When CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson covered her first Super Bowl from the sidelines – Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers – she knew she was going to have to ask Peyton Manning in some way whether this would be his last game.
“I knew I was going to have to ask it; he knew it was going to have to be asked, but you still don’t want to ask about the win and then just say, ‘so is this it?’” Wolfson said last week from her home in New Jersey.
But at one minute, seven seconds into the post-game interview from the field, Wolfson essentially said just that – “So is this the final game of your career?”
And Manning – who was a year or two beyond delivering the perfect pass anymore – delivered his always-perfect sound bite:
“You know, I’ll take some time to reflect. I’ve got a couple of priorities first – I’m going to go kiss my wife and my kids, hug my family. I’m going to drink a lot of Budweiser tonight, Tracy, I can promise you that. So I’m going to take care of those things first and then say a little prayer to the man upstairs to thank Him for this opportunity. I’m just very grateful.”
While winning his second Super Bowl in what turned out to be Manning’s final game playing professional football was the pinnacle moment for No. 18 that night, for Wolfson, it was helping Manning so eloquently answer what she had to ask.
“He handled it so well,” Wolfson recalled. “It was Peyton Manning’s last game, my first Super Bowl and just how he handled his responses to all the questions,” Wolfson said. “That was definitely an all-timer for me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, did that just happen?’”
It did happen, and Wolfson was there to capture it – maybe even usher it.
Flash forward almost three years to the day, and Wolfson was responsible yet again for a viral sound bite – only this time it came from former Manning nemesis Tom Brady.
Brady had just led his Patriots to a convincing win over the Chargers in the divisional playoffs and Wolfson asked about the convincing win and the solid run game, hoping to eventually get Brady to talk about the “underdog status” the Patriots had been trying to claim all week.
Instead Brady just launched into it unsolicited:
“I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games,” Brady told Wolfson on the sideline. “So we’ll see. It’ll be fun.”
It was certainly fun for Wolfson whose immediate reaction – an incredulous laugh – gave her opinion away as she reacted the way any non-Patriots fan would – are you kidding me, Tom?
“I was actually trying to lead into that theme,” Wolfson said, noting how the previous week, the Patriots had been playing up an “underdog” role and that “no one thought they could win” on the road. “But then [Brady] just went there anyway.”
More Than Just Holding The Mic
If professional athletes dream of winning the pinnacle event of their sport on a “big-time stage” to share the glory with the world and their fans, then sports broadcasters dream of holding the microphone to provide that big-time stage.
Wolfson has had her fair share of holding that microphone.
In her 13th year with CBS, the longtime sports reporter is now the network’s lead sideline reporter for “NFL on CBS,” which includes Sunday games plus the AFC Wildcard game, AFC Divisional playoff game as well as the AFC Championship and now upcoming Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
“I’ve just always wanted to be around the game,” Wolfson says, noting she was a tomboy as a child, but didn’t really grow up in a sports-crazed household. She was just always drawn to it.
“I was completely mesmerized by sports, and I watched ‘NBA Inside Stuff’ all the time, and I thought, ‘I could do that.’”
As a female growing up in the early 80s, Wolfson didn’t have much opportunity to just talk about sports, even though that was her passion.
So, she made the opportunity. A Michigan native, Wolfson chose the University of Michigan for the good education but also because she knew she could surround herself with college sports.
“I never got to talk about sports really, but it was all I ever wanted to do,” she said. “I just loved it.”
But since the Michigan journalism program closed her sophomore year, Wolfson had to work harder to get noticed. So she took a first job at CBS as a “sports researcher,” where she was responsible for putting together packets of information for the reporters and anchors prior to the sporting events they were covering.
“It was the lowest job you could get at CBS, and I just researched every matchup, every game, all the teams, the players,” she said. “And I always loved that.”
That early interest has not only prepared her for her current role on the sidelines, it has inspired her work too.
“I just love being a reporter and looking for those nuggets that people don’t know about,” she says. “I’ve always liked preparing for the game.”
Which is good, considering Wolfson has covered everything from rodeo, auto racing, gymnastics and ice skating, to tennis, football and basketball. She has been on the biggest stages to bring some of the biggest stories from such events as the Super Bowl, March Madness, Final Four, the U.S. Open as well as the Olympics.
Playing tennis, basketball and softball as a kid, Wolfson has had to research a lot of sports she didn’t inherently know or participate in. In fact, her love of football over basketball developed in college while cheering on Big Blue but also, she thinks, because it was a sport she had to study more to understand. And as she learned more about the game, she fell in love with it.
“I was intrigued by football because I hadn’t played it,” Wolfson said. “I had to focus and learn the ins and outs of the game – and I really liked that. I liked researching the game.”
That desire to understand the game and passion to tell the stories have now put Wolfson in her dream scenario – on the sidelines near the action, talking to players and telling their stories to the masses.
“Now I do get to talk about sports and get everyone excited and interested in the game,” she said. “Every week is different, every game is different. It would be difficult to get bored.”
Continuing To Blaze A Trail
The sports broadcasting world is never boring, but it hasn’t always been the most accepting for women – particularly as knowledgeable journalists. Although plenty of women have blazed the sports broadcasting trail before Wolfson, the Michigan native has come across a few men who didn’t want to take her seriously.
Speaking with an executive producer early on about her aspirations for moving up at CBS Sports, the producer said, “I know you love sports, and I know you know sports, but not like the guys do.”
That did not deter the young wannabe reporter. If anything, it motivated her even more.
“It was a good kick in the butt,” Wolfson said.
Perhaps being a woman in sports has helped motivate the 43-year-old broadcaster to be a better reporter, a better story researcher, a better storyteller, but Wolfson has never really looked at it that way.
Instead she sees it as doing the best job she can to share the best stories with the audience.
“I don’t really think about it at all,” Wolfson said. “I just work really hard, ask the right questions, know my stuff and do what I’m supposed to do. I tell young, aspiring broadcasters “don’t look at yourself as ‘a woman in the business.’ Look at yourself as a young professional.”
Wolfson could probably thank former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine for that outlook. In her first on-air assignment for CBS, Wolfson was sent to cover Opening Day for the Mets.
She wasn’t the least bit intimidated as the only female reporter and jumped right in to ask the fiery manager a question about the Mets’ “lack of pitching.”
Valentine fired a question back to test her, but she “stood her ground,” as she told Michigan communication graduates back in 2010.
“I stood my ground, answered his question confidently and he backed down and gave me just the perfect sound bite,” she told them, adding that when she reviewed the tape to edit her story, she noticed something. “My editor and I noticed Valentine, as I was walking away, the camera still rolling, looking in my direction saying, ‘Who’s that Broad?’”
No one is asking that anymore. Players, coaches, owners and managers know this smart brunette on the sideline is not just another pretty face.
She’s got questions.
And that’s why Wolfson’s checklist for advice to any aspiring broadcaster involves being versatile, being nice, not being a diva, but most importantly, “knowing your stuff.”
More Than X’s and O’s
Even after two decades in the industry, Wolfson is continually studying and learning to be prepared on game day.
She doesn’t sit down and do a ton of X’s and O’s film study, but she does do some. And with everybody’s favorite color commentator Tony Romo at CBS, she’s definitely taken advantage of his football IQ to improve her craft.
“I am learning so much from him, seeing the game in a different way – things like the formation and why they’re doing what they’re doing, the mental aspects of playing quarterback,” she said. “When it comes to the Xs and Os, [Tony] is just so special.”
But it hasn’t been just a one-way teaching lesson. Wolfson has been able to share wisdom with Romo on how to ask the right questions, and get important information during their meetings with teams before games. Those meetings become invaluable for her game-day experience as she listens to what coaches say their keys to the game are and then follows up with those during her interviews.
She’s also known for moving around the sidelines, listening in on a defensive huddle or catching snippets from the offensive line coach. Or, whoever has the storyline she’s going to need.
These stealth tactics give her an edge when she only has seconds to a minute to interview a coach or player on the sideline.
“For me, I’m not going to be memorizing rosters and stats, that’s a waste of space in my head,” Wolfson admits. “If a coach said his main focus was going to be stopping the run and then his team allowed 150 yards in the first half, I’m going to ask him ‘what happened?’ It’s really about knowing, situationally, where to be on the field and what story to follow.”
It’s also about timing – and asking the right questions at the right time.
Wolfson learned an important lesson about this early in her broadcasting career when she actually asked the wrong question – or at least at the wrong time.
It was the U.S. Open and Lleyton Hewitt had made an amazing comeback after being down 2 sets to 0, and instead of asking about that in the post-game interview that was broadcast on the jumbotron to the entire arena as well as on television, Wolfson followed up on a story thread she had been paying attention to during the match about exposing his weaknesses.
“I actually got booed by the crowd,” she recalls with a laugh. An executive producer reminded her that it wasn’t the wrong question, but it wasn’t the right time. “He said, ‘remember, you’re not Barbara Walters.’ It was so embarrassing, but it was a good lesson.”
The Biggest Stage
So this week at her third Super Bowl (second from the sideline), it will be all about following the stories – a rising QB star versus one of the Greatest Of All Time; an old-school coach versus the new look of the NFL; Tom Brady somehow having a chip on his shoulder; the turnaround of the Rams’ franchise – and asking the right questions.
“Now it’s one of my strong points,” she says recalling some of her early football reporting days in the SEC where she relished getting perfect reactions from the coaches. “If it’s asking Nick Saban the right question when he’s down 14-0, or getting Les Miles riled up, or asking Steve Spurrier which quarterback he’s going with in the second half, I love asking the right question.”
And whether she’s finding an eloquent way to ask Tom Brady “if this is it?” or providing the microphone for Jared Goff to realize his first big moment on the big stage Sunday at Super Bowl LIII, Wolfson will be working to ask just the right questions.
“I just love the enormity of this event,” she says. “I love preparing.”