Move over Uga, there’s a new top dog in football.
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Ben, a golden retriever owned by Kirk Herbstreit, became an instant fan favorite throughout college football and the NFL this season.
“It’s crazy, right. It’s been fun. He’s so welcoming to people because it’s been great,” Herbstreit said as he was taking Ben on a walk around the hotel before the Dec. 14 game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders.
Football’s two most beloved canines got to meet before the SEC Championship game on Dec. 2. Uga XI and Ben exchanged greetings and got to sniff each other on the sideline in Atlanta.
This is the second year Herbstreit has been football’s busiest announcer as the analyst on Amazon Prime Video’s “Thursday Night Football”, part of the crew for ESPN’s “GameDay” and then calling Saturday night college football games on either ESPN or ABC.
Besides the hectic schedule, the 10-year-old, 95-pound golden retriever has provided a piece of home on the road for Herbstreit during what has been a challenging year for his family.
Zak Herbstreit, Kirk’s 20-year-old son who is a tight end at Ohio State, was hospitalized due to a heart condition in June. He is not practicing with the team and continues to receive treatment.
“It was a little tougher to go away from home this year. Just having him come out with me is the best companion you can hope for. He’s super chill and welcoming,” said Herbstreit. “What’s cool is taking him to the games. Both production groups have got to know him. He’s really become part of the team. If I don’t bring him to the meetings people ask.”
Golden retrievers have been a part of Herbstreit’s life for nearly 40 years. He said his family got their first one in 1985 when he was a sophomore in high school.
Ben is the leader of Herbstreit’s current group of four, which he got from the same breeder in New Jersey. There’s also Theo (6), Mitch (3) and Peter (11 weeks). Peter became part of the family three weeks ago when Herbstreit made the trip to get him after College Gameday before the Army-Navy game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on Dec. 9.
When it comes to mannerisms, Ben is a lot like his owner. Both are laid back, quiet and analytical.
“Just to have him in the hotel room. I can be doing my (analyst) boards and he’ll be right next to me. It’s his personality that makes me appreciate who he is,” Herbstreit said. “He’s a partner. He’s made a night and day difference for me being on the road.
However, even Herbstreit has been surprised about the level of popularity that Ben has achieved.
“Because of his disposition he’s calming and a happy dog. He helps with the morale with everyone,” he said.
Even before this season, Ben had been a part of road trips. Two years ago, he accompanied Herbstreit from GameDay in Cincinnati to Louisiana later that day for the Alabama-LSU game.
Herbstreit brought Ben on the road for the first time this season on Oct. 14, when Oregon faced Washington. He was concerned before that game about how Ben might react in large crowd and in a loud stadium, especially one as notorious as Husky Stadium, but Ben passed the test with flying colors.
Ben’s popularity really took off though before Georgia hosted Mississippi on Nov. 11, when he was filmed rolling on the grass near the 50 as the teams were doing their pregame warmups.
Darren Gaul, the remote production coordinator for ABC’s “Saturday Night Football” crew said the one benefit of having Ben around is that he has become the center of attention.
“It almost gives Kirk the ability to kind of step back and enjoy Ben receiving the attention. When he takes Ben out for a walk around the tailgates people are excited to see the two of them but they spend more time focused on Ben. They want more pictures of Ben than Kirk,” Gaul said.
Ben often walks around without a leash and doesn’t wander far from Kirk’s sight. Herbstreit said the only time he notices the dog get overly excited is at 6:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. — his meal times.
While Ben usually rests in the hotel room during NFL games, he spends the first half of the Saturday night college football games with Gaul in one of the ESPN buses before going up to the booth for the second half.
Gaul said the trip to Oregon State for its Nov. 18 game against Washington was the first time he noticed Ben’s extensive fan club.
“They were flying in from James Madison (after doing GameDay) and they forgot the dog leash. I asked someone in the parking lot if there was a pet store nearby and his first response was ‘Is that for Ben?’ I had an ESPN shirt on but I was shocked that he instantly new it was for Ben. And then when Kirk showed up, they had a gift basket from the athletic department with a card for Ben with dog toys,” Gaul said. “So at that point, I knew there’s more to this.”
That fan club also includes Hall of Fame announcer Al Michaels. Herbstreit wasn’t sure if Michaels would be receptive to Ben, but after a Thursday night game in Chicago, Michaels was stunned to find Ben in Herbstreit’s room just sleeping on the couch.
“He thought that was the coolest thing. Now if I come to a meeting and he’s not there, Al is distraught. Al adores him,” Herbstreit said.
Herbstreit admitted he has enjoyed this year a lot more. Not only has it been because of having a piece of home with him, but also he knows the challenges of handling both NFL and college football.
Herbstreit said he overprepared for the Thursday Night games last season and learned from watching the studio crew that there has to be time to enjoy being in the moment.
“I’m going to dinner with the crew on the road on Wednesday night and then if I immediately don’t fly out after the game I make an effort to grab something with them,” he said.
Herbstreit and Ben have one more busy week in store. There’s the last Amazon “Thursday Night Football” game of the year in Cleveland when the Browns host the New York Jets. They then head to Dallas for Friday’s Cotton Bowl between Ohio State and Missouri before a weekend in Southern California and Monday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl between Michigan and Alabama.
The Tournament of Roses committee has made sure that Ben won’t have any problem reaching the Rose Bowl’s pristine field before the game. According to the Rose Bowl staff, he is the first dog to be credentialed for the game.
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