TO GET where you want to go in life, as Mike Mayock has learned, you often have to take on assignments that leave you scratching your head and asking: "What am I doing here?" In his early days as a football sideline reporter, Mayock asked just that when he found himself, say, interviewing the Princeton Tiger or a player's parents in the stands. But no idea from a producer ever seemed quite as absurd as the time at a Canadian Football League game in Edmonton when he was told to climb up and interview a statue of Wayne Gretzky.
"You gotta be kidding," Mayock said. "You want me to interview a statue?"
"Yeah," the producer said. "It'll be a riot."
Mayock did as he was told.
"I had no choice," Mayock remembered last week. "The producer is the boss. So I got up there and asked the statue a question. And then I would say something stupid like, 'An unusually stony-faced Gretzky refuses to answer . . . "
How did that prepare Mayock for the career he always dreamed of: working in the booth as a football analyst? Well, Mayock will tell you it was a surprisingly valuable experience, one that enabled him to learn broadcasting profession from the ground up. By doing those spots on live television, he said he picked up "the nuts and bolts of understanding of what producers want, how to get in and out of questions, and so on." He also became accustomed to working without a safety net.
"If you messed up, you made a fool of yourself - no one wants that," Mayock said. "But what I discovered was that all that stuff came back and helped me, now that I have gotten somewhere fairly legitimate."
That would be in the analyst chair at NFL Network for "Thursday Night Football," which this evening features the Eagles at Seattle. But that is only part of what Mayock has on his plate these days. He just completed his second season with NBC as a game analyst for Notre Dame home football games. And he also has been a principal player in the draft coverage for the NFL Network, where he has appeared as an analyst at the Under Armour Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine and on the "Path to the Draft." Mayock has come a long way from interviewing that statue of "The Great One."
He did it the hard way. The son of a football coach, he played for his father, Mike Sr., at the Haverford School in the early 1970s. The oldest of seven children, he was a lefthanded quarterback and also played defensive back. Mike Sr. said his son was a better baseball player, a first baseman/outfielder mentioned in the same breath by pro scouts during his senior year as Springfield (Delaware County) catcher Mike Scioscia, the former Dodger who now manages the Angels. But Mayock had a passion for football, which grew as he grew, following his father from field to field. Early on, he became skilled at studying game film on the old Bell & Howell projector the Mayocks had in the basement.
"I had the films of the games I coached down there and he would watch them with me," said Mike Sr., who said his son was such a skilled athlete, he taught himself to ride a bicycle at age 2. "He learned how to break down film. So as a 9- or 10-year-old, he was looking at as much film as some college coaches. By the time he was a senior in high school, he could do whatever he wanted to with film."
A fine career at Boston College followed. Mayock started for 4 years there at defensive back and was captain of both the football and baseball teams as a senior. Although NFL scouts thought he was a step slow for his position, the Steelers selected him in the 10th round of the 1981 draft, with 265th overall pick. He hooked up a year later with the Giants, an organization then on the upswing. Mayock became a favorite there of Bill Belichick, currently the Patriots head coach but then the Giants' linebackers and special-teams coach. Mayock said, "He took a liking to me. Bill valued versatility."
Injuries shortened his career as a backup safety and a special-teams player. He played in only three games as a rookie in 1982, in part because of a players strike that wiped out seven games and in part because of a rotator-cuff injury. A year later, he played in only six games because of a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament. Instead of getting surgery, Mayock rehabbed it and tried playing through it.
"The ACL was shot," he said. "It was frustrating. Here you are, 25 years old and doing something you love, and all of sudden it goes away."
Everyone assumed Mayock would become a coach, including his father. But Mayock had a young family to support and looked for opportunities outside of football. He got into commercial real estate and remained there for close to 20 years, during which his desire to get back into football somehow began to build. To get involved again, he worked on broadcasts at West Chester Henderson and Ridley high schools. He cobbled together an audio tape and used it to land a job in the early 1990s for the New Jersey Network, where he worked the sidelines each week at a Princeton or Rutgers game. Mayock said, "I was not enamored with sideline reporting, but I knew I had to pay my dues, because I had not been a big-name player."
Because he had not had that star power, Mayock paid his dues for far longer than he would have liked. "I did the lowest-level stuff, because I was nobody," said Mayock, who was offered a chance by ESPN to work the sidelines at bowl games, Arena League and CFL games. Mayock said that while he loved being a part of game, sideline work was not what he envisioned for himself. He said that he wanted to "talk hard football" and that he had one goal: to get up in the booth. When NFL Network formed, he auditioned for a show that ultimately became "NFL Total Access." He was passed over for that in favor of higher-profile talent.
"I kind of got my back up," Mayock said. "It was highly frustrating, because you feel you are banging your head against the wall. I had what I like to call a healthy chip on my shoulder."
But NFL Network came to him with an idea. In an effort to cultivate college football fans, the network asked Mayock whether he would be interested in taking over the NFL draft coverage. Told to "take it where you want to," Mayock did exactly that, and it became a turning point for him. Quickly, he revealed himself as someone with a sharp eye for talent, particularly at the quarterback position. That became clear in the 2006 NFL draft, when Mayock chose not to follow the crowd that had lined up behind Vince Young (picked third overall by Tennessee) or Matt Leinart (10th overall by Arizona). Mayock had reservations regarding both and leaned instead that year toward Jay Cutler, who starred at Vanderbilt despite having a somewhat lesser supporting cast. The Eagles' Young and Leinart, of the Texans, signed this season as backups; Cutler was the Bears' starter before breaking his right thumb on Nov. 20.
Mayock said: "In evaluating players - especially quarterbacks, who I contend play the most complicated position on the field - you have to consider three factors on top of physical ability: Does he love the game? Does he have a high football IQ? And does he have a strong work ethic? Young and Leinart were surrounded by top talent, but Cutler had to be lights out each week or Vanderbilt had no chance of winning."
While Mayock solidified his credentials with his work on the draft, he was passed over for analyst jobs until NBC approached him about doing the Notre Dame games. That led to the NFL Network taking a shot with him on Thursdays. In looking back on his uphill climb, Mayock says television executives are blinded by star credentials.
"A Hall of Fame-type player may have been a better player than me, but is he a better analyst?" Mayock said. "But they always ended up getting the job, and that had always been a pet peeve of mine."
Mark Quenzel, the NFL Network's senior vice president of programming and production, concedes that "a big name coming out of the league has a head start." But Quenzel said Mayock "learned his craft the hard way" and is "the hardest-working man on television."
"The guy knows football inside and out," Quenzel said. "He knows every nuance of every player, every technique. He is able to break down plays and the game at a level that few others can."
Mayock was once interviewed for a personnel job by the late Raiders owner Al Davis, but he turned down the job offer because, with children in school, "it came at the wrong time."