Sunday, August 7th, 2016

Dhani Jones spotlights versatile, diverse NBC talent covering the Rio Games

His job, he says in an interview, “is a great opportunity to be anywhere and everywhere during the Olympics.” As long as they let him into venues, he says he “might jump off the 10-meter diving board. Or, if (USA Woman’s Soccer Goalie) Hope Solo gives me her gloves, the team could shoot on me. Ok, maybe not rhythmic gymnastics, but I have dreamt about dressage. This job is awesome!”

Jones expects he’ll also report on dancing – the Bossa Nova, after all, was born in Brazil – but says he’s also take some knocks. “For viewers, it’s about letting me experience this for you. I’ll take the bumps and bruises.”

Easy for him to say. Jones had 628 tackles playing linebacker over 11 NFL seasons.

That an ex-NFL linebacker is among the record 170 commentators NBC is deploying across its Olympic platforms only hints at the unprecedented variety of the network’s cast, which has to be the most diverse collection of personalities ever seen on U.S. TV.

Nothing but Olympic TV could draw this on-air crowd. There are veteran specialists who re-emerging for their quadrennial star turns, such as equestrian analyst Melanie Smith Taylor, who is now on her 8th NBC Olympic assignment after competing in the 1984 games.

NBC’s crew includes a TV veteran known for high profile sports — NHL analyst Pierre McGuire — working a sport rarely seen on air outside the Games: McGuire is now calling goal scoring with water at higher temperatures as a water polo reporter in Rio.

Then there are some roles that seem sort of out of left field. Pat Croce, the former part owner and president of the NBA Philadelphia 76ers, returns as a Taekwando analyst. But then, he is a first degree black belt who’s competed internationally. (And, of course, he used to tangle with big-time sports agents.)

So, it shouldn’t surprise that there’s room for at least one ex-NFL player such as Jones, who played 11 seasons with the New York Giants and Philadelphia before retiring from Cincinnati after the 2010 season. NBC has dubbed his reports, which will pop up daily, as Dhani Tackles Rio. 

Which makes sense given that, in TV terms, he’s already tackled the world. While still a linebacker in 2009, Jones hosted a travel channel show modestly entitled Dhani Tackles the Globe. 

Fortunately for all of us, the planet got sufficient blocking to remain spinning. But not before Jones’s novel off-season cross-training included trying sports such as schwingen in Switzerland – a type of wrestling on saw dust that involves grabbing opponents’ belts and trousers – as well as beach volleyball in Rio and rugby in England. (The helmetless rugby play showed how travel really can broaden your horizons. It led Jones to write aWashington Post op-ed arguing that football should replace its hard hats with lighter “throw-back leather helmets.”  That’s pretty open minded.)

Such on-air exposure led to Jones landing a leading role on Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge, a recently-aired NBC primetime series in which teams with monikers such as “Muddy Minglers” raced over obstacles. (Jones wasn’t the only one who got an Olympic warm-up from the show. His Challenge co-host was Kyle Martino, who is an NBC Olympics soccer analyst. And yes, for you Hollywood mavens, that’s the same Kyle Martino who’s married to Eva Amurri, who is Susan Sarandon’s daughter.)

Still, says Jones, his Rio assignment “kind of came out of the blue. And when it did, I said ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Who doesn’t want to go to Brazil?” (Jones saying his job “came out of the blue” may have a deeper meaning. He was a three-time All Big Ten player at Michigan, and says, “Michigan is everywhere at NBC” – including former Michigan golfer Gary Zenkel, now President, NBC Olympics.)

What about all that media chatter about Zika? “It’s a true concern for a lot of people. But like any place you travel to, you take some risk and take precautions. If we only worried about risk we wouldn’t travel.”

But when you see Jones on air from Rio, don’t assume he’s essentially playing without a helmet: “Yes, I am slathered head to toe with bug spray.”

Jones isn’t the first NFL player to be used on Olympic TV coverage. Phil Simms and Bob Trumpy, then NBC NFL announcers, were weightlifting analysts on NBC’s 1996 Atlanta Olympics. And NBC used lead NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth on coverage of the past four Olympics. (Collinsworth isn’t working in Rio, but the family is represented: son Jac, a Notre Dame undergrad, is an NBC Olympic social media correspondent.)

But Jones could be the first NFL player to end up in NFL announcing after reporting on things such as the Samba. Jones, who lives in Cincinnati where he owns a restaurant – the Bow Tie Cafe – named for his trademark piece of apparel, says he someday would like to become an NFL TV analyst.

He says his mentor Michael Strahan, a Fox NFL analysts and upcoming host of ABC’s Good Morning, America, told him to “just make sure you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and be nice to people on your way up.”

Fair enough. But that couldn’t totally explain Jones’ very unconventional career path. He also offers a suggestion with a phrase that might work as a handy mantra the next time you meditate: “Never be afraid to feel the breeze of opportunity and move towards it.”

Okay, fine, Dhani. Now, show us how you feel about the breezes as you fly down off that ten-meter Olympic dive board.