Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows I’m not shy about calling out ESPN when something irks me. From the Barry Bonds reality show to the killing off of Playmakers, the nation’s leading sports network can certainly make some perplexing moves.
Bringing forth Trey Wingo, however, isn’t one of them.
The host of NFL Live (as well as an occasional SportsCenter co-host), Wingo is—for my money—one of the absolute best in the business. His knowledge is impressive, his style straightforward and devoid of excessive goofiness. In many ways, he reminds me of some of the classic sportscasters I used to watch as a kid—Sal Marciano, Jerry Girard, Len Berman. Deliver the information, deliver it in a pleasing way … and allow the details to speak for themselves. In other words: Be a pro.
Here, in the 112th Quaz, Trey addresses his funkadelic last name and his rise to ESPN stardom; the joy of football Sundays and the one question he’d feel compelled to ask Melissa Manchester. You can follow Trey on Twitter here, and (obviously) see him regularly on ESPN.
Trey Wingo, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Trey, so you’ve been at ESPN a long time, which allows me to ask this question: How are you not absolutely sick of sports? I left Sports Illustrated after less than six years because the day-to-day of athletics was sorta melting my brain. How doesn’t it melt yours? How do you still care about Bronocs-Chiefs, or Eli Manning’s QB rating, or—dear God—Tim Tebow? How are you not burnt to a crisp?
TREY WINGO: Well, first of all you’re assuming I have a brain that could be burnt to a crisp. The only other thing I can say is that I love what I do … truly. I’ve always been a huge NFL fan. It’s been my favorite sport as long as I can remember. As a kid I used to have these Super Bowl parties where I’d sit down with notes and break down the games like I was a scout or something. And when my father and I couldn’t talk about anything, we could talk about football—so there’s that, too. One of my favorite memories as a teenager was me and my friend Sam driving to Shea Stadium in December of 1980 in a snowstorm to watch the Saints play the Jets. Sam was/is a huge Saint fan … and that was their only win all year. We still laugh about that trip to this day—calling it “bedlam.”
J.P.: Back in the day, sportscasters were sportscasters. They did the televised report, went home, did it again the next day. Nowadays, it seems many of you become celebrities. There are endorsement opportunities, video game cameos, etc. As a journalist, I’m sort of uncomfortable with seeing Chris Berman pitching grub; Erin Andrews dancing with the stars. It just seems … wrong. Am I off here? Am I confusing one thing for another? Or is there something to be said for just doing the sports, and doing it very well?
T.W.: I can’t say if you’re off or not—that’s how you feel. But I don’t think this is something new … Howard Cosell used to do Fruit of the Loom commercials. I think that’s a decision everyone makes for themselves. I think perhaps it feels different now because there are so many opportunities for so many people thanks to cable, etc. But I am certainly all for free enterprise. I think everybody has to decide what they’re comfortable doing, but the bottom line is that our main gig is to do the sports we cover justice and do them to the best of our ability.
J.P.: When I was thinking about this earlier today, I grouped you in my head with Bob Ley, a man who can do little wrong in my book. You guys don’t rely on catch phrases, gimmicks, nonsense. You’re smart, straight-ahead, professional. I’m wondering, though—when you were coming up, out of college and through the ranks, was there pressure to be goofy, catchy funky, etc? Is it something a broadcaster has to avoid?
T.W.: Well, first of all thanks for that. I consider Bob a great friend and am proud to call him a colleague. Bob and I spent a lot of time together on SportsCenter in the days after 9/11 and those are days I’ll never forget. As far as catch phrases go … it’s really whatever works for you. However I think many people would certainly say I’ve done my share of goofy stuff. Just recently when the news came out the Bears were using helmet cams during their OTAS to see if it could provide them with any useful tape. In the segment we did on it I wore a helmet with a helmet cam on it the entire time, and we inter-spliced helmet cam video in to show people what it would look like. Plus I did ride the Romocoaster a couple of years ago … that wasn’t exactly highbrow. I think you try and do things you think the viewer will like and give them some information at the same time. On good days you can do both in a creative way.
J.P.: Your dad, Hal, was a founding editor of People Magazine. This fascinates me. What do you recall, growing up the son of a journalist? What memories stand out? And how much of an impact did that/he have on your career choice?
T.W.: I knew my dad had a different job when we lived in Hong Kong for three years when he was the bureau chief for the Vietnam War for Life Magazine. He would go sometimes weeks at a time into the bush and then come back with amazing stories. I always found his career interesting and certainly it shaped in some way the kind of things I wanted to do. When he was at People once every few months I’d take the train into work with him to the Time Life Building and follow him around at the office. It was very cool to see the editors work with the staff on how to put together the magazine each week. And his stories as a reporter for Life before that were epic. Talk about how times have changed: They once sent my dad and a photographer to Alaska to discover the 49th state and basically said, “Stay for a month and see what you can come up with.” How great is that?
J.P.: What separates the crap from the good from the great sportscasters? Is it natural skill? Work ethic? What?
T.W.: I’m still trying to figure that one out day by day. I think you have to have an inclination to do what we do, but I can also tell you when I look back at some of my earliest tapes, I wonder how the hell did anyone hire me. Repetition breeds success, as Malcolm Gladwell so expertly pointed out in Outliers. Very few people are so gifted they can do this right away. It’s like playing quarterback or hitting a golf ball: reps reps reps. Ben Hogan was asked the secret to his swing and he said, “It’s in the dirt”—meaning hitting a bazillion balls on the range. That being said I’ve lost a bazillion golf balls despite my best efforts. So natural talent does count for something.
J.P.: From start to finish, what are your Sundays like during the NFL season?
T.W.: Honestly? They’re awesome. Up early, watching all the games, taking notes all day, Tweeting about games and writing scripts. What’s better than that? Sunday is the payoff for all the stuff we do all week on NFL LIVE. It’s like a 17-week Christmas.
J.P.: I know you grew up in Connecticut, I know you (oddly) attended Baylor, I know about your pop. But how, really, did this happen? There are 1,000,001 aspiring sports journalists who wish to follow your path. Well, Trey, what was your path? How did this happen?
T.W.: I still don’t know. My first job out of school was as a page at NBC in 30 Rock (insert Kenneth joke here). I made a tape, sent it out—amazingly got hired … went from Binghamton, N.Y. to Allentown, PA to St. Louis, Mo. to here. The weird thing is that while I was in St. Louis I got a call from ESPN about a job and I hadn’t even sent them a tape. The hard thing to tell people wanting to get in this business is that there is no “correct” path. It’s a very subjective thing. You can’t really say “Do this this and this and you’ll get this.” The best advice I can give is be persistent and only take no for an answer if they threaten to arrest you for stalking.
J.P.: Trey, I’m gonna throw an oddball at you. Last night the wife and I watched a lengthy documentary on the pink ribbon breast cancer phenomenon, and how all these corporations use pink ribbons to show how much they care—when, really, it’s about profit. You are a member of the celebrity board of the Ronald McDonald House—a charity many people love and admire; a charity that does great work. Yet McDonald’s also sells some of the planet’s least healthy food, under-pays employees, magically appears in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, feeding the population enormous sodas and twice-fried nuggets. My question, Trey, is whether one should be skeptical of the motives of enormous corporations also doing good things, or whether we should just be grateful for the good—no questions asked.
T.W.: Again, I think that’s up to the individual. Let me share my reasoning with you. When we lived in St. Louis our best friends lost one of their kids to cancer at the age of 7. When he was at his worst, they stayed at the Ronald McDonald House while he was going through his treatments. I’ve seen the good they can do and the help and support they were able to provide. Both my father in law and my father dealt with prostate cancer, so that’s why I’ve worked with prostate cancer foundations. I work with The V Foundation because my mother is a proud breast cancer survivor, my father in law passed away from pancreatic cancer and my aunt passed away from leukemia. The V Foundation is an absolute good, and I’m happy to do whatever I can for them.
J.P.: As you mentioned earlier, on September 11, 2001, you and Bob hosted the day’s lone SportsCenter. What do you recall from the experience?
T.W.: First word—surreal. The attacks happened as I was driving into work, and for the first half of the day everyone was trying to figure out what we were going to do, and what we should do. Eventually we decided to go on and report the stories and how it impacted our genre, sports. I think that was the right thing to do. Bob and I actually spent that entire week doing shows together. We still talk about it quite a bit.
J.P.: I’ve recently made the argument that talking about/debating sports is significantly more interesting than watching sports. Agree? Disagree? And why?
T.W.: I’ll go with debating sports while watching it for 400, Alex. Look, for a guy who covers the NFL Draft for a month where, you know, nothing actually happens, of course I think debating sports is fun and interesting. It’s great fodder. But nothing beats watching something unfold. A few months ago we watched Game 7 between the Leafs and Bruins go into overtime. Really, I’m not sure there are many things better than that. Edge-of-your-seat stuff.
• Dumbest comment anyone has ever made about your unique last name?: “Why did you name yourself that?” Clearly … I DIDN’T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT.
• What does it feel like—really, really feel like—to screw up on live TV?: When you’re starting out? Like you’ve just witnessed your own funeral. Now you just sort of laugh it off, admit you goofed and move on.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Tom Mees, Bryn Smith, Caldor, Papaya King, George Jones, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Grantland, Kree Harrison, newspapers on print, J.R. Richard, saltine crackers, red wine, Linda McMahon: Not even remotely possible, but The Possum could crank out some ballads, couldn’t he?
• If we give you 25 carries in an NFL game, what’s your statistical line?: 1 carry, -3 yards and sports hernia.
• Five greatest sportscasters of your lifetime?: Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Pat Summerall, Chris Berman and Champ Kind. WHAMMY!
• At ESPN you guys are called “The Talent.” What would be the ideal moniker, if you’re called in to make a new one?: Person on TV whose face comes into the picture box at your house. Too long?
• Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds—Hall of Fame or not?: Yes.
• One question you’d ask Melissa Manchester were she here right now?: Why can’t I cry out loud?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yep. In 1990. The plane tried to land at Westchester Airport for about 40 minutes before we got on the ground. Wind was howling, crew was saying nothing. That’s how we knew there was an issue. The sense of uneasiness for everyone on board was palpable. It took me about three years to feel good about being on a plane again.
• How many hours of TV per day do your kids watch? And are they still excited to see you on the tube?: A couple of hours. I got a text from my daughter who’s in college yesterday that said “i see you on tv.” Best part of my day.