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.
Zolak grew up in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, an area outside Pittsburgh that’s known for producing a swath of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Kids wore their jerseys to school on Friday and weekends began with 10,000 packed into the stands to watch high school football. Zolak’s room was littered with poster of the great quarterbacks of the era, one of whom – Joe Montana – his father had coached at Ringgold High School. When he was young, Scott would roam the sidelines as a ball boy for the team and watch Montana work his magic under the Friday night lights.
Zolak was big for his age, which meant he had to play football with older kids. When he was nine years old, he was taking the Pop Warner field against 12 year olds. The older kids may have been the same size, but they were more mature and he couldn’t keep up. He told his dad he wanted to quit, but the coach told him to keep fighting, said it would all work out in the long run.
“I would go and get my ass kicked every day,” Zolak says. “But once I mentally got up to their speed, it became natural and I kept kicking their asses. That’s when the tide turned.”
Zolak’s size meant he was destined to be a lineman. He grabbed the No. 51 jersey in memory of his childhood hero Dick Butkus. But everything changed when he was 12. He grabbed a ball and tossed it and his coaches were impressed and decided to try him at quarterback. Soon, Zolak had flipped his jersey number to 15 and started getting noticed by Division I colleges – once, during a recruiting visit in ninth grade, Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky played pool in Zolak’s basement. Zolak’s dream was to play for the Nittany Lions and iconic coach Joe Paterno, but Penn State signed a quarterback from New Jersey instead. Undaunted, he made a recruiting visit to the University of Maryland, mostly because he had just seen St. Elmo’s Fire, and knew that a frat-row scene with Rob Lowe had been filmed on campus. As a bonus, the team showed him a good time when he arrived.
“I had a hell of a time on my official visit, got really drunk,” Zolak says. “I remember my parents driving me home the next day after meeting with [coach] Bobby Ross and having to pull over like 20 times so I could throw up.”
Zolak had to wait until his senior year to become a starter for the Terps. In his first start, he completed 28 of 46 passes and led the team to a 20-13 victory over Virginia Tech. The following week, Maryland upset 25th-ranked West Virginia on the road and finished the regular season by knocking off 8th-ranked Virginia 35-30, securing the program’s first winning season since 1985. Zolak threw for 3,124 during his collegiate career, but his makeup and his moxie were impressive enough for the New England Patriots to select him with the 84th pick in the 1991 NFL Draft. The Patriots, at the time, were a struggling franchise known for being blown out in Super Bowl XX by Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears – and not much else.
He was inactive in the 1991 NFL season, and in ’92, the Patriots started 0-9 and Zolak found himself at the bottom of the pecking order. Injuries piled up, though, and he got the start in the team’s tenth game, against the Indianapolis Colts. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns, and the Patriots won in overtime. At the end of the game, Zolak removed his helmet and took a bow. The audition was over – the starting job was his. Or so he thought. The Patriots finished with the worst record in the league that year, and had the first pick in the 1993 NFL Draft. They took can’t-miss quarterback prospect Drew Bledsoe.
The 1993 season brought big changes to Foxboro. Bill Parcells was hired to turn around the team’s fortunes, and Bledsoe was automatically inserted as the starting QB. For Zolak, it meant a return to the bench – he’d start just three games in place of the injured Bledsoe over the next six years, including his final game with the Patriots, a 25-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the ’99 playoffs. He’d sign a one-year deal with the Jets, got cut during preseason, latched on with the Dolphins and played one game in Miami before retiring from the NFL in 2000.
At a loss for what to do next, Zolak returned to Massachusetts and ran into Bob Lobel, a local sports anchor, who asked if he’d be interested in some TV work for CBS. The results were mixed at first, but Zolak’s outsized personality and everyman approach to life made him relatable; this was a guy who hung with linemen when he was a player because “they always want to pound beers and listen to music and go to concerts.” In short, he was a natural, and he’d branch out into sports radio soon after – first in Rhode Island, then Boston’s WEEI before landing at the new 98.5 “Sports Hub” in 2010, where he found himself at the helm of a popular midday show. In 2012, he became the Patriots’ color commentator, bringing his own brand of emotion and unrepentant homerism to the broadcasts. His calls are bold, brash and a bit annoying, particularly if you are not a member of Patriots Nation. But why would you be listening otherwise?
“If I’m doing the color for a Westwood One broadcast and it’s a neutral game, neutral site, obviously, there isn’t a lot of emotion to it,” Zolak says. “But when you’re doing the local call, it’s pretty much just whatever comes out. My job is to paint the picture from the fans’ view – and I can convey that.”
At Gillette Stadium, the perfect Patriots roll the Redskins 27-10. Zolak doesn’t have much to get worked up about. On a few occasions, he rocks back in his chair and swivels to get a look at a replay. There’s none of his patented shouting, and at no point does he bang on the ceiling. The most exciting action comes at halftime, when sandwiches are delivered – Zolak woofs a few down and snaps pictures with some fans brought into the booth.
When the final whistle blows, Zolak grabs his jacket and heads down to the field. The stadium emptied throughout the second half, so it’s a quick walk through the stands and across the field to the locker room, where Belichick is delivering his postgame press conference. Zolak has been at the stadium for nine hours at this point, and still has some TV spots to shoot. Once those commitments are done, he begins to make his exit, though not before talking to a few Gillette Stadium employees and former Patriot Joe Andruzzi, who comes walking down the hall with his kids. They joke and laugh like old friends.
Near the exit, a wall of TVs is showing the late afternoon games. Zolak stops and watches the Denver Broncos struggle against the Indianapolis Colts. Despite a full day of football, Zolak decides to hurry home, in order to catch the end of the game and enjoy a beer. He walks out into the darkness. The parking lot is nearly empty – gameday has come and gone. Zolak hops in his car and prepares to peel out. Like everything he does, his enthusiasm is palpable.
“This job has kept me around football,” he says. “My dad coached me and I know nothing else. I have to know other things for my show, but as you can tell, there is a passion for this. I like sports. I love football. There is nothing better.”