It’s Sunday morning in Massachusetts, four hours before the undefeated New England Patriots presumably roll over the Washington Redskins, and Scott Zolak – former pro quarterback turned sports-talk cult hero – is already in the building, greeted with cheers and beers wherever he goes.
“I like smelling the sausages, talking to people out in the parking lot. I’m starting to get free beers after the game – you can’t drink while you’re on the air,” he says with a laugh. “I walk the field, get the feel of gameday. The NFL is a great product, as many problems as it has, whether it is domestic violence, or Greg Hardy or the ridiculousness of caring about PSI of a football. People watch this. This is why people gamble.”
Gameday is a whirlwind of activity for Zolak. He’s already interviewed Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick for Boston’s 98.5, “The Sports Hub.” He has to shoot two TV spots for the local CBS affiliate. He has to do a pregame radio segment. And he has to stop and chat with no less than a dozen different fans; after all, he’s one of the most recognizable people inside the stadium, with his boyish, frat-boy build, blond hair, aviator shades, tailored clothes – “ZO,” his nickname, is monogrammed on the cuff of his shirt – and a voice that sounds like it’s been tossed into a blender with some glass and side helping of hoarse. The world was introduced to its gravely grandeur on October 13, 2013, when Pats’ QB Tom Brady found Kenbrell Thompkins in the corner of the end zone for a game-winning touchdown against the New Orleans Saints, and Zolak lost his mind.
“Brady’s Back! That’s your quarterback!” Zolak shouted, like a winded pro wrestler. “Unicorns!!! Show Ponies!!! Where’s the Beef?!?”
The call went viral. ESPN’s NFL Live featured it. Deadspin paid homage with a Tecmo Super Bowl reenactment. The call was pure Zolak, embracing the moment and letting his emotions bubble over on the mic. It also jettisoned any air of impartiality and went against the relatively staid legacy of sportscasting – especially when it comes to the Patriots.
Before Zolak and his partner Bob Socci took over as the radio voices of the Patriots in 2013, Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti owned the football airways in New England. The former narrated the game with gravitas – every Pats score was capped with a simple, “Touchdown, Patriots!” – and the latter, a Minnesota-born wide receiver/placekicker who played ten seasons with the old Boston Patriots, rarely hooted or hollered, preferring instead to break down the action methodically. The pair didn’t get caught in the moment. They stayed outside of it and observed. For nearly 30 seasons, they reigned, and it was not uncommon for Pats fans within broadcasting range to mute their televisions and let Gil and Gino call the came on the stereo.
Zolak’s approach is decidedly different. He’s taken the mic from Cappelletti and brought the fire and intensity from the field into the radio booth. Inside the Gillette Stadium broadcast center, the paint above Zolak’s seat has been beaten away – the end result of him banging on the ceiling in moments of excitement or misery. By the time kickoff rolls around today, he’s worked himself into something that approaches hysteria. He can’t sit still in his chair, rolling it back and forth, and a pair of binoculars rarely leaves his eyes. About the only time he’s not focused on the field is when the fans in the stands start with the “ZO! ZO! ZO!” chants – at which point, he’ll wave and egg them on, acknowledging his adoring public. This will continue for the next three-and-a-half hours, and Zolak’s energy never lags, not even when the Patriots jump out to a 17-3 lead against the overmatched Redskins.
“What an absolute perfect, perfect drive!” he shouts after Julian Edelman takes a Brady touchdown pass into the end zone. “For people wondering if this team was going to lose focus based on the opponent coming in, what time of day you’re playing, that goes to show you what they’ve done for ten days!”
Later, when the Patriots pour it on by recovering an onside kick, Zolak punctuates Socci’s play-by-play by repeatedly shouting “THEY GOT IT!” Each blurt is part fist-bump to Pats Nation, part middle finger to the rest of the NFL.