A week ago today, May 10, ESPN and I agreed that I would not return to the network after my contract expired at the end of this month.
Someone once likened my arrival at ESPN to that of “a longshot horse going 12-wide on the turn for home, but finding its way into the photo at the wire.”
Any result was possible.
Sounds about right.
“It was a good run,” my good friend and former colleague Bill Pidto, now with New York’s Madison Square Garden Network, texted me.
Last Monday afternoon, I hit “send” to announce it was the end of the run, and the next 72 hours were like nothing I’ve before experienced. I received so many calls and texts and Twitter mentions, I thought my phone was going to melt down. This is not false modesty when I say that my biggest fear wasn’t the unknown of leaving my professional home for the last 27 years, but the embarrassment that no one would give a damn.
What if only, say, seven people hit “like?”
That’s stupid, I know. My advice to the young ones looking to get into this profession, any profession, always has been not about overcoming fear of failure, but disregarding it altogether. Like horse trainer Nick Zito once said, “you can’t even lose if you don’t enter.” My football coach at UNLV, Tony Knap, said look deep first, you can always find something underneath.
Last week, the news of my departure public, my wife Gretchen and I invoked a comparison to the first Fourth of July party we threw in Seattle a bunch of years ago. The tables were set, the barbeque delivery was an hour or so away and NO ONE HAD SHOWED UP.
I was truly sad.
Then everyone and their mother showed up. People I didn’t even know. It wasn’t long before barbeque sauce was being spilled onto an original Pearl Jam set list on my mantle. Damn it, will these people leave me alone?
Not you, people. I’ll gladly accept whatever attention you want to lavish on me. I’m technically unemployed as of June 1. I have five remaining shows to do for ESPN as you read this. May 24, a week from today, is the finale. Marshawn Lynch said he’d come on the show. “I’ll f— wit that,” he texted me.
Twenty-seven years. Lots to unpack. So I just started typing.
Excluding no one and name-dropping (for now) only Bill Walton and Ben Stiller (more coming later), one of my favorite calls came from John Walsh, who most of us at ESPN called the Wizard, or the Oracle, or Santa Claus. Google him. He gets much of the credit for sort of reinventing “SportsCenter.”
I first met him when I was working sports and news for KSTW-TV Seattle/Tacoma. In 1989, after Joe Montana threw that winning touchdown to John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII, I produced a segment that prompted me to ask “Why the hell wouldn’t I send that to ESPN?” Which I did. The company’s chief talent recruiter, Al Jaffe — whom I later learned was my biggest champion at ESPN, always pushing the other bosses to give me a look — asked that I send another tape, after which the they flew me in for an interview that I failed miserably. Walsh asked me arcane questions about the White Sox’s middle relief. “We’ll keep you in mind,” they told me.
Even without the guarantee of an ESPN future, I quit my TV job in 1989 and paid the bills by assembling garbage cans, then selling prepaid legal insurance before graduating to long-distance sales for MCI. There was another interview with ESPN (while I was selling prepaid legal insurance), which resulted in a 1990 gig covering the Goodwill Games in Seattle and subsequent freelance work for the next four years, when I decided a bolder approach was called for. I sent Walsh a letter.
Walsh checked the middle box, which I told myself must mean something, anyway. This exchange was a month or two after I’d been brought back to Bristol a third time. In this instance, I met with Vince Doria, a well-known newspaper guy who had run the Boston Globe before moving to TV and ESPN.
I knew the book on me. I wasn’t terrible at doing TV but I wasn’t sports nerdy enough for ESPN. I volunteered this to Doria.
“Look,” I told him, “I still don’t know who the fifth pitcher on the Cubs is, but if you tell me to do a story on the sonofabitch, it’ll be the best story in the building.”
Doria seemed to appreciate my candor.
On April 1, 1994 — after five years of pestering ESPN with my ideas and pitches, less than a month after my Hail Mary to Walsh — Jaffe interrupted an MCI sales call I was on to offer me a contract, potentially the cruelest April Fools joke in history.
They weren’t, however, teaming me with Dan Patrick. Bill Patrick? Maybe. (The pairing with Dan would come three years later.)
“You’re being hired for ESPN2, for the show ‘SportsNight,'” Doria informed me.
Actually, I wasn’t even being hired for “SportsNight,” let alone “SportsCenter,” but for a support role in “SportsNight” in which I split airtime with Pidto and Deb Kaufman on something called The SportsSmash, a five-minute highlight segment within “SportsNight.” Or was it SportSmash? Or Sports Mash? I don’t know. All I know is, I hadn’t been on live TV in five years and boy are these ESPN people stupid, especially that Doria guy. What in the hell am I doing here?
Day 1, I had trouble with the computer. Stuart Scott and Suzy Kolber, the show’s main anchors, were very welcoming, did everything they could to put me at ease. Maybe 4,500 viewers were watching, but I was keyed up like I was cohosting the moon landing with Walter Cronkite.
Anyway I couldn’t figure out the computer. So Julie Mariash, my producer, comes over and puts her hand on my shoulder and asks, “Are you OK?” I lied and said yes and thought to myself that if I run out of the building and drive away right now, no one will know I sucked at this. Doria eventually will come to terms with the terrible hire he made. Walsh will say, “I told you he doesn’t know about middle relief.”
Everyone will move on with their lives.
But I stayed.
For 27 years. And these insane 72 hours. I have a handful of shows left and you know I’m talking about the Cubs’ fifth pitcher somewhere in there.
Last Monday, during what amounted to my exit interview, I was asked if I wanted to do my last scheduled May shows. I replied that I did, knowing that bailing out would just mean John Anderson or John Buccigross or Michael Eaves would have to sacrifice a golf game or two and come into the office. Then again, Ashley Brewer and Nabil Karim probably could use more run. Hell, I don’t know. It’s weird being gone, but not gone. It’s also nice to make goodbyes with people in the building. I did promise that the shows might get looser. Actually, I think I said I’ll be just as unprofessional as I’ve been for the last 27 years.
I asked my Seattle friends Jamal Crawford, Sue Bird and Marshawn Lynch if they would join the last show.
Plus Aaron Rodgers. For news value, of course.
I had no idea the end would play out the way it did. The last month in my contract has been a period during which I’m allowed to negotiate with outside parties while continuing to negotiate with ESPN. But this negotiation was short, almost abrupt: an offer, my rejection of the offer and an exit interview by phone. And that’s OK. Like I say sometimes during a back-‘em-down dunk NBA highlight, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”
As my exit call was wrapping up, my wife walked into the room and I looked to her and said, “We are out.” She had to leave to pick up my stepdaughter Bryn. When she returned, she was anxious. I told her, “When it’s time to worry, I will tell you it’s time to worry. It’s not time to worry.” I’d done dozens of commercials over the years — beyond the “This is SportsCenter” promos — and that’s where my near-future focus would be.
But it was not so much me, as you, the public, that got her back to a calm place. All that Twitter love, among other things. Not that everything should be measured by Twitter response but it was something. A lot, actually.
The affection was and is overwhelming and I’ll never be able to express to everyone individually what it has meant to me and my family.
“Dad,” my daughter Riley said, “you’ve been talking about breaking free since I was like 9.” She is almost 22.
When I picked up Bryn from lacrosse practice a couple hours after my departure tweet, I told her what happened and she handled it great. She trusts me that I wouldn’t do something reckless. I also asked her friend Kate for gas money.
I told my other stepdaughter, Elaina, who is headed to USC in the fall, that we’re all good and I told my daughters Riley and Annie the same. Their calm reaction and positivity gave me more confidence.
“Dad,” Riley said, “you’ve been talking about breaking free since I was nine years old.” She is almost 22.
Inside my home, outside my home, people still think I have a future.
As I write this it’s now, I don’t know, 96 hours since the news dropped. I’ve lost track of time. I had to do a damn “SportsCenter” the very night I put out the note I was leaving ESPN. That probably confused people. There just wasn’t enough space to say, “May 24th last show and/or May 31st officially.” I wasn’t looking for a cumbersome farewell note.
Say what happened, drop the vending machine joke and quote Tom Petty.
My former ESPN colleague Dan LeBatard told me I was entitled to a global victory lap, which I’ve renamed “The World Podcast Explanation of What I Did and Why I Did it Tour.” I did LeBatard’s podcast, Pardon My Take, Chris Long’s pod and a bunch of other interviews.
Then I got a commercial deal (Thanks Olipop). It happened through Twitter. Or maybe it happened on a phone call after the announcement on Twitter. Or maybe it happened because Nick Zito said “you can’t even lose if you don’t enter.” Or maybe it happened because Vince Doria didn’t give a damn about the Cubs’ fifth pitcher either. I still don’t know who that guy is. But if anyone tells me to do a story on the bastard, it will be pretty good.
I’ve been floored by all the kind notes I got, and keep getting. Bill Walton called. Charley Steiner called. He went on and on with some folksy story that his dad told him. It was really good. Bob Ley texted. Chris Berman called to wish me well and apologize for the timing of an ESPN press release wishing him a happy birthday and announcing his contract extension on the same day my tweet blew out the sun. Truth is, I probably owe much of my career at ESPN to Berman, the godfather of the network. And the master of all the nicknames.
The one he had for me? Remember the Mayne.
A guy named Matt texted. We’ve had deep, longtime political differences over the Former Guy, but he dropped that and called. What a jerk I am. I just went political and Matt was trying to drop it. But this is my story. Shout out Sarah Kendzior. I mean I am wearing a RESIST hat while I write this. I’m going off the rails here. I’m trying to find an ending. I’m in the moment. I’m streaming. I’m no longer trending. I don’t care. Members of Stevie Wonder’s band knew who I was that one night in Los Angeles. What more is there to accomplish?
Well, there are the final “SportsCenter” shows. Note to management: I’m going to be late Monday, I’m golfing first, but I won’t be that late. I’ll be the first one written. Then there’s the Tuesday show, my final one with Steve Levy (voice of “Monday Night Football,” kind of a big deal).
Eventually I will do my last show May 24, with Buccigross, or sooner if they decide to pull the plug. And that’s the company’s right. It’s their building.
I’m just glad I did not run from it. I’m glad Julie Mariash calmed me on Day 1. I’m glad Stuart Scott and I threw footballs and played electric football. And that his daughters are coming by the house in June. I’m glad for a bunch of stuff. I’m plugging my foundation right now because this is my story. It’s called runfreely.org. We get veterans out of pain.
It was a good run.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.