Merrill Reese will treat this Sunday morning like any Sunday morning during the NFL season. The longtime voice of the Eagles will wake up with butterflies in his stomach and begin his drive to the stadium with memorized jersey numbers rattling around in his head. And, like always, he’ll get to the Linc early.
Only the game isn’t there.
The Eagles will open up their 2020 season at FedExField in Washington but Reese and the rest of the WIP broadcast team will be stationed in a spacious suite at Lincoln Financial Field. Reese, Mike Quick and Howard Eskin will still be calling road games this season; they just won’t be traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s totally unusual,” Reese said this week. “It’s the first time in my career I’m doing an Eagles game that I haven’t been at."
A first for everything
Reese, 78, became the play-by-play voice of the Eagles for the 1977 season, so he’s entering his 44th year on the job.
And he’s never missed a game?
“Never,” Reese said. “I knocked on wood. But, no, I’ve never … I don’t like to talk about it, I’m superstitious. But for the past 43 seasons, going into my 44th, I have been at every one. That includes preseason, strike games, that includes everything since 1977.”
So this Sunday, a streak will be broken that will probably never be duplicated. Including regular season, preseason and postseason games, Reese has called 898 straight Eagles games in person.
That streak will end on Sunday, but Reese is making the most of it. At least he still gets to call the games. Heck, he’s just excited there will be a 2020 season. And it’ll lighten the blow that Reese won’t have to call the opener from the broadcast booth tucked into the corner of FedExField.
“For the away games, we will have monitors, which, in this case, is actually better than our normal seat in the end zone in Washington,” he said. “In other stadiums, perhaps, it wouldn’t be the same thing. But in Washington, that’s such a bad location anyhow that half the time we’re guessing.”
Making it work
The decision that the broadcast crew wouldn’t travel was made about a month ago. After input from the Eagles and the broadcasters themselves, Entercom Philadelphia deemed the safest decision was to broadcast road games remotely.
A big factor in that decision was the fact that broadcasters will not be allowed on team planes this season. And sending Reese, Quick, Eskin and the entire crew on the road via commercial flights, to hotels and to some stadiums with fans just wasn’t the safest way to handle this season.
As for calling games remotely, there were plenty of details to work out, which created some stress on the WIP management. But with help from the Eagles it figured out a feasible plan to make it all work.
On Sunday, Reese and Quick will sit in the second row of the suite so they’ll be able to see monitors with the live game feed. They’ll be stationed about four seats apart to maintain social distance. Eskin will be in a different booth.
Next to Reese, separated by plexiglass will be his longtime spotter Bill Werndl. Statistician Terry Small will be in a different row. And longtime producer Joe McPeak will also have glass in front of him. Any notes coming from the producer and statistician will come through a screen instead of sheets of paper.
The entire team ran through a rehearsal on Thursday and Reese said it went “great.”
Perhaps the biggest difference this year is the addition of pumped in crowd noise. The noise you’ll hear during the WIP game broadcast on Sunday will actually be under the control of the NFL and is different from the crowd noise that will be pumped into the stadium for players to hear.
“The rehearsal … I don’t want to jinx anything because I’m so anxious about everything all the time, the rehearsal, I would say, went good,” WIP program director Spike Eskin said. “I am cautiously optimistic as I am about everything. Anxious and cautiously optimistic. I would say that I’m working with the best at what they do, I believe, in the country.
“My goal was to make sure that they could see the game in a way that they could describe for fans and feel the game in a way that they could transfer that over to listeners. And I think we’ve created an environment for that. So I’m excited to hear the final product.”
Ready to go
Over the past few months, Reese has watched as baseball and hockey announcers have called games remotely. That’s just the way things are this year.
“I mean, the whole year is a first time in so many different respects,” Reese said. “It’s a year unlike any other, so naturally, my job changes slightly too.”
But there’s plenty that won’t change. Reese is planning on trying to call this game the same way he has the 898 that have preceded it. That means a morning full of nerves followed by him locking into a zone.
Sure, it’ll be weird to be in an empty stadium a few hours drive from the actual game.
Sure, it’ll be weird to not hear and feed off of the energy from the crowd.
Sure, after 43 years of calling games in person, Sunday is going to be a little unusual. No doubt. But Reese and the entire broadcast crew are determined to make the best of it.
“I’m just so excited to see football back that the excitement and the love of the game is something that I always feel,” Reese said. “Yes, it will be different and I will miss the Eagles fans going into that stadium where, in recent years, it’s been more Eagles fans than Washington fans, but that’s the way it is this year. The excitement, the thrill of doing an Eagles game, it all will still be prevalent.”