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How Aqib Talib is changing the game as an NFL on FOX color commentator
In just two games in 2020, the former Bronco became a broadcast sensation. This year, he’s ready to prove he can be even better.
By Ben Swanson Sep 03, 2021

DENVER — Just like he did for four years as a Bronco, Aqib Talib walked out of the home tunnel at Empower Field at Mile High on Saturday to the sound of fans yelling his name.

They yelled for Talib's attention. They yelled for Talib's autograph. And one fan yelled for Talib to rip his chain off his neck.

Talib could only laugh at that offer, but he'd oblige the others, signing game-day programs, trading cards, jerseys or whatever else was offered to him.

It was Talib's first time back in the stadium for a game since New Year's Eve in 2017, his final game as a Bronco. Memories rushed back as he hugged former Super Bowl 50 teammate Von Miller and caught up with several other Broncos on the field where he had been a four-time Pro Bowler and where he helped Denver earn a Super Bowl 50 berth.

This was homecoming, and he'd not been back since he graduated. It all felt like normal, except that he wasn't wearing an orange Broncos uniform and he wasn't playing in the game.

Still, he was performing on Saturday. Moving behind the south end zone, Talib took his seat as part of the Los Angeles Rams' preseason broadcast crew alongside Andrew Siciliano and Mina Kimes, normally of NFL Network and ESPN, respectively.

Talib's rookie season as a broadcaster for FOX Sports was comprised of just two games in 2020, but he had been impressive enough in that limited spotlight to earn this opportunity and a greater role for FOX this season, carving out a unique place in the NFL broadcasting landscape that's made him a favorite for fans, media and the network alike.

"He sounds amazing because he's not what you're used to," Siciliano says, "and he's a fresh perspective, a fresh voice."

That Talib's found success in sports media is maybe not a surprise to those who followed his career, watched his press conferences or seen any of his previous studio appearances on NFL Network. What's surprising, though, is how quick his ascension has been and where it could take him.

Even today, Talib is less than a year removed from his retirement as an NFL player, and it was only two months after that when he announced that his first game broadcast as a color commentator would be coming later that week.

But while it seemed like a rapid development, the opportunity arose after a lengthy observation period by a FOX Sports group that included Brad Zager, FOX Sports Executive Producer and Executive Vice President/Head of Production and Operations.

"He was somebody that we had always heard was a fun talk," Zager says. "When you had conversations with him, you really got it that his football IQ was off the charts and he's a guy that gave it to everybody real. When he was playing for the Rams, he actually came in and met with myself and Bill Richards, who oversees our 'FOX NFL Sunday' studio show. The two of us realized what everybody told us was the truth, which is he's somebody that you just enjoy sitting around a table and talking football with. He knows what he's talking about."

After that meeting, Zager and FOX kept in touch with Talib, and in 2020, they set up an audition with veteran play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt.

For auditions like this one, FOX notifies the recruit no more than 18 hours in advance. The hope is that they won't simply go back and watch the game, instead using that time to study game notes provided by the network. It's a test of a person's ability to retain knowledge on a short turnaround, how easily they can create on-air chemistry and how well they think on their feet.

"It kind of surprised me, kind of caught me by surprise," Talib says. "I was like, Hell yeah. I might as well, right? So it kind of just came out of nowhere, and once I started doing it, it's so much fun. It's like the closest you can get to the game besides playing or coaching. I love it."

In part because of that contagious feeling, Talib made a lasting impression on those who watched the audition. If and when there was a broadcast opening that season, Talib would be deserving of consideration.

"Being in the booth isn't easy, and there's not a lot of opportunities for it," Zager says. "It's a small group of people that get to go out there on Sundays and Thursdays and Monday nights and call NFL games. So, we just felt like based on what we had saw … all of us just felt like it popped. His audition stood out. It popped. It felt different."

Months later, in November, Talib made an announcement. In four days' time, he'd make his color-commentating debut as Detroit hosted Washington.

"I'm in the booth booth!" he exclaimed.

Just like when he was a player, Talib arrived for the game well dressed and nervous as hell.

Talib's always been one to get anxious before a game, and he wasn't any calmer in those moments just because he would be in the broadcast booth.

That may have been somewhat evident in this rookie debut, as Talib can recognize now.

"The first time I was in there, I definitely was like, Oh, s---, this going fast! and I was like, Damn, do I talk now?" Talib says. "Sometimes I was finna talk and he [play-by-play announcer Brandon Gaudin] starts talking. So when to talk and how fast it's moving was definitely the hardest part about being up there."

Despite the small hiccups, Talib's energy, knowledge and sheer love for the game was evident. The former star cornerback could give bite-size dissertations on what everyone from quarterbacks to defensive backs target on any given play, but in a way unique to his voice.

"I remember his first game with the Lions," Siciliano says. "… I was in the studio just watching Twitter lose its mind because they didn't know how to deal with him. He doesn't sound like what they were used to."

Five weeks later, Talib returned to the booth to call a game between the Cardinals and Eagles that was days before Christmas. Talib dressed for the occasion in a sharp green suit, a red tie and white shoes.

"It's still a performance, so you've still got to look good," Talib says. "You look good, you feel good. You feel good, you play good. That part don't change."

True to that axiom, Talib "played" good.

"In that game, man, that's the one where you see, Nah, he can do this. He can make this happen," Bleacher Report senior writer Master Tesfatsion says. "And not only can he do this, he can do it the way he's doing it, which is being himself. I thought that that was the most impressive part."

His call after a game-winning touchdown to Arizona WR DeAndre Hopkins provided one memorable moment: "What do you do, what do you do? Try to play man coverage, got to cover Hopkins. Try to play zone coverage, Kyler Murray dices it up." Throughout the game, Talib had explained the difficulties executing defensive strategies like zero coverage — "man to man, no help nowhere" — against Arizona's offense, and it came to a point with that score.

Just as memorable was the minute or so that followed a commercial break after the touchdown as he bantered with Gaudin about the holiday season.

"It's definitely starting to feel a lot like Christmas," Talib began. "Cheerleaders in their Santa Claus suits, 'Leeb' in his green-and-red this week. Me and the wife got our shopping done this week. It's definitely starting to feel a lot like Christmas."

That balance of football knowledge and levity from him is not surprising to those who have followed his career. His sense of humor has always been sharp, and the little bits where it can come out endears himself to viewers.

"It's amazing," Kimes says. "It's incredible. Not only does he bring incredible knowledge and insight, obviously, but just his enthusiasm is infectious. I think that's why people respond to be being around him and watching him on TV. He genuinely seems to love watching football, which is great."

And more than that, Talib's voice — including his verbiage, his grammar and his tone — occupies a unique space in the NFL broadcasting landscape.

"The reality is that for a not-small population of football fans, Talib marks the first time they've heard someone who sounds like them in a broadcast booth," Yahoo Sports columnist Shalise Manza Young wrote in December. "He's quite literally speaking their language — Black English, or as it's called by academics, African American Vernacular English, the dialect developed by Black Americans over centuries. It is often cited as another way to denigrate those who use it because it's not the 'accepted' way of speech here."

The idea of that there's a proper way of speaking is deeply ingrained in how we think about speech, and one result of that is what those who study language call "linguistic prejudice."

"The existence of differing opinions about what standard English looks like shows that biases against certain varieties of English are not assessments of people's cognitive ability to communicate using language," Yale’s Yiding Hao wrote in 2018. "Instead, linguistic prejudice towards a certain dialect reveals an individual's attitudes about speakers of that dialect. Research conducted by the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project (YGDP) has shown that these prejudices are quite strong. When presented with sentences from non-standard dialects of English, survey respondents often opined that those who utter such sentences are lazy or uneducated, or belong to communities perceived as being socioeconomically stigmatized."

While Talib's prominence in his role obviously won't resolve that in and of itself, it bears a special meaning for people who can relate to him.

"Especially me being from Dallas, hearing somebody that sounds like you, that looks like you, from the same area that you grew up in and being their authentic self, it's a true resemblance of how me and my friends talk about the game," Tesfatsion says. "And I don't think that often times is displayed in a broadcast or in many ways of how football can be presented, in terms of the telecast. …

"The biggest thing is just having the inclusion. If football's family like you say it is and we discuss how there's a universal language that football presents that can bring so many different people from so many different backgrounds, cultures, races, religions, social-economic status, different sub-cultures throughout the course of the country and, as we say now, throughout the course of the world, these levels of representation can be displayed in all aspects of football. …

"For him to just show up as his natural self and embrace the challenge, embrace the position, the spotlight, the task at hand to be a broadcaster, he's setting up an opportunity for many others after him and even in this time right now to be involved in sports and sports broadcasting in a similar manner."

When there's not that level of comfort, there's often a pressure to conform how one speaks in different spaces, a practice known as "code switching."

"Code switching … you know me — I'm just gonna be me," Talib says. "I'ma try to change the th's to the. That's it. And once I do that, I ain't trying to switch nothing else. You hear me working on that, and that's it. Everything else is just going to be natural. I get that a lot on my social media and stuff. Just, You honest. You funny. You witty. And it sounds like you watching the game with us in the locker room or in the living room. I appreciate it. … I ain't go to no camps or nothing to learn how to do this, so I only know how to do it one way, right? That's it."

And did FOX anticipate such a positive response to this factor when they watched his audition and considered him for a broadcast role? Not quite.

"I could lie to you and say, Yeah, of course!" Zager says. "But the answer is no. We thought that what he had shown us, that he could go and broadcast an NFL game and make the game entertaining and fun, the way that we approach the game at FOX, and celebrate the game and champion the players and tell good stories about the players and explain to people what's happening in a unique, Aqib way. But we didn't expect — and I didn't expect — the response that we got, which was great, because you don't always see that from people calling a game in a booth, especially people doing it for the first time. So it was nice to see that people, I think, really connected with him that watched those games. And I think he's just so likeable as a person and as a player that he kind of was starting a little bit on second base, because people had gotten to know him as a player and looked forward to some of his soundbites and the fun that he brought when they saw him as a player."

In a Broncos uniform, Talib certainly brought an element of fun to the field. Unapologetically brash and perhaps at times antagonistic — but always entertainingly so! — Talib reveled in the competitiveness and all that he could accomplish with his talent.

Confidence incarnate in the body of a prototypical star cornerback, he was big enough and strong enough to handle taller wideouts, fast enough to compete with most players and smart enough to bait even the best quarterbacks into making costly mistakes.

The strength and speed was easy enough for viewers to recognize, but the intelligence was perhaps harder to see — especially since the countless hours of watching film is spent within private confines. It's those film sessions that laid the groundwork for Talib's knowledge of the game, and to be at his best now, he'll watch two different kinds of tape.

The first is film of each team he'll be calling — offense, defense and special teams for both squads.

The second is film of his own broadcasts. In the same way that he'd watch film of himself on the field during the offseason, he's done the same as a broadcaster to take note of how he can get better.

"I went back and watched them, see where I could improve at," Talib says. "… I watched the first game. I was like, All right, I need a better start. I need stuff to say about guys right at the beginning of the game. In case they make plays, I need something to say about everybody who could make a play at the beginning of the game. … In the second game, I felt like I did that. I had some stuff lined up. Whoomp, he made a play, I had something to say about it. Boom-boom, he did this, I thought they was gonna do this.

"I think it's just like football, man. You've got to watch yourself, see what you need to work on and it helped me out a lot from one game to the next game."

The next game for Talib — Week 2, Vikings at Cardinals — will mark the beginning of a new test as he starts a more consistent role.

For six or more games this season, Talib will join forces with the venerable Gus Johnson, whose energetic play-by-play style has produced some of the most memorable calls in recent decades. But what may go under the radar with Johnson, Zager says, is how he works with his partner in the booth, and that may help Talib even more.

"Hearing the rehearsal game that they did and seeing Gus set up Aqib for those moments and getting those things out of Aqib on Sunday and knowing that Aqib's only going to get more comfortable, yeah, I think it's going to be an entertaining, fun listen," Zager says.

Talib, naturally, is excited for the pairing, as well. After working with different announcers and crews for his two games in 2020, he'll have the chance to work with the same group — including one of the most-respected broadcasters — on a consistent basis.

"When they told me the setup, man, [that] we'd have the same producer and it'd be me and Gus, I just know, All right, now I got a team. They put me with a team this time," Talib says. "Not I'm just like an add-on with anybody. I got kind of a team, we gonna have a real plan. So they taking this serious like I'm taking this serious. They see, All right, he want to do this. He probably can be good at it. Let's get him with a team and see how comfortable he gets like that.

"I went and hung out with Gus a couple times and I couldn't be with nobody else. They put me with the perfect person. You put me with the perfect person, I don't know, I think the sky's the limit."

Whether it leads to bigger and more opportunities in the future remains to be seen, of course, but Talib's talent and hard work could very well put him in position to advance through the ranks.

"He's a natural," Siciliano says. "He's been amazing. His insight's great, and he played with half the guys on the field. … He can bring a firsthand knowledge that a lot of guys cannot. He's a professional. He works his tail off, and he's not someone who is just mailing it in like, Hey, I just played. I can do this! He's working just as hard on his craft in the booth as he did on the field, and that's paying off. He can do this as long as he wants to do this."

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