A Super Cast
When Michael Strahan joined the cast of “Fox NFL Sunday” in 2008, he was a Super Bowl champion, the star New York Giants defender who played spoiler to Tom Brady’s plans for a perfect season, upsetting the New England Patriots. He was a household name, no stranger to the spotlight. But when he stepped onto the Los Angeles set for his first show and the cameras turned on, Strahan was in for a hazing.
“I was the rookie,” he says with a chuckle. Veterans Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long, members of the pro football pregame show since its inception 14 years earlier, had planned a special welcome for the new guy—and uncorked it on live TV.
“Now this is important Michael, pay attention,” Long says, recounting how he and Bradshaw had greeted Strahan that day. “If a plane leaves the United States, and it crashes on the Canadian/U.S. border—where do they bury the survivors?”
In the merciless eye of the cameras, Strahan thought hard about it. “I’m like OK, it’s my first show, I’m scared to death already. I go, ah, Canada,” recalls Strahan. Long jumped on him. “I said ‘no, you don’t bury the survivors!’ ” Long pauses. “Oh God, it was funny.”
The razzing didn’t end there. “They gave me half a fruit basket—I had just gotten divorced,” says Strahan with a chuckle. Long and Bradshaw told him the other half went to his ex-wife.
“We laughed and we laughed,” says Strahan. “And I think that’s the magic of the show. Everyone thinks ‘they get on camera and they have to create this,’ and that’s not the case. It’s just natural. That’s how we all act around each other, even when the camera’s off—we literally would rather be nowhere else except in that studio with those guys.”
Those guys and their good-natured humor have been part of the DNA of “Fox NFL Sunday” since its launch on September 4, 1994, more than 28 years ago. While there had been pregame shows before, this one stood out from the beginning, the first of its type to be an hour long, twice the length of previous shows. With the extra time came a different take. Instead of just making game predictions and talking about football itself, this show brought in copious amounts of humor, a bit of sugar to make the medicine go down. At its core was an all-star assembly of talent. The show quickly found an admiring fan base and Fox says it has been the No. 1 NFL pregame show since its start. Today, it’s part of the Sunday ritual for 4.5 million fans each week.
The idea was to showcase a crew having conversations about football—but not just any crew. At the core are original cast members Bradshaw, Long and Jimmy Johnson, three men who each know the personal demands of becoming a champion.
Long won his Super Bowl ring as a standout defensive end for the Raiders, when the silver and black crushed the Washington Redskins 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII in 1984.
Johnson, who won a national championship as head coach of the undefeated 1987 University of Miami Hurricanes, went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls coaching the Dallas Cowboys. He also won a national championship playing for the University of Arkansas in 1964.
Then there’s Bradshaw, a champion among champions, with his four Super Bowl victories with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The only other quarterback to have more is Tom Brady. But, unlike Brady, Bradshaw has never lost in the big game.
“Well, he won seven but he lost three, so that’s four. Bradshaw four, Brady four!” Bradshaw says. He’s built like a bull, loud, his laughter infectious. His hands, which once gripped and chucked footballs with accuracy and power, are huge.
Strahan brings another championship ring to the desk and, like Johnson, Long and Bradshaw, he is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Everybody has proven themselves,” says Strahan.
“Everybody on the set has a celebrity status outside of Fox NFL Sunday,” says Johnson. “Everybody on the set is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
In addition to the individual inductions into the Hall of Fame, the show itself was honored in 2019 by being inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame.
“Everyone in that group has a reason to be proud of what they’ve done, individually, but it’s a team,” adds Long. “It’s respect, it’s a nuance of understanding. We joke around a lot; but we know where to stop. The important thing is the relationships and the respect and the love for who you work with.”
A question to Johnson on what it takes to win shows the dedication to excellence the cast retains alongside the laughter. “I never did really dream. People dream and it’s almost like crossing their fingers and they’re hoping that it happens. I always believed it was going to happen. When you truly believe something’s going to happen, you work to make sure it’s going to happen. I think winning feeds on itself.”
Although Johnson was a member of the original “Fox NFL Sunday” cast, he had a break for a few years, when, in 1996, he took over the head coaching duties of the Miami Dolphins. Coaching extracted its toll. “There’s some sacrifices and some struggles,” he says. “Different head coaches approach it different ways. There are some that can delegate and go home for dinner. I wasn’t one of those. I always felt like I needed to outwork my opponent, outwork the other coach.”
The show is filmed at the Fox Studios in Los Angeles. Curt Menefee, who has been doing this since 2006, kicks things off; his warm voice is the first one you hear during a typical broadcast. The show begins with the now-familiar trumpet and drums, reminiscent of a marching band pepping up the team before taking the field. The set is a monster, big and wide, with bright graphics everywhere. They make predictions, sure, and they talk about injuries and trends, which teams are on the rise and which ones are struggling. They begin the show at a long desk, but they spend plenty of time standing too, sometimes acting out plays on what looks like a football field, often with a ball as a prop. It’s a high-energy act.
When they aren’t on the air, the men tend to gather in the green room—Johnson calls it “the avocado room”—to watch all the games. Johnson says the laughter continues. “When we sit in the avocado room watching games, we hold our sides laughing. We entertain each other.”
One of the tenets of the show is keeping it as spontaneous as possible. “We script as little as we can,” says producer Bill Richards. “We don’t script anything for anybody but Curt. The rest of the guys just go.”
Strahan talks about the challenges—and strengths—of a show without a script. “You really have to be engaged, and pay attention ’cause you never know what’s coming. You always have to pay attention to what someone is talking about,” he says. “If you rehearse so much you take the spontaneity out of it. It’s like a football game, the opponent might do something you’re not expecting.”
The men are close. “All of us are best of friends,” says Johnson. “We have a group text, and we’ll go back and forth during the week, we visit each other in the off season. I’ve been to Howie’s place in Montana, Terry’s place in Oklahoma, they’ve all been here in the Keys, so we’re really close friends. And that allows us to bust each other’s chops without anybody being offended.”
“I’ve always said that we are genuine friends and brothers,” says Menefee, who did gigs at MSG Network and other places before joining Fox Sports in 1997. “It’s not just us; it’s the families. My wife and Howie’s wife text each other like little girls. We take a boys’ trip in the off season every year. It’s unlike any other place I’ve ever been.”
Says Bradshaw: “We really love and care about one another.”
Game day is a long one for the entire cast and crew, especially since it’s shot on the west coast. They’ll arrive around six a.m. Pacific Time to be ready for the 9 a.m. broadcast time (noon Eastern), which airs before the early NFL games. But halftime coverage and post and pregame clips make this an entire Sunday affair, and they won’t leave until around 5 p.m. Pacific time.
On a hot morning in September, early in the 2022 NFL season, game day is under way. During a break in the action, the door to the studio opens, and the men file out, each in a suit and tie. They’re chatting, catching a quick break before the next call to air, when time comes for a photo shoot.
Many of the guys grab cigars from an offered box—most of them are big-time cigar lovers—before they start to move into place, figuring out who should stand where. Jay Glazer, a sports reporter billed as an NFL insider, is the sixth member of the cast. Bulldog thick and the shortest of the group by far, he stares up at Strahan and Long, towering giants who each stand six-foot-five. “We look like the letter H,” he laments.
“Make love to the camera, boys,” Strahan says, flashing his million-dollar smile and looking slimmer than he did during his playing days. A perfectly tailored three-piece suit clings to him. Johnson, his trademark hair perfect as always, comes in closer and hugs him. “Not me Jimmy!” Strahan says, eliciting guffaws from the group.
Bradshaw, the king joker among a group of jokers, flips the bird to the camera, a cigar clamped in his mouth. “I insist on being photoshopped!” he proclaims.
“On the set, there is no age difference,” says Strahan, the youngest of the group at 51. Glazer is 52 and Menefee 57. Long just turned 63. Bradshaw is 74 and Johnson is 79. “To be honest with you,” says Strahan, “the older guys act more immature than the younger ones.” However, it’s a notion Glazer belied when he once put a bumper sticker on Long’s car reading “I Love Porn.” Long drove throughout Beverly Hills before he caught on.
“We don’t take ourselves as serious as maybe we should,” chuckles Bradshaw.
“Have you ever heard of the Peter Principle?” said Bradshaw on one show, referring to the management concept that people with talent in one area are advanced until they become mired at their level of incompetence. Before he could finish, Long jumped in. “Is that how you got in here?” The crew broke up. “That was a shot!” Bradshaw said.
On another show, Alex Rodriguez visited the cast, and was handed a football, which he chucked across the studio to Glazer. The pass was tight, but a little high, Glazer couldn’t rein it in, and it smashed into a monitor, damaging the screen and bringing heavy laughter from the hosts. “That’s our fault,” Strahan shouted, “we should have got somebody taller!”
For all the laughs, the show has also had its share of serious moments. Glazer has been quite public about his struggles with mental health, which he spoke about on air. (He also wrote a book about the battle, called Unbreakable.) He has credited Bradshaw for being a pioneer in discussing such matters.
Earlier this year, Bradshaw was visibly winded during one of the stand-up segments of the show, ending up putting his head on Long’s shoulder for support, causing concern among viewers. The following week, Bradshaw revealed to the world on air that he had been weary from a battle with skin and bladder cancer.
“I’m cancer free, I’m feeling great,” he said on the show. In an interview, he spoke about his health. “I went down for my first 90-day checkup and I’m good. As a man that loves Jesus, I didn’t even give a thought to dying. It never crossed my mind.” When asked if he had changed his cigar smoking due to the health issues, his answer was vintage Bradshaw. “I smoke more than ever,” he said.
The show also revels in moments of celebration, especially when other members of the cast can cheer on the success of their friends. Johnson learned about his Hall of Fame induction on air when C. David Baker, then the president of the organization, walked onto the set and announced Johnson’s enshrinement with a handshake—all on live TV. The coach was visibly moved, and the rest of the cast were ecstatic. “When you watch that video, you can see—the guys are as excited as I am. Bradshaw was going nuts, throwing his fist up in the air, hollering ‘Yes!’ They were as excited for me as I was,” says Johnson.
When Long’s son Chris, who also plays pro football, was making his decision to move teams, he leaned heavily to Atlanta. Howie pushed for New England, with its Super Bowl wins, and Chris eventually signed with the Patriots. Fast forward to February 5, 2017, and the Patriots and Atlanta are head-to-head in Super Bowl LI, with the team from “Fox NFL Sunday” broadcasting the game. New England is trailing 28-3. “I’m the worst dad in the world. Because I talked my son out of going to the team that’s beating them in the Super Bowl and we’re covering it,” recalls Long. “Terry—the savant that he is—just turns to me and he says ‘don’t worry little buddy, they’re going to throw the heck out of the ball now and Tom’s going to bring them back and it’s going to be the best comeback ever.’ He might be the only person in the building other than the Patriots who is believing that. And sure enough, it ends up happening.”
The Patriots staged the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, winning in overtime and giving Chris Long his first Super Bowl ring. (Moving to the Eagles, he would claim another the following year when Philadelphia faced his former team.) Howie Long was all smiles afterward. “You think when you win a Super Bowl, it’s kind of the ultimate. But when your son wins the Super Bowl, it trumps that by five.”
Long celebrated that victory with cigars. He doesn’t puff all the time, but cigars come out for big occasions. “Milestone moments,” he says, and he’s had plenty of those recently, with weddings, births, kids playing in Super Bowls and Pro Bowls. “Maybe on the porch up in Montana, in the summertime, when a friend comes by. It’s not all the time, but I’d say I probably remember the moments more.”
Strahan is a considerably more frequent smoker, keeping a room in his home that’s cigar friendly. “I have a man cave in New Jersey where I go and I have buddies who will come over and we will literally sit for hours, have cigars and cocktails, try different things.” He enjoys Cubans and Padróns, and has a particular affinity for Montecristo No. 2s. He also smokes them on the golf course. “That is one of my relaxation deals—I smoke a cigar, sit back and enjoy it. I have so many cigars: I have three cigar refrigerators and about four humidors, I don’t even know what I really have anymore.” He enjoys whiskey or Tequila with his cigars.
“I love smoking cigars,” says Bradshaw, a big fan of the My Father brand. He puffs exclusively at his home in Oklahoma and skips them on the road. “I’m probably the only man in the world who can smoke in the den with his wife not saying ‘don’t smoke in the house.’ My wife doesn’t say a word. I love smoking cigars. I’m on the road 14 days and I don’t smoke cigars, I don’t even think about it, but when I come home in the evenings I sit in my chair, I put a fan behind me to blow the smoke away.”
Glazer, who doesn’t share the desk with the rest of the panel, works the phones to keep abreast of the latest goings-on in the NFL. He calls them his scooping calls. “When I make my scooping calls, I drink a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, keep my nerves calm. On Saturday I didn’t sleep—that happens sometimes,” he reveals. “I try to call every team. I try to make sure when you watch ‘Fox NFL Sunday’ I come up with something no one else has.” Glazer enjoys cigars regularly and likes to maintain the fellowship so integral with the ritual—even when it’s challenging. “Stray [Strahan] and I during Covid would have Zoom calls and a cigar,” he says. “When they told us we had to stay socially distanced, I tried to change the narrative—physically distant, but socially active.”
Come February 12, the “Fox NFL Sunday” team will be exceptionally active. It’s their biggest show of the year, as Fox is broadcasting Super Bowl LVII. That means a far larger audience. Last year, an estimated 200 million Americans—more than half the population—watched the last Super Bowl. It will also be longer, a five-hour pregame show.
“There’s a lot of time to fill in getting ready for a Super Bowl,” says Johnson. “But you’d be amazed—it goes by so fast. As a coach, you always try to prepare your team for the opponent, and you’re dealing with 100 individuals, 53 players and 20 coaches, administrative people and you try to get everybody on the same page. As a broadcaster, you want to study both teams and be totally prepared to talk about what the strategy will be, who has the advantage and what might be the outcome—and interesting stories that the fans might enjoy listening to.”
Menefee has a system to prepare himself for the task of speaking for several hours on Super Bowl Sunday, a method that begins much earlier in the week. “You make sure you pace yourself that week,” he says. “I try to shut it down on Wednesday. I want to conserve my energy.” He holes up in his room. His wife, who joins him on the trip, takes a separate room.
Bradshaw, no stranger to Super Bowls, says he’s ready. “As a broadcaster, it’s like going into a candy store,” he says.
While at this writing, neither the contestants nor the outcome of the game are known, one thing is certain: the Fox team will bring the Super Bowl to the masses, utilizing plenty of experience. And with five hours of talking to do, it’s inevitable that there will be laughs to go along with all the analysis.
“I started laughing 29 years ago and I haven’t stopped,” says Long. “We laugh from 5:30 in the morning ’til 5:15 when we walk out at night. And it’s always been that way.”