I've wanted to work in sports broadcasting since high school, when I'd watch football and realize some analysts didn't know the game that well. I was always sure I'd get it right. At penn state, I majored in advertising/public relations and earned a second degree in broadcast journalism. Now that I'm a 49er, I host a web show, The Robinson Report, on www.sf49ers.com.
But I don't have any experience on live TV. So when an editor from The Mag called to say he could get me a gig as an on-camera reporter, I jumped at the chance. I assumed it would be for spring football. Then my editor said, "How about April 2 on ESPNU in Austin? Baylor at Texas. Women's softball." I was still psyched, even though I knew nothing about softball. But I'd learn fast.
First, I went to the team websites to study the players and managers. Then I called my position coach at Penn State, Jay Paterno, for advice; I still do this a lot. He hooked me up with Penn State softball coach Robin Petrini, who told me the game would have a ton of downtime—and opportunities for me to let my personality come through on camera. "Just be yourself," she said. Then I spoke with ESPNU coordinating producer Meg Reintjes, my boss for this assignment. She told me not to worry. I just had to be creative and have fun. No problem.
I'd never been to Austin, so I called my friend Vince Young to ask what to expect. I got to know Vince at the combine and rookie symposium, and we've kept in touch. Vince is Mr. Texas. He said, "Man, whatever you need, just ask someone. Everyone in Texas is nice." He was right.
I started packing for my Monday-morning flight on Saturday. It was supposed to be in the 80s and humid in Texas, but I needed to look professional. If I could, I would dress up for practice every day. It puts me in the mind-set that I'm going to a job and have to take it seriously. My coach Mike Nolan is like that. I respect that about him.
Packing became a dilemma, though. I asked friends for advice on what to wear. I sent text messages to my editor. But I still packed the wrong stuff. I got to Austin with a suitcase full of dress shirts and pants. Meanwhile, Meg wanted me at the field in a collared shirt and shorts. So on Tuesday morning, I drove to the mall and bought khaki shorts, two Nike dry-fit shirts and new Nike shoes. I wasn't going on live TV without looking sharp.
The night before my debut, I shadowed Meg and her staff at the Texas-Rice baseball game. I also did an on-camera interview with the announcers in the booth. On TV, the job looks so easy. Turn on a camera, point it at the field, add graphics. It's not. As the teams warmed up, I walked the field to learn the camera positions and went over story lines with Meg. Then I spent a few hours inside the broadcast truck and learned one important thing: I do not want to work inside a broadcast truck.
The next morning, I met Meg and producer Mike Moore at 8:30 in the hotel restaurant. Meg gave me new media guides, a list of story ideas and background on the women I'd be working with: Beth Mowins and USA Softball outfielder Jessica Mendoza. Then I went back to my room to change. (Navy shirt. Gotta represent Penn State.)
At 11:30, I met up with Mike to tape a man-on-the-street segment. My assignment: get students to sing "The Eyes of Texas." No sweat, right? But it's harder than I thought to get people to talk, much less sing, on camera. At first I was worried how the students would react to me. I mean, I'm not the typical sports reporter. I'm a big black guy with a beard and tattoos covering my arms; I can look intimidating. So I have to smile more—which I did. And it worked. Having an ESPN camera crew with me didn't hurt either.
A few hours before the game, I met Beth and Jessica in the broadcast booth. Beth explained the value of "how" and "why" questions. And Jessica, who worked her first game a year ago, told me to relax and think of this job as if I were playing in a game: You're nervous, but as soon as the game starts, it's all instinct.
On the field for pregame, Meg said, "You look nervous. Most people freeze up the first time they're on TV. Are you nervous?" I wasn't nervous. I was focused. I was thinking about what I had to say when that red light came on. But Jessica was right. Once the game started, I relaxed. I pretended I was back in San Francisco filming The Robinson Report. The only time I wasn't able to relax was when the ball was in play. I was scared to death of getting hit. Those balls are not soft.
That doesn't mean I didn't make mistakes. I called players by the wrong name and messed up a couple tosses to Beth and Jessica. But the tiny earpiece that connected me to the truck and the broadcast booth caused most of my problems. Meg would tell me what to ask, whom to talk to and where to stand. But during the top of the third, as I was interviewing Baylor coach Glenn Moore, my earpiece disconnected just as Meg fed me my second question. Fortunately, Coach Moore was long-winded. By the time he was finished with his answer, I had the earpiece—and Meg—back in my ear. This year, when reporters walk up to me during games, I won't give them such a hard time.
My favorite part of the game was when, in the bottom of the sixth, I went into the stands. I don't get to interact with fans during a game. I sat down next to an older woman in a Longhorns hat who was cheering louder than anyone else. She told me I was the cutest thing she'd ever seen. I asked her if she had a daughter or a granddaughter playing in the game. She said no, she just genuinely loved Texas softball. That amazed me. She could be anywhere, but she chose to be at that game, and enjoyed it even though Texas lost, 5-4. I started thinking about how many fans probably come to 49ers or Penn State games just because they love the program. It's pretty cool that I've had the chance to entertain them for years.
LOOKING BACK AND AHEAD
I've watched softball only when Team USA played during the Olympics. And even then I didn't watch the whole game. But since I got home, when I see a game on TV, I stop and watch. This summer I'll definitely check out Jessica and her team in Beijing.
I didn't tell anyone but my coaches that I was going down to Texas. But when I got back for minicamp, one of my teammates, Jay Moore, said, "Hey, Mike, you didn't tell me you were a commentator, too." He'd been watching the baseball game and saw my interview, so he tuned in the next day to see me work the softball game. He said, "I was surprised. You did better than I thought you would." I said, "Hey, man, I'm talented at more than just football."
This assignment changed the way I view games on TV. I watch knowing there's a team of people making it happen. You see the reporters, but you don't see the producer in their ear and the trucks full of people making sure everything looks smooth to the viewer. It was a great experience, and I can't wait to do it again. But next time, I hope they give me a football game.
Meg Reintjes, ESPNU coordinating producer: "When I first heard Michael was coming, I thought, This is going to be a lot of work. I thought he'd see how much goes into a television show and not want to make the effort. But he was charming, intelligent and, most important, coachable. And for a first-time reporter on live TV, he did exceptionally well. There were little things he could work on—he slouched his shoulders, leaned and talked with his hands, which distracts the viewer. He always knew what he wanted to say, but needed to say it more quickly.
"But things you can't teach—personality, charisma—he has. He was smiling every time we put him on camera, and he came across as very warm, personable, down-to-earth and genuinely pleased to be there. We'd love to use Mike as a college football analyst when he retires. Not that he's in a hurry."