Today is my last day at ESPN.
It’s been three months and a day since I first learned that my contract would not be renewed after 4 ½ years at the company, and it’s still difficult to think about – much less type and see on a screen. It’s made for a very challenging summer and early fall.
To be clear, there are far worse crises than losing your job. Just in the past few weeks, a friend’s dad passed away, another friend continues to wage war against cancer and another friend’s pending adoption fell through when the birth mother changed her mind. I’ve hurt for those friends, praying that they’d find peace in the face of pain.
Though no comparison, this hurt has been rather profound for me. At age 15, when I started down a sports journalism path, I dreamed of one day working for ESPN. I watched “SportsCenter,” thinking, “Man, what if I were sitting on that set one day? Could I do that? Could that be me?” This was something shared by most 1990s kids who loved sports (and those who recognized their own athletic shortcomings).
But it actually happened for me. I graduated with a journalism degree from Tennessee, interning at The Sun in Baltimore and ESPN the Magazine, then in New York. As a student, I also worked for the newspapers in Chattanooga and Nashville. I then slowly climbed a professional ladder, going rung by rung at various newspapers. Along the way, by the age of 30, I had been a beat reporter for the Atlanta Braves, South Carolina Gamecocks and Oklahoma Sooners.
Then one January afternoon in 2012, I was sitting in a drive-thru line in Norman, Okla., when I received a call from an 860 area code. The woman, a vibrant and funny woman named Maureen, asked if I’d be interested in interviewing for a national college football job at ESPN. I flew to Connecticut the next week and received an offer about a month later. It was one of the very best days of my life. I also met my wife that same week. It was quite an eventful time!
Professionally, it was a literal dream come true. So, naturally, I’m deeply disappointed that it’s over. But I’m also left so grateful for the things I was able to see and do in in the past 4 ½ years.
Two falls back, Scott Van Pelt, who has been so kind to me and become a friend, asked if I wanted to do a hit on the 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” with him. I had done the show a couple of times before, but there was something different about being on the primetime show – and following “Monday Night Football,” at that. I walked into the green room, where I’d wait for my segment as the NFL game continued, and I was greeted by Chris Berman. Berman asked where I was from and what I thought about the company and Connecticut.
He sat down on the couch and stretched out.
“You know,” he told me, “I never get to just sit down and watch a game.”
And he did. We watched the second half of the game, just me and this guy I’d grown up watching on my TV. He treated me like a peer, and we were peers. That was such cool moment – and that was before I did the “SportsCenter” segment, which was surreal in its own right.
Some people who work at ESPN – many, really – love to dump on Bristol, Connecticut. Granted, I never lived there, but I never, ever minded going to our headquarters. You just never knew what was going to happen; it was a place of unlimited, random adventure if you were open to it.
The last time I was there, my friend Ian and I wound up having a beer with Ozzie Guillen and telling baseball stories. (Really, we just listened as Ozzie told baseball stories.)
Another time, I once convinced a conference official to ride the mechanical bull at Cadillac Ranch. As an aside, I’ve always found it amazing that one of the weirdest, best country bars I’ve ever been to is located in Southington, Connecticut.
- Jerry Rice said hi to me in a stairwell once. “Oh. Hi, Jerry Rice!”
- Trey Wingo made fun of my loafers in that same stairwell. “Thanks, Trey!”
- Skip Bayless once told me he reads every one of my stories. He also sent me an unprompted text last Christmas Eve, wishing me a happy holiday. “Same to you, Skip!”
Point is, top to bottom, it’s a company filled with terrific people. I could not believe how genuine and warm most everyone was to me. That extends to well-known folks such as Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo and Kirk Herbstreit and Rece Davis, but it goes well beyond them to names and faces you might not know as well.
My sincere thanks goes out to …
… integral “SportsCenter” producers such as Will Tomlinson, who will relentlessly work his face off to get you on air – because he cares that much about content. He sent such nice, unexpected notes about stories I’d written. I appreciated those, Will.
… top-notch CFB game producers such as Josh Hoffman, who trusted me early on and made me feel like I was truly part of the Thursday night crew. You did not have to do that, but it meant a lot to a newcomer to the company. Thank you. And that reminds me of my first year, when Rece, David Pollack and Jesse Palmer picked up dinner for Samantha Ponder and I in Seattle, sneaking behind our backs to pay before we even realized what was happening.
… ambitious and bright CFB studio folks such as Aaron Katzman, Claire Atkins and Drew Gallagher, who believed in me and encouraged my growth on the TV side. I learned so much from you by watching and being part of your shows.
… to a digital video renaissance man such as Phil Murphy, who works both diligently and humbly. And who is unafraid to wear his faith on his sleeve. I admire that greatly, Phil. Your graceful spirit does not go unnoticed.
… give-you-the-shirt-off-their-back people such as “Stanford” Steve Coughlin, for opening doors and being one of the first people at ESPN to make me feel like family. You welcoming me that first fall meant so much to me. Still does. Even if it’s weird to see you wearing a suit jacket on TV. Keep giving us winners, Big Man.
… podcast producers such as Josh Macri, who has a terrific attitude every single day he comes to work, bringing that infectious energy to his shows. Every company needs more Josh Macris. I’ll miss doing ridiculous ad readers as you howl laughing, Josh.
… fantastic writers and reporters such as Andrea Adelson, the CFB group’s Mama Bear. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you better in the past year. I’m in awe of your sense of loyalty and ability to encourage and care for those around you. She’s representative of an incredibly talented stable of writers; I was fortunate to work in a group with such diverse experience and skill.
… Ray Necci, the fantastic radio producer who gave me a ticket to Landon Donovan’s last game for the U.S. I had just landed in Hartford, hustled to the stadium – and Ray literally ran out to my car. He handed me a ticket, a $20 bill for parking and a beer. Ray Necci, you’re a fine American Outlaw and a good friend.
… Jeff Dooley, my first editor who put up with my growing pains and made me a better writer, reporter and ESPN employee. Jeff, you’re doing great, great things at Pro Football Focus. I could not have asked for a better first manager than you, and you’re an even better friend.
I’m leaving out many, many more examples, I am sure. I really don’t intend to slight anyone, but please understand the point: What ESPN produces on a daily basis is fantastic - it is still the best sports media company in the world, contrary to the constant sniping - but it’s the people who make it that way. I know that sounds trite, but it is true.
And I got to be part of that. How could I not be grateful?
For that, I owe a heartfelt thanks to Dooley, Chris Sprow, Nate Ravitz and Dan Kaufman for taking a shot on a 30-year-old Oklahoma beat reporter who had never done anything on a national level. You’re hands down the best leadership and management chain I’ll ever work with and work for. I tried to express that along the way, but I’m sure I took it for granted on some level. Please know that I’ll forever be thankful for that time, for the relationships you helped me to build and for the experiences that you made possible.
I mean, I sat in a quarterback film study meeting with Johnny Manziel. (Yes, he was present and on time.) I stood on the sideline for Kick Six, with Auburn’s Chris Davis sprinting past me and creating the most memorable college football moment of my lifetime. I saw games for the first time at the Horseshoe and the Big House and the Rose Bowl and Lane Stadium and Kyle Field and many other storied venues. I explored many parts of the country I’d never seen and I got to know so many truly good people in the sport.
That was all because of you, Jeff, Chris, Nate and Dan. Thank you for taking that chance on me. I never wanted to let you down. I hope that I didn’t.
A lot of people ask me what happened. In short, while my TV and radio work was going well, my role as a senior writer for ESPN.com – the part of the company that held my contract – was gradually disappearing. I was Michael J. Fox in the “Back to the Future” photo, a slowly-fading-away Marty McFly. It’s a complicated time in journalism and sports journalism, as many of you know. Reporters and editors alike are laboring to convey news and tell stories in effective ways, but technology and other factors have made that something of a moving target. Resources wane and shift depending on the season. So many good people across the country have lost their media jobs in the past decade, and ESPN has been hit particularly hard in the past 18 months. It’s been a difficult time for so many, myself now included in a club that none of us ever wanted to join.
I found out June 29, in another one of those phone calls you do not forget. Dan Kaufman, the person who hired me, volunteered to tell me. I appreciated his honesty and his humanity in that moment. He’s made himself available to help in any way since that day. That’s the type of leader and person he is. I hope you all get a chance to work for someone like Dan someday. If you already do, cherish him or her. It’s rare, leaders who foster good work while truly caring for those doing the work.
Dan and I spoke for about 20 minutes on that Wednesday morning. I had just officiated the wedding of a fellow writer and good friend, Max Olson, and my wife and I were making our way back from Texas. The news landed heavily, as you might expect, and then some zombie version of me operated a car for eight hours until we arrived home in Nashville.
During that drive, my mind cycled through different emotions every few minutes. I was sad, glad, furious, destroyed, inspired, relieved … and around and around that carousel of emotions went. That cycle has continued for three months, with the emotions spacing out, first rotating in hours and then days and then weeks. I’ve found with these painful events that the wound becomes a scar after it has healed; in this case, I’m still on the mend.
Some days are completely fine, as normal as normal has ever been. Some days I’m on fire, a madman driven to find and excel in that next job. Some days, I cannot escape a state of brokenness: I’m a puddle, unable to move or think or function. There have been more good days than bad, but the bad days can be quite dark. And I’m glad to say they’ve mostly been left behind at this point. I’m beyond thankful that my wife Brooke, though she’s been tested by this and by me, has stood in there and worked through it with me. I’m so thankful for her, and our relationship is stronger as a result of this trial.
If I can offer any advice in this position, it’s this: Please, take a moment and look in the mirror. Examine what you see. Are you holding onto something so fiercely, digging in your heels, that you’re risking the loss of things – and people – vastly more valuable? Because that was me. I have perspective now that I did not before. Through this time, I have been able to assess and re-establish my priorities. I feel happy and free, genuinely excited for what’s next.
So here I am, 35 years old and ready to move into the next big thing. I’m humbled. I’ve had time to create and develop a deep pool of ideas, some of which I’ve already been reporting on. I’ve got the stories. I just need somewhere to tell them. I’m so eager to work. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, is to find purpose in writing and storytelling.
My one and only job requirement is staying in Nashville. That may limit the options to some extent, but it’s vitally important to both Brooke and me. Since meeting one another in spring 2012, we’ve changed cities – and parts of the country – four different times. We love Nashville, and we’re committed to it for the long run. We do not want to leave this great home that we’ve found. We truly believe we’re here for specific, divinely appointed reasons; we’re going to see that through.
Also, to my wonderful friends: Thank you for every kind and encouraging word you all have spoken to me and to Brooke in the past three months. Thank you for listening when I needed an ear. Thank you for your wise counsel. It is not a cliché that you find out who your true friends are in moments like this. I appreciate every call and text, every offer to help. It means so much. I’m an incredibly blessed person with an unbelievable support structure.
As soon as Dan told me I was being let go, I walked in and broke the news to Brooke. “We’ll be defined by how we respond to this,” I told her. “It isn’t what happens to you that matters; it’s your response.”
I’ve struggled with that at times. I have not been perfect, or anything close to it.
But I’m still here, striving to do better and be better. I’m still here, hopeful for a future that’s brighter than even my teenage dream come true. I still believe the best is yet to come, through God’s perfect plan for my life.
Thank you, ESPN, for the opportunity, the memories and friendships. Here’s to the next chapter.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” – Galatians 6:9