For my wife and I’s one year anniversary, I really wanted to do something extra special. Nothing could top our honeymoon in Punta Cana, so I wanted to think outside the box on this one. Then I heard about the ESPY Week Auctions on ESPN, supporting the V Foundation. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the V Foundation and what they do, I encourage you to read more about them at: http://www.jimmyv.org/about-us/our-story. In short, the V Foundation benefits cancer research, something that is close to me for several reasons, one of which is because my grandfather passed away from cancer when I was just three years old. And there was one specific auction I was interested in, The Fantasy Sports Experience.
While I’m not at liberty to discuss the amount that I paid, it made sending that money easier because it supported such a wonderful organization. I’m very knowledgeable about the way non-profit organizations work, as I’ve spent many days of my life volunteering with the Bethesda Mission, The Autism Society, Challenger Baseball and many others. But the V Foundation vows that 100% of direct donations go to fund cancer research.
The experience, which I ended up winning, was kept a surprise from my wife. She only knew that we were going to Connecticut and that we would be having our anniversary dinner with strangers. I suppose this doesn’t seem like the best way to spend our first anniversary, but let me just say that it was.
The experience itself promised dinner with ESPN’s Senior Fantasy Analyst Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) and injury expert and physical therapist Stephania Bell (@Stephania_ESPN), stars on the insanely popular podcast (and my daily listen) the Fantasy Focus 06010. We met them at Flemings Steakhouse in Hartford, CT which provided an amazing meal that didn’t disappoint, but the food was not what was so amazing. We were also joined by Nate “The Weasel” Ravitz, former host of the podcast and now a self-proclaimed “Paper Pusher”, which is a humble way of saying a very important person behind the scenes.
Discussions of the night centered around Jackie and I’s fantasy lineups for the following day (of course), but continued into topics like the pervasiveness (and legality) of daily fantasy sports, the scoop on how each of the members of the pod got to where they are today, and some hilarious jabs at Matthew’s expense. The dinner was fantastic, but what amazed me was how down to earth the crew was. I deem myself a fairly good judge of character, and feel that I can tell when people are not being genuine. The only thing I can say is that these people have worked very hard to be where they are, and while they have experienced fame to a certain extent (their words) have managed to remain extremely humble. In fact, Matthew commented that he was in awe that people like us would spend a five hour drive to spend time with “A couple of jimokes like us”.
Dinner ended at a decent hour as I made the comment, “I’d love to sit here all night with you and talk fantasy, but I know that you all have to be on TV in the morning.” Matthew and Stephania both explained that they still had hours worth of work to do. Jackie and I headed back to our wonderful hotel room at Double Tree Inn and were surprised when we received a knock on our door. It seems that somehow the hotel found out it was our anniversary (Matthew/Stephania?) and sent us up a nice bottle of bubbly. Very classy guys…
Sunday started early for us, as we were to be at ESPN at 8:30 am for a private tour of the facility. What made this so special is that ESPN is not open to the public. You cannot just go there and take a tour, nor can you even step onto the grounds without authorization.
The tour was amazing. We got to visit several of the studios, capped off by a chance to check out the Baseball Tonight studio. As much as I love football, I am a true baseball fan at heart and stepping into that studio was unlike any experience I’ve ever had. I’ve grown up watching Baseball Tonight and to have the opportunity to hang out and take pictures was fantastic. We even ran into a few ESPN personalities in the hall, including Football Today and Fantasy Football Now host Robert Flores (@RoFloESPN).
Part II of our excursion brought us front and center to watch a live taping of Fantasy Football Now. In fact, when we arrived at the set, Stephania Bell went out of her way to introduce us to the crew, showed us around the set, and even set us up with a prime spot to watch the show. And while Stephania was getting ready for the show, Field Yates (new host of the 06010 pod) chatted with us right up until airtime. While we didn’t get on the show, we did sneak on to Robert Flores’s Periscope of a commercial break. Watching a live TV show being recorded is nothing short of amazing. Watching how things unfolded on the fly, hearing the director discussing what camera to switch to, and even segments getting altered and cut on the fly was really like watching a movie unfold right before our eyes.
The final act of the experience came when we got to watch the 1 p.m. games in the “War Room”. This was basically a room with a wall of tvs with all of the games on simultaneously being watched by every ESPN NFL personality. We had the opportunity to meet Chris Berman, Keyshawn Johnson, Steven A. Smith, Ron Jaworski, Adam Schefter, Tom Jackson, Merrill Hoge, and many others. Even Stephania ignored the games (watching the games is her job) to make sure that we got to meet everyone and get pictures with those that we wanted. When it came time to leave, I went to say goodbye to my new friend Matthew Berry and he insisted on walking us out.
At the end of the day, I can’t begin to explain why this was such an amazing opportunity. First and most importantly, I wasn’t quite sure how my wife would take the trip. I knew she loved football and certainly enjoys fantasy, but she isn’t as diehard as I (at least yet). But even she proclaimed that the trip was amazing and extremely enjoyable. Secondly, these are all people I look up to. My dream growing up was to be in radio, and while I had my “cup of coffee” as they say, I never reached the level that these people have. I mean I’ve grown up watching Chris Berman and Tom Jackson every Sunday since I can remember. To be able to have the opportunity to meet so many people that I look up to, even now, was an experience I will never forget.
But the main reason that I wrote this piece is to provide a thank you to two specific individuals, Stephania Bell and Matthew Berry. Even though both of them are extremely busy during the football season, they took ample time out of their schedule to ensure the success of our experience. Even when Matthew was walking from one set to another, he took the time to chat with us. Even when Stephania, who is paid to analyze football, ignored watching the games to chat with us and introduce us to so many people, it really says a lot about the character of these individuals. In my mind it is no wonder why you are successful, because you genuinely care about your craft and genuinely care about the fans. I wish you both the best of luck and I hope that you continue to be amazing people, because you really made our first anniversary one to remember.
Paul M. Miller