In an aerie above the action, writers peck and jaw

Press boxes, which normally sit atop football stadiums and other athletic venues, are fascinating and quixotic places, matched by the quirky denizens who inhabit them.

If you've had way too little on your mind, you may have gazed at them and wondered: What goes on up there?

A press box, of course, is a facility built to accommodate the needs of the media - newspapers, magazines, radio, television, Internet - which flock to games to report on them.

In a way, it's like a village. It takes a village to cover a game.

To have spent a huge chunk of a lifetime in press boxes is to have been blessed far beyond the optimum. Fred Russell, longtime sports editor of the now defunct Nashville Banner, wrote a book, "Bury Me in an Old Press Box." That's an extraordinary thought.

After all, a press box is one of the few really terrific private clubs left. That's not to say it has admission standards like, say, trying to become a member of the L.A. Country Club. Rather, it's private because for the most part you can only get in if you are a member of the media or have a job supporting the media's needs.

It's not about money, but employment.

At major games, there can be hundreds of reporters. There are rows of long tables, which can be 60, 70 yards, or more. There we sit inside with phones available, places to plug in computers, heat, air conditioning. There is food - not to be confused, generally, with good food - served throughout the game, but especially at half time when the assault on potato chips and hot dogs can reach epic proportions.

And we are provided with mountains of information. Here last weekend, for example, at the Colorado-Texas football game, stats rained on us. You get first-quarter stats, first-half stats, flash stats, third-quarter stats. You get play by play at the end of the first quarter, the second quarter. And a PA announcer tells us who carried the ball and for how far and who tackled him, in case we can't figure it out for ourselves, which we probably can't.

There is closed-circuit or broadcast television so we can dej vu the plays.

We are told when records are set and when "this is the first time since ..." happens. A longtime Colorado press handler is ill, we are told, and this is the first home game he has missed after attending 268 in a row.

We are provided with flip cards. These are essential to football life as we know it. Normally printed on both sides (ergo flip) of cardboardlike paper, they list all the players for both teams in a variety of ways: numerically, alphabetically, offensive starters, defensive starters, special teams players, depth charts. This all means if you can't find who a player is instantly, you definitely need remedial instruction in flip-card reading.

Press boxes often are pleasant places these days. Some are even downright fancy. Places like Nebraska and Texas are exceptional. Notre Dame is good, but it's more the mystique of simply being there that dazzles. Many pro facilities, like Denver's Coors Field and New Jersey's Meadowlands, are terrific.

Mostly, to those who have frequented many press boxes, to walk into one is like coming home after a lengthy sojourn. Familiarity breeds joy.

Above all is the camaraderie. Many of us have been seeing each other in press boxes for years, decades, more. Along the way to have sat next to legends at games - New York Times guys including Red Smith, Gordon White, Neil Amdur; the Sports Illustrated gang like Dan Jenkins, John Underwood, Paul Zimmerman, Bill Nack; L.A. Times people like Jim Murray; the network television folks - is enormous, great, good fortune.

The press box produces an exquisite kind of hothouse environment for rumors and catching up.

We watch and we look and we pop off. We evaluate the talent and brains, or lack thereof, exhibited by the performers. We are, frankly, influenced by what others say up here. Of course, renowned football fan Plato got it right when he said: "Wise people talk because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something."

Regardless, we talk on. Press boxes are amazing enclaves.

Often, we remain far into the night or early morning, writing, working. You stare down at the stadium, at empty seats that were so recently filled, at the shadows, at the silence, at the memories, and you think: Ah, yes, life is good.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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