able to socialize with your team, have a meal or get to know each other on a personal level,” said Griese, whose first time sharing a broadcast booth with Levy was at Lambeau Field in 2016 for the Louisiana State University vs. University of Wisconsin game. “We had to really persevere through that, not just the three of us, but the 125 or so of us that work on the crew.”
Zoom happy hours on Saturday nights became a way to keep connected, Levy said. Each person involved in the production would go to the hotel lobby bar, get a beverage of their choice, bring it back to the room and turn their camera on a for a team toast. Just being able to see more than 100 smiling faces and joke around went a long ways, Levy said.
Once in the booth, it was just the three of them — Levy on play-by-play and Griese and Riddick as analysts — and spaced far apart. The statistician and spotter, normally just an arm’s length away, worked from separate booths elsewhere in the stadium. Additional video monitors in front of Levy allowed him to see the spotter’s finger or the notes on the statistician’s legal pad.
NFL crowds are often like another voice in the booth, and without them there was more time for the announcers to fill on air. Being a three-person commentator team, instead of the traditional two, worked to their advantage.
“We needed that extra voice so there was not a lull, a void from the natural crowd sound,” Levy said.
Imagine the pregame without all the hype and pageantry to whip up the home crowd.
“It all seemed very surreal and like it was obviously missing something, until the game started and you put your headset on and the ‘Monday Night’ music starts and then you hear the audio that they would pump through the TV as far as crowd noise. Then it just became about the game, which was cool,” Riddick said.
Lambeau is 'a very iconic, iconic place'
By his best calculations, Levy has been to every stadium in the NFL. His favorite three game-day atmospheres, in no particular order: Green Bay, Kansas City and Seattle. Buffalo comes in a very close fourth.
He traveled to Lambeau a few years ago for a New England Patriots game with a dozen of his buddies who had never been to Green Bay.
“Typical Boston sports fans, and I mean the jerseys and the hats and the bad accents and everything that goes with that,” he said.
He wasn’t sure what kind of reception they would get.
They checked off many of the first-time visitors must-dos, including photos with the Lambeau Leap statue in front of the stadium and a butter burger from Kroll’s West across Ridge Road. It was a November game, so the weather was cold and so were the metal benches at Lambeau.
“It was my best fan experience of my NFL history,” said Levy, who grew up a New York Jets fan and went to many games. “To be a fan and have that NFL experience, I would put it at the top of my list. It was such a good time. The people were so nice. Lambeau is so special how they’ve kept the old-fashioned feel with the sort of modern amenities.”
Riddick played one game at Lambeau Field, in 1998 preseason as a player with the Oakland Raiders, and has been there multiple times to scout games while working in the front offices of the Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles.
He’s never not surprised at the aerial view of the stadium nestled in a neighborhood when he flies into Green Bay. That small-town feel reminds him of what it might be like if someone dropped an NFL franchise in southeastern Pennsylvania where he grew up.
“The purity, the history, knowing some of the iconic games that have taken place there, the setting that it’s in, it kind of embodies everything that I think football is,” he said. “I think people from Pop Warner all the way up to the professional level can kind of relate and feel at home when they go to Lambeau.”
Whenever he visits he often finds himself looking around in awe, whether its the names of legends like Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and Reggie White on the facades of Lambeau’s bowl or the row of Packers-themed party houses across Lombardi Avenue.
“It’s a very iconic, iconic place,” he said. “You just get this sense this is what football, period, is all about and this is really the epitome of pro football, and that’s cool to me. It will always remain. I think people will tell you in different words but they’ll always kind of describe it the same way, that you have nothing but respect for Lambeau when you go there.”
For all the sights and sounds absent from Lambeau last year, there's one Riddick is especially eager to experience on Monday night.
“Definitely looking forward to hearing the good ol’ ‘Go Pack Go’ chant. No question. I love it.”
Contact Kendra Meinert at 920-431-8347 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KendraMeinert.