Friday, Feb 22, 2008

Troy Johnson

She’s seeing sport up close

This was supposed to have been a workout for skill players, but the diminutive wide receiver in the mud-spackled No. 5 jersey didn’t display a trace of know-how Thursday morning.

The will and the want-to were there, of course, but No. 5 didn’t catch a single pass during the Columbus Lions’ workout at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium.

The passes thrown in No. 5’s direction did many things, but they never rested comfortably in the grasp of the aspiring wide receiver. They squirted between the hands and ricocheted off the face mask. They skimmed off the tips of outstretched fingers and skittered along the muddy turf.

And those routes?

Choppy, tentative, halting steps that didn’t allow for separation from a defensive back or necessarily send No. 5 in the direction prescribed inside the huddle.

“You’re going to catch one,” Columbus Lions coach Jason Gibson told No. 5 after practice.

How can Gibson be so reassuring toward some guy who can’t catch?

Well, the he is actually a she.

Rachel Baribeau may spend most of her days talking the game with Mike Venafro on “In the Zone,” which airs locally on WEAM-AM 1580, but she may soon stand apart from other female broadcasters for playing the game. Or trying to, rather, since there’s no chance of Baribeau showing up on the Lions’ roster in time for their American Indoor Football Association season.

Gibson wants to win games, after all, but he wanted Baribeau to be able to obtain an insider’s perspective about the sport by going through two-a-day practices with the team.

“They caught me on radio one day and put me on the spot,” Gibson said. “She’s learning. I’m not doing anything different with her than I am with anyone else.”

That may be the case, but Baribeau is taking on the sort of challenge few broadcasters (or sports columnists) — male or female — would dare attempt. She stands a half-foot shorter and weighs in a linebacker shy of most of the Lions, but received a welcome-to-football bump or two during Thursday’s non-contact practice in a 48-degree chill and persistent rain.

“It’s just as tough as I thought it would be,” said Baribeau, 28, who studied broadcast journalism at Auburn. “I knew it was going to be tough. I expected to be puking on the sidelines. I’m concentrating on staying upright.

“They haven’t been afraid to hit me. They’ve knocked me down, obviously a little bit less than they would (another player).”

They have, however, resisted applying friendly pats on the rear. Even so, she built a sense of camaraderie with the team when Gibson introduced her in a team meeting and explained her presence.

“She addressed them and let them know that she is a hard worker and that she just desires to be the best in broadcasting, just like they want to be the best in football,” Gibson said. “She wanted them to understand that this is not a joke and not a gimmick. She’s trying to understand the game better.”

Baribeau would eventually like to find work as a TV sideline reporter, a role she developed an affinity for while seeing Southeastern Conference football from just outside the chalk lines. It certainly beat covering house fires and car accidents.

“I love the sidelines, the crunch of the helmets, the speed of the game,” she said. “I was completely seduced the first time I worked the sideline for an Auburn game. It was addictive. I was down there early and stayed late.”

Going the extra step and running through two-a-day practices with a pro football team provides a stamp of credibility that female sideline reporters so often struggle to obtain. The common perception is that those jobs are landed by great heads of hair, blindingly white teeth and ample cleavage. While male TV viewers may initially be drawn to those superficial qualities, serious sports fans will eventually look elsewhere if a sideline reporter has nothing worthwhile to say.

The thought of a woman reporting on football may have been a novelty when former Miss America Phyllis George joined “The NFL Today” gang in 1975, but that’s no longer the case. So many of those who followed, including Lesley Visser, Michelle Tafoya, Bonnie Bernstein and Erin Andrews, have succeeded by working hard and being well-informed.

Chances are, however, that none of them ever ran a fade route against press coverage, as Baribeau tried to do against Damian Daniels, last season’s World Indoor Football League co-defensive player of the year. Gibson and wide receiver Silas Daniels spent portions of practice reminding her of the little details she’ll need in order to make that first reception.

Hands out in front in a diamond pattern as the ball arrives. Asorb the ball is if you’re catching an egg.

“I’m trying to think about where to turn, how to cut,” Baribeau said. “There’s so much to think about — what route am I running? Where am I supposed to break? Are my hands in the right place? Where’s the defender?”

And, later, there was one more question that female sportscasters don’t typically get to ask in the line of duty:

Where’s the ice bag for my aching quad muscle?

Contact Troy Johnson at 706-320-4432 or johnsont@ledger-enquirer.com