Behind the Scenes with FOX’s NFL crew: Malice in Dallas

By Richie Zyontz
FOX NFL Lead Producer

Editor’s note: Richie Zyontz has been an NFL producer for FOX since 1994 and the lead producer for the past 20 seasons. He has more than 40 years of experience covering the league and has produced six Super Bowls. Throughout the 2022 NFL season, it will provide an inside look as FOX’s new #1 NFL team makes its journey to Super Bowl LVII.

Another holiday, another working weekend away from home. Thank God for understanding families. But that’s the occupational hazard of sports television. As Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone in Godfather II, “this is the business we’ve chosen.”

So with Christmas right around the corner, our FOX team added to their frequent flyer accounts and converged on Dallas from 23 different states to help cover the NFC East matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cowboys.

Malice in Dallas

There is nothing quite like the excitement of a major sporting event. The hype, trash, and gambling all go up several levels. The air is electric with anticipation.

And no, I don’t mean that sidebar contest between the Eagles and the Cowboys.

It was the tennis grudge match between Greg Olsen and director Rich Russo that caught our crew’s attention, an event now forever known as The Malice in Dallas.

Competition can turn friends into enemies, and judging by the pre-match mood, Olsen and Russo were headed in that direction.

Two cameras were on hand and a live stream was set up for a select few with too much time on their hands. Our entire crew was supportive. Kevin Burkhardt and self-invited associate producer/guest analyst Rich Gross called the action, Erin Andrews interviewed the athletes and Mike Pereira was the referee.

Of all the tennis matches I have witnessed, which there are none, this one stood out for the high quality of play. Russo started strongly, showing good form and a consistent forehand, and jumped out to a three games to one lead in the first set.

But then Olsen’s court coverage, long reach and combination of power and finesse proved too difficult to overcome.

The result was the former Pro Bowl tight end winning in straight sets, 6-4, 6-1.

Malice in Dallas

Malice in Dallas

FOX Sports NFL analyst Greg Olsen and director Rich Russo played a hotly contested tennis match before the Cowboys-Eagles game on Christmas Eve.

All the ill will that existed before the match dissolved into mutual respect afterwards, and the good fellowship with the A-Crew reached new heights.

A new chapter for an old rivalry

Rivalry games are nice to cover because they are so rich in history. The Cowboys and Eagles have provided many lasting memories.

In the broadcast, we added some production elements to honor the legacies of both teams. My favorite was a cleverly edited piece with audio of former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson ripping into Eagles coach Buddy Ryan after a particularly intense game in 1989, known for always as in The Bounty Bowl.

These teams didn’t like each other back then, and that mutual hostility hasn’t changed at all.

Each game has its own unique rhythm. Our job as producers and directors is to react and adjust to that pace. Sometimes the game drags with multiple stoppages and penalty flags. And sometimes the game just doesn’t let you breathe because the ball is moving up and down the field with one play after another. That’s how this one felt to me.

It was a Christmas Eve classic with Dallas winning 40-34.

After many weeks of non-competitive play, our crew has covered two beauties in a row. There’s nothing quite like the drama of a meaningful late-season NFL game. Director Rich Russo, who bounced back nicely from his defeat on the tennis court a day earlier, skillfully captured the emotion on both sides.

One of our crew members didn’t have far to attend this game. His name is Michael Brandt, but we call him Mookie. This Dallas native has been an excellent breeding operator with us for 25 years and has a family story to tell.

Eyewitness of history

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was a horrible event that changed the course of history. The country reacted and wept from afar. As a first grader at PS 40 in New York City, I was confused as to why we were being sent home so early. Tragedy made Dallas the center of the universe for the wrong reasons.

While many of us watched Walter Cronkite on CBS News chronicle the event, Mookie’s father, Ernest, was nowhere near a television. He was there.

Ernest Brandt was one of the thousands of spectators gathered to greet the presidential motorcade that fateful day in November. He scored a good spot outside the Dallas Book Depository in Dealey Plaza.

He heard three shots. The first, he said, sounded like a backfiring motorcycle. The second made it clear that there was a shooter. After the third shot, eyewitnesses clearly pointed to a sixth floor window of the book depository as the likely source of the shot. A man named Abraham Zapruder stood on a rise behind Mr. Brandt with his Bell-Howell motion picture camera. A clearly visible bystander in his black fedora a few feet away from the caravan is Ernest Brandt.

Mookie’s father is in the Zapruder film before, during, and after President Kennedy was shot.

For many years afterward, Brandt served as the assassination’s unofficial historian, sharing his memories with tourists at Dealey Plaza until his death in 2017 at age 91.

Whatever and wherever we are assigned to cover next week, it will be hard to top the game we witnessed today. The Cowboys and the Eagles gave us an incredible matchup; as David Helman wrote after the game, this is one we should all expect to see in the playoffs. Rest assured that if it does happen, the FOX Sports A Team will be there to cover it.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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