Talking Family and Football with NFL Network’s Melissa Stark


For many Americans, fall Sunday mornings are a time to prepare to watch NFL football by scouring sports media outlets for the latest injury updates, game-day "predictions, and other breaking news. As co-host of NFL GameDay First, a Sunday morning show on NFL Network from 7 to 9 a.m., Rumson’s own Melissa Stark is on the forefront of delivering that NFL news to the nation. Stark and former NFL wide receiver Sterling Sharpe mix serious NFL news with interviews for a light, entertaining morning-show atmosphere. Stark learned her broadcast skills in her 20s, working for some of the highest-rated programs in the country.  As a former ESPN and ABC Sports employee and sideline reporter for Monday Night Football, Stark brought pertinent sports information to her viewers. Later, as a correspondent and host for Today on NBC, she blended hard news and human interest stories in a softer news environment.
But perhaps the most important skill she has learned is how to juggle a successful, demanding career with a  happy home life. Stark is the proud mother of four and soon to turn 40. She left broadcasting in the late 2000s to focus on raising her family. As a stay-at-home mother, Stark became enamored with Monmouth County’s neighborhood charm and got involved in the local community she is delighted to call her home. When her husband, Mike Lilley, left his career on Wall Street a couple of years ago to help form Better  Education for Kids Inc., an educational reform organization, Stark took the opportunity to join the NFL Network, and now believes she has found the perfect balance between her roles on and off camera. Early on a Monday morning, Stark discussed finding that balance with Living In Media in her dining room, with toy boxes and children's drawings in the background. Stark talked candidly about her career, the challenges of being a woman in sports media, and how she maintains a community presence while remaining a national voice for the NFL.

LIM: Where did you grow up?
MS: I grew up in Baltimore. My parents still live there. My dad, Walter, is an eye surgeon at Johns Hopkins hospital and a professor of ophthalmology.

LIM: I understand he used to have patients from the Baltimore Colts.
MS: Yes. On the side, he was the eye doctor for the Colts. So my dad, my brother, my sister and I would go to all the Colts games. We would go down to the locker room at halftime and he would check their eyes. So I was in NFL locker rooms when I was 10 years old. Bert Jones (former Colts quarterback) was one of his patients, and he taught me how to throw a football in my front yard. My son would still argue that I still don’t know how to throw a spiral, but that’s OK.

LIM: Did being around the NFL at a young age pique your interest in sports?
MS: I always liked sports. I love the competitive nature and rivalries of them. For me, sports are the ultimate reality TV. They always have been. I love the competition, the storylines, the human interest stories behind it, and the drama.

LIM: Did you play any sports growing up?
MS: I did. I played tennis in high school and club tennis in college at UVA. Then I picked up golf when I went to ESPN because it was pretty much all guys there and they all played on their day off.

LIM: How did you stack up against them?
MS: My goal at first was just not to embarrass myself on the course. But I think I had good hand-eye coordination from playing tennis, so I picked it up pretty quickly. I actually  just played with Sterling Sharpe, my coworker on the show, too.

LIM: Do you play at any local courses?
MS: Yes. My husband and I belong to Rumson Country Club right down the road from here. It’s beautiful. We won the husband-wife tournament this summer.

LIM: Congratulations! How many couples compete?
MS: Thanks. There were probably about 35 couples. We’re going to get a trophy for it.

LIM: You majored in foreign affairs in college. Why not something in broadcasting?
MS: I was a foreign affairs and Spanish major. I just figured if I majored in something with a lot of writing, like English, history or foreign affairs, it would be good background.  We traveled a lot as kids. My father would do a lot of things with patients overseas, so we traveled to Egypt, Europe and Asia. I was always fascinated with foreign affairs and  cultures and politics. That’s where that interest came from. I’m passionate about a lot of things, and sports became one of those things for me. When I was at UVA, I knew I  wanted to be on television. I liked telling a story and I liked interviewing people and getting information. I worked for the medical correspondent for CBS Evening News during the  summers, and that’s where I really learned how to get information. One time my boss told me to find a doctor because they wanted to interview him on camera. I called the  office and told my boss they said he was on vacation. I remember my boss saying, “Find him. Go get him.” Then a light bulb went on in my head that in this business, you stop  at nothing. I also had an internship at UVA, where I did features on all the basketball players. When I graduated from college, I took my tape around to many news directors. I  knew it was all sports, but I really wanted to be in news.

LIM: Why did you apply to ESPN then?
MS: When I graduated from college, I worked at Home Team Sports, a regional network like MSG in the D.C. area. I covered the Orioles and the Bullets at the time, and the  Ravens were just coming to town. I was doing sports a little then. I remember when ESPN called me back, I told them I wasn’t exactly a walking sports encyclopedia. But then  ESPN found the show for me called Scholastic Sports America, where I featured highschool players from across the country. So it was a way to ease in, because I was very  young. I was 21. Then I started reporting for SportsCenter and covering the NFL. There were women in sports before me who paved the way for women to work in this  profession, but I was one of the first ones, too.

LIM: When you made your switch to a sideline reporter for Monday Night Football in 2000, did you feel that, being a woman, you were viewed differently?
MS: Well, I was young, I was 26. I was replacing someone who was a legend in the business, Leslie Visser, and she was 46. Every headline said: Stark, 26, replaces Visser,  46. So I think there was a lot made of that in the media. I took it upon myself to prove to everyone that I belonged there, and show everyone why I was hired and that I could do it.  Granted, I was young, so there was a learning curve. I had never really done sidelines before that.

LIM: Did you feel any extra pressure because of some of the public perception?
MS: I was certainly aware of it. I just didn’t pay attention to it. I chose not to focus on it. Women can be attractive and still be educated and know what they are talking about.  There’s nothing to say they can’t.

LIM: Has the world of women working in the sports industry changed since you started in it?
MS: Yes. It’s exploded. There’s a lot more opportunity for women to be in sports media now. The nature of television has changed. Cable and all these different outlets, and social media, have blown up.

LIM: Did you have a role model in the media when you were young?
MS: When I grew up, I always said I wanted to be like Barbara Walters. I loved Christiane Amanpour, too, and that idea of going overseas and reporting.My career took a different path because I took the opportunity at ESPN, but I always admired women who went to great lengths to get a story.

LIM: You mentioned following some of the women who paved the way for you. Do you think you serve as an inspiration to anyone?
MS: I think that’s a big part of what I’m supposed to do and what my role is. Whenever young girls reach out to me, I am thrilled to try to help them along. I can’t tell them the way they should do it, because everyone has a different path that takes on a life of its own. My main advice to them is to create their own opportunities. I love giving younger people  advice. I don’t  think of myself necessarily as a role model, but I have to recognize that some younger girls do look at me that way.

LIM: What was the most memorable Monday Night Football game you worked? I’m sure a lot of our readers will remember the “Monday Night Miracle,” when the Jets came back  against the Dolphins around 1 a.m.
MS: Yes, I did work that one. Almost everyone watching on TV probably had gone to sleep. For Monday night, that’s tough to say because there were so many games.

LIM: Why did you move to the Today show?
MS: I left Monday Night Football because I was pregnant with my first child. I knew I didn’t want to be on the road as a mother. But then, I did always have this interest and desire to cover news. The Today show was a nice balance of news and a lighter type of television and personality. I liked that range. It seemed like a natural fit. As it turned out, as breaking news, the Today show had a lot of travel involved with it. It was a harder commitment because the travel wasn’t scheduled. So that became difficult. Also, in the four  years I was there, I had four kids.
The Olympics were great, and being in Athens and covering Michael Phelps, also from Baltimore, is a major highlight for me. But as it turned out, I was trying to raise a family at the same time I was on the Today show, and the family was my major commitment. I remember Dan Rather saying to me when I had that CBS internship that this is the type of  job that takes over your life. You have to be willing to commit every hour of every  day. I remember thinking that I really wanted to do it, but especially as a woman and a mother,  how do you do that? People talk about having it all and balancing. I definitely feel like now I have found that perfect balance in my life. Granted, it’s a struggle. Sometimes I’m on  the road and wondering if I made enough dinner for my kids for that night. You have to let the little things go, which is a work in progress for me.

LIM: So when you left Today, you didn’t work in media at all?
MS: I had left the industry completely after the Today show because I had to devote my time to my young kids. I told myself if the right opportunity ever came up, I’d go back. I never could imagine what that opportunity could be. And then my old boss from ESPN, who is now at the NFL Network, called a couple of years ago and asked if I’d want to work  one or two days a week. My husband, Mike Lilley, was the one who encouraged me to go ahead and try it. I was hesitant, thinking that I might not be able to juggle and handle it  all. Any mother out there who works knows you have to be a multi-tasker and organized to make it all work. But this was the right thing. It is a little piece of my old life back.

LIM:
How do you feel about where you are in your career and life now?
MS: The dynamic of what I’m doing now is interesting. I’ve got four kids and I have to balance this whole home life, but you can never have enough information and you can never talk to enough players or coaches. You can never read or know enough. So it’s about trying to find that balance for me in life right now, to say OK, I have enough for this  show. But you never know when that one story is going to break. One of the nice things for me now is coming back to this after having kids and everything. I have a different  perspective on it all. I feel as a mother that I’m very grounded in my life, and that work is only a piece of my life now.

LIM: How did you and your husband meet?
MS: We met in New York City when I working for ESPN. He was working at Morgan Stanley as a bond trader. I think I just knew when I met him that we might start a family together one day. We had a lot in common.

LIM: He must have been willing to accept your busy traveling schedule.
MS: That was a big part of it. He knew that I had that career and lifestyle. He’d come to as many Monday night games with me as he could. I remember the first time he asked me out on a date - it was a Monday night, and I told him, “We can go out, but do you mind if we watch football?” And he said, “No, I don’t mind at all.” He was probably thinking,  “Sweet!”

LIM: When did you move to Monmouth County?
MS: We moved here to Rumson in the summer of 2001. Mike went to Princeton and he had a number of college friends in the area. And I’m not really a city girl at all. I like to drive my car. I like a yard. I like the personal relationships of a suburb. I love the fact that here in Rumson we have our rec sports and everyone meets on the field on Saturday  mornings for flag football. I like that I know all the local business owners. We live right near the beach, which is awesome. Rumson Country Club is great. It’s very easy living  here with a family. My children are 10 years old and younger. They play all the rec sports. My son just started tackle football. Mike has left Wall Street and now runs Better  Education for New Jersey Kids Inc., a non-political educational reform organization. He coaches a lot of the local rec teams here in Rumson, too. When he left Wall Street and  didn’t work crazy hours, it was around the time I decided to go back to work because he had more flexibility.

LIM: So when you got the phone call about the job at NFL Network, were you still on the fence about returning to work?
MS: At first I said, no, no, no. I remember thinking there was no way I could juggle all of it. And I liked the suburban mother lifestyle. But then I realized—-and Mike was right—-if I could make it work, then why not do it? So I agreed to co-host the show.

LIM: Was that GameDay First first season?
MS: Yes. At first they wanted me to move to Los Angeles. But we love it here. There was no way we were moving to L.A. This is home. So they created the first live show to be shot out of NFL Films in Mount Laurel, which is an amazing building full of great NFL artifacts, to have an east coast presence for NFL Network.

LIM:
What is your role on GameDay First?
MS: I’m a co-host. It’s a morning show from 7 to 9 .a.m. Eastern time, so I liked bringing in a little bit of the Today show feel. We started a cooking segment this year. We try to keep it a little light, but people obviously want to hear about football. They want to know if their fantasy team is right, who’s playing, who’s not, and who’s predicted to win. I’m still  a reporter at heart, so all week long I talk to coaches and players. I can chime in and a lot of the time it’s like I’m one of the guys. That’s been my whole thing in this industry all  along.

LIM: Is it difficult for you to present new information to the fans, since most follow NFL news throughout the week?
MS: That’s why it’s so important to be in touch with the players and coaches to get different information. I pride myself on that. I’ve always liked finding a different nuance. I think because I’m a female, I’ve always gotten a little bit of a different angle. You can go hardcore X’s and O’s on these shows, and we have that, but we also try to back off a little because it is a morning show. People are just waking up and grabbing their coffee. On the show the other day, we were talking about who might win the Seahawks-49ers  game. And then I added the Seattle fans are trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records for how loud it is at a sporting event, and the record was set in 2011 at a  soccer match. I try to bring something that’s kind of fun and different, or something that a veteran source I have might tell me that they wouldn’t tell someone else. Everyone has  their own connections, and I just like getting a varied perspective on a story. That’s why I love the personal aspect of reporting and going to the games. On NFL Network, we  have 13 games this year. I’ll go to a bunch of those games.

LIM: What is your typical work week like?
MS: If I go to a Thursday night game, I travel on Wednesday and come back on Friday, and then go to NFL Films Saturday afternoon for our production meetings. And then we’re up at the crack of dawn on Sunday, obviously, and I’m home by about 11 a.m. Sunday. I’m ready not only to watch football, but be a mom. I come home to loads of laundry and a  dirty house, and it’s awesome. My kids ask me what’s for lunch, and that’s my reality check. I love it. I have so much fun with my kids. Summers here in Monmouth County are  awesome. The kids might do a camp in the morning, and then we hang out all day and go to the beach. I definitely love being a mom.

LIM:
Do you do any work for local charities?
MS: Yes. For Superstorm Sandy, Lawrence Taylor and I did work for Friends of the Shore, First Lady Mary Pat Christie’s fund. I host a charity golf tournament for the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County every year, and this year I hosted an event for 180 Turning Lives Around, for victims of domestic violence. Any way that I can help the community, I try to do it.

LIM: Why is it that so important to you?
MS: I feel like I’m really part of this community now that I have children, and I feel like anything I can do to foster the community and make it better, if I have time to do it, I should. Also I feel if I can be at something or lend a hand in something that’s going to help, even in a small way, it’s the right thing to do.

LIM: What do you enjoy most about living in Monmouth County?
MS: I like the community feel. It’s a beautiful area. You can drive one mile and see horses, and drive another mile in the other direction and see the beach. I like the proximity to New York City, and Red Bank is great. I love going there.

LIM: Do you have any other hobbies?
MS: I love going to fun restaurants in the area. My husband and I always say we have to try to have a date night. We love going to Woody’s in Sea Bright, Copper Canyon and Undici. I enjoy reading, too, especially historical fiction. I like feeling like I’m learning something, but that it also has a story to it. And sports, obviously. I love playing golf and  tennis.

LIM:
How do you feel about working at Super Bowl here in New Jersey this season?
MS: Oh, I’m excited about it. I think it’s going to be great for New Jersey. I’ll probably be freezing because I’ll be out on the field for about eight hours. I’ll need to invest in a serious wardrobe. I’ve dealt with it before, though, with the Monday night games when you’re out there for five hours. The thing that gets the coldest is your feet. At Monday night games in Denver or New England, they were like blocks of ice. I used to put hand-warmers in my shoes and down my back. I figured out a few tricks during my Monday Night  Football days. But I’ll have to figure out some more.

LIM: Do you agree with Governor Chris Christie’s sentiment that people should know the Super Bowl is in New Jersey and not New York?
MS: Everybody does say it’s a New York Super Bowl. They do. I look at the two states as kind of combined. There’s so much crossover between people who stay in New Jersey and work in New York, but I completely get where the Governor is coming from.

LIM: What are your thoughts about playing an outdoor Super Bowl in the Northeast?
MS: It’s like the Governor said, and he was funny, he wants it to snow to show everyone that the state of New Jersey is ready and can handle it. And I think it’d be memorable and fun. People love watching games in the snow on television. The cold can make it uncomfortable for the people there, but usually when it snows, it’s a little warm, not zero  degrees.

LIM: What have you enjoyed the most about your career?
MS: Going to new and exciting places and meeting all sorts of different people. It’s an adrenaline rush when you finish a game or get a great story, and I’ve gotten everything from human interest stories to news stories. At the end of the day, when you feel like you’ve done what you’ve set out to do and tell a good story, that’s the most rewarding part. It’s interesting for me now because a lot of the players that I started out covering in the NFL are retiring. Like LaVar Arrington, who used to play for the Redskins and is now on  our network, I actually featured him on Scholastic Sports America. We’ll laugh about it sometimes when we see each other.

LIM: Is there any one story you’ve covered that stands out above all the others?
MS: This past year I went to Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy. A father of a family insisted that he stay in the house during the hurricane. One of his twin sons stayed with him and when they went down to the basement to check the water, the walls just collapsed around them and the basement flooded. They died there. They were die-hard Jets fans and were honored at a Jets game. They were even buried in their Jets jerseys. It was such a horrific story, but the mother found comfort in the fact they were honored together.  Stories like that—-those are the ones that stick out. On a much lighter note, covering Michael Phelps at the Olympics and the Super Bowl were both memorable.


Favorite Movies Life is Beautiful and Grease
Favorite Restaurants Copper Canyon and Woody’s Ocean Grille
Favorite Bands U2 and Dave Matthews Band
Pet Peeve: Rude people and lip smack while eating
I’d Like to Dine with: Thomas Jefferson (as a UVA alum), Chris Christie, Vince Vaughan

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01 Jun 2015


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