The Tao of Scott Zolak
When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, he clearly did not have backup quarterbacks in mind.
“This is it! This is everything! Marathon Monday. A bar, beers, the Sox. One of the best days of the year!” booms the voice of Scott Zolak amid a wild pack of half-drunk sports fans at the Cask ’n Flagon bar next to Fenway Park. Even without the benefit of a microphone, the voice is so loud that I half expect him to break into one of his infamously insane football calls—the ones he’s been bellowing as the color man on Patriots broadcasts these past three years.
It’s a rainy Patriots Day morning, and in the pantheon of Boston sports days, this is a big one. It’s not even noon and Kenmore Square is a zoo. A block away to the north: The marathon enters its final mile. A block to the south: The Sox play their traditional morning game. Right here in the middle, where a line winds down the block, Zolak and his sidekicks sit hunched around a table loaded with bottles, appetizers, and the wiry entrails of a portable broadcast rig. In addition to calling Pats games, Zolak is one of the stars of the midday radio show on 98.5 the Sports Hub. Looking around, he and his team have everything they need: revelry, bodies, beers, wings, sports guys.
The crowd is wall to wall and the Red Sox—who have yet to fall into complete disarray—are on all the TVs as they take on the Orioles. Inside the bar, the Zolak & Bertrand show is about to air a live remote broadcast. “I’m not a baseball guy,” Zolak offers just before his show starts, “but I’m a sports guy, and I want a guy who wants the ball no matter what. And this Clay Buchholz, he wants nothing to do with being the guy on the line. And that sickens me.”
Marc “the Beetle” Bertrand nods in agreement. Built like an offensive lineman, he is the calming cohost of the show—the visual and verbal foil to Zolak, the slender guy with the drunk-sounding voice who once occupied the Patriots’ bench behind Drew Bledsoe and now brings a gust of unpredictability to the airwaves. Make no mistake: Zolak is the guy everyone wants to take selfies with. And anytime something bawdy or risqué goes down, the sports-niks can’t wait to bring it to Zolak’s attention.
“Zo! You need to see this!” shouts a man in a shirt reading “Pedroia the Destroy-ah.” He’s pointing outside. Dozens of heads turn just in time to see an evidently overserved woman relieving herself in the street. A producer, during the break, marches around the table saying, “Do not talk about that. Do not. I’m serious. No talking about that.”
Zolak laughs. Moments later, a man who looks to be nearly 300 pounds is rumbling toward him wearing a shirt that reads “Scott Zolak Is My Hero.”
“I’m a little frightened of him, to be honest,” Zolak says, startled. “[But] these are my people.” The number of fans who try to buy Zolak a beer is gobsmacking, though every attempt is met with, “I’m working. After the show.” Then it’s back to ripping the Sox’s starting rotation.
Sports radio is big business in Boston, and 98.5 has emerged as the ratings champ, anchored by shock jocks turned sports-talk antiheroes Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb in the morning, and columnists Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti in the afternoon. But the station’s success is also thanks in no small part to the ever-growing- Cult of Zolak—a weird, Patriots-addled religiosity shared by him and, dare I say, his followers—that has turned the former QB into something of an in-the-making local legend, punch line, inspiration, strategy assessor, veritable Tom Brady publicist, Pats apologist, and lunatic phrase maker.
Let’s just get it out of the way: “Unicorns! Show Ponies! Where’s the Beef?” Even if you have no clue who said it, you’ve probably heard it, if not the original sound bite itself then certainly a drunken imitation of it by someone. It was that instantly viral line—screamed banshee-style by Zolak after Tom Brady tossed a touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins during the Pats’ rousing comeback victory over the New Orleans Saints in October 2013—that took the nation by storm. For decades, the Patriots’ broadcast booth had belonged to Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti, a pair of gentlemen in the grandstand: Santos narrating the action with NFL gravitas, while Cappelletti worried, absent-mindedly, in the margins. In 2011, the radio station brought Zolak on as a sideline reporter, where he delighted listeners with his high-energy style. In 2012 Cappelletti retired; in 2013 Santos did the same. That Zolak would stay was a given; former Navy broadcaster Bob Socci came on as a competent but utterly square play-by-play man, essentially making the goofy sidekick the star. Just one year into their partnership, the Socci-Zolak phenomenon was already paying off: “Unicorns! Show Ponies! Where’s the Beef?” became a sports-world meme. It led people to think that Zolak was either brilliant or a moron, but either way established him as a local celebrity.
“Oh yeah, he’s a madman for sure,” says Sports Hub marketing and promotions manager Chris Rucker, who is Zo’s unofficial wrangler. “But he’s a smart madman. People relate to him. And you can be as wild and crazy as you want, and he has his cult following, but it’s like a mainstream cult. Which doesn’t make a ton of sense, but hey, when it works it works. And the dude makes a lot of things work.”
Like most pro athletes, Zolak, now 47, was the resident big man on campus during high school. He lettered all four years in basketball and football at Ringgold High—Joe Montana’s alma mater—in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, he “wasn’t a Pats fan” then, he tells me. Instead, Zolak grew up watching the Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw win four Super Bowls, while Willie Stargell led the 1979 Pirates to a World Series championship. “I was tall and lanky and I tried to pitch underhand like Pirates reliever Kent Tekulve,” Zolak recalls. “The Patriots were a long way off.”
After earning all-state honors in high school, it was on to the University of Maryland. For luck, before each game Zolak would rub a football that Montana had given him. It didn’t pay off: As a Terrapin, Zolak settled into the role that would dominate the next chapter in his career—that of the perennial backup QB. “I’ve always been good at sticking around,” he tells me. “And when you stick around, you can get good at learning what’s going on around you. Which might pay off later on, when you least expect it to.”