By Richie Zyontz
FOX NFL Lead Producer
Editor’s Note: Richie Zyontz has been an NFL producer for FOX since 1994 and the lead producer for the last 20 seasons. He has more than 40 years of experience covering the league and has produced six Super Bowls. Throughout the 2022 NFL season, he will provide an inside look as FOX’s new No. 1 NFL team makes its journey toward Super Bowl LVII.
Another holiday, another working weekend away from home. Thank goodness for understanding families. But that’s the occupational hazard of sports television. As Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone in Godfather II, ‘’this is the business we’ve chosen.”
So with Christmas upon us, our FOX team added to their frequent-flier accounts and converged on Dallas from 23 different states to help cover the NFC East showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cowboys.
Malice in Dallas
There’s nothing like the excitement of a major sporting event. The hype, the trash talk and the gambling all ramp up several notches. The air is electric with anticipation.
And no, I’m not referring to that sidebar contest between the Eagles and Cowboys.
It was the tennis grudge match between Greg Olsen and director Rich Russo that captured our crew’s attention — an event now forever known as The Malice in Dallas.
Competition can turn friends into foes, and judging by the pre-match mood, Olsen and Russo were heading in that direction.
Two cameras were on hand and a live stream was set up for a select few with too much time on their hands. Our entire crew turned out in support. Kevin Burkhardt and associate producer /self-invited guest analyst Rich Gross called the action, Erin Andrews interviewed the athletes and Mike Pereira served as the umpire.
Among all the tennis matches I’ve witnessed, which is none, this one stood out for the high quality of play. Russo started strong, exhibiting good form and a steady forehand, and jumped out to a three-games-to-one lead in the first set.
But then Olsen’s court coverage, long reach and combination of power and finesse proved too difficult to overcome.
The result was the former Pro Bowl tight end winning in straight sets , 6-4, 6-1.
Malice in Dallas
FOX Sports NFL analyst Greg Olsen and director Rich Russo played a hotly contested game of tennis before the Christmas Eve Cowboys-Eagles matchup.
Whatever ill will existed prior to the match dissolved into mutual respect after, and the good fellowship on the A-Crew reached new heights.
A new chapter to an old rivalry
Rivalry games are enjoyable to cover because they are so rich in history. The Cowboys and Eagles have provided many lasting memories.
In the broadcast, we added a few production elements honoring both teams’ legacies. My favorite was a cleverly edited piece with audio from former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson tearing into Eagles coach Buddy Ryan after a particularly heated game in 1989 — forever to be known as The Bounty Bowl.
These teams didn’t like each other then, and that mutual hostility hasn’t changed a bit.
Every game has its own unique rhythm. It’s our job as producers and directors to react and adjust to that rhythm. Sometimes the game crawls along with multiple stoppages and penalty flags. And sometimes the game simply doesn’t let you breathe because the ball is moving up and down the field with one big play after another. That’s how this one felt me.
It was a Christmas Eve classic with Dallas prevailing 40-34.
After many weeks of non-competitive games, our crew has covered two beauties in a row. There’s nothing like the drama of a meaningful late-season NFL game. Director Rich Russo, bouncing back nicely from his defeat on the tennis court a day earlier, deftly captured the emotion on both sides.
One of our crew members didn’t have far to go to attend this game. His name is Michael Brandt, but we call him Mookie. This Dallas native has been a terrific replay operator with us for 25 years and he’s got quite a family story to tell.
Eyewitness to history
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. It was a horrible event that changed the course of history. The country reacted and mourned from a distance. As a first grader at P.S. 40 in New York City, I was confused as to why we were being sent home so early. The tragedy made Dallas the center of the universe for the wrong reasons.
While many of us watched Walter Cronkite on CBS News chronicle the event, Mookie’s dad Ernest wasn’t near a television. He was there.
Ernest Brandt was one of thousands of onlookers gathered to greet the presidential motorcade on that fateful November day. He staked out a good spot just outside the Dallas Book Depository in Dealey Plaza.
He heard three shots. The first, he said, sounded like a motorcycle backfiring. The second made it clear there was a shooter. After the third shot, eyewitnesses were clearly pointing to a sixth-floor window in the Book Depository as the likely source of the gunfire. A man named Abraham Zapruder was positioned on a rise behind Mr. Brandt with his Bell-Howell movie camera. One onlooker clearly visible in his black fedora standing feet away from the motorcade is Ernest Brandt.
Mookie’s dad is on the Zapruder film before, during and after President Kennedy is shot.
For many years thereafter, Brandt has served as an unofficial historian of the assassination, sharing his memories with tourists in Dealey Plaza up until his death in 2017 at age 91.
Whatever and wherever we are assigned to cover next week, it will be hard to top the game we witnessed today. The Cowboys and Eagles gave us an incredible matchup; as David Helman wrote after the game, this is one we should all hope we get to see in the playoffs. Rest assured that if it does happen, the FOX Sports A-Team will be there to cover it.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
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