Crew-sing with Hard Knocks


The Hard Knocks crew: Al Feuerbach, Kevin Simkins and Steve Trout.

Posted: 8:05 a.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - My sound man, Al Feuerbach, once came within half a foot of winning the Olympic gold in the shot put. I came within inches of getting a $20,000 camera lens shot with my foot.

But that was the chance Hard Knocks director Steve Trout took when he agreed to let me work with one of his four camera crews last week that he spreads through the Georgetown College campus each day to film the Bengals at work.

A behind-the-scenes look at the NFL's behind-the-scenes show that features the second episode of the Bengals camp on HBO this Wednesday at 10 p.m.

"I put you on the 'A' team," says Trout, one of those tireless guys with a three-day growth who you never know if he's talking to you or his earpiece.

But he's the man down here as he tries to capture the varying movements of an NFL team and make sense of the often nonsensical in time to get it in the can. And they, of course, are all the A team because that's how NFL Films is generally viewed.

At the end of my shift last week as the assistant to the production assistant, I could recite this particular A team's necessities as if they were my username and password.

Crew: 3A. Camera: Simkins. Sound: Feuerbach. Camera: 11256. Date:  8/11/09. Tape No.:

"You'll like being with Kevin," says Jake Callahan, the production assistant for Feuerbach and cameraman Kevin Simkins. "He's a guy that's known to go where the action is. He's always moving. We'll have a good day."

How good? Feuerbach has more than a touch of poet in him and Simkins just has the touch. For the afternoon practice we'll be following the miked-up Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco.

How good? You know NFL Films. These guys are good and they are on their game this camp. Their storytelling of tight end Reggie Kelly's season-ending Achilles injury in the first week of practice is right out of Steve Sabol's NFL Films playbook: Searing yet sensitive.

I got to know the facts and figures so well because my biggest job turned out to be correctly labeling the identification stickers stuck on the tapes churning out of Simkins' omnipresent camera at a record rate. Simkins, it seems, holds the Hard Knocks record with 35 tapes shot in one day, set earlier this camp.

Nothing as daredevil as the day Jaguars tight end Kyle Brady took him up for a ride in his single-engine plane, but plenty to make the screen.

So the labels had to be right. I mean, one mangled label, and what if Mike Zimmer shows up on something like Ravens highlights?

But, really, it was kind of my second biggest job.

"Whatever you do," says Callahan, "stay out of the shot. You always have to be aware of where he's pointing the camera. Anything you can stand behind is a friend."

QUICK LESSONS

At 26, Callahan has dropped about 50 pounds from his days as a long snapper and tight end for Temple. Now he works for NFL Films as an assistant director in post-production but he volunteered for this shoot as a P.A. because the aspiring documentarian wanted to see how it exactly gets to the editing room.

"Production assistants have more responsibility on this shoot than most," says Callahan, a history buff whose piece on Philadelphia during World War II has aired on the Military Channel. "Plus, I wanted to see how they do it. NFL Films is considered the best in the business."

It is 8:30 a.m. and we are in the Georgetown weight room with the defense's lift to begin a day in which the Bengals have a practice in the afternoon. If things go to schedule, it promises to be an almost normal people day for the crew; one that would end at 6 p.m. and get them back to the Lexington Marriott in decent season.

They could use it. The hours usually mirror the players' schedules and, often, extra. When they went over to Louisville to expand the Jeremi Johnson storyline with shots of a family barbecue and a barbershop visit, they went about 15 hours and didn't get back to the hotel until about 12:30 a.m.

"That's why they call it Hard Knocks," says Simkins, whose camera work is as hard-edged as his accent coated with Northeast Philly. "It's tough on the players. It's tough on the coaches. It's training camp."

Simkins and Feuerbach, literally connected at the hip by a cord, are scrounging for some shots on a day that head coach Marvin Lewis seems to be the most interesting with his work on the elliptical machine. Since this is their third straight Hard Knocks hooked together, Feuerbach and Simkins move with the ease of a veteran double play combo. Or, as Simkins says, "An old married couple." Whatever, they don't have to say much. They just know.

Because NFL Films would have to pay for the songs, they've opted for this session to be only video and let the music play.

Meanwhile, Callahan is laying out my equipment in a corner of the room, maybe about 25-30 pounds of stuff that are the lifeblood for Simkins and Feuerbach. I'll carry about a 10-pound tripod as well as a backpack filled with everything from lens tissue to extra tapes to batteries to lens cleaner to rain gear, to that precious lens.

Understand that Callahan looks like he came straight off the cover of the L.L. Bean fall catalog, so I'm not too sure it's going to be as easy for me to swing this stuff around.

I feel a little better when they tell me that linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald worked for a day as a P.A. this offseason for middle linebacker Dhani Jones when he was filming Dhani Tackles The Globe. But then, Fitzy is a cool guy that drives race cars, so maybe nothing is that hard for him.  

"I've got the two most important things in the side pockets," Callahan says. "Battery for the camera and a can of lens cleaner."

Callahan keeps his clipboard, which is the crew's version of the nuclear football because it houses the next tape Simkins needs when the one in the camera is filled. If there's not a quick transition, the shot of the show could be missed.

Also in the clipboard is a yellow legal pad of notes and release forms that need to be signed by people who are filmed and/or whose business is filmed. Callahan had to yank one of those out the other day when they were filming in a McDonald's.

Callahan also keeps the wire in his ear that connects him to Trout. So he's always got at least two people in his ear because he can hear what the crew is taping.

"The whole idea is to make it easier for Kevin and Al," Callahan says. "I'm the extension of the director. The director can't be everywhere, so we're really Steve's eyes and ears."

ON THE MOVE

With the weight room pretty much dead, Simkins and Feuerbach wander into the locker room to see if there is anything worthy and are treated to veteran kicker Shayne Graham talking to some rookies. Callahan is outside the locker room on a bench and starts taking notes on the conversation he picks up from Feuerbach's boom mike.

Suddenly, Trout crackles into Callahan's ear that there is some action he'd like to get on the practice field. While I pick up the tripod and strap on the backpack, Callahan pulls the crew out of the weight room and we walk out quickly to see Lewis and rehab trainer Nick Cosgray working out injured linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brandon Johnson at the far end of the field.

The crew sets up on one side for an instant before Callahan tells them they have to switch sides because Trout has crackled in they are in the background of an interview he's conducting on the sideline. Trying to get a grip on the tripod as well as stay out of the shot, I gratefully hide behind the SkyJack in the end zone.

But when we see a truck trying to back up to make a delivery on the other side of the field, we're scrambling again. Then, Simkins calls "Tape," shortly after he calls "Battery."

We get both to him, but first Simkins flips the tab on the tape that prevents it from being recorded over before handing it to me. Now I have to fill out the tape label to match the box label it is going to be placed: AM weight room; Locker room, Lewis on field…"

I've suddenly realized the most important clothing for a P.A. is pants with about 20 pockets. I'm starting to feel like a plumber. I had to move my cell phone out of one pocket because I had to jam in a dead camera battery since it can't go back in the backpack to mingle with the "good" batteries.

In the other pocket I've got the box of the tape that is currently in the camera. I've also got nine-volt batteries in that pocket, my cell phone and, hopefully I start to sweat, my car keys.

In the middle of all this, Callahan sees the crew walking rapidly away from us. Since one of the cardinal rules of being a P.A. is to never be separated from the crew, I put down the tape and pen and reach for the tripod.

Callahan slows me down.

"You've got to make sure we get this done first, then we'll find them," he says. "They've got a new battery and tape. We've got to get this tape out."

Trout is apparently interested in Lewis' moves around the facility, so the crew is off to find him rather than head to our next assignment, which is a defensive meeting with defensive coordinator Zimmer. Now Callahan has to call back down to the trailer that a different person has to pick up the tape because they're moving in a different direction. And the tape is top priority because it has to be sent over the wire to the home of NFL Films in Mount Laurel, N. J., as quickly as possible.

But as we tramp back under the stands to the locker room, Trout calls off the Lewis hunt and we head back to get Zimmer miked for his meeting.

So during the walk Simkins and Feuerbach flesh out the Graham conversation with the rookies for Callahan so he can put it in his notes. The rookies, apparently, were brainstorming on the show they must put on the last night of camp.

"Pretty interesting," Simkins says. "They were talking about the rookie show and Shayne Graham was talking about how he was the franchise player and he'd been cut (five) times."

"I know people sometimes look at P.A.s and wonder what we're doing. It looks like we're doing nothing," Callahan says. "But when we're sitting down, we're usually listening and taking notes, or writing down ideas. At the end of every day we meet with Steve to go over what we heard and saw and you want to have it written down."

When we reach Zimmer's office, we all have to smile. Zimmer getting wired is a little like putting poison on the tips of darts. Although the crew didn't work with him when the Cowboys were on Hard Knocks the first time, his battle with profanity has been well documented. The good-natured Zimmer gives them a hard time.

"They always send me a different guy to mike me," Zimmer will joke later.

STORY IS THE STORY

He's met his match in Feuerbach, the soft-spoken 6-footer who turned the track world upside down in the early '70s with such monstrous throws out of such a small body. He missed the Gold in Munich by 6 ½ inches in 1972, but the next spring he broke the world record with a fling of 71 feet, seven inches and held it for nearly three years.

They listed him at 6-1, 265 pounds then, but now at 6-1 in what he calls his "new life," he left at least 80 pounds in the old one. When he made his third Olympic team in 1980, the network came to profile him and the sound woman with the crew caught his eye.

The Americans didn't go to those Olympics because of the Moscow Boycott, but it was a happy ending because Feuerbach ended up marrying the audio lady and when she announced one day that she needed a boom man for one of her overseas ventures, Feuerbach tried it out.

"When I retired from competition, I thought, 'Now I won't have to travel,' " Feuerbach says. "Now I've been to 60 countries."

His job as a freelance audio man has taken him to some of the world's most dangerous places. Sometimes Simkins will turn and say to him during a particularly rough day, "At least we aren't in Bosnia." Feuerbach was with Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes the day all hell broke loose and he heard the bombs dropping on the marketplace as they careened to the airport. The night before they had stayed in a peaceful farmhouse and Wallace had to convince an editor the word "bucolic" was really the way it was before the terror came.

In the mid-1990s Simkins went with Ed Bradley's 60 Minutes to Lebanon's infamous Bekaa Valley to interview the man then considered to be one of the world's most wanted terrorists, Abdullah Öcalan, leader of Kurdistan Workers Party.

"They drove us around in circles," Feuerbach says. "Then we set up the lights, got ready for the interview, and they said, 'The interview is tomorrow. You sleep here tonight.' Ocalan showed up the next day."

Egged along, the gentle Feuerbach offers, "The Öcalan interview was very simple compared to miking Zimmer."

After they shoot the defensive walkthrough for about 20 minutes, there is another change in plans. The crew is called up top to the conference center patio overlooking the field to shoot an interview of college free agent Darius Hill, who has become a figure in the developing tight ends story.

Alicia Zubikowski, the show's producer, has the thankless job of making sure the players and coaches show at the scheduled time so that the crew doesn't get caught behind in their attempts to capture the right moments. That can be difficult when the one schedule the players have to adhere to is Lewis' and not the producer's.

She spent part of the morning asking Callahan and me if we would go into the locker room to find Chinedum Ndukwe so he could hook up with another crew.

But then, she knows what she signed up for. At 25 and fresh out of Seton Hall, she is of that generation that always dreamed of working somewhere in the world of TV sports she grew up watching and loving in downstate New York, knowing it didn't matter she was a woman.

"It would be hard to work at a better place," she says.

VIEW FROM FINDER

Simkins asks for the tripod and makes a lens change while Feuerbach is free at last to move about setting up his equipment. Trout is ready to do the interview and all they have to do is get the maintenance guys to shut off the humming air conditioner.

They have some down time after Hill leaves. In fact, they may be free until practice if it goes at this rate. Simkins has time to push back his Ed Hardy ballcap to reveal close-cropped blond hair and reflect on his 12 ½ years with "Films."

He began as an intern during his junior year at Temple and has worked his way up to routinely shoot every Super Bowl and get choice assignments like this one. It means 200 to 250 days a year on the road and not knowing your schedule during the season until the day you leave.

Simkins has to laugh. Yes, he and Feuerbach are quite the odd couple. At 36, Simkins is at the age now that Feuerbach was in 1984 when his body balked just a little bit too much and he decided not to try to make his fourth Olympic team. Just the other day, Feuerbach was opining and he caught Simkins clicking the camera on him.

"No you don't," he said. Then triumphantly, "Sound was off."

"We play well off of each other. We can always joke, but when it's time to go to work, we get serious," Simkins says. "We're the same in some ways and complete opposites in others. Al's a professional. He's great at what he does. I'm a go-go guy and he's kind of laid back. Sometimes he'll tell me to take it easy, calm down. If we're not paying attention, I'll get yanked if I see something to shoot and I take off."

Feuerbach smiles wisely.

"You know, it's funny," he says. "Kevin is very good.  When the cable gets taut, he slows down."

It's hard to stop Simkins, though. He's like everybody else on "Films." They want to tell the best story possible and a lot of times that means going some place you're not wanted.

"You have to walk a line, no question," he says. "You're down here for six weeks with these guys. You don't want to suffocate them. You have to give them some space."

A cameraman is just as proud of his shots as a player that he's shooting. When the crews gather the next night to watch the first episode in the Marriott, they'll exult for their shots that don't make the cutting room floor.

But it can be bittersweet. Simkins' most satisfying work in this film is the Bengals' low point of the young season. His work on Kelly's season-ending injury sets a high bar for the remaining four episodes.

"In a lot of training camps, they would have shooed us away. They would have said, 'We don't want this on camera,' " Simkins says. "Especially with a veteran like Kelly. But they let me go right into the locker room with him and I was there when the trainer told him, 'You know Reggie, I hate to tell you this … .' It was really emotional.

"Then we got some shots of the players coming up to him, praying with him, wishing him well. "(Kelly) didn't mind. In fact, he gave us an impromptu interview. He was very gracious."

He figures that probably wouldn't have happened in Dallas last year or in Kansas City the year before that.

"Dallas had a lot more egos and star power. They were tougher to get time with," Simkins says. "I think here the team seems to be a little more laid back. The staff has been phenomenal. The coaches have given us all kinds of leeway. The difference has been access. This is probably my best access with any team. I think that's because they trust us. They trust NFL Films."

A few days later in a night practice, Simkins was able to use that trust to shoot another important piece in that first episode. Crew 3A was assigned to follow middle linebacker Dhani Jones and when Simkins saw through his lens Jones looking away from his own drill and  saying, "Oh, bleep," he immediately panned to where Jones was looking and saw tight end Ben Utecht prone on the ground.

Even though they were assigned to Jones, Simkins moved in quickly and as practiced continued, Trout made the quick call to put another crew on Jones and have 3A stick with Utecht.

"You want to get the shot, but you know you can't get too close," Simkins says. "It's a touchy situation. You use your lens to keep your distance. You zoom in. I get tunnel vision when I'm shooting and I've got to be careful, but, yeah, probably because they've been so good with access I kept taking a step in. I knew getting in the ambulance wasn't an option. You get the best shot you can. A good camera man thinks like an editor. You're shooting to edit. Getting the doors closing. The ambulance pulling out of the frame."

The guy you'll never see in that sequence is Callahan. But the P.A. may have made it all possible. As Utecht lay on the ground, Simkins ran out of tape and Callahan decided to break the circle around the injury, come off the sidelines, and get the tape to him with nary a break in filming.

Feuerbach has chronicled a lot of sadness and strife in his career. Sports can be a lot like that.

"I think about that every time I'm witnessing something where a career might be over," he says. "I feel how fortunate I am to be fine. Everyone should realize they can be worse off.  That's true in parts of the world where there is a lot of sadness and it's true out here on the football field."

FIELD OF VIDEO STREAMS

Just when lunch looked ready, the crew is called to do an interview with running backs coach Jim Anderson, the senior member of the Bengals coaching staff in his 26th season. The fullback situation, with Jeremi Johnson in a comeback and rookie free agent Chris Pressley overcoming a youth of frightful poverty, has intrigued them and has become a big storyline.

After the players and coaches eat lunch, Trout's crews head into the cafeteria and he takes about a minute to hit each table and brief them on any changes for the afternoon practice.

Callahan needs time to head back to the two double-wide trailers that "Films" has temporarily placed by the college's tennis courts. Walk in and you are transformed from a baking Central Kentucky football field to a crisp air-conditioned New York office teeming with everything from computers to cupcakes.

It's not unlike a locker room. Simkins' locker is a desk with his nameplate on it and that's where he stows his equipment. Feuerbach has a spot in the audio room and Callahan is running between both making sure he's stocked for the practice. Sunscreen. Tapes. Labels. He's a little concerned he's only got two batteries because one hasn't finished charging yet.

The afternoon is reaching the 90s and as we walk to the practice field, Callahan tells me to be ready to move. Not only are we following the two highest–profile guys on the team in Palmer and The Ocho, but before camp the coaches decided that they would allow cameras on the field with as little presence as possible.

That means only Simkins and Feuerbach can go on the field. Callahan and I have to hang back on the sidelines. If they move across the field, we have to go around it to reach them.

"There's going to be some running," he says.

We hook up with the offense right away, where the quarterbacks are warming up near the sidelines taking snaps from the centers. Feuerbach has the boom deployed looking for any interesting bits of conversation. The cameraman is the lead dog and the sound man follows, but that doesn't stop him from listening.

Palmer is joking with Cook about making sure his personal hygiene is good down here since they are in such close contact. They form into an offense in the middle of the field and Callahan and I are left on the sidelines.

About half an hour later, I'm dripping with sweat as if I'm halfway through a Thanksgiving 10K. A 10K with my pockets filled carrying about 25 pounds.

We've walked quickly around the field about three times and I really need to be close with the tripod because Simkins has already used it a couple of times early.

Now, Callahan knows how to carry the tripod easily above his head. I haven't mastered it and after taking a shot above my eye when I first lifted it in the morning, I've decided to carry it like luggage to the airport. The next day my thighs will be the color of an Andy Warhol sunset. 

Of course they have no problems getting sound from The Ocho. No doubt it's like asking Kate Hudson to look alluring. While the receivers watch a special teams drill on the sidelines, Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles and Chris Henry get into a discussion about the fastest guy they've seen in the league. They decide on Tennessee running back Chris Johnson and Buffalo wide receiver Lee Evans.

After he runs down on kick cover, cornerback Johnathan Joseph checks back in on the sidelines and agrees, but he also backs the notion that the fastest guy he ever saw was the old receiver for the Jaguars and Raiders, Alvis Whitted. And he only saw him in his last year as a rookie.

"The guys you're trying to get are the guys not miked," Feuerbach says of the boom mike. "You're looking for interesting conversation. Usually you can tell by the animation and the body language."

During the break The Ocho is telling the crowd his daughter is there and that gets a buzz going. "Look, there she is," and everyone laughs because it is a little girl in a No. 9 jersey, so the joke is on them.

But it can go from halcyon to hectic in the instant it takes a tape to run out. Trying not to get sweat on the label, I fill out the fourth tape of the day, adding the description of where the mikes are: "Anderson interview, PM practice, Chad Channel 2, Carson Channel 1."

Because I'm on the sidelines, I can't hear anything good. I just follow them around and try to stay out of the shot. I'll have to wait for the show.

Now as practice nears the end, the pace is popping again. Simkins needs a tape, a battery, and Callahan needs to get out a special light they need to go into the post-practice locker room. Plus, Simkins has changed lenses again.

Callahan is about to kneel down to cover up the other lens, folding it in cushioned cloth like an American flag (and just as carefully). As I rush out to the middle of the field to give Simkins the new tape, I nearly step on the lens. If I could move at all quickly, it may have been in pieces. Since I'm no Alvis Whitted, Callahan could kind of ward me away.

After hearing from Trout, Callahan then tells me to go back on the field to tell Al and Kevin not to stay for Lewis' post-practice speech and to head to the locker room.

I could use a break, not to mention some daily fodder, so I go back to my real job and interview some players as they come off the field. The crew is doing the same and now Callahan has the tripod and backpack. They are following The Ocho through the autographs, but if Simkins caught it, I bet the one shot that shows up is the girl with the "Free Chris Henry" T-shirt.

As usual in sports and film, what is supposed to happen doesn't. It turns out the crew doesn't have to go back to the locker room. It looks like they are going to have that early day. They'll sit down with Trout and give him everything they know, from the rookie show to The Ocho's show, and they hope it makes it into the show.

Then they'll go get some dinner. I'd go get a run, but maybe not. I just got reacquainted with some muscles I last used when Feuerbach was dealing the shot.

But it wasn't that normal of a day. It never is. As usual, Feuerbach, the sage from the '70s, says it best today. He may have nearly won Gold in Munich, and he may have hit gold in Lebanon, and he says it's always exhilarating to always "try and capture the golden moment" in projects like this.

"Being in the Republic of Georgia, that was pretty interesting," Feuerbach says. "But sometimes just every day you do what you do is pretty interesting."

I wish he had his boom out for that one.

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