Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte
One of Tracy Wolfson’s first assignments when she was starting out as a production runner at CBS Sports was to pick up Mike and Mickie Krzyzewski from the airport. She spent the weekend that followed with Coach K and his wife, and years later, when she got on-air and went to cover her first Duke game, she went over to Mickie in the stands to see if she remembered her old airport companion. “Oh, my God, I can't believe it!” Mickie said, marveling at Wolfson’s change-in-station.
Wolfson doesn’t share the story just to puff herself up. Building relationships with interviewees over time is critical to the job of sideline reporter, and Wolfson believes this wayback bond with the Krzyzewskis helped her get something out of Coach K when others couldn’t always manage it. Like when she interviewed the legend following his final game bossing the Blue Devils, a crushing loss to arch enemy North Carolina in the Final Four.
That’s one of quite a few sports-historical moments that Wolfson has witnessed from a few yards away across a career covering NCAA basketball (she was courtside for—and blown away by—that Villanova championship buzzer-beater), SEC football (she was there for Auburn’s Kick Six), and of course the pinnacle: the National Football League. Tracy Wolfson has covered three-and-a-half Super Bowls now—more on that below—and she’ll be in Las Vegas on Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs battle the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. She’s served up plenty of stories along the way, but she still has a few to tell—about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and what it’s like to try to interview Bill Belicheck at halftime.
You were out in Buffalo for the Chiefs’ visit—did you get hit with any snowballs like Patrick Mahomes?
Of course! On the Chiefs’ sideline, no doubt. Actually, my sideline producer got hit in the head. The security for the Chiefs were livid. They were calling the NFL. They were yelling at the fans.
We had it two weeks in a row, because we were there for the delayed game as well, with a lot more snow in the stands. The snow fireworks—that was one of the coolest things I witnessed. Lights out, late night game, snow flying.
Was that the most challenging environmental situation you’ve had?
If I did the Kansas City with the -25, that would have been a whole ‘nother world. My coldest game was a Pittsburgh-Miami game. It was a Wild Card game years ago. That was -10 with the windchill, and there’s not much you can do.
Actually, Aaron Rogers is one of the people who’s told me how to prepare my feet. Lesley Visser—veteran, been around the block—she gave me a lot of hints. But [Rodgers], being in Green Bay for so long, told me how to keep your feet warm, and that’s the key. Keep your feet warm and your head warm, but then your face is exposed, and you just try and keep your mouth warm, because otherwise you try and go to speak and you're like, Murrr! You can't move. It doesn't come out right.
Does your mouth actually freeze up?
Yeah, because it’s not like Jim [Nantz] and Tony [Romo], where you’re talking throughout the entire game. You're talking maybe every 30 minutes if you're lucky. All of a sudden, you go to talk and your mouth just doesn’t move.
Do you try and lurk near the heaters they have for the teams?
You do, but all the players are around them, and it does mean going into their area, and you're not allowed in there. But certain teams, you have good relationships, and I sneak in quickly and run out. They have chicken broth and hot chocolate on the sideline. They're always giving that to you if you want it.
And actually, our tech crew built me a little she-shed [on the sideline] and now they’re calling it The Wolf Den. We've had it for a long time, and there is a heater in there. So pregame, you could duck in, warm up, come out, warm up, come out. But you can't watch a game from there.
You were working Tom Brady’s last Super Bowl win with the Patriots. A historic moment, but beyond that, it seemed like a huge challenge for a reporter. You got caught in a scrum. I saw a video yesterday where a guy next to you is like, “Jesus, are you okay?”
10 years in the SEC prepared me for that, because that happens at every big game in the SEC. They storm the field. I did the Kick Six, and Auburn were storming the field, and you’re trying to get an interview. So I was prepared, and I know how to situate myself, and I was right along with Chad Steele, who’s the PR guy for the Ravens, but he was the rep for that game. So I knew he was going to be with Brady, and he’s 6’5”, 6’6”. If you can see him, you're going to find Brady. So my vision was to just go after the quarterback, which is what I did. I actually wasn't scared, because I was next to Brady the whole time. I had him.
It’s just that everything started filling in around me. All the press and the media and the cameramen all came in and squeezed us together. And Brady kept being like, “Tracy, I'll get to you in one second. I just want to give [Robert] Kraft a hug. I just want to give [Bill] Belichick”—and by the way, he should, right? I think if it had been, like, Jared Goff in that situation, it wouldn't have been that way. As a rookie, he hadn’t been there before. He would’ve gone right in, done [the interview]. Brady’s soaking it all in, knowing that moment. So I was just waiting and waiting for it. And then as it got tighter and tighter, I'm holding onto Brady. Wherever he went, I went. I had no idea this was being broadcast live, by the way, and I’m just saying into the mic, “I have him. I'm right here.”
And then someone stepped on the cord to my microphone, because we use a hardwire cord so that we don't get interference, and all of a sudden the mic dropped, and I'm like, “Oh, they're going to come to me. I don't have a mic.” That’s where your help comes in, and my producer handed me another microphone. So you saw me go down. You actually saw me disappear. And I think people thought I went down, but I was just grabbing another microphone. I was never really scared for my life. I think that was a rhetoric out there. I just knew what my job was, and I was not going to leave until I got that interview with Tom Brady.
You talk about looking for the quarterback almost like you’re a blitzing linebacker—or a spy.
Exactly right. That's actually a really good point. No one's ever used that, and I might steal that from you, but that's exactly what it is. You're really taking off as soon as the snap happens and you're going after him, and you do have to spy him the whole time. If you lose sight of him, you might not get that moment. The moment might pass.
You were there for Peyton Manning’s final game, his second Super Bowl win. Did you get the sense in that moment that he knew this was the end?
We did so many of those Denver games, and we spent so much time with him in meetings, and we definitely broached that subject often. So we did have an idea that that was it, and you have to be prepared for that moment. Going in, you know you have to ask that question in some way or form.
It was my first Super Bowl, so it was a really huge moment for me, and actually, we weren't necessarily going to do that interview. A lot of times in the past, we just let the winner go onto the podium and do the interview there. But I always feel you want to catch that emotion right away, and it's okay if you interview them twice.
My producer at the time was like, “Oh, we don't know if we're going to get him, we'll see about the situation.” And speaking of scrums, they never told me to go get him at the end of the game. I was just standing around watching the celebration, and the scrum had already formed around him. And my producer said, “Go get Peyton if you can.” And I’m like, “He’s already surrounded!” But luckily, it was Chad Steele again, and he’d told Peyton, “Tracy’s going to interview you.” And Peyton and I have had a very good relationship, not only through the NFL, but stemming through his SEC ties as well. And he was like, “OK.” And so he made sure to wait that moment. And then as soon as I got to the scrum, it was kind of like the Red Sea parted and they let me in to do the interview. It was really respectable and really easy, comparatively to the one I did with Brady.
And he gave a great answer. He knew I was going to ask it, he knew it was over, so he gave that Bud Light [Budweiser] answer. People ask me all the time, “What’s your most memorable moment of your career?” And by far, that is it. My first Super Bowl, Peyton Manning’s last game, Super Bowl 50.
Manning and Brady seem like very different personalities. Are there differences in how top-level athletes process a career-making victory like that?
Everyone is different when you go to those on-field interviews postgame. You will get the generic answers. You’ll get the condescending, chip-on-the-shoulder answers from some guys, and then you'll get some humor, you'll get some love, right? If you have a good relationship with them.
Mahomes is a guy who usually doesn’t give you much. But you ask the right question, like we did last week, and he’ll talk about how the fans on the road and hearing it all inspired him. I do think it’s about how long they’ve been in this league. Early on with Joe Burrow, he has an edge to him. But he’s only been in that position a few times. When they’ve been there, done that, they have relationships with me, it certainly helps in those interview situations.
It can be difficult to get more than a canned answer, particularly mid-game. How do you approach that, to try and get something out of somebody, especially in the heat of the moment? Going into halftime, Bill Belichick doesn't really want to give away his game plan.
Yeah, it’s difficult, especially with coaches. They are who they are, and they're not going to really change.
We're never going to interview Bill Belichick on the air. First of all, he's never going to do it on camera. And I know every time I'm interviewing Belichick, it is going to be the same answer. I've covered him for 10 years now. I don't shy away from the hard questions. You have to ask what you have to ask, because otherwise you're not getting the most and you're going to look dumb if you don't ask that right question.
And so with Belichick, I would ask, “Tom Brady, sacked four times in the first half. How do you protect him better?” And he's just going to stare at me. He's going to stare at me for like 15 to 30 seconds, and it feels like five minutes, and you don't know what to do. You're like, do I just ask again? Do I move on? Do I thank him and walk away? And so I've done it enough where I just wait. And usually you just get, “Gotta do a better job.”
And then you follow up, and you're like, “Gronk, only one target in the first half, how do you get him more involved?”
“Just got to do a better job.”
And so sometimes you have to have fun with it, like, “A man of few words, Bill Belicheck said you just gotta do a better job.” But you’re certainly not making it up! I will put that out there right now.
Sean McDermott—he didn't give me anything, and we actually weren't supposed to air that one last week because it was so bad. I could have just reported it and added some injuries. But to me, so much better to see and hear from a coach than to regurgitate information and hear from me. You get Hubert Davis at a halftime interview in an NCAA game, and he goes, “It's live action, Tracy! It's live action!” That's one of the greatest interviews I've done on a court before.
And we know who's going to be good. Dan Campbell, you're always going to put on camera. Antonio Pierce was great, talking about “strangling them in the second half.” I learned a lot working with Nick Saban in college, because he was tough, but he respected you if you asked the right question. And if you did, he gave you great answers.
You referenced a controversy from November, when Charissa Thompson said at times she made up sideline reports. What did you think when you heard that, and did you worry that it damaged your craft?
I think it just put everyone a step back. I think it was just unnecessary. I didn't understand why it needed to be said. If that's what she did, that's fine, but that's not the norm. And to put that out there, and [have] people who don't know think it's the norm—well, then that sets us back.
What we've done for so long is try and strive for everyone out there to realize that we're not just women in sports, we're sports reporters. We're doing a job—a really difficult job, by the way, and it's taken us a long time to get where we are. And so for that to be said bothered me.
I am not one who likes to insert myself in any controversy. I don't enjoy it. If anyone tweets at me, I ignore it or mute it or block it. That's not me. I'm not going back at anyone. You’ve got to put the blinders on, because this is a business where you're going to be scrutinized for anything you do. But I felt as though as a veteran reporter, I needed to come out and say something. We work really hard to get where we are. I think that kind of tarnished it a little bit. But I think those that know the business really know what we do. It was just unfortunate.
I’ve seen some conflicting information on this—did you work the New Orleans Super Bowl between the Ravens and 49ers?
You wanna hear the story? So, I was still covering college at the time, and they asked me to do pregame and postgame. I would dabble in the NFL a little bit. I remember I was on the field pregame, and I went to go get my microphone and earpiece for the actual game, and they were like, “Oh, no, you're not doing the game. You won't be hooked up for the game. You're only going to get on if the lights go out.”
That's exactly what they said. Now[adays] everyone's like, “You pulled the plug!”
So I wasn't even allowed on the field for that game. They had me go into the green room with Jackie and [Jack] Harbaugh. The lights didn’t go out in the green room, and we’re watching on TV, and I’m like, “Did the lights just go out?” And so immediately I'm like, “Let's go! I'm in!”
I got hooked up and I got out on the field. They needed all hands on deck to help out with what was happening, and this is where college really helped me, because a lot of the guys working the sidelines were LSU guys. And I had such good relationships with them from my SEC days that they actually helped me get the information as to why they weren't starting the game.
And so I came on the air. I don't even think anyone had my graphic. I remember Jim Nantz saying, “Wait, Tracy’s on the air? I’m sending it to Tracy?” So I got on the air, I did that report, and then that was it. I disappeared for the rest of the game. I actually did work the Super Bowl, but I wasn't supposed to work the Super Bowl. People ask me how many times I’ve done a Super Bowl, and I don’t really know what I'm supposed to say. Is this my fourth? Is it my fifth?
Originally Appeared on GQ