More than just football, Blackledge is the "Taste of the Town"
Editor's note: Catch "Taste of the Town" during ESPN's broadcasts of the Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 20 and the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1
Todd Blackledge laughs when told he's a food celebrity.
But the folks he meets generally don't ask about his national championship as quarterback at Penn State or his years under center in the NFL. Or his work as college football analyst on "ESPN Saturday Primetime." Or even who he thinks will win the big game.
What people want to know is which restaurant will be featured on "Todd's Taste of the Town" -- a video thumbnail of a local greasy spoon and the flavor of the college town -- which airs during each broadcast.
"It seems kind of funny to me," Blackledge told ESPN SportsTravel. "I've worked really hard for almost 20 years to carve a niche for myself as a football analyst, but now I'm kind of known as 'the food guy.' I'm not complaining about it, because it's been fun to do. But it's surprising."
What began last year as the culmination of Blackledge's idea for a fun spotlight has blossomed into a signature segment that enjoys great anticipation by viewers, according to producer Bryan Jaroch.
"Even at practices, coaches and players come up to Todd and ask him where he's going to eat," Jaroch said.
And of course Blackledge's broadcast partner, Mike Patrick, seldom fails to add some levity in the booth after the prerecorded feature appears sometime during the second or third quarter.
After Patrick showed up as a doctor during the crew's Halloween party, Jaroch recalled, he brought a stethoscope to the tilt the following evening and used it as a video aid to point out to viewers that Blackledge has indulged in a lot of fried food this fall.
At the suggestions of alumni or athletic department personnel, or by word of mouth, Jaroch and Blackledge scout anywhere from one to four places each Thursday. They come back with the crew in the show's decked-out bus the next day to film the selected restaurant for the two-part segment that covers the introduction, history and cultural significance of the joint and then focuses on the food that Blackledge is going to consume.
Together the two parts run for less than a minute (though Blackledge and Patrick may discuss the tastes of "Taste of the Town" for another minute or two, depending on how quickly the game dictates a return to the action).
And that is what gets people talking when they cross paths with Blackledge, 47, who calls Canton, Ohio, home and each autumn splits time between the road and his family -- wife, Cherie, and sons Harrison, 13; Quinn, 11; Eli, 9; and Owen, 6.
"It's just become hugely popular," he said. "If I go anywhere and if I'm recognized, people don't ask about football; they ask about where I'm eating.
"The segment is only 45 seconds and I'm there to do football, but people just love to talk to me about food."
Blackledge said he could never have imagined "Taste of the Town" would have caught on in such a big way, but he has his theories as to why it has.
While not everyone identifies with each game that is spotlighted -- or even the sport of football itself, for that matter -- everyone connects with eating and food. Furthermore, the local hot spot -- never a chain restaurant or an establishment picked via solicitation -- often stirs reminiscences of past meals or thoughts of future fare.
"If you went to college, it brings back memories of 'I can remember a place like that when I went to school,'" Blackledge said. "Or people may think, 'If I go through this town on business or pleasure, I'll remember the name of this place.'"
So, Todd, would you rather be remembered as a quarterback, a football analyst or "the food guy"?
"Maybe some sort of combination of all of the above," Blackledge said with another laugh, "because I love to eat. I have a passion for eating. I enjoy eating. And that's part of why this has worked."
For Jaroch, the biggest challenge is finding a place that lives up to the spirit of the show: a local restaurant that is a fave among students and the community, serves good food, captures the college atmosphere, usually is a family business and is steeped in tradition.
In Los Angeles, for example, the show's team struggled to find the right spot. There were several candidates frequented by celebrities, but, Jaroch said, "We wanted to find the local place, not flashy or even all that clean. It's that local place that everybody loves."
He and Blackledge finally settled on The Apple Pan, a family-run outfit that opened for business in 1947 and is renowned for its hickory burgers, classic diner setting and the slogan out front that reads, "Quality Forever."
In Tuscaloosa, the featured restaurant was The Waysider, which legendary coach Bear Bryant made a habit of patronizing and where Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson now visits weekly to have biscuits for breakfast.
"There is something about every college town that is special, and that's what we try to tap into each week," Jaroch said.