When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the New York Giants this evening on “Monday Night Football,” it will mark a sort-of reunion — Bucs quarterback Tom Brady reunited with the Giants, the team that most bedeviled him during his legendary run with the New England Patriots. And though Brady’s no longer with the Patriots and the Giants are off to a 1-6 start, the matchup will call to mind for many one of the greatest championship games in NFL history — Super Bowl XLII in 2008, when Eli Manning’s Giants pulled off a come-from-behind victory, ending what would have been an undefeated season for Brady and the Patriots.
For ESPN reporter Michelle Beisner-Buck, the occasion is both opportunity and challenge. Brady v. the Giants provides an obvious and rich territory to explore in her weekly feature segment on the network’s pregame show “Monday Night Countdown.” But Super Bowl XLII has been so pored over in the years since that it demands a fresh take.
“That game has always been a part of Brady’s legacy,” says Beisner-Buck. “And that season always been a part of Brady’s legacy.”
Brady guided the Patriots to 18 consecutive victories in the 2007 season and subsequent playoffs. Had they beat the Giants, the Patriots would have finished the season as the first undefeated NFL team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. But a late-game drive by the Giants, highlighted by David Tyree’s spectacular third-down “helmet catch,” ruined the Patriots’ perfect season.
It was not until last Monday that Beisner-Buck and her producer, Dale Mauldin, homed in on an angle for their “Countdown” feature, which will premiere Monday night. They first considered and dismissed a handful of options. One was to try to retell the story of the game from the perspective of the Giants’ defensive front four — including Hall of Famer and omnipresent television personality Michael Strahan. Another was to have Beisner-Buck interview her husband, Fox announcer Joe Buck, who called the game with longtime booth partner Troy Aikman.
But then Beisner-Buck had the idea of retelling the story of the game from the perspective of famous fans of both teams. Filmmaker Peter Berg, a personal friend of the Bucks and a die-hard Giants fan, was the first call. Something of an expert in linear narrative, Berg “gave us some really great analytical insight and could recall certain plays and could break down the way that they transpired —then just really painted these beautiful, kind of tragic pictures about Patriots fans and Giants fans in that game and that season.”
Then, after casting a broad net, Beisner-Buck and Mauldin struck gold with two comedians — Tracy Morgan, a Giants fan, and Lenny Clarke, a Patriots fan. “You’ve got these two huge personalities in Lenny Clarke and Tracy Morgan, coming from two different perspectives,” Beisner-Buck says. “You can just imagine, I really didn’t have to do anything. I just let them talk.” As a capstone, she interviewed Hall of Famer Larry Csonka, a veteran of the ’72 Dolphins.
Each of Beisner-Buck’s interviews lasted about 45 minutes. Narrowing all that material into a crisp feature is a weekly challenge.
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“It’s like a puzzle,” she says. “You’re trying to build the shell, and you’re trying to figure out who’s going to talk first and where it’s going to go and how you’re going to transition from each voice in the piece into this seamless, four-minute feature that gives a big picture.”
It is work that Beisner-Buck has grown increasingly fond of since joining “Countdown” in 2015. Before her time at ESPN, she spent several years as a self-described “utility player” at NFL Network, keeping a bag packed at all times, ready to be dispatched at a moment’s notice to whatever city she might be assigned to report from in a given week.
Her work at ESPN has allowed her to dive deeper on a broad range of stories, some of them far more serious than the Brady-Giants feature. She recalls a piece that she did on then-Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Devon Still, whom she interviewed several times over the course of his daughter’s treatment for neuroblastoma. To be able to tell a story like that on a platform with the reach of “Monday Night Countdown,” Beisner-Buck says, “That’s the gratification, the satisfaction, the reward; that’s the lottery at the end of these stories is to be able to make a difference — to be able to do something that you you’re proud of.”
And then there’s the purely fun stuff, such as the Super Bowl XLII feature. Beisner-Buck has just finished interviewing Czonka, who ended the interview by providing her a different kind of satisfaction — the one that comes with getting the perfect sound byte. Czonka, she says, capped a detailed story of his experience watching the game, watching the Patriots’ hopes of eclipsing the Dolphins team of a generation earlier fall apart, by looking directly into the camera, and addressing the 2007 Patriots, telling them, “You were this close, but no cigar.”
“I said, ‘God, Larry, do you have a cigar there?’” Beisner-Buck says with a laugh. Sadly, there was none on hand for the 73-year-old Czonka to use as a prop. But it was still, she says, “a profound moment.”