This spring, when Booger McFarland became the solo analyst on Monday Night Football, a friend called with some unexpected news. “Congratulations, man, you’re breaking down barriers,” he said.
McFarland was surprised. He thought he’d gotten a typical TV promotion, ascending from the BoogerMobile to one of the penthouse suites of broadcasting. In fact, McFarland had achieved a milestone. According to data supplied by the networks, McFarland will be the first African American analyst to be in a no. 1 NFL booth for a full season since O.J. Simpson left Monday Night Football in 1985.
During that 34-year period, the only African American analyst who came close to a similar gig was Turner’s Mark May, who announced half a season’s worth of games in 1997, when the Sunday package was split between TNT and ESPN.
McFarland, who won Super Bowls as a nose tackle in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, hasn’t been overly preoccupied with his spot in TV history. But he has given it some thought. “The role of lead analyst has always been that of the quarterback,” he told me last week. “Offensive guy. Typically, it’s been a white guy. That’s been the norm.
“When you give African American broadcasters opportunities, I think you’ll see there are very talented guys in the industry who just need an opportunity to show what they can do. … I know the seat I’m in.”
McFarland, who is 41, was at a gym near the airport in Tampa. Sweat poured off his head as he lifted adjustable dumbbells—“millennial” dumbbells, he said with the smirk of someone who grew up pumping iron. McFarland’s playing weight was 336 pounds, and the nearly 60 pounds he has lost since and his daily workouts have left him chiseled. With no disrespect to Dan Dierdorf or Alex Karras, McFarland will be the strongest guy to say “one-score game” in the history of Monday Night.
In 2018, McFarland rode on a cart while Joe Tessitore and Jason Witten called games from the booth. McFarland couldn’t see plays on the far sideline. He had to glance at a screen to read Tessitore’s body language. In October, when his mobile parked in front of some fans in Atlanta, McFarland became the focus of the kind of “controversy” that helps NFL blogs keep the lights on.
McFarland admired ESPN’s attempt to do something different. But he admitted he was disappointed with the assignment. “You’ve got two guys in one spot and you’re down there,” McFarland said. “The setup makes you feel like you’re the third wheel.”
That’s a condition, in slightly different form, that many African American analysts can identify with. In January, The Guardian’s Andrew Lawrence reported that African Americans made up 29 percent of NFL game analysts versus 70 percent of players in the league.
“You’ll see [representation] in the pregame shows or some of the studio shows,” said Solomon Wilcots, who spent 16 years with CBS. “But when it comes to the game, that’s not reflective.”
The absence of diversity is even more pronounced in the networks’ no. 1 booths. That’s where you find the analysts who call Super Bowls or playoff games—the so-called “faces of the network.”
“It’s important because you’re competitive and you want to prove you can handle the big lights ...” said Charles Davis, Fox’s no. 2 analyst. “For me, being black, being African American, to show that we can achieve those things—that’s a big deal.”
McFarland has a couple of qualities that stick out. He’s a far more natural communicator than Witten was. When you talked to Witten, you thought, Well, maybe with some coaching ... When you talk to McFarland, you think, That’s an announcer.
Inside ESPN, I’ve heard McFarland compared to Stephen A. Smith—but they have almost nothing in common. McFarland compares far better to two of his Monday Night predecessors. He has the same gravitas-via-neck-size that Dierdorf used to bring to the booth. And like Don Meredith, McFarland is a courtly Southerner whose best asset, other than X’s and O’s, is his relatability.
“I’m a country boy,” said McFarland. “I got a big mouth. I talk about eating hog cracklins and walking around barefooted when I was young. You may not like that. That’s OK. But when you look at the game of football, you think, You know what, he knows the game. Ultimately, if they respect that, I don’t care what else they say.”
Before turning to McFarland, ESPN tried two other solutions to Monday Night’s perpetual existential crisis. First, the network wanted to put Witten and McFarland in the booth together. (McFarland moved to the booth for the last three games of the 2018 season, including a playoff game and the Pro Bowl.) When Witten returned to the Cowboys, two ESPN executives flew to Denver to court Peyton Manning.
“Am I going to be scrutinized harder or differently?” said McFarland. “Yeah, probably so. Why? Because, A, what happened last year with our crew. B, because I’m not the typical quarterback. And, C, just because you haven’t seen a lot of people look like me in this spot.
“I think it’s just about opportunity,” he added. “And, now, it’s my turn.”
To understand what it means to be in McFarland’s seat, it’s worth revisiting the handful of African American analysts who flirted with a no. 1 NFL job before him. In 1974, when Meredith took a hiatus from Monday Night Football, the network turned to former AFL defensive back and blaxploitation star Fred “the Hammer” Williamson.
“I was done with football,” Williamson, who is 81, told me recently. “I was a movie star.” Williamson agreed to join Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford on Monday Night only when ABC offered to let him produce and direct movies of the week.
Williamson and Cosell got off to a bad start. On a national press tour, Williamson tweaked his new partner and found that Cosell didn’t enjoy being tweaked. “We go to the first [preseason] game,” Williamson said. “I’m talking and I’m saying things. We got these headphones on and I’m getting this voice in my ear … saying, ‘Don’t say that to Howard. Don’t insult Howard. Don’t contradict Howard.’ What am I here for? Anybody can call a damn football game.”
Annoyed by his new partner, Cosell froze him out. “They wanted more conversation between me and Howard,” Williamson said. “But Howard wouldn’t talk to me. … I’d say things like, ‘Howard, that hole was big enough for an old man like you to get 5 yards through.’ He’d say, ‘Well, Frank …’”
At the end of the ’74 preseason, ABC replaced Williamson with Karras. Williamson never thought Cosell was on his level, anyway.
Nine years later, ABC put Simpson on Monday Night Football. According to authors Marc Gunther and Bill Carter, at first Cosell treated Simpson generously. He allowed him to shine. Then Simpson started needling Cosell like Williamson had. “Howard is helping me with my diction,” Simpson said at the time, “and I’m helping him with his knowledge of the game, because Howard doesn’t know what the hell is going on.”
Though he and Simpson were pals, Cosell chose to take the ribbing personally. He took a leave from the Monday Night booth midseason and left it forever at the end of the year.
In 1984, Simpson worked in the booth with Gifford and Meredith. Monday Night was a “neglected child,” Simpson said at the time, abandoned by its father-creator Roone Arledge, who was running ABC News. The ratings dipped. But for all of Monday Night’s problems, critics homed in on Simpson’s “diction,” a complaint white analysts rarely deal with. As Fox’s Charles Davis told me: “‘Grammar’—that’s the first thing I hear. That’s when it comes out.”
The following January, ABC’s president had grown so unhappy with Simpson that the network took the humiliating step of pulling him from its Super Bowl broadcast. He was replaced by Joe Theismann, who was still playing. At the end of the ’85 season, Simpson was let go.
In the 34 years since, very few African American analysts have gotten close to a top job. May called half a season’s worth of games in 1997. Three years later, Tom Jackson and Nate Newton got tryouts for ABC’s Monday Night booth. (The analyst jobs went to Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts.) Last year, Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy called a Thanksgiving game for NBC; Louis Riddick will call the second half of ESPN’s doubleheader on Monday night. In 1985, Cosell suggested ABC could rescue Monday Night by hiring Bill Cosby!
Analysts like Davis and Wilcots have theories about why so few African Americans have gotten a no. 1 job. African Americans have been excluded from NFL head coach and quarterback jobs, two positions that can make you famous enough to get a big TV job right off the bat. You can’t be the next Tony Romo or John Madden if you don’t get to be them in the first place.
Davis and Wilcots also note that TV sports divisions have historically had few African American executives who have the power to hire announcers. “It’s the same theory that’s out there for a lot of things,” Davis said. “The people in power who are hiring, we know that throughout history, for the vast majority of time, they have been white males. You hire people who look like you, you hire the superstars that you think the public will relate to and like.”
Even when executives hired African American analysts, they had strange ideas about how to present the “face of the network.” In 1975, CBS asked Irv Cross, a former Eagles and Rams cornerback, to join its pregame show. As Cross recalled, the network took him to a clothing store and had him try on a light-blue leisure suit and a gold medallion. Cross said he’d take the job if he didn’t have to dress like Super Fly.
African American analysts often find themselves directed to three-man booths. Simpson always worked with another analyst. May worked with Pat Haden. In 2017, Fox put Davis, who has been working in media for 30 years, in its no. 2 booth with Jay Cutler, a quarterback who had no experience. After Cutler signed with the Dolphins, Davis became the sole analyst.
Last spring, McFarland had two tryouts for Monday Night Football. He left thinking he and Witten and Tessitore would form a three-man booth. When he got his sideline assignment, McFarland said he’d ride the BoogerMobile with one stipulation: ESPN had to keep his microphone “open” at all times so he could talk when he wished. “I looked at it as my responsibility to include myself,” he said.
McFarland was born in Winnsboro, Louisiana, in 1977. His father wasn’t around. His mother, Nancey, who called him Booger because of his ability to annoy, raised three children on a salary of about $18,000. When McFarland thinks about his new job, he thinks of her.
“My mother was born in 1955, all right?” he said. “She grew up at a time when people that looked like her couldn’t do certain things in America.
“I don’t know whether I’m the face of the network,” he said. “I don’t know about all that. But for me to be given an opportunity to be in a position that people look at it that way? I always think about how my mom would feel.”
As a kid, McFarland never dreamed of being on TV. “I grew up with that dream of just getting the hell out of Winnsboro,” he said. McFarland was a star at LSU; he was a first-rounder, drafted as an heir to Warren Sapp; he won Super Bowls in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis.
“Yeah, I won two Super Bowls,” he said. “But I don’t have the biggest name. I’m a nose tackle. I’m a grinder. I started out doing local radio 3:00 to 7:00, man. Talking about the Lightning, the blue line, offsides. Talking about the Rays and Joe Maddon.”
In 2014, an ESPN executive heard McFarland’s Tampa radio show and hired him to do studio work at the SEC Network. McFarland now thinks of this as a key period, because he was able to get national TV reps with almost nobody watching. Before joining Monday Night, he announced only six games from the booth (three of them were college spring games), despite executive Stephanie Druley’s pleas that he give game-calling a try. “I must have oversold it,” Druley told me, “because he has all the confidence in the world he can do it.”
Last season, McFarland was waiting for the Monday Night crew’s opening game to start. As producer Jay Rothman counted down in his headset, McFarland felt the hairs on his arm stand up. It the same sensation he’d felt as a player, a sensation he never thought he’d feel again.
In February, when Witten left for the Cowboys, McFarland knew Manning would be ESPN’s first choice. “I’d probably call Peyton, too,” he said. In the meantime, McFarland ran a quiet lobbying campaign. He sent a group email to executives Jimmy Pitaro, Connor Schell, Lee Fitting, Druley, and Monday Night producer Rothman. Then McFarland called each of them individually to let them know he could handle the job.
“I just wanted an opportunity to do it,” he said. “Because I didn’t get a chance to. It’s one thing to call a game from a crane that’s moving 10 miles an hour on the sideline. It’s another thing to call a game where you’re in the booth with the view and vantage point that’s required.”
I’ve talked to more than one announcer on the eve of a new gig. They all claim they will “tune out the noise.” McFarland is one of the few announcers that exudes a kind of Zen. As he told me, “Russell Westbrook said it the best: I’ve been blessed with an innate sense, and that’s the one that says I don’t give a fuck.”
McFarland can trace his inner calm to a few sources. After playing for coaches like Dungy and Jon Gruden, he is used to harsh critiques. McFarland’s mother died in 2005, leaving him to care for a younger brother and sister who are mentally disabled. McFarland remembers his siblings looking at him as if to ask, What are we going to do with our lives? He felt more pressure at that moment than he will ever feel from a media critic.
“This ain’t pressure, man,” McFarland said. “We’re talking about football. C’mon. I get it. I’m going to put a tie and a suit on. Hank Williams is going to play. It’s ‘3, 2, 1, and, all right, go.’ Everybody’s going to be watching. But it’s football.”
When ESPN hired Witten, its challenge was turning an uninspiring talker into a TV personality. The challenge with McFarland is the opposite: fitting a true original into the strictures of an NFL broadcast. Thankfully, if belatedly, the strictures of a broadcast have gotten a little looser. “When I step in the booth now,” McFarland said, “I’m just trying to be the best Booger I can be.”