So I’ve been gone for a while, without much explanation, and I’m here to tell you why. Here it goes…
It’s hard to know where to start this story. I’m among the first generation of kids that grew up with ESPN and the morning SportsCenter ever-present in my life. I don’t remember a world without it. It was my favorite thing to watch in the morning, and at night as they would just re-run the late-night SportsCenter over and over again. Without the internet existing as it does today and nowhere else to go for national sports highlights, I was among the many constantly glued to ESPN as a kid.
At some point in high school I started telling people that I was going to anchor SportsCenter some day and did everything to work toward that. I wrote sports for the school newspaper. I got to call games and highlights at the high school student TV station. At the University of Texas, I took Dan Patrick’s advice by writing as much as I could for The Daily Texans before moving on to KVR-TV (later Texas Student Television). I even got to intern at ESPN when I was in college in 2004, covering the College World Series in Omaha. Among my friends, I was in that first group to intern as many more would follow. Seeking a future on-air, my path would be different from theirs, though, as many of them are already working behind the scenes in Bristol with really impressive titles doing really awesome stuff.
As for myself, I toiled away in small markets as a sports anchor and reporter. I spent two years in Odessa (the center of the high school football universe) and another two years in El Paso, getting my reps in, working to get better and better, completely focused on my work.
My time in El Paso didn’t last long, though. I left before I was ready to leave and moved to San Antonio where I could sleep on couches of family members and friends while I got back on my feet because no job leads led to any offers.
At some point, one of my best friends put me in touch with the editors of a new magazine called Playmaker Magazine. Adam and Brad are amazing editors that helped me find my voice and challenged me to be a team player and think creatively, as I churned out hundreds of articles per year thanks to the magazine’s shift from print to daily digital, all the while doing other freelance work to pay the bills.
A few years in, I was encouraged to attend a National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) conference in Las Vegas at the encouragement of my old El Paso friend Phillip Mena, who now serves as a reporter for ABC News. I didn’t have the money for the hotel stay, but Phil put me up. So I registered for the conference and used a free flight I had on Southwest Airlines to get to Sin City.
It was there that I met a guy that would change my life: Hugo Balta. At the time he was a coordinating producer at ESPN. He walked up to me and introduced himself because he was running to be the next NAHJ president. A few minutes in and he had my vote. He offered to help me out as I told him about my job history and my desire to get back in the business.
Here’s the thing about guys like Hugo I’ve met in the past: they were all talk. When I would reach out, I’d be lucky if I ever heard back. That wasn’t the case with Hugo, who was always happy to reply to a Facebook message or email. I showed him my demo reel and he told me about the improvements he wanted to see. At a regional conference in San Antonio a couple of months later, I showed it to him. He thought it was great and introduced me to people that could help me out. But the ultimate introduction would come a year later.
In 2013, I showed up to the NAHJ conference in Anaheim. It was going to be epic. My sister lived in town and we were gonna go to Disney together and spend more time together than we had in a while. I met some amazing people at that conference, but none more jaw-droppingly surreal than Al Jaffe.
For people like myself, who watched SportsCenter for the personalities as much as the highlights, Al Jaffe is an ESPN legend. Just about every story about every legendary SportsCenter anchor begins with his name. I don’t remember exactly what Hugo said when he introduced me to Mr. Jaffe, but I remember it was almost embarrassingly glowing: How could I possibly live up to that? Surely he’ll scoff within the first few seconds of seeing my reel.
Somehow, he got through it and was impressed enough to ask me to send him more. Right after I got home from the conference, that was my first assignment. My good friend Jon, an editing wiz and just about the only person I know who has Final Cut Pro on his personal computer, helped me put something together to send out. Less than a week later, I basically had an out-of-body experience when I heard back from him:
We want to fly you up for an audition.
I couldn’t believe it. But somehow my rational mind took over and reminded me of a really important factor: “Dude, you haven’t been on the air in three years.”
I tried hitting my friends up over at Fox 7 in Austin, but as much as they wanted to help, they couldn’t. I needed a news director’s help: someone that had control of a newsroom and, more importantly, a control room. I called my old reality show friend from El Paso, Jose Gaona. He was happy to accommodate me all the way back in Odessa. With the help of my old producer, Gary, I was able to put together some highlights and present them on the air.
It was exciting. On top of feeling good to be on camera again, I thought it would be a great addition to my reel! Then I had a look at it when it was over. In two words, I could only describe it as awful and unusable. It was a really long drive to basically say hello to friends that I hadn’t seen in about five years, and that was it. It wasn’t encouraging. My determination only kicked in the next day, though. I studied everything that went wrong, down to every second, every word, every cue, every forced catchphrase… I left no hack-stone unturned.
Unfortunately, I ran into a bump in the road. Two weeks before I was scheduled to fly out, I began developing abscesses in my throat. One had popped up a year before, but now they were coming one on top of another. Simply having one removed wasn’t enough, I needed to have surgery and have my tonsils removed. I would’ve been pushing it to recover in time to go, but thankfully Mr. Jaffe wanted me at my best and set aside a few weeks for me to have the surgery and recover.
In an amazing gesture, the day before I had my final check-up to be cleared by the doctor that performed the surgery (an OU fan who showcased his Adrian Peterson-signed football), Mr. Jaffe reached out to me. The next day, I told him I was cleared and we scheduled my visit.
I flew out on November 11th. Usually when I travel, I have trouble sleeping. But having been so used to getting lots of sleep after my surgery, I was fine. I remember getting my rental car and the guy behind the desk seeing that it was an ESPN account and asked what I was doing there. I told him and he wished me luck.
The ESPN campus had changed since 2004, when I interned there. It was much bigger. You could see all the new digital HD studios and buildings under construction. The biggest change was the convention center hotel that was now right next to campus, which is where they put me up. The room was posh, but I didn’t linger there too long. I went down to the bar to watch Monday Night Football. I was hungry and wanted to relax. Plus, I’d seen Mike Ditka walk by earlier and wanted to watch the game with him.
I felt like I was in a “This is SportsCenter” commercial. There’s Mike Ditka watching the Bears at his own table. George Karl was watching basketball on a much smaller TV at the bar. It’s like going to Disney and seeing Mickey and Minnie: an immediate reminder that you’re somewhere special.
The Packers won the game, but Aaron Rodgers suffered a shoulder injury that would keep him out for a while: bad news for my fantasy team. Right before the game ended, I headed back to the room because I had an important call to make, someone that offered to talk to me before my audition: Robert Flores.
Robert’s a friend of another one of my mentors. Kevin West worked with him at CBS in Austin before Robert moved on to ESPN. He’d connected us before. Mr. Flores took the time to talk to me when I was in El Paso and offered to talk to me before my audition. I was glad that I did. While he didn’t have an audition like the one I was about to go through, he knew people that went through it. His advice: be ready for anything.
I went to sleep with my stuff prepared for the morning: my suit, toiletries, even a special YouTube playlist to get me pumped up and keep me energized early that morning. I got up and had no problem staying on schedule. I was dressed and ready. I ate breakfast and I was pumped as I drove to campus and checked in at the visitors building. They gave me a little sticker with the date and some other codes. I waited to be escorted to the start of my audition…
And that’s when things got interesting.
I gave myself plenty of time to be where I was supposed to be at the appropriate time. In the lead-up to the audition, I’d been in constant communication with Mr. Jaffe’s assistant, giving me all the details of everything I needed to do and what time to be where. Nearly an hour went by before I heard back from anyone. I was just sitting there, reading on my phone, and my nerves were being challenged. Someone finally came to get me and I caught a ride to a separate building where I would finally get started!
It was the wrong building.
They finally got in touch with someone and they took me to the right place. There, Mr. Jaffe’s assistant was waiting and she immediately showed me a few things, but quickly introduced me to the producer that I would be working with to write and present my audition material. There wasn’t much time for pleasantries. Because of the delays, I only had about 90 minutes to put two segments together instead of the normal three hours.
I don’t know whether this was supposed to be a test, but it felt like a test.
I worked at a desk across from the producer and we shot ideas back and forth. I was going to call Packers-Bears highlights with all the ESPN bells and whistles, which would be fun. There were also some basketball and hockey highlights as well as a scheduled phone interview with ESPN’s Cincinnati Bengals NFL nation writer. My producer thought I had an awesome idea to talk about the Richie Incognito-Miami Dolphins stuff with him given the recent history of controversy in the Bengals locker room.
My work area wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, hidden away for auditions only. I was in the heart of the beast. Right next to me, Michael Smith and Jemele Hill were working on their version of Numbers Never Lie, which would later become His and Hers. I managed to stay focused despite sitting next to one of the best female sports writers in the country.
While I was in the waiting area, I tried to think back to all the catchphrases I’d used in Odessa and El Paso. Before you scoff, everyone has catchphrases. They’re more organic than you might think and tell you a lot about the personality of the person you’re watching. Here’s a sample of mine:
Legendary (How I Met Your Mother)
Whoa crazy crazy (Fantasy Focus Football podcast)
Get it on… (Adam Carolla)
Bam, which is a city in Iran (Key & Peele)
I never over-did it with any of these when I was on the air. In fact, Key and Peele wasn’t even on the last time I was on TV. I just thought it would be funny. I didn’t end up using any of them. I still had plenty of fun with my scripts, though, and was able to finish everything under deadline.
It didn’t occur to me that I was going to need makeup. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it. When I finished up with my scripts, I thought I was going to head to the studio with my producer, but I was escorted into a room with three chairs right out of a barber shop. Two women spent time applying layers of makeup on me. It was the most uncomfortable I felt in my time at ESPN. I sat next to anchor Kevin Negandhi while they were doing this, but I was in my own world. They were airbrushing my jaw line in. And I kept flinching whenever they applied powder to my eyes. I’d never done anything like that before! How was I not supposed to flinch!
As soon as that was over with, it was showtime. I went into a small digital studio and everything was there: the cameras, lights, desk, and ESPN logo. I remember thinking back to every other time I’d sat at a desk for the first time in different marks, or been on camera for the first time in a new city. I can still vividly recollect my first on-camera appearance at Newschannel 9 in El Paso. I got goosebumps and felt something in my stomach. And I remember laughing at it. I’d been on camera hundreds of times and done countless sportscasts. It was silly for me to react that way.
At ESPN, I can honestly say that my confidence was unwavering. I wasn’t nervous. I was ready. It felt like I was meant to sit in that chair, behind that desk, and represent that logo.
What boosted my confidence must’ve been the producer’s comments before I walked in the studio. He complimented me on how tight and creative my script was, and that something that well-written would translate into a good show. I needed that confidence because, by design, the show didn’t exactly go smoothly.
At one point, I lost the teleprompter, which is something that my mother (a journalism major in college) taught me to always prepare for. It literally happened during my first live broadcast in my first professional job. But this one wasn’t a mistake. They were testing me. I was prepared. At the end of the segment, they told me to kill a highlight package and read some breaking news before throwing to commercial.
After the “commercial break,” I came back and did the interview with the Bengals beat writer. It was going really well until his phone started cutting out. Knowing that I was going to have to dump out of it and move on, I put my hand up letting the director know that I was ready to do that as soon as he was. When I got the signal, I apologized for the poor call quality and threw to break.
The director and producer both shook my hand and congratulated me after I was done. They were quite impressed with the way I handled the things that went wrong, including the unexpected ones. Apparently, the phone problem was unplanned.
Comparatively, the rest of the day was pretty easy. I was shuttled around and interviewed with several producers in different departments, few of whom had a chance to see my audition material before they talked to me. It was fun. I got to have lunch with Al Jaffe and another senior recruiter. With the pressure off, I even got to meet Stephania Bell. I was so much more relaxed and, as a fan of ESPN media on so many platforms, I felt incredibly prepared for everything and had thoughts on what was going on in sports and how it would relate to the different platforms.
After it was all over, I remember feeling so happy as I drove back to the airport to drop off my rental car. Same dude helped me out.
“How did it go?”
My response is one that I’ve used to describe my experience to the few people I’ve told before writing this: “I couldn’t have imagined it going any better.”
Yeah, maybe it could’ve gone smoother with how long I was waiting, and that may have given me a chance to interview longer with the producers. I might’ve been able to write the show better, but people were impressed with the writing anyway.
What’s funny is that the experience made me look at a bunch of things in a whole new light. Even little things like the way I connect with characters in movies. This is going to sound weird, but I have a completely different opinion about this scene from Rounders since my audition:
“I sat with the best in the world… and I won.”
That experience gave me new resolve to get back on TV and keep reaching for that shot at working at ESPN some day. It was tough not hearing back for a while and trying to keep up, but I kept at it. I kept looking to return to a newsroom and do sports, which would make it easier to get fresh material for my reel and make myself a more valuable asset for them to acquire. Hugo helped me with that too. Other media friends I’d made said not to get discouraged as it took them a few years (and sometimes more than one audition) to get the call to the show.
Then, finally, a breakthrough.
A few weeks ago at a conference in Orlando, I was meeting with TV stations who were looking for digital and on-air talent. I met with the news director at KENS 5 in San Antonio. Go figure, I travel all the way to south Florida for an opportunity in the city I’m already living in. He says they’re expanding their digital presence and need a sports specialist that can write and present stories, highlights, and analysis.
To make a long story short (too late), this will be my last column for Playmaker Magazine. I’ll write one more piece, formally thanking all the people that made this possible and that’ll be all. There’s a possibility I’ll stop in occasionally to write some TV or movie stuff, maybe even a sports piece here or there, but the days of churning out dozens of articles every month are over.
Heck, I’ve already got pieces running at KENS 5. Posted my first short one today. More will follow as my presence expands on the digital and sports side. I’m still learning all about the systems they use and protocol for posting and editing other people’s content so that I can branch out on my own soon (just in time for San Antonio Spurs basketball!).
But I just wanted to share a piece of me; an amazing experience that was as close to my lifelong dream as I’ve ever come. And it was all thanks to you, the Playmaker Magazine audience, that made this all possible.