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Ideas

When the Saints are on the march, his voice gives them a boost

The rules and rituals that come with calling an NFL game

By Stephanie Grace

The always-pumped sellout crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was even rowdier than it is on the usual Sunday. It was December 23, and the New Orleans Saints were hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers at the end of a charmed season. A win would give the Saints home advantage through the playoffs and, as lagniappe — Louisiana-speak for “a little something extra” — cripple the Steelers’ playoff hopes.

But the announcer calling plays over the stadium loudspeaker was calm, at least at first, to the untrained ear. After the Steelers won the coin toss and opted to receive, the first and second down announcements from Mark Romig were matter-of-fact accounts of which Steeler made the play, and which Saint made the stop.

On third down, though, Romig suddenly sounded like a man unleashed. “Iiiiiiiiit’s Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiird Doooooooooown,” he bellowed, taking an impossibly long time to pronounce three syllables, and triggering the sort of cacophony that can rattle a visiting offense.

It was a moment where the magic of in-stadium announcing happens — when the disembodied voice behind the microphone becomes a home team catalyst, unleashing the energy of 73,000 rabid football fans.

And it was carefully prescribed by a set of restrictions, guidelines, and rules of engagement. The NFL, after all, is a multi-billion dollar business that tightly controls its product. Game day announcers like Romig — who is in his sixth year of calling plays in the Superdome — operate in something of a gray area. They work for the home team and are not expected to be neutral, as journalists are. But they’re also tasked with keeping up a sense of decorum, and are supposed to avoid outright cheerleading.

On routine plays, their assignment is to call it mostly straight, even if Romig generally pronounces the names of Saints players a bit more loudly and enthusiastically than the opposition’s. But in certain situations they are permitted to “punch it,” as Romig puts it. Third down for the visiting team is one of those situations — to a point. Those epic calls can stretch 10 seconds or even longer, but must stop cold by the time the play clock countdown hits 20 seconds. That’s another league rule: No piped-in sound of any sort, whether it be words or music, from that point on. So Romig always keeps an eye on the clock.

One league rule: By the time the play clock countdown hits 20 seconds, no piped-in sound of any sort, whether it be words or music.

The choreographed dance of calling duties is something Mark inherited in 2013 from his ailing father Jerry Romig, a fan favorite who died three years to the day before the Pittsburgh game. Both Mark Romig and team officials say it was a natural succession. New Orleans loves familiarity, and Mark inherited not only his dad’s fandom and lung power, but — as Mark notes with a playful gesture towards his own nose — a deviated septum that give both voices the same slightly nasal quality.

Thus, Mark’s Sunday responsibilities are as much family tradition as a job. Over his shoulder every week stands his sister Mary Beth, who started spotting offensive plays for her dad in the early 1990s. Their brother Jay sits a row behind, punching downs and yardage into the stadium’s scoreboard. All three have big jobs during the work week; Mark is president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, Mary Beth the public relations director for a large local hospital network, and Jay the administrative director for the Saints, and the team’s longest-serving employee.

Jay’s son Blake is in the building as well; he manages equipment for the Saints’ special teams. Mark, Mary Beth, and Jay’s mother, Janice, no longer attends games in person, but watches every moment from home while fingering rosary beads.

On game days, the announcing team’s work begins about four hours before kickoff, when Mark shows up to the cozy booth nestled among the stadium’s luxury suites. He goes over the day’s script and studies pronunciations of visiting team players’ names. Other booth regulars filter in: the director of game-day entertainment; a guy who cues up the music that goes out over the loudspeakers; a sound engineer; and a second announcer named Chuck Edwards, who handles player introductions and reads promotional scripts during game breaks. It all starts off pretty relaxed; the group catches up on the week, nibbles on snacks, and on this Christmas weekend, exchanges token gifts. Mary Beth Romig eats chicken fingers she picked up from a Dome vendor, her own pre-game ritual.

Once the game starts, things move as quickly as the action on the field. Mark stands in the booth’s first row, sometimes engaging with excited fans on the other side of the glass but mostly keeping his eyes glued to the game. An animated Mary Beth is just to his left, listening on earphones to the feed from the press box, noting which players are lining up in the backfield and often anticipating offensive plays, and repeatedly calling out names as key plays unfold — “Kamara, Kamara, Kamara,” for Saints running back Alvin Kamara, or a tongue-twisting “Smith-Schuster, Smith-Schuster” for Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Tony Melito, a friend from high school and a sports psychologist by day, stands to Romig’s right and keeps track of defensive plays. The three frequently watch through binoculars to sort out who made what carry or tackle and how many yards the team gained. They scan the field for flags and try anticipate who’s getting penalized, and why, before Romig issues his account.

Edwards, the booth co-announcer, also works the mic for New Orleans’ pro basketball team, the Pelicans, and says the NBA is more freewheeling with its rules. Announcers at basketball games can tell the crowd to get loud, for instance, while NFL announcers can’t.

They can imply it, though, and that’s where Romig’s stamina comes in, along with his sense of timing. First down for the home team is another moment when the NFL relaxes its neutrality rules, and Romig always follows that call with an exuberant “Move Dem Chains!” — a recognizable riff that he developed in recent years as part of a corporate sponsorship deal with Hancock Whitney Bank, which pays to have Romig attach its name to these calls several times per quarter. Making sure the team’s financial partners get what they pay for is also part of the gig. Sacks, for instance, are sponsored by Miller Lite. Official reviews are “brought to you by Microsoft Surface, the official tablet of the New Orleans Saints,” Romig will remind the crowd.

But for all the business that gets done, there’s also joy, and not just for the fans. That much is clear to anyone who hears Mark Romig roar “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiit’s Gooooooooood” after a field goal, or attribute yet another touchdown pass to the franchise’s beloved 39-year-old quarterback, “Drew Breeeeeeeeeees.”

In the end, the Steelers game lived up to its billing. There were dramatic plays, controversial calls, and lead switches, the final one coming when the Saints inched ahead 31-28 with just 1:25 left. A last-minute fumble recovery sealed the deal, and by then, the Dome was so loud that nobody could really hear Romig anyway. No matter; the fans didn’t need any cues on how to react, and the folks in the booth were whooping it up along with everyone else.

If the day got off to a leisurely start, it ended with a bang. Almost as soon as time expired, Mark and Mary Beth Romig and Melito made a beeline for the exit ramp, high-fiving the fans who recognized them but keeping a quick pace. There was traffic to beat. And it was Sunday, so there was one more family ritual to check off: After the game, as usual, they piled into Mark’s car and called his mother.

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Stephanie Grace is a columnist for the New Orleans Advocate.

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