Four years after leaving WFAN for satellite radio, Christopher (Mad Dog) Russo continues to juggle life as a suburban dad with his life as an excitable sports talk host and solo act.
New Canaan, Conn.
Mad Dog's dog, like her owner, is a tad excitable. So when a visitor showed up first thing last Friday, Rosie Russo could be forgiven for having an accident on the kitchen floor.
Thus began another day in the life of Chris Russo, satellite radio personality, sports talk pioneer and suburban father of four: helping his wife, Jeanne, mop up after a nervous young golden retriever.
Glamorous it was not, even if the scene unfolded in a spacious home in a famously tony town. Soon there would be children to drive to the school bus, a commuter train into the city and eventually a late train home to takeout pizza.
Hectic and normal. Just as the Russos of New Canaan like it.
New Canaan, Conn.
Having dropped off Timmy, 13, after an academic pep talk and a review of fantasy football rosters, Russo made his daily trip to Connecticut Muffin for a small coffee with milk and two sugars. The man at the counter didn't have to ask.
Another customer walked in and greeted him like so: "You were wrong on Ichiro!"
Russo loved it, as he does most interactions with fans. The man in the muffin shop would be the only listener who engaged him Friday, including two train rides and two short walks in Manhattan, but he said he still is recognized regularly.
When Russo made the move from WFAN to Sirius XM Satellite Radio in 2008, ending a 19-year partnership with Mike Francesa and signing a contract that pays about $3 million per year, he understood he would be giving up visibility in the New York area and with it some of the colorful, local feedback he used to receive.
That feedback remains a delicate subject. The volume and consistency of callers often is a barometer of his mood. "I can tell how many calls he's had when he walks in," his personal trainer, Mike Jordan, said.
To put it as Russo has in other contexts, quoting his beloved Bruce Springsteen: "Is anybody alive out there?"
Russo's national reach surely has grown. "You might be walking in the Chicago airport," he said, "and somebody says something and it makes you feel great, like, 'Oh, my God, I am making some impact!' "
Still, he said, "You don't know who's listening," Does it bother him? "Once in a while it does, I have to admit. But you just don't know. It's a tricky dynamic. It probably bothered me a little more when I first started than it does now."
By the time he returned home with his coffee and muffin, another wave of children had hit the kitchen: Kiera, 11, and Colin, 10, who looked up from his Honey Nut Cheerios to answer trivia questions from his father about early Super Bowl winners.
New Canaan, Conn.
By now Patrick, 7, had completed the parade to school and a truck was in the driveway delivering bag after bag of groceries. "Four kids," Jeanne said, shrugging.
That made it a fine time for one of Russo's thrice-weekly visits to "Personal Training Professionals," a facility that offers individual instruction.
Jordan is an ideal foil for Russo, pushing him in exercises while going toe to toe on sports talk -- and trash talk. For example: Reminding him that since the switch to Sirius, he listens more to Francesa than Russo.
"He's emotionally unstable," Jordan said, among various other jabs.
Russo's high-volume sports banter does not go over well with all of his fellow customers, some of whom have been known to request appointments at times when the Dog is out.
After a 12-repetition bench press set at 155 pounds, Russo yelled, "Wow, the Doggie!" Said Jordan: "He's never done that before."
Russo, 52, who grew up in Syosset, sometimes drives into the city but prefers not to. So there he was on the train platform in a driving rainstorm, looking like any middle-aged manager but for his white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
Soon he was sitting in the last car, sneaking in a brief nap, a pile of newspapers sprawled beside him.
About that: Russo is not a fan of the "Internets," as he calls it. He does text, but he does not email. It's not that he never uses a computer, just that he prefers getting his news in ink.
(Later, on his show, he used an NFL Record and Fact Book -- yes, they still print those! -- to research old playoff results.)
Steve Torre, the program director with whom Russo oversees Sirius' "Mad Dog Radio" channel, and Jeanne both said they often find themselves relaying emailed information to Russo from his 21st century friends and associates.
By 1, Russo had arrived at Sirius' Midtown studios, a Tower of Babel that gives voice to a dizzying array of human endeavors. (Most days he arrives closer to noon.)
Just after 2, it was time for his trademark, "Aaaaaand, good afternoon everybody!" With that, he was off, starting with a rant aimed at the NFL.
Might the lockout of officials have ended even without the controversial finish to that Monday's game? "If anybody believes that, I'll sell you a bridge in Afghanistan!" he shouted.
Russo's scope has broadened to national topics, and unlike at WFAN, he has almost total freedom regarding content. "If I want to do something on the 'Lincoln' movie Nov. 16, no one is going to say a word," he said. "No one watches over me. I'm my own man."
Russo proved that by spending an hour Friday on the 1972 "Immaculate Reception" that lifted the Steelers past Oakland after former Raiders coach John Madden brought it up in an interview.
Sometimes producer Bill Zimmerman wishes Russo would tailor topics toward generating calls, but he has learned Russo must feel passion for a subject and won't fake it.
Russo admitted he is a stickler, and that working with him can be a challenge.
"There are days," Torre said. "People ask, how is he [off the air]? I say, 'Generally the same.' He's not a phony. But there are times he can be a diva . . . At times he gets stressed out because he's a perfectionist and wants the show to be great."
Grand Central Station.
Russo must leave quickly after the show, lest he miss the express train home. Friday, he found an empty seat in the cafe car, where he wound down doing a sports-related crossword puzzle.
By 8:37 he was home, ready for another weekend juggling children's activities with keeping tabs on a busy early autumn sports weekend.
"It's a balancing act," he said. "It's tricky." It helps that, as Russo said, "Jeanne runs this house, let's face it." But Jeanne said Chris does his best to help.
It frustrates her when callers criticize Russo for not having seen a certain play. "He does have four kids," she said over the noise from a tug-of-war between Patrick and Rosie. "You have to have a life."
Life settles down after the kids are in bed, when Russo finds a spot on the couch and does his best to follow the action across a big, busy nation.
"I wish I had an ounce of his energy," Jeanne said. "I'm toast by 10."
Sometimes her husband doesn't make it much past that, falling asleep with a game on. Soon enough, it will be time to start over again. Rosie will be waiting.