TAMPA — When Booger McFarland auditioned for the new Monday Night Football broadcast team, producer Jay Rothman was blown away.
"I closed my eyes and said, 'Holy (bleep), I feel like I'm listening to football's Charles Barkley,'' Rothman said.
Sir Charles is the round mound of sound and star of TNT's Inside the NBA, winner of three Sports Emmy Awards.
So Rothman had lavish praise for McFarland, who in 4 1/2 years has gone from co-host of a Tampa Bay radio show on a now-defunct FM station to part of the Monday Night Football legacy that includes Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Frank Gifford, Al Michaels, John Madden and Jon Gruden.
"I'm a small-town kid from Winnsboro, La., who grew up not really being comfortable talking to people," said McFarland, a former Bucs defensive tackle who still lives in north Tampa.
"Had a small Afro. Shy around girls. Middle child. And to look at the journey where I am now and to be a part of this entity, I'm not going to say it's the American dream, but in (a) way, it is."
Monday, McFarland, 40, will join play-by-play man Joe Tessitore and analyst Jason Witten as part of ESPN's crew for the Bucs-Steelers game at Raymond James Stadium. His perspective, however, will be unlike any other in sports broadcasting history.
McFarland is the show's first field analyst, moved up and down the sideline by the "BoogMobile," a cart with an outreached arm that supports two platforms. One is for McFarland, the other for a camera operator. Perched 10 feet off the ground, he has an elevated view of the line of scrimmage and sideline.
He also has all the equipment Tessitore and Witten have in the booth. When you listen to the broadcast, it sounds as if McFarland is sitting next to them.
"The conversation we're looking for is three guys discussing the game, going back and forth," he said.
McFarland already is receiving rave reviews. The Chicago Sun-Times headline after the Rams-Raiders opener said "Booger McFarland gives Monday Night Football the boost it needs."
Like Barkley, McFarland doesn't mince words. During the Bears-Seahawks game last week, he was asked about his former coach's decision to trade the NFL's best pass rusher from the Raiders to the Bears a few days before the season started.
"Jon Gruden can talk about money and not having any left,'' McFarland said. "But Khalil Mack was first-team All-Pro at two spots. I'm gonna make every effort I can to keep this guy on my team. I thought this was one of the worst trades in NFL history.''
It's the kind of honesty and biting criticism that made Rothman lean forward in his seat during McFarland's audition.
"(McFarland) may have had the best audition of the 12 guys we invited,'' Rothman said. "He was smart, informative, self-deprecating and funny. He had it down. His cadence was unbelievable. He was so enthusiastic and passionate, I was blown away.''
It's McFarland's journey from Winnsboro to LSU All-American, from Bucs first-round draft pick to two-time Super Bowl champion, that makes his broadcasting rocket ride so compelling.
Path to a better life
His real name is Anthony, but he prefers Booger. The nickname was earned when he was a 2-year-old self-described "bad kid," clinging to the mother who gave him the nickname. His sister's teasing made it stick.
His mom raised three kids on $18,000 year in an old wooden house. "The floor was so bad, I went to open the refrigerator, (it) fell through the floor,'' McFarland said. "That's a problem."
He doesn't remember many others.
"Life was great," he said. "We had more personal skills and people skills. Our idea of fun wasn't going to Disney World. It was, you want to play basketball, go outside and make a goal. You want to play baseball? Take the old broom, take the handle off, take a tennis ball that we found somewhere and go play baseball. We were forced to create things. But (his mother) never allowed us to say we were poor."
From an early age, McFarland liked football. He may not have loved everything about it, but he was good at it and understood its value.
"I never said I want to be the football guy. But when that opportunity started to become real, I said, 'Okay, let's see where this goes,' " he said. "And I realized to do anything, I had to get out of Winnsboro, and football was my way out."
McFarland wanted to go to Miami because of its rich history of developing NFL defensive tackles: Warren Sapp, Jerome Brown, Russell Maryland and Cortez Kennedy.
The Hurricanes didn't offer him a scholarship. Florida State thought he was too small at 6 feet and 300 pounds. He chose LSU, 2 1/2 hours from Winnsboro.
By his sophomore year in 1996, when LSU won 10 games, McFarland realized he would have a good shot at playing in the NFL.
"I'm not going to say (football) became easy, but it became natural, and it was fun, and it wasn't work,'' he said.
The next Warren Sapp
It's serendipitous that McFarland is calling the Bucs-Steelers game. Tony Dungy, the man who drafted McFarland 15th overall in 1999 and won a Super Bowl with him eight seasons later in Indianapolis, will be inducted into the Bucs' Ring of Honor at halftime Monday night.
Long before Gerald McCoy grew cold in Sapp's shadow, McFarland was dogged by comparisons. He played Sapp's position at LSU. The Bucs switched him to nose tackle.
"People thought I could be the next Warren Sapp, but I was playing next to him,'' McFarland said.
Sapp was in his prime. In McFarland's rookie year, Sapp was the NFL's defensive player of the year. The next season he had 16 1/2 sacks with McFarland compiling a career-best 6 1/2.
"We were watching film and Sapp said, 'You know, we're the best two in the game right now playing together.' I'll never forget that," McFarland said. "To me, that was more valuable than making a Pro Bowl."
McFarland had a good career with the Bucs. He had 20 sacks and 305 tackles in 84 games. An injury prevented him from playing in Super Bowl XXXVII. But Gruden traded him to the Colts in October 2006, and he there he helped Dungy win a Super Bowl by solidifying their defense.
The next training camp, McFarland suffered a season-ending knee injury. At age 29 he had an offer to play for the Raiders for $1 million but turned it down and left the game behind him.
"I wouldn't have played the game for free. I never loved it like that," he said. "I'm not Brett Favre. He just couldn't get away from it. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I wouldn't die for it."
McFarland didn't work for 31/2 years after football. In 2003 he signed a five-year contract extension with the Bucs worth $34 million that included a $9.5 million signing bonus, so he didn't have to.
His broadcast career started with an invitation to audition with former ESPN radio host Todd Wright for a new CBS sports station in Tampa, 98.7 The Fan.
"I watch all sports in some shape or form,'' McFarland said. "When you grow up in a small town, sports becomes a form of you.''
One day during a commercial break, McFarland got a call from an ESPN recruiter who had been listening to his show on the internet.
That led to a job on ESPN's newly formed SEC Network. McFarland's big break came when there was talk about LSU coach Les Miles getting fired.
Then-ESPN radio host Mike Greenberg had heard that McFarland had some strong opinions on the subject and had him as a guest on his Mike & Mike show, one of ESPN's strongest platforms.
"The way it grew was the way you would want it to grow organically," Greenberg said. "The next time we had an SEC story, we had him on. Then it was any time we had a college football story. Then an NFL story. Then he filled in for (co-host Mike) Golic. And that's really the best way this stuff works."
Greenberg said one contentious exchange between McFarland and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith stands out.
"It didn't come to blows, but Booger hung right in there. He was reasonable but strong," Greenberg said. "That's when I realized he was more than a former player analyst. He was a host-caliber talent.''
McFarland credits Greenberg for his fast rise at ESPN.
"There's been a lot of people in this industry that has done a lot for me,'' McFarland said. "Nobody has done more for me."
McFarland rose from SEC Network studio host to ESPN afternoon host during college game days last season, when he was promoted to ABC studio analyst.
He was on the driving range at the Avila golf club in Tampa early this year when ESPN's talent office called and asked him to audition for Monday Night Football with Tessitore, the first person he called a mock game with during his SEC Network tryout.
And now he's being compared to Charles Barkley.
"Charles Barkley has become the Michael Jordan of broadcasting,'' Greenberg said. "I love Charles, and I enjoy him tremendously. But Booger just has to focus on being the next Booger McFarland.
"Believe me, that's going to really be good enough.''