Shelley Smith joined ESPN in January 1997 after working part-time as a reporter for the network since 1993. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS championship game, the Stanley Cup playoffs, golf and tennis championships and more.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the impact podcast. A very special edition of the impact podcast, we have got with us today legendary reporter, ESPN reporter Shelley Smith [inaudible] hey, Shelley.
Shelly Smith: The crowd goes wild.
John: I have been— I am the CEO of your fan club. So welcome to the podcast, Impact podcast and thanks for being here with us today.
Shelly: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
John: Hey, Shelley, you have been doing this quite for some time since 1997.
Shelly: I am old John, just say it. Tell everybody I am old.
John: I am too. We are together kid. We are in the same generation. So it is all good. It is all good. Can you just give a little bio on your background to our listeners out there? Go ahead.
Shelly: Yeah. I was a print journalism major at Nebraska. I went from there to Japan and I was a Stars and Stripes as a print writer and then I got the big interview with Ben Johnson who nobody even knows anymore. That is how old I am. He was a sprinter who tested positive for steroids and I flew with him on a plane from Seoul to New York and I got the only interview with him.
Shelly: And from there, it just took off. You know, I joined Sports Illustrated full-time and then ESPN came calling and wanted me to crossover. I had never taken a television class never ever ever. It was all well, learn and be stupid and I have been at ESPN ever since. They convinced me to give up Sports Illustrated and I have been at ESPN for twenty-some-odd years now, and I do not know how we count them because if we count the part-time here [inaudible]. I have won six Emmys.
John: Unbelievable which puts you in legendary status. Six Emmys. Six, that is a lot for anybody’s career, come on.
Shelly: I was you know, the best one was two years ago when I won for Jake Olson, who was the blind long snapper at USC. And it was a great story with Nancy Devaney who is a great producer and I could not believe we won. I had two nominees in the same category [inaudible] why of all the years do I have two nominees? I could not figure that one out. Could they just spread them out a little bit? With Schuye LaRue, who was a homeless basketball player.
John: Which is another great story because I follow all your stories and that is like you were put in like Sophie’s choice of the of sports journalism that year.
Shelly: I was doing some good work and now I am doing nothing. Well, now I am a writer for the Chargers, to cover the Chargers and I do injury reports and I do— I get to write features every week though. I had missed writing. So that was good and it has been good. I had one, you know, Justin Herbert is the Phenom out here and [inaudible] well Los Angeles and he has been— he has saved my season because I was going to be so miserable but he is delightful. The bad thing about this is that we cannot talk to anybody. We cannot go mess around with the coaches. We cannot talk with the players. We cannot talk to anybody. So it is like everything we do is on Zoom, which I now hate, and…
John: Like us all.
Shelly: I had Zoom next [?]. Yeah, like one year. I mean one week I could not move because my back was so stiff, but we get through it and it is not going to be forever. And that is what I keep telling myself, it is not— did not think it would be this long but I know it is not going to be forever and we are all healthy and safe and have jobs.
John: Thank God. That is right.
Shelly: So I feel very fortunate right now.
John: And I have to say this to you. You do not know this, but I owe you a huge thank you. And when I meet you in person one day which will happen. I am going to give you a hug and a kiss for this one because of you, Jake Olson, I got to meet Jake Olson because of you.
Shelly: You did?
John: Because of your coverage on him and not only did we meet, I became his business partner and backer in his technology venture Engage and that is all because of you Shelley Smith.
Shelly: Oh I did not know that. Yeah. Yeah.
John: That is because of you.
Shelly: No, it is not.
John: It is.
Shelly: It is because of Jake. Jake makes his own world spin and he will do whatever he wants to do and he will be president and he will win the Masters one day. He will be the first blind golfer to win the Masters.
John: I love that you are…
Shelly: I just hope I am around to see it.
John: Both of us. Both of us and by the way, when— I love the part of that documentary when you say, by the way, he chose USC but he also got into one other college, Harvard. That was the best.
Shelly: Right. Exactly.
John: That was the best.
Shelly: My other favorite part because you know, I had cancer, three different types of cancer and I had breast cancer when I was friends with him and I lost all my hair and we did a story together about cancer and he, of course, is blind but he would not know it because he looks right at you. He does not have the blind stare that a lot of people have because he is used to having sight. So I said to him, we were sitting next to one another on a bench and I said, what do you remember about my hair? and he goes real long flowy, well I am like well, give me your hand and I took his hand and I wrote [?] it on my bald head and he goes, Oh my God. Yes, that is my head now and he goes well because I will always think of you as having hair, and I said thank you, Jake. He is just the sweetest, nicest kid ever. He is not a kid anymore. He is an adult.
John: Not a kid. He is an adult.
Shelly: But I have known him since he was twelve. Yeah.
John: Wow, I mean, the fact how you covered that whole thing and documented that and I got and I am old enough and I am old enough like we discussed that I even read your book back in the day of Just Give Me the Ball. So I am you know because I go…
Shelly: Oh gosh.
John: Yeah, so I have read your books. I have read your books and that is why I get to be the CEO of your fan club, but I want to go back to the beginning, you know.
Shelly: All right.
John: This is— we are seeing an explosion today of these wonderful female sports journalists, Mina Kimes, Katie Nolan, Sarah Spain, and all these lovely people, unbelievably qualified and brilliant, but you were doing it way early before it was cool and before and while it was still a very very male-dominated industry, how hard was it? How much adversity and how much of that even still exist 23 years later?
Shelly: It does not and it was not that hard and it was not anything I was not used to. It was just what I wanted to do. So I did it and I did not care what anybody thought or said and there was no bullying. There was no, well the 49ers kind of had a problem. [Inaudible] It was clogged quickly. I mean I got shoved into the showers and Bubba Paris. Yeah, Bubba Paris was like this is what you want to see. I was like, no, I do not. So I just close my eyes because he is a big guy, but that was the only time that I ever had trouble in my newspaper the San Francisco Examiner, which I loved working there, took good care of me and there is nothing now that women cannot do and we could not— we did it back then too, and I was not the first. So quit saying I was a legend or whatever.
John: You were a trailblazer. You were a trailblazer.
Shelly: No. I do not want to listen. Do not say that. I hate that word.
John: Okay. All right.
Shelly: No, I was not.
John: All right.
Shelly: There were a lot of women before me. I did not do [?] anything. All I did was do my job and that is all I am doing now.
John: Did you loved it? and you just push through everything.
Shelly: I did. Yeah. I did.
John: Yeah. If you were to choose a sport to say, John, I covered everything that I have to but this is my favorite. What is your favorite sport?
Shelly: Anything in the playoffs. I love any type of competition, you know, the highest form of— I love covering the Olympics because there was something going on every day and that was always fun, to go and run around and see somebody win a sprint or a marathon or actually I covered bowling in Seoul as well and I am like yeah get the 7-10 split for your country. I just love what I do and I love and I have loved it ever since day one and I never get bored, well I do get bored. I would have been really bored if it was not for Justin Herbert [inaudible].
John: He has made it fun for everybody because he— I mean to how he— you know again, I am giggling but it is not funny at all. The fact, the day I remember watching the game where they just literally handed him the ball and just said you are going in without any— basically without any reps that week or anything else and on the first team and to go in the game and play that first game the way he did then the second game and then the third is just literally almost unheard of.
Shelly: He is smart a kid. He is a smart kid and if you do not understand what a 4.01 is because I never got close to that. He won the Academic Heisman, that is how smart he is and he is not a great interview. He says all the right things we hate that. But he is doing the right thing, but we do not get to know him because we cannot talk to anybody. I talked to his parents. I talked to his college coach. I have talked to everybody I can think of to do features on him, but it is really hard to do things on Zoom because first of all, you are doing them with ten other reporters who will get everything that you get so to get anything unique is really difficult so you have to be creative and that is what I tell the students I teach, is you got to be more creative, you have to find ways to get a hold of his parents, find the old teammate type of thing and that is what we are having to do now, but it is hard. It is really hard John.
John: You mentioned teaching. What do you teach and where do you teach it? And is that a great part of your life right now?
Shelly: Well, it is on zoom and [inaudible]. I teach at USC. I teach television journalism class and I teach sports commentary. The TV kids are, some of them are smart but the sports commentary kids are way smarter than me and I have to keep altering the syllabus because they are so smart and they think rationally and they think outside the box and they all want to succeed and they all want to— they all think I can get them a job. That is the biggest thing and of course, I cannot but it is fun. It was but it was much more fun to do it in person when you could look them in the eye and talk to them and I am still friends with a lot of these kids who have taken my classes. I have been doing it for I do not know four, five years now.
Shelly: And it is rewarding. I was not going to because it was a lot of work to grade twenty papers, thirty, and ten projects, video projects.
Shelly: That is a lot of work but then I saw the progress that the kids made and that made me feel so good that these kids were learning and actually advancing and I said, okay, I will do it again. That is what has been every semester [?].
John: Shelley is a paradox when it comes to teaching because I get to teach not formally like you at an institution like USC a great institution but in terms of teaching the next generation of entrepreneurs that come either work for me or I go partners with, sometimes I see a role reversal. So it is sometimes I get confused but it is a lovely type of confusion. The teacher sometimes you do not know if you are the servant or the servee and sometimes the teacher and student relationship flips on you and there is so much to learn from that next generation coming up. Is that something that happens in the formal situation that you are in terms of USC institution and teaching the next generation of sports reporters?
Shelly: It is the same, it is absolutely the same as when I was in college. You teach them how to report and that is what you know and tonight [?]. I mean this class I am jumping on in a minute. They do not know what leads are, they have no clue and I am like, are you serious? You are a journalism major and you are in grad school because I have graduate students and undergraduates and you do not know what a lead is and you do not know how to capture somebody’s attention. So that is what we are focusing on this semester, is just great leads at but reporting is reporting and I do not care if it is for TV or vlogs, r magazines or whatever but reporting is reporting and that is what I try to team them and that is the same as it was when I was in school.
John: Is it easy— Is it easier to reach people now compared to when you were just starting out as a reporter and there were no social media obviously back then. Is it easier in terms of when you are teaching young people to reach out and work a lead or create their own lead in terms of they could go on and if they want to interview someone they can literally go on and DM that person compared to where you and I used to have to go through intermediaries and agent, whatever they call publicist and also is it harder now for students to actually reach who they want to cover or is it you know, or is it easier because of social media and the other tools that exist today?
Shelly: Well kind of both because there are so many people trying to get to Justin Herbert for example so many people and you cannot really reach them on social media, but most of the time it is easier, but you have to still have the same reporting skills that I learned and how to look up phone numbers and how to look up addresses and I remember even sending flowers to a couple because I wanted them, their interview, the things that we do, the way that we grovel is still the same and it is easier but it is harder. It is harder now because of the pandemic because you cannot go, you cannot just go and hang out by someone’s locker which is how I teach [?] myself, ESPN teaches us, give us something that only you can get because you were there and that is extremely difficult. So that is when I said you have to be more creative on how you get your information and how you get to the subject.
John: You know, Shelly. I do not want to finish this interview until we cover a very important and personal subject that our listeners really need to hear about, your battle and winning and not surviving but thriving and beating cancer. Talk a little bit about that battle and that and you are getting to the other side not as a survivor, but as a thriver.
Shelly: Well, thank you. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity. I had three different types of cancer. I had uterine, breast cancer, and melanoma which would have killed me in two years had I not found it. It was on my back shoulder. So I never thought and they found it while they were examining my breast cancer and taking biopsies and they were like, oh you need to have this looked at. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, that would have killed me in two years because melanoma is nothing to play with. It is very very serious and Holly Rowe had melanoma and she had a much harder fight than I did. My fight was relatively, I do not want to say easy because I had a lot of infections, a lot of bullshit but I had friends who came out and took care of me and I made it through and I made it through four rounds of chemo probably eighteen infections and thirty rounds of thirty doses of radiation. It was not fun and it zapped my energy but I did not work. I watched all seven seasons of The West Wing. That was my big accomplishment and so it is what it is and you just put one foot in front of the other and you just move in the direction they tell you and you do what the doctors say, and that is why this virus terrifies me because people are not doing what the doctors say. Do what the doctors say. They know what is going on. They know better than your cousin Judy and whatever. Do what the doctors say and that is all I have ever done and I am doing it now and I am still on medication and but I am good. I am in a good place.
John: Wow. That is awesome. You and I are of the generation that we remember when Betty Ford first made breast cancer— put breast cancer and platformed it for us and early detection. Is that still a thing?
Shelly: Oh yeah.
John: Is that something that you need to keep sharing with this generation of women out there that early detection is still critical to survival and getting through this.
Shelly: In any kind of cancer, early detection is the key. Prostate cancer, anything else, and it is like I was the first female at ESPN, I guess on air, I do not know to get cancer and I went bald on TV. And actually, it was great because I was in Hawaii and it was really windy. And otherwise, my hair would have been just a disaster. So I like I am a bald object [?] and I just did my hit and I moved on and I just— I did— I refuse to feel sorry for myself and I refuse to give in to the infections which were way worse than the chemo. But yeah, it was a long time coming but now it seems to be a normal thing and one in eight women will get breast cancer. And that is a lot, so you have to— early detection is huge and if I had not had early detection, I do not— I would not be anywhere because I had no, I did not have a lump. I did not have any kind of abnormality. I can speak [inaudible] and I just went in to get my annual check and the look on the lady’s face was like, oh my God, and I am like what? what? and I had to wait for I went to Oklahoma for the playoffs and I came back and my doctor called me and said and they all know what I do. So they are all big sports fans and he says we think we found a small bit of cancer in your mammogram. And I said what? because oh by the way, where did the Lakers get? Who did— what pick did they get? And I said, I am a little preoccupied right now maybe I can answer you tomorrow, it was just, it was surreal for a while.
John: Shelly, last question before I let you go today. How you have won six Emmys and you have done these incredible stories and I have been a fan of all of them including the Jake Olson story and the other story that year that was up for an Emmy. That story is also just stuck with me forever. But you did one on yourself, it was called Triumphant and that documentary talks a little bit about that. And what did you learn doing a documentary on yourself as opposed to having somebody else to do it on.
Shelly: Well, it was a lot easier because I do not have to do any of the work, they just came from Seattle. Came in and just followed me around, they end up staying at my house because they did not have hotels or anything. I said just stay at my house. So we had a great time. We barbecued, we drank. It was really that part was fun, but it was also scary going in for that first checkup and not knowing what they were going to say. And so that part was frightening and having to wait for the results was probably the worst part of it all and once I got them though, I was like, extremely happy.
John: That is awesome.
Shelly: I just said like and I hate like, I hate people who say like, so.
John: You know, Shelley.
Shelly: Talk to one of my students last night, I said do me a favor do not say like ever again.
John: You know, we are still going through this very tragic COVID-19 period and you were kind, so kind to give us this time today. I want to leave you with the last word. You have left a lasting impression on me and all the viewers that have enjoyed your work or and readers over the years. But this, we all need to still get to the other side to hopefully a better future, but I want to leave you with the last words before we sign off for today.
Shelly: Listen to the science, be happy, do what the doctors say, and live your life. Live your best life and whether that is being sick or not being sick. Hopefully, it is not but do what you want to do. Do what your passion tells you and you will never go wrong.
John: Shelley Smith. You could find her at Shelly ESPN. She is triumphant and she is made an impact on me and all of our listeners and viewers around the world and her fans around the world in the last twenty-three years.
Shelly: Both of them.
John: Thank you, Shelley Smith.
Shelly: Thank you, John.
John: Have a wonderful and safe holiday and God bless you.
Shelly: I will.
John: And good health in the future. I will continue to follow you like I always have.
Shelly: Thank you so much.
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