Horn-blowers, pylon-placers, and other essential NFL team members

Horn-blowers, pylon-placers, and other essential NFL team members

Doink-O-Rama is John Teti’s column about pro football.

Among the major American sports, football is the most intensely team-oriented game. To have a chance at success on a given play, a team has to synchronize the physical efforts and thought processes of 11 players with ferocious intensity but also split-second precision. When I consider the day-to-day struggle to synchronize the efforts and thoughts of myself, who is only one (1) person, I find much to admire in a football team. Even if that football team is the Houston Texans? Yes, even then.

In fact, an NFL game is a feat of teamwork that extends far beyond the two squads printed on the ticket. There are teams to produce the TV broadcast. Teams to sell the pretzels. Teams to officiate the rules of play. Teams to make the sausage rolls. Teams to melt the cheese over the—hold on, I need to get something to eat before I finish this idea.

Okay, I’m back. My point is we focus on the literal football teams for obvious reasons. The cameras are pointed at them, for instance. But if you look around the periphery of the frame, peek into the interstices of the broadcast, you can glimpse some of the players on all those other “football teams”—the role players who perform their own peculiar yet essential duties in the clockwork NFL universe.

The horn-blow stopper

Take the gigantic-horn team, for instance. One of the rituals before a Minnesota Vikings home game is to blow the “Gjallarhorn.” This monstrous instrument is inspired by Norse myth, in which Gjallarhorn is the horn sounded by Heimdallr to summon the gods before they lose to Green Bay.

On Sunday, Hall of Fame offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson blew the Gjallarhorn. As NBC’s camera captured him in close-up, Hutchinson’s shifting feet and darting eyes betrayed an understandable trepidation: A horn always looks bigger when it comes time to put your mouth on it.

Like all modern technology, the horn exists to conjure the appearance of enhanced human agency while in fact shackling us ever more tightly to the whims of the machine. Which is to say, the blowing does nothing. While it looks like Hutchinson nervously forms the contours of his mouth to produce a fulsome issuance from the Gjallarhorn, we also know this is a puffed-cheek pantomime to whip up the crowd while the file “inspiring_horn_blast.wav” is double-clicked somewhere in the bowels of USBank Stadium. The vague humiliation of the horn-blowing spectacle is a feature of the ritual—it humanizes the hero-of-the-week and makes them one of us. For we, too, would feel awkward if a huge crowd looked on as we pressed our lips to a horn of lies.

As Hutchinson interfaced with the horn, he gazed expectantly at an intrepid member of the stadium production crew whose job was to tell Hutchinson when he could stop. (You can see her in the lower-left corner of the shot above.) Listening alertly on a headset for the signal that the horn had sufficiently aroused the Minnesota fanbase, the chipper floor producer urged Hutchinson to maintain enthusiastic mouth contact with the horn until she gave him word that they were no longer “live.” It’s true that this task could be accomplished by a simple red light on top of the horn, and if you look closely, indeed it is. But you cannot expect that a virgin Gjallarhorn-blower, dazzled by the mighty Nordic shaft dangling before them, would have the wherewithal to notice such a subtle cue. And so the gigantic-horn team includes the personal touch of a cheerful helper who informs the blower-of-the-week when their lip service is complete.

The pylon replacer

A pylon in inaction during a 2019 game

The 2021 official rules of the National Football League specify that “the four intersections of goal lines and sidelines must be marked at inside corners of the end zone and the goal line by pylons.” Furthermore, the pylons “must be placed at inside edges of white lines and should not touch the surface of the actual playing field.” All this exactitude is fine and dandy until a giant man tumbles into a pylon—which happens a lot, since the pylons surround the end zone, a place that football players are always trying to visit, and in a hurry.

Yet whenever it’s dislodged by the tumult of the game, that perpendicular pylon always ends up back in the exact right spot by the next play, the Wile E. Coyote to football’s Acme Co. The pylon springs back into place because, of course, there is someone whose job description includes replacing the pylon. Specifically, at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, it’s this guy:

I say it’s that guy, but I presume there is also another pylon replacer on the other sideline, as it would not do to have your pylon replacer huffing and puffing back and forth across the field on their Sisyphean mission to keep a skinny rectangle upright amid a tornado of flesh.

Perhaps unfairly, I expected the pylon replacer to be the gridiron equivalent of a Formula One pit crew, whisking the orange cuboid into place with rehearsed precision. Instead, our SoFi Stadium replacer was more deliberate, seemingly fiddling with something under the pylon before replacing it, like a guy reaching around the computer to fit a USB cable into its slot—which, as it turns out, is not so far from the truth.

The pylon was once little more than a foam rectangle with a weighted base, but no longer. Like the doorbells in a suburban neighborhood, a modern NFL pylon now bristles with a mini-panopticon of cameras designed to eliminate any potential for harm. The horror forestalled by the pylon cameras is this: What if the pictures from the regular TV cameras make it hard to tell if the man stepped on the white line before he caught the pointy ball? What if he maybe touched the line and maybe he didn’t, and we just don’t know?

Fear not—as always, increased surveillance is the answer. The pylon cameras are supplied by the Admiral Video corporation, whose patented system runs subterranean wiring to the corners of the end zone for a plug-and-play approach that allows broadcasters to invade the privacy of the football field like never before.

According to Admiral’s installation guide, on game day you simply attach a USB connector and plug the cameras in. That’s right, the familiar USB port, the same one that provides a crucial link between your webcam and Zoom servers in China, is used in big-time athletic equipment, too.

If it seems unlikely to you that an actual USB cable is being ripped out of its socket every time a stray football knocks the pylon off its mark, well, you’re right. According to a 2016 GeekWire interview with an ESPN operations manager (embedded above), the pylon itself is wired in by way of a quick-release magnetic connector.

This safety feature was of little consolation to Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who voiced good-natured complaints in his Week 5 postgame presser that he hurt his back landing on a pylon cam (this one had been placed on the first-down line—a more recent innovation than the original end zone flavor). Asked by a reporter if the pylon is foamy, a laughing Elliott replied:

I think it is foamy, but it’s hard. It’s hard. The bottom—the base of it—is hard, too. No, it’s definitely not soft.

That’s the same thing they always say about the Gjallarhorn.

Hans Waters in the truck

Returning from a timeout in the Patriots-Chargers game, CBS brought its cameras into the cluttered workspace of their production team, highlighting the gyrations of a crew member decked out in his Halloween costume: jumpsuit-era Elvis Presley. “That’s Hans Waters in the truck,” explained announcer Ian Eagle. “He took an improv class once, and we can’t stop him.”

Although he played the part of the doofus for his cameo in America’s football afternoon, the little video deck at Waters’ workstation tells a different story, as it betrays him as part of his crew’s replay team. Replay technicians are the twitchy video jockeys who, as soon as the whistle blows on a play, are already cuing up footage to show us what just happened. They’re professional timeshifters, and a typical NFL broadcast will have about a dozen of them in the production trucks, all communicating with a replay producer whose job is to find the right angle for the replay that the audience expects to see three seconds after a play concludes. It’s a visually intense, fast-paced environment. Would the actual Elvis Presley be able to handle it? Maybe—he did have that room at Graceland with the three TVs, after all.

Waters’ star turn as The King was in keeping with a longstanding tradition in TV sports, which is to give a few on-screen nods to the behind-the-scenes members of the production team when they have to work on a holiday. On a Halloween football Sunday, that means we got to see a lively assortment of costumed camera operators parading across our screen. The videographer above, for instance, came dressed as Aaron Rodgers' COVID vaccine.

Here’s a great Mike Pence.

And this happy little fellow was dressed as a Prime member whose jack-o’-lantern costume looked better on the Amazon listing.

The crowd always provides plenty of Halloween camera fodder, too. The three fans above delighted passersby with their coordinated outfits—can you guess who they’re supposed to be? That’s right, the guy in the middle is Boston Celtics legend Cameron Diaz, and the two fellows on either side of him are Ben & Jerry trying to answer the questions that an Axios interviewer just asked them.

And finally, this Vikings fan was truly terrifying as a half-eaten carton of vanilla ice cream that you forgot was in the freezer.

Michele Tafoya’s kid

For a number of years, the long snapper—the player who fires the ball a long distance between his legs to initiate a punt or a field goal attempt—has been the patron saint of my football column. Likewise, I have a long history of noting that NBC’s Michele Tafoya is practically the only sideline reporter worth a damn (although I do think Tracy Wolfson and Evan Washburn do fine work at CBS as well).

So it was an alignment of the Doink-O-Rama planets this Sunday when—after some good-natured cajoling from announcer Al Michaels—Tafoya disclosed that her son, Tyler Vandersall, plays long snapper for his high school team, the SMB Wolfpack. He also appears to be the backup eyeblack applicator for the squad.

NBC showed a brief clip of Tyler in action, and yup, sure enough, he long-snapped it. No short-snapping for this kid. “You know, you can make a lot of money and have a long career doing that,” Michaels said. He’s right—because it’s such a particular specialization, and perhaps because general managers don’t feel like expending too much thought on their long snapper, the position has a great deal of inertia. Players who manage to settle into a long-snapping career tend to stick around a while. As long snapper Taybor Pepper, then with the Miami Dolphins, told me in a 2019 interview, “once you’re in, you can really be in for a long time.” That has been true for NFL long snappers in the past, and it’s holding true so far for Pepper, who remains in the league—he now plays the position for the San Francisco 49ers. Way to go, Taybor! You too, Tyler. Keep on long snappin’.

Your guaranteed-correct Week 9 picks, as computed by DORPFASTCALC

New Orleans Saints fans celebrate the team's Week 8 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as foretold by DORPFASTCALC. (Photo: Ted Jackson/New Orleans Saints)

The football picks featured in Doink-O-Rama are guaranteed to be correct, as they are calculated by the Doink-O-Rama Pro Football Anticipation Satellite and Tip Calculator, or DORPFASTCALC. From its serene perch at the L2 LaGrange point in outer space, this peace-loving technological marvel applies all of humankind’s scientific power to the age-old problem of figuring out which group of football men is better than the other, before the game is played. In fact, DORPFASTCALC’s predictions are so good, they threaten to make the games themselves obsolete! Haha! That is the only threat, aside from thermonuclear annihilation, that DORPFASTCALC poses to humanity.

In its Week 8 picks, true to its ironclad guarantee, DORPFASTCALC correctly predicted the outcome of eight football contests.

Also in Week 8, there were six aberrations, as tin whiskers on the special-teams daughterboard created a performance degradation in the robot’s prediction matrix.

We have a special treat for the picks this time, as the folks from the audiovisual department wheeled a tape recorder down to mission command so that you, dear reader, could listen in as DORPFASTCALC makes its weekly transmission of football predictions to Earth. Here’s the tape, digitized by way of YouTube for your convenience:

Last week: 8-6.

Season to date: 55-46. Science works!


Atlanta Falcons vs. New Orleans Saints (Fox): New Orleans 24, Atlanta 20.

Buffalo Bills vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (CBS): Buffalo 30, Jacksonville 17.

Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals (CBS): Cincinnati 23, Cleveland 19.

Denver Broncos vs. Dallas Cowboys (Fox): Dallas 31, Denver 26.

TORO tries to pursue inner peace while a bunch of kids horse around in the immediate vicinity (Photo: Andy Bao/Houston Texans)

Houston Texans vs. Miami Dolphins (Fox): Miami 4, Houston 2. When your team is having a bad year, don’t forget the importance of self-care. This week TORO, the Houston Texans mascot, attempted to distract himself from Houston’s disastrous season by taking up yoga. It would have been a really soothing and centering experience for TORO if the place weren’t packed to the brim with a bunch of loudmouth children. Christ, the poor bastard just wants a few minutes to assume the tree pose in peace, IS THAT REALLY SO MUCH TO ASK, YOU ROTTEN KIDS? DO YOU THINK I COULD WATCH, LIKE, ONE MEASLY QUARTER OF FOOTBALL WITHOUT SOMEONE FIGHTING, OR CRYING, OR ASKING ME FOR A SNACK? But I might be projecting here.

Las Vegas Raiders vs. New York Giants (CBS): Las Vegas 24, New York 13.

Minnesota Vikings vs. Baltimore Ravens (Fox): Baltimore 27, Minnesota 25. Baltimore always studies their game film, so if Minnesota tries to pull the old “two footballs” trick again this week, the Ravens will be wise to it.

New England Patriots vs. Carolina Panthers (CBS): New England 21, Carolina 20.


Green Bay Packers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (CBS): Green Bay 34, Kansas City 27. Because DORPFASTCALC transmits its predictions mid-week, its algorithms could not account for Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ positive COVID test, nor his subsequent revelation that when he said he was “immunized” earlier this year, he didn’t mean he was vaccinated—he meant that a crystal-bearing wizard of make-believe had waved a fistful of smoldering herbs in the general direction of his immune system. Practically the same thing! A common misunderstanding! But I have a feeling DORPFASTCALC’s not gonna be happy about Rodgers missing the game on account of this whole debacle.

And, as you might expect, a lot of non-robots are also unhappy with Rodgers. Just weeks removed from a game in which Rodgers screamed “I own you!” to the Soldier Field crowd, the media persons in my adopted hometown of Chicago are deriving especial satisfaction from the affair as they add to the drumbeat of commentators condemning the quarterback for his deception. “Don’t let him escape this pocket,” insisted Chicago Tribune columnist Jerry Davich on Friday, although the thrust of the metaphor is unclear, since in essence Rodgers has already sacked himself.

Of course, the salient question for Doink-O-Rama is: How will this affect the commercials? I texted my friend in the advertising business, known in these pages as Ad Man X, and asked him simply, “Does State Farm run Rodgers ads this weekend?” He replied, “Holy crap. No way they run those.” I’ll sign on to that prediction, and we may hear more from Ad Man X on the matter in next week’s column.

Los Angeles Chargers vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Fox): Philadelphia 24, Los Angeles 23.

Arizona Cardinals vs. San Francisco 49ers (Fox): Arizona 23, San Francisco 21.


Tennessee Titans vs. Los Angeles Rams (NBC): Los Angeles 31, Tennessee 25.


Chicago Bears vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (ESPN): Pittsburgh 23, Chicago 19.

Keep on long snappin'

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Reach out with your questions, observations, or doink sightings by emailing: doink at ological dot net.

Thank you for reading. Until next week: Keep on long snappin’.

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