To say something is a dream come true, one would have to dream it first. On the evening of July 30, 2022, I learned that I (along with producer Melissa Kulwinski and editor Jeff Platz) won a regional Emmy Award for “Sacred Ground”, the video essay I wrote about Historic Crew Stadium on the occasion of its final match more than a year earlier. Unable to attend the Ohio Valley Emmy Awards ceremony in downtown Columbus, my wife Beth and I watched the livestream on my laptop. Away from the glitz and glamor and swag bags, it was a special moment we got to share at home together. Seeing her joyous reaction when we won meant everything to me.
It would have been a dream come true if I had ever actually dreamed it. And it still didn’t feel true. I re-checked the winners list the next morning to make sure it happened in real life. And now, at last, I am in physical possession of the Emmy statue—tangible proof that it wasn’t a dream. But that it was true.
Had I been at the ceremony in downtown Columbus back in July, I would have taken the stage alone as Melissa and Jeff were working a Crew broadcast that night, and I would have had 30 seconds to make any remarks. I would have spent all 30 of them in a silently bewildered stupor until they awkwardly hooked me off the stage. But now that I know I haven’t fallen prey to some elaborate practical joke, here is the story of what happened and all the people I will always think of when I see that statue.
This whole surreal ordeal starting with a Google chat message from Neil Sika at 12:25 p.m. on May 25, 2021. “Would like your help on something over the next couple weeks” is how it began.
Neil normally writes the match intro for every Crew Live pregame show, but given that Bally Sports would be doing an hour-long special for Historic Crew Stadium’s final match, he sought my help to, in his words, “capture the essence” of the building.
I’ll later get into Neil’s involvement in a little more detail, but first I want to amplify that this is just how Neil is. The big moment is the big moment, and he has no ego in doing service to the big moment. I think back to 2008, when Neil was doing radio broadcasts after The Voice of the Crew, Dwight Burgess, had moved to the television booth. The Eastern Conference Final and MLS Cup were both on national television, meaning Dwight had no local TV broadcasts to do, so Neil invited Dwight into the radio booth as an analyst. But in the closing minutes of the Eastern Conference Final, with the Crew on the cusp of making their first-ever MLS Cup appearance after so many heart-breaking near misses, Neil turned the play-by-play duties over to Dwight. He felt it was the right thing to do to let the guy who had called nearly ever Crew game since the club’s founding be the man on the mic for that historic moment. Same thing as the Crew closed out their MLS Cup triumph the following weekend. As a young broadcaster, Neil could have had two memorable clips that every broadcaster dreams about, and instead he voluntarily turned the spotlight onto a friend and colleague. He did the right thing in service of the big moment, not in service of himself.
While not nearly in the same category as giving away a championship call, Neil saw another opportunity to let a friend shine in service of the big moment. He could have written and narrated a farewell Crew Stadium video of his own, but he saw an opportunity that he felt was in my wheelhouse and could make the show better. So he offered that opportunity to me, once again at the expense of his own personal clip reel. None of this happens to me without Neil’s thoughtfulness and professional selflessness.
When I look at that Emmy, I will always think of my Slovenian brother, Neil Sika.
During our initial conversation, Neil told me the intro would be “1:30 to two min tops.”
Three days later, on May 28, I inquired if Bally Sports would have access to all or most of the historical footage. Neil said yes. Then he wrote back, “I need to talk to Melissa…but I also think an essay toward the end of the postgame that could be longer could be a nice ending to the entire show.” He said that second segment could probably be three minutes, pending Melissa’s approval.
On the evening of May 29, he messaged me that we were approved and locked in for a 90-second intro on the pregame show and a three-minute essay for the postgame show. I messaged him back that I would write something up over the weekend.
The reality is that I wrote “Sacred Ground” largely in one pass the night of Saturday, May 29, 2021, in the couple hours between when my wife went to sleep and I eventually joined her. I’m sure the general concepts were subconsciously percolating in the four days since Neil first broached the subject, but the writing itself saw 96.96% of the finished product written in one sitting. It just fell out of me almost fully formed.
I sat on it for the rest of the weekend, making a few minor tweaks on Sunday, before I worked up the courage to send it over to Neil on Monday, May 31. I knew that after I sent it to him, it would be forwarded to real-life television production professionals. Yikes.
I’ve known producer Melissa Kulwinski for several years now. Or maybe ten? Or longer? I can’t even recall. I just know she has always welcomed me into her Crew TV world. She’s good people, so the thought of her receiving my script wasn’t quite as terrifying as it would normally be. It was still plenty terrifying though.
As a producer, Melissa has her hands in every facet of the pregame and postgame shows, and the game broadcast itself. For the pregame show, she has to map out what segments are going in, exactly how long they are going to be, and all that kind of stuff. She determines the pieces of the puzzle, then assembles them.
After two torturous days of email silence, I finally heard back from Melissa. If you want to know what impact a producer can have on a finished product, check out her initial feedback. After reading that whole essay, she zeroed in on the final lines.
Here’s what I originally wrote:
As MLS has grown, Historic Crew Stadium was destined to become a victim of its own pioneering success.
Although that time has come after 22 memorable years…
…this is sacred ground forevermore.
Melissa astutely noted that we didn’t want to make it sound like the stadium was being demolished, as it would not only still be standing, but would still be used for future sporting and musical events. She felt using the word “victim” would give the wrong impression and wasn’t the right tone.
So now compare what I originally wrote to my second pass at it after Melissa’s suggestion to strike the “victim” phrasing:
The growth of MLS, and our own exciting future in Columbus, will continue to build upon the foundation laid by Historic Crew Stadium’s pioneering success.
Although we are saying goodnight after 22 memorable years…
…this will forever be sacred ground.
It’s infinitely better than my initial submission, and that’s so vitally important because it is the capstone to the entire thing. Melissa Kulwinski earned her Emmy right there. Just for that. Just for prompting a much better rewrite by not liking the word “victim.” But she wasn’t done.
It was Melissa’s inspired decision to have Dr. Pete Edwards narrate the video. And in making that choice, it forced me to raise the specter of another potential script change. In my first draft, I built upon Lamar’s initial faith in our sport and our city as the impetus for building Historic Crew Stadium by writing the following about the upcoming transition to Lower.com Field:
New ownership has taken faith in our sport and our city to unprecedented levels. A new palace for a new era awaits downtown.
With Dr, Pete narrating, I felt that “new ownership” might be a little awkward, what with him being part of the new ownership group. If it’s me, or Neil, or Dwight or someone else reading the script, that line is fine and thematically builds upon the Lamar bit at the beginning. Alas, it might seem self-congratulatory coming out of Dr. Pete’s mouth. I suggested “Saving the Crew” as an alternative to “new ownership” if Dr. Pete felt it was weird, but my preference was to give new ownership their due unless Dr. Pete balked.
Saying it without saying it, and surely not even consciously meaning it in that way, Melissa tactfully pointed out, essentially, that I am dumb and my preference was even dumber. First of all, in retrospect, why even put Dr. Pete in that position? Why make him make the decision? But she didn’t even get into that. She didn’t need to because she zeroed in on the heart of the matter.
“I think ‘Saving the Crew’ can reference both ownership and supporters,” she wrote back. “We can also show both during that line via video to make the connection…does that make sense?”
Upon reading those words, nothing seemed more retroactively obvious in my life. I should have written it that way in the first place and definitely should have made it my top option after writing it on the second try. Melissa expertly saved me from myself.
Melissa surely did a bajillion other producer-y things I wasn’t privy to by the time this whole project was completed, but just what I’ve mentioned here demonstrates how thoroughly well-deserved her Emmy is for her production work on Sacred Ground. It’s her first Emmy too, which makes it all the more special to me.
When I look at that Emmy, I will always think of Melissa Kulwinski.
The thing about writing for TV is I had to think visually. The words were important, but they were only part of the finished piece. Unlike the printed page, where the words do all the work, for TV they set the scene for the images in a visual medium. The writing had to be economical and had to function in service of the images.
To get myself in that mindset, I had to envision the non-existent video in my head as I wrote. That meant I was writing “shots” into the essay. This not only provided me with writing guidance, but I figured it would eventually help Bally Sports zero in on highlight clips they needed to unearth. That’s all well and good, but it’s also kind of embarrassing when a script including all your “shots” is then turned over to someone as accomplished as Bally Sports director and producer Jeff Platz, who would be editing the video. Platz not only directs the Crew’s game broadcasts and produces the “Cavaliers Live” and “Indians Live” pre/post-game shows for Bally Sports, but to that point, he had already won 13 regional Emmy Awards for videography, editing, producing, and directing, plus an Associated Press first-place award for his editing on a piece commemorating Len Barker’s perfect game.
With that in mind, imagine a person of his professional pedigree suddenly getting forwarded a Word doc from some random guy with things like “time lapse of the sun rising over Crew Stadium” or whatever. It’s laughable to even contemplate.
Beyond the shots, there is so much more that goes into a finished video. The mood, the music, the pacing…these are things that can make or break a video that have nothing to do with the script. That’s talent, experience, and feel, all of which Jeff possesses in abundance.
When I was privileged to see the initial cut on June 17, 2021, two days before air, it took my breath away. And because I had no concept of “TV time” while writing it, the finished video was six minutes long. As producer, Melissa scrapped the plans for a truncated piece for pre-game and a three-minute piece for postgame and decided to air the entire six-minute piece in both shows. That’s because Jeff took my rudimentary visual outline and vastly improved upon it with great skill and care to create a finished piece that exceeded the limits of my imagination, and everyone else’s too. It boggles the mind what some words on a page can become when entrusted to someone with such immense, award-winning talent. Saying that Jeff “breathed life” into that script wouldn’t do his efforts justice. His 14th regional Emmy is well-deserved.
When I look at that Emmy, I will always think of Jeff Platz.
Over the years, I have had the good fortune to be welcomed into the Crew’s TV world. I contribute here and there will little tidbits of information, and it’s not uncommon for Neil and I to have Google chat conversations about the upcoming match to discuss historical perspectives, or for me to do some on the fly research in the booth via scribbled notes back and forth with Neil, but mostly I just hang out with my friends and have a great view of the games when I can attend.
For a variety of reasons, starting with the pandemic, I have rarely been able to attend games down in Columbus the last three seasons. The disconnect is jarring, but I still feel connected thanks to not only Neil, but also super-smart analyst Jordan Angeli and multi-talented sideline reporter Brett Hiltbrand, who doubles as pre/post-game host for home games. I look forward to their broadcasts and I love to see my friends do what they do. They earned multiple Emmy nominations themselves, and deservedly so. They have been a lifeline for me during these crazy times.
When I look at that Emmy, I will always think of Jordan Angeli and Brett Hiltbrand.
And through the years, I have gotten to know so many other terrific people in the Crew’s broadcast realm, like Chris Doran. Like Bill McDermott. Like Alex Stec. Like Ashleigh Ignelzi. Like Katie Witham, who was essentially my hilarious kid sister at Crew Stadium for years. Seeing Katie develop her professional excellence and advance into national roles at ESPN and FOX is one of my many joys in over two decades of Crew coverage.
When I look at that Emmy, I will always think of Chris, Bill, Alex, Ashleigh, and Katie.
When I think of my ties to the Crew broadcasting world, I know none of it would have been possible without Dwight Burgess. The long-time Voice of the Crew was an instant friend to me when I first started covering the team in 1998 with zero experience and zero idea what I was doing. The impact of his friendship and guidance in those early years is unquantifiable. And it’s through Dwight that I eventually got to meet and know the people that led to this video essay opportunity all these many years later. To win a regional Emmy for a piece that encapsulated so much of the history that Dwight and I shared together means a lot to me.
When I look at that Emmy, I will always think of the Voice of the Crew, Dwight Burgess.
I think of all these people and there is an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome. It’s not like I set out to win an Emmy. It’s not like this was my life-long ambition in my chosen field. When we got nominated, I almost felt guilty at the thought of possibly receiving an Emmy statue.
But I also know that while my writing certainly contributed to the success of the piece, it was far from the only contribution and writing alone doesn’t make an Emmy-winning video. It was truly a team effort with Melissa and Jeff and it took all three of us to make the project a success. And that’s what made me want to write this, since, in Crew circles, I am the most “public” face of the three Sacred Ground Emmy-winners. This honor is every bit as much, if not more, about Melissa and Jeff than it is about me.
My friend Rob also reminded me that this would be one of those cases of being “an overnight success after more than 20 years.” And so now I have managed to cleanse some of my beginner’s luck guilt and have come to accept it as sort of surreal lifetime achievement award. More than two decades of chronicling Crew history, and all the friendships I made along the way, put me in a position to funnel all that into a video essay on a special occasion.
When I look at that Emmy, I see the faces of so many players, coaches, staff, media members, and fans—a Massive community that has made this crazy Crew journey so wonderful and fulfilling for more than two decades. You’re the ones who made this club and that building mean so much to me in the first place.
When I look at that Emmy, I will always think of ALL of you who did your part to make Historic Crew Stadium such sacred ground.
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