It was 30 below on New Year’s Eve 1993 when Michele Tafoya arrived in Minneapolis for a job at KFAN sports radio. Silently, the California girl vowed to stay no more than a year.
“Then spring came, and it was a revelation,” she says, perched at her kitchen island in Edina. “This brown-and-white world changed to green, and blue, and yellow. I’m seeing tulips! I’m seeing baby ducklings walk across the street!”
Tafoya, now 52, is known worldwide for her sports reporting and Olympics coverage, yet has remained in Minnesota. Each Sunday night during the pro football season, she describes scenes the way she described spring, striking a sweet spot between concrete reporting and authentic enthusiasm to leave a viewer feeling informed, but also charmed.
She’s a nimble veteran of “NBC Sunday Night Football,” catching the “let’s go to the sidelines” hot potato from booth maestro Al Michaels — who knows that she’s cornered the guy who just tackled/received/sacked/scored for 20 seconds of illumination — before tossing it back to him in the microsecond before the next play commences.
You want stats? The team of Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Tafoya was honored in August by the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a record six consecutive TV seasons as prime-time television’s top-rated show. Her ability would be impressive in any career, let alone one where she’s a rare female in a man’s world.
Her mother, Wilma, who still lives in California, expected as much.
“From the age of 3, Michele was putting on shows for her sisters and brothers and me,” she says, recalling how her youngest used the entry landing of their modest home “like a little stage. She’d ask for our attention while she did her thing — tell a story, sing a song.
“She wanted to be another Meryl Streep,” she says. “She wanted to win an Oscar, become a serious actress.”
Yet if you were casting a movie about Tafoya, you’d sign Sandra Bullock. She has Tafoya’s tomgirl-next-door appeal, the level gaze that doubles as a force field, the throaty laugh that reassures you it’s all in fun.
On air, Tafoya has to bellow through the background noise, but even at home, her low alto conveys authority.
Well, except when her son’s friends sit around the kitchen island talking sports. “I’ll say, ‘What about … ?’ and they just look at me, then keep talking,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Here, I’m a mom.”
Making it in a man’s world
Tafoya shuffles from her front door to the kitchen, her right foot still infuriatingly in a boot. Weeks earlier on spring break, she’d tripped over a trundle bed at a friend’s home. What she thought was a sprain turned out to be a break requiring 11 pins. “I’m not healing as fast as when I was younger,” she says, with a slight smirk.
And there it is, a soft lob easy as a shovel pass, advancing the conversation to its inevitable goal, signaling that she expects the questions about age and gender, being a woman in a man’s world, balancing parenthood and celebrity.
OK, then: Will a woman ever move from sideline reporting — there have been several others besides Tafoya — to doing play-by-play in the booth alongside the likes of Michaels?
Up until a few weeks ago, Tafoya would have said, nope, not gonna happen. Then Beth Mowins made history on Sept. 11 by becoming the first woman in 30 years to call an NFL game for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” with Rex Ryan.
Yet however the landscape may change, Tafoya remains focused on the role she’s pursued, keeping her feet on the field. “I knew I’d be one of the few, few women in this business. I was determined to think of myself as a sports reporter, not as a female sports reporter. I just wasn’t going to make a big deal about that.”
Granted, radio keeps you invisible. “As soon as you go on TV, it changes — for men and women.”
Yet don’t expect Tafoya to mention any “Looking hot, Michele!” whoops lobbed from the stands. That info comes from Michaels, who, from the bubble of his broadcast booth, sees the reality, and marvels.
“I call her the Supreme Michele Tafoya,” he says. “You have 20, 30, maybe 40 seconds down there, and you have to get everything in a way that’s cogent and interesting and right — you gotta get it right — and she’s down there on the field bearing the burden of the weather, the catcalls coming from the stands, and she has to keep calm and cool.
“In all the years I’ve worked with her, she’s never missed.”
Michaels waves off any tension around gender. “I’ve always liked women getting opportunities in this business. But it’s all about if you can do the job. I don’t even think of it in other terms. I can’t think of anyone, man or woman, who could do that job as perfectly.”
And then, because he’s Al Michaels, comes a story. Jacoby Jones, a wide receiver for the Baltimore Ravens — Tafoya would mention here that his 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVII is the longest run in Super Bowl history — once ended an on-air interview with, “Thanks, gorgeous.”
“So of course we all had to call her gorgeous for the next several days,” Michaels says, then practically sighs. “She’s the cat’s meow.”
Choosing her own destiny
Tafoya grew up in a middle-class household in Manhattan Beach, Calif., today a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. In the 1960s, not so much.
Her parents had a “Depression-era mind-set where you save everything. ‘Hey, don’t throw that can away because we can make a Christmas decoration out of it.’ I’m not kidding. Egg cartons — you can put some ribbon on them and there you go!”
She laughs, then quickly sobers. “I don’t want to sound like we were destitute.” Yet she suspects that life on the receiving end of hand-me-downs from three older siblings “motivated me to do something where I could choose my own destiny.”
Tafoya has spoken freely of another way she sought control, developing an eating disorder in her teens. She chalks it up to living among California-girl standards, but also to her perfectionism.
Her late father, Orlando, was an engineer and sports fanatic, the TV constantly tuned to some game, match, tournament or meet. Michele took fandom for the San Francisco 49ers to a pitch that confounded her friends.
When her father got laid off from his job, “it was a time that made her bond with him even stronger,” her mother says. “I was working as a substitute teacher then, so she was home and saw her father kind of desperate at times.”
Little wonder, then, that once Tafoya earned a business degree with an eye toward the entertainment industry, she took the first job that came along — across the country at a small sports radio station in North Carolina.
“You feel like you’re always going to be in a big city like L.A.,” Tafoya says. “But Charlotte was the first to offer me a job.” There, as Mickey Conley — the surname Tafoya was considered too ethnic — she was drive-time host at WAQS. After she did a report for KFAN, the Minneapolis station offered her a job. The timing was excellent.
“This was when the Timberwolves were coming to town, so my business education came in handy,” she says. “I could decipher a spreadsheet and income streams.”
Her career since seems to have touched all the big stations and events: CBS, ESPN, ABC, NBC, the Olympics in Nagano, Sydney and Rio, “Monday Night Football,” “Sunday Night Football,” plus, locally, WCCO, KQRS, KFAN. She’s covered golf, basketball, softball, football, even rhythmic gymnastics.
In 2000, she married Mark Vandersall, a financial analyst in Minneapolis, after a mutual friend introduced them. Vandersall was a former baseball player for the University of Minnesota, and his father was a defensive coordinator for the Gophers who “bled maroon and gold.”
They were intent on a family, but Tafoya had two miscarriages. Then she miscarried with twins. In vitro fertilization worked, and Tyler, now 11, was born. She kept working at ESPN, getting plum assignments and working as sideline reporter for “Monday Night Football.” But she was gone far more than she was home. One day in 2008, while at a pumpkin patch with Tyler, her cellphone rang.
“It was about my NBA contract, and here I am watching this little boy toddling through the pumpkins — and I realized it’s not worth it,” she says. She worried about the consequences of stepping back from her wide-ranging ESPN duties, but “they were good about it.”
In 2009, the Vandersalls adopted Olivia as a newborn from Colombia. After a sabbatical of sorts, Tafoya returned to work because that’s what she does: work.
Speaking last year to female Vikings staff as part of a new “Women of the Vikings” initiative, Tafoya said that when she drops Olivia off at school each morning, she says, “Don’t be afraid to be … ” and lets Olivia finish the sentence: “… great.”
The legacy of Phyllis George
In 1972, a congressional act — Title IX — halted discrimination in funding for sports programs (and other activities) for girls and women. Two years later, CBS hired the first female network sportscaster, Phyllis George.
With dimples deep as divots, George soon joined “The NFL Today” with Brent Musberger, although her fame as Miss America 1971 tended to eclipse her football acumen. Still, the wall was breached.
Others followed, notably Lesley Visser, a respected sportswriter for the Boston Globe when she joined CBS in 1984 and who earned a slew of “first woman to cover …” almost every big-deal sports event.
The “firsts” have faded, a sign of progress, says Fred Gaudelli, producer of “Sunday Night Football.” “Regardless of what your gender or anything else is, if the quality of the performance isn’t up to a very high standard, then you probably don’t have the right person in the job,” he says.
OK, let’s flip the question: Is there an advantage to having a female on the broadcast team?
“Do I feel in a telecast that everyone should have someone to relate to? Sure,” Gaudelli says. “Old, young, male, female — it’s great when that happens. I think there are plenty of women who admire Michele and can relate to her.
“But at the end of the day, it’s a football audience and they want their football presented in the best possible fashion.”
So you wanna be a sideline reporter?
People assume Tafoya has a cushy job. “On game day, I run into people and they’ll say, ‘Hey, you get in last night?’ and I’m like,” — and here you have to imagine Bullock’s steely gaze in “The Blind Side” — “ ‘No, I’ve been here for three days.’ ”
Let’s break it down:
Tuesday, she starts reading everything about Sunday night’s teams, making notes in a thick, bookmarked notebook that she shows with obvious reluctance, guarded about just anyone eyeing her system.
By Wednesday, she knows which players she wants to interview, and a Thursday conference call with Gaudelli and the sideline producer solidifies the plan. “We need to be buttoned down like nothing,” she says. “Say, if there’s a domestic violence angle to a player, we need the police reports.” That night, she flies into the game city.
All the while, she’s also made meals, done the family laundry, attended the kids’ school or sports activities, played chauffeur. Oh, and four mornings a week she’s on-air (remotely from her house) as part of Tom Barnard’s KQRS crew, although that schedule ebbs during football season.
On Friday, she watches practice for a couple of hours, then it’s back to the hotel to study game films.
Saturday is interviews and edits, then a night meeting of the broadcast team.
Sunday begins with hair and makeup “which takes longer these days,” she says, laughing. “You’ve got to have hair that can withstand the elements,” she says, requiring mega-mousse and a curling iron. By the time her stylist is done, “I look like Shirley Temple, but it’s already started to fall by the time I hit the sidelines.”
She chooses her own wardrobe, careful not to wear either team’s colors. At the preseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium between the Vikings and the 49ers, that meant edgy navy leather pants and a chic pink tweed jacket.
Three hours before airtime, she’s at the stadium in sensible sneakers for the treks between sidelines. By the time the final score is put to bed, she’s not far behind. Oh, and to anyone Twitter-tiquing her performance via @michele_tafoya, she doesn’t check it.
Monday morning, it’s back to Minnesota and the afternoon off “to decompress.”
Tuesday, the drill begins again.
‘You gotta keep doing it’
Fame is double-edged.
This summer, Tafoya introduced and led a Q&A with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as part of a women’s leadership summit. Yet photos of her feet also are on a fetishy celebrity website.
She made news in 2003 pouring beer over two fans below her box at the Metrodome during a trash-talking dust-up at a Gophers game. But she responded with a public apology.
She’s signed for four more seasons with NBC and is on tap for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Still, she says, “there will a be a point where I don’t want to feel like I’m aging on camera. But I understand that I’m a role model for middle-aged women. The moms at school say, ‘We love seeing you on TV. You gotta keep doing it.’ ”
On the sidelines among all the men — so many men! — Tafoya scribbles notes on her iPad, remaining expressionless no matter the play. She’s a student of Stoicism, a Greek philosophy that values reason over emotions. One of her favorite books is Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle is the Way,” which says we are defined by how we respond to barriers.
“I do a lot of self-critiques, a lot of self-analysis,” she says. “I approach life pretty philosophically. What it really comes down to is: Don’t be a jerk.”
In a departure from many sports reporters, Tafoya is open about her political leanings, describing herself as a “pro-choice conservative with libertarian leanings.” One reason she joined the KQRS crew is because she gets such a kick out of how Tom Barnard skewers political correctness.
“The first time I was on, he tested me with these insults, and I laugh at everything these days, so we hit it off,” she says. Her views occasionally surface on her Twitter account, such as in August when she linked to an article in the Washington Examiner: “professors’ letter encouraging students to reject ‘groupthink’, embrace ideological diversity.”
She’s said that NBC Sports is fine with her political advocacy, but did ask her to remove “NBC Sports” from her Twitter bio. It reads: Sports Reporter. KQRS contributor. Wanna-be Stoic. Hunting for civility.
Her e-mails close with the phrase: Do good. So what’s up with that?
Tafoya smiles and, for the first time on this particular afternoon, takes a few beats before answering.
“This may sound kind of corny, but I hate evil in the world — as anyone does,” she says. “But sometimes I feel guilty being happy because there are so many who are not. Why do I get to be happy and that person doesn’t?
“I asked someone — whom I won’t name — how they manage this, and they said, ‘Do good. Doing enough good can counteract the evil out there.’
“So I do. It’s hard to do it every day, like at the grocery store when maybe I just don’t feel like being chatty with the clerk.
“But I try.”