Alumni pair first sports broadcasters in war
Thursday, September 28, 2006
As leaders of the first U.S. broadcast sports crew ever to be embedded with wartime military, Ron Johnson and Chris Withers ’03 of Fox Sports North approached their unique assignment with mixed feelings. After all, their destination was Iraq, and their preparation involved being fitted for Kevlar vests and helmets.
"My heart’s a little closer to my throat," said FSN associate producer Withers the day before the crew flew into Kuwait to meet National Guard escorts and bring some welcome diversion to troops in Baghdad. "But professionally it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. The soldiers are just going to eat this up." He was right.
Johnson and Withers, who as students worked together at SCSU TV station UTVS, spent two weeks in Iraq covering feel-good human interest stories with a sports angle. "The experience surpassed all my expectations," said Johnson, who anchors "FSN Live." Preparation involved meeting with Fox bosses and military officials, doing research and meeting with families to be featured on the highlight of the week – a live and commercial-free telecast of the Minnesota Twins-Milwaukee Brewers game on FSN and Armed Forces television July 1. During the game five families gathered back in Minnesota’s Metrodome to talk with their soldier loved ones in Iraq through a live feed.
Besides this special game, Johnson had live interviews and stories about Minnesota National Guard soldiers on the network for six days. With the nine-hour time difference, the troops had to get up at 3 a.m. to participate. And they did so willingly.
"It was really emotional, very powerful," Johnson said of the interviews.
Johnson and Withers were grateful for the opportunity to help take the soldiers’ minds off their day-to-day activities and give them a chance to reminisce about their sports memories: Where were they when the Twins won the series? What’s their favorite Kirby Puckett memory?
They also appreciated the protection of the military. "Being embedded means we follow all their rules, that we’re one of them," said Withers. "When they ate we ate. If something happened and they went to a bunker, we’d go to the bunker. We got unprecedented treatment as the first."
"When I went I didn’t know what to expect," Johnson said. "I didn’t know if I could sleep over there. But I felt safe the entire time. We went, we made it back, and the soldiers and their wives really, really appreciated the work we did there."