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Bolerjack's job not as easy as it looks

New Jazz play-by-play man often on road and takes preparation seriously

Craig Bolerjack, the guy with The Dimple and the golden baritone who gets paid to talk about ballgames on TV for a living, has heard it before.

You call this a job!?

From August to April, he flies from his home in Sandy to cities around America to call the play by play for professional and college football and basketball games for CBS Sports.

But he does have summers off.

Where do I sign up, you're asking?

"Yeah, I hear that all the time," says Bolerjack, sitting in the basement of his home.

Name an NFL or major college football or basketball team, and he's probably sat in their press box — Notre Dame, Miami, Syracuse, Florida, Stanford, Tennessee, LSU, Alabama, North Carolina, UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan — plus most NFL teams. Sometimes he'll even double dip — a college game one weekend, an NFL game the next. Poor guy.

Bolerjack, 47, did all this while co-hosting a daily local radio sports gab show until a new assignment forced him to resign. This winter, in addition to his CBS commitments, he will take over the TV play-by-play duties for the Utah Jazz, replacing the legendary Hot Rod Hundley, the only play-by-play man the franchise has ever had.

"CBS and the Jazz are working to make it work," says Bolerjack. "I will miss some Jazz games."

Bottom line: Bolerjack has a front-row seat to many of sports' biggest games. This is a job you could get used to. He was watching one of his son's ballgames recently when here it came: "Gosh, I wish I had your job," said a stranger.

Not that he's asking for sympathy, but it's not as easy as it looks. Just try talking to millions of people for 3 1/2 hours without a script. "People think all I do is show up and talk about the game," says Bolerjack.

His game preparation begins on Tuesday. He watches the teams' previous games on videotape, taking notes on the line play, quarterback mobility, weaknesses, strengths, etc. Because jersey numbers aren't always immediately seeable from the booth, he looks for visual cues to help him identify players quickly — posture, running style, sweatbands on the arm, whatever.

Throughout the week, packages of notes are delivered to his home from CBS and the universities about the upcoming game. He surfs the Web for "any nugget about a player."

He also begins building the game-day chart he will use — a large crib sheet on poster board that provides quick information on each player and team. He writes it out by hand, noting jersey number, size, weight, hometown and bullet points. During the week he continues to add notes to the chart.

That same day he participates in a conference call with producers, directors, the color analyst, coaches and his assistant to review depth charts, strategies and any issues that might be topical that week. Then they spend another 30 minutes on the phone with players.

On Wednesday, three days before the game, he flies to the site of the game. He spends much of Thursday visiting with coaches, watching videotape of previous games in their office. That night he attends a production meeting over dinner to discuss what they want to do for this game — what stories and issues they want to discuss, what points they want to make, the flavor and tone of the game they want to establish, what players will be highlighted. This enables the production staff to coordinate graphics and video clips.

Bolerjack hates nights spent in hotel rooms. "Too lonely," he says. "It's a void." So this is when he does much of his work, staying up into the wee hours, but always with the TV on to keep him company. He continues to work in his room the next morning, and then attends more meetings. On Friday night he attends a production meeting.

"I start to formulate how I'm going to open and the things I'm going to talk about," he says. "The last thing I do is prepare what my opening statement will be."

He shows up at the stadium three hours before the kickoff to eat and glad hand and visit with any of the 45 production people it takes to produce a single game telecast. Once in the press box, he sets out his charts "and now I become the old athlete; let's focus. Get our game plan in place. I start building up." He sets up everything just the way he likes it — scorecard on the right, 5x7 cards containing notes on his left. A statistician sits in the seat next to him and a spotter stands behind him.

From there, Bolerjack says, "It's an amazing orchestrated chaos, and I'm the traffic cop." He calls the play by play, but meanwhile he has to keep tabs on other things. His spotter, who acts as a second pair of eyes because Bolerjack's attention has to be elsewhere, is signaling to him with a series of hand gestures — fumble, penalty (personal foul), 27-yard pickup, etc.

Bolerjack is trying to think of ways to set up his color analyst, former NFL quarterback Steve Beuerline — "Steve, that's back-to-back off-sides penalties. Maybe crowd noise is a factor."

All the while, he has producers speaking into his headset while he is talking to a national television audience ("We're going to a break, 5-4-3-2-1 . . . "), and Bolerjack is glancing at his chart to identify players and impart tidbits about them and their team, periodically glancing at his 5x7 cards on which he has written seven or eight points about each team that he wants to pass to the audience at some point during the game, checking them off as he goes, and trying to find seamless transitions from one point to the next.

"I'm very hyped afterward," says Bolerjack. "As soon as I get on the flight, I sit down and go through my head: Damn, I forgot this, or, damn, that third down play, I wanted to call it differently. You've got 90 plays and 35 commercials and 12 updates to go to. A lot of things run through your mind. Hiccups happen. If I ever do the perfect game, I'm retiring."

This is the perfectionist in Bolerjack. In his home office there are boxes of videotapes of the games he has called, but he rarely watches them because it's too painful.

"I hear the way I wanted to say it in my mind — I wanted to do it that way. Oooh, I wish I had called that third down play this way," he'll think to himself.

He came to the booth by accident — an injury, actually — but he seems to have been born to it. For one thing, he has the pipes, a baritone that purrs and rumbles like an idling Porsche. People used to ask him, "Where did you learn to talk like that?" Even as a kid, his voice was so loud and projected so well that he was often scolded for yelling.

"But I'm not yelling" he would protest.

"It happened all the time," says Bolerjack. (His son Brody has the same problem.)

To this day, Bolerjack's wife, Sharon, will tell him, "Craig, you've got to keep it down."

"What am I doing?" he'll say incredulously.

"Your voice carries. Throttle it back."

Says Bolerjack, "I'm thinking, 'Here I am again, living my childhood.' It's always been an issue."

Bolerjack also got The Look to go with the pipes — the square jaw, the full head of hair, the broad shoulders, plus the dubious trademark dimple in his right cheek. In his early days of broadcasting, a woman approached him as he was standing in line at a fast-food restaurant to tell him, "I don't like your dimple. Have you thought about having it surgically repaired?" He's heard references to the dimple for years — Hey, you got a hole the size of the ocean.

All this notwithstanding, he might never have found broadcasting if not for a bum knee. At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, he was an offensive tackle and linebacker for Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, one of the top teams in Kansas that year. In the fourth game of his senior season, he was throwing the lead block on a running play when he got hit in the knee and heard two popping sounds.

"I looked down and saw my lower leg bowing out six inches to the side," he recalls. "I couldn't move. I grabbed my thigh pad and popped it back into place and was helped off the field. It felt like the knee was full of gravel."

He tried to return to action a month later with a brace, but in practice the knee buckled. Diagnosis: Torn MCL and ACL ligaments and cartilage. He underwent surgery.

He had had big plans for football. They were fueled by a handful of letters from universities and junior colleges, but most of the interest dried up after the knee injury. He walked on at Kansas State and participated in spring ball and fall camp, but then he tore the ACL on his good knee and his career was finished.

"I was going to quit school, I was so bummed out about the knee," he says. "It was your typical 19-year-old mentality."

His older brother, Steve, who was also attending KSU at the time, thought Bolerjack's love of sports could be fulfilled another way. He set him up with a friend who was studying broadcast journalism, and Bolerjack enrolled in broadcast classes. He wound up as a disc jockey playing music from 10-2 every Tuesday night on the campus radio station.

Eventually, he enrolled in an entry-level radio and TV class and was asked to do radio sports updates.

"It was therapeutic," he says. "I was back in it (sports) a little." By his junior year he was sports director at the station.

He declared a handful of majors at KSU — biology, water and soils conservation, wildlife biology, secondary education. Finally, he turned to broadcasting. He did his first play by play work for the Lucky High School Cardinals from the top of a snack shack.

"There was a hole in the roof, and a lady would stick her hand up through the hole and hand us hotdogs," says Bolerjack.

He did some of his first play-by-play work on the road from a crow's nest at the top of a telephone pole. He and his partner had to climb up there like a repair man, on metal spikes, and the crow's nest swayed in the wind.

"I remember it was very windy, and I was thinking, 'What the h--- are we doing up here?' " he says. "That proved to me that this is what I want to do. I was proud to be there. I thought, this is a profession. That night was kind of an epiphany for me."

When he graduated in 1981, he was hired by the NBC affiliate in Topeka as the weekend sports anchor. A year later he took a similar job in Wichita that lasted three years.

As fate would have it, Don Judd, a sportscaster with Salt Lake's KSL-TV, was in town covering Snow College's participation in the national junior college basketball tournament finals. He happened to see Bolerjack on TV and invited him to Salt Lake City for an audition at KSL. He got the job, again as the weekend sports anchor.

"BYU had just won the national championship (in football), and there was the Jazz and the U.," says Bolerjack. "They had it all."

Almost immediately, opportunities fell into Bolerjack's lap. Jim Nance was hired away by CBS, and Paul James faded into semi-retirement. Bolerjack, all of 26 years old, became the evening weekday sports anchor.

It wasn't long before KSL created still another forum for him: "Sportsbeat Sunday," a weekend news and highlights show that followed the regular news broadcast. At first it was seven minutes long. Six months later, advertising asked for 15 minutes. Then a half hour. Then an hour.

Other stations followed KSL's lead, and now such shows are a staple.

Bolerjack also did TV play by play for BYU football and basketball for 10 years. During seven of those years, he did freelance play by play for ESPN in addition to the BYU work. Finally, he resigned the BYU job and did ESPN broadcasts full time for three years until another network made a better offer.

CBS interviewed Bolerjack at the 1998 Final Four and hired him on the spot. He left KSL for his new job, which consisted of NFL football, college basketball and football, and the NCAA basketball tournament, among other things.

"Sometimes I get a week off and don't have a game, but I'd rather work than sit, even though I'm getting paid either way," says Bolerjack. "It's the way I was raised. Work is good."

Sure, he's got the Ultimate Guy's Job, watching games and talking about them with his buddies, who are millions of people in the TV audience, but the flip side is his absences from home.

The father of three children — Don James (DJ), 15; Nick, 13, and Brody, 9 — he is gone for several days each week from August to April (he has flown 1.2 million miles just on Delta Air Lines alone), which means he misses ballgames and school events.

He tries to make up for it by watching his boys' practices and helping out around the house. He folds laundry, cleans, does home repairs. "You're not doing the laundry, are you!?" Sharon will yell up the stairs.

"He is better at housework than I am," says Sharon. "He's a really fast folder. He sees things that need to be done, and he just does them. He knows he's not going to be home much, so he tries to help out when he's around. He'll say, 'I want to help. You've got things to do.' "

After 17 years of marriage, Sharon still says things like, "He's just an amazing man."

"I think probably the most surprising thing when people meet him is that he is a nice person," Sharon continues. "He has been around too many people where it has (gone to their heads)."

Bolerjack met Sharon while they were working out at a local gym. They double-dated with Hot Rod Hundley and his woman friend. Sharon became the one who finally got him to the altar, at the age of 29.

"I was ready then," he says.

But not before that. Bolerjack comes off as a congenial, back-slapping buddy, which belies darker, deeper moments. For years, an event in his past had kept him from committing to marriage and sent him to counseling and medication.

"It's been a journey," says Sharon.

The journey began with a car accident in his youth. His grandmother, Velda May James, was struck by a train in her car at a Missouri railroad crossing and was killed. It rocked the Bolerjacks' world.

"It was the biggest changer of my life," he says. "When I first came to Salt Lake I still couldn't talk about it without crying."

The Bullitscheks — as the name was originally spelled before it was Americanized — emigrated from Bohemia and Czechoslovakia. They were woodworkers and pianomakers, and they settled in the Carolinas and the Ozarks in southern Missouri.

Craig was raised in the Kansas City area. His grandparents lived on a farm in a small Missouri town called Willis Springs.

Bolerjack spent much of his early youth there. It was the place he came to associate with idyllic times — Christmas and Thanksgiving gatherings of extended family, riding horses, 100 acres of freedom, fishing ponds, a slower, simpler life.

His grandparents, Cecil and Velda May, were the center of family life and all that was good about that.

And then it was gone.

"Nobody talked about it," he says. "I remember seeing a picture in the newspaper that showed my grandmother face down with the car on top of her on the train tracks. That picture was frozen in my head. I never saw that picture again, but it stayed with me. After the funeral, the adults got together to mourn and the kids were pushed in a corner and told it was going to be OK. For me, it wasn't OK. Families didn't talk about those things in those days. It was something we couldn't touch. Instead of pulling the family together, it pulled us apart. All that we had that was so tight as a family just disappeared."

For decades he was traumatized by the event. It was a mix of many things — the sudden realization of life's fragility, the loss of a loved one and family leader, the fear of being wounded like that again. He suffered from anxiety. He had a constant knot in his stomach and "I felt fear all the time."

Bolerjack continued to have panic attacks as an adult, accompanied by tunnel vision, rapid heart rate and hot spells, which came for no particular reason. He also feared commitment and the pain that could bring.

"It prevented me from getting married younger," he says. "I was engaged once. I couldn't handle it. At times, I was still 9 years old emotionally."

"He hadn't talked about it much until we met," says Sharon. "When we were going to get married, things came to the surface."

In 1987, he decided it was time to go on a "cleansing mission to find out why the impact of that day laid so heavy on my heart."

Bolerjack left the air at KSL for a couple of weeks to fly to Missouri with Sharon. The rumors swirled. He had had a nervous breakdown, some said. He was a drug addict. He had had to quit.

"There were a lot of things out there," says Bolerjack.

He and Sharon visited the site of the accident and the local newspaper office to read old stories about it.

"I had to make sure what I saw when I was 9 was real," he says.

When he saw the old newspaper stories matched his memories, "it was incredible. Everything my mind had snap-shot was there in real life. I just broke down. It was a life changer. It allowed me to move on."

After a three-year courtship, he and Sharon married.

"I had found my mate, and that made it into an issue," he says. "I knew I needed her. She was willing to stick by me. I had never had that before. I had to look the devil in the face. I don't think I'd be married if I hadn't gone this direction. I'd be a lonely, sorry soul. It has made me a better father. It would have helped if I could have talked about those things when I was a kid. In this house, it's open communication, 24-7. I tell my boys, 'If there is an issue, any question you have, any fear or anxiety or questions that are eating at you, wake me up, call me on my cell, we'll talk.' "

Given his yearning for the simpler times of his early youth, Bolerjack likes to watch old TV shows and movies that impart similar feelings — "Andy Griffith Show," "Leave it to Beaver," "Gilligan's Island," "Dick Van Dyke," and anything with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in it.

" 'Andy Griffith' brings back simpler times when things could be handled by Pa and problems were solved without throwing a punch," says Bolerjack. "They can make things right again. I had always wanted to make things right again."

And now it would seem he has. He has an enviable job, his wife and children, a home. "There are days I still get blips and (the anxiety) kicks me, but I'm doing well," he says. "Now I just have to keep things in balance."

With the Jazz assignment, he will be gone even more during the coming years. He worries about staying connected with his family. It's not exactly the simple life he craves.

"It's something Sharon and I discussed a lot," he says. "Everyone has challenges. I'll just have to get reconnected when I come home."

More than most, he knows the importance of such connecÆtions.