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Off the sidelines and into prime time


She's successful, beautiful, and -- get this, guys -- she knows more about football than you do. Now for the bad news: She's also engaged. But you can still see Melissa Stark every week on ABC's "Monday Night Football."

The Baltimore native will be reporting from the sidelines during games as part of an almost completely new broadcasting lineup -- including comedian Dennis Miller -- put together for the show's 31st season. She and the rest of team, which ABC hopes will help revive "Monday Night Football's" flagging ratings, make their debut tomorrow night in a pre-season game between the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers.

Stark, 26, covered the Orioles for Home Team Sports and then had several assignments, including this year's U.S. Open, for ABC's sister network ESPN before the ABC tapped her for one of the most coveted spots in sports broadcasting. It's a dream assignment for Stark, who graduated from Roland Park Country School and the University of Virginia before making the leap to prime time.

Have you always been a football fan?

I've always been a fan, but have become more of a fanatic in recent years. My father [Walter Stark] was an eye doctor for the Baltimore Colts, so I grew up going to all the games. He'd go to the locker room at halftime, and I'd go with him.

You just got through the network's boot camp in Burbank [Calif.], where you rehearsed with the new broadcast team doing commentary on games from last season. How did it go?

It was difficult for us to get any practice because I'm on the sidelines and not in a booth, and it's not what we're going to be doing. It was better for the guys in the booth. I did get a better understanding of what they expect from us. It's going to be different than in years past -- much more conversational. Not the typical, "Back up to you, Al," but more that we're all one, we're all a team.

Tell us about the new team.

There are five of us, where last year there were only three. And the idea is to have five distinct voices: Al Michaels, the play-by-play guy; two football Hall of Famers, Dan Fouts and Eric Dickerson; then Dennis Miller, who's obviously funny and the surprise. Then there's me.

Are you nervous? You make your debut tomorrow night.

I'm nervous in the sense that I'm a perfectionist. It's a good nervous. The adrenalin will start pumping the day of the game.

ESPN has made some funny commercials about your status as a "sports babe." You seem to have a sense of humor about that image.

It's kind of like in that movie, "There's Something About Mary," when Cameron Diaz says, "Hey, let's go upstairs and watch SportsCenter!" -- every guy's dream. I'm still me, so it doesn't really change anything. It's hard to take in other people's impressions of you -- you have to keep going on and not think about it. Obviously, it's very flattering. Guys want to talk sports with you whenever they see you!

How do the athletes you cover react to you?

As a woman, on the whole, players probably notice you more -- that goes for any woman -- because women stand out. It's an all-male world. But I think they're more used to it now. A lot of women have paved the way for me in sports. ... If you're credible and a good reporter, then I think you can gain their respect.

One woman who paved the way was Lesley Visser, the 46-year-old former "Monday Night Football" sideline reporter you're replacing. Some people think ABC made the change because of her age.

I think people may have perceived it that way or are trying to talk about it that way, but as far as Leslie and me, she's a friend of mine and we've exchanged messages and she's very gracious and has said, "I know you're going to do a great job."

How do you feel about Dennis Miller joining the "Monday Night Football" lineup?

He created a huge buzz, and it's getting the show a ton of publicity. ... I think people will learn quickly he knows a lot about football and is not just going to be the comedian. I think one out of every three or four things he's going to say will be funny. What he does is chime in as your average football fan sitting on the sofa. He's the geek who knows all the football stats but never played and is maybe making fun of the player who's fat.

So, when's the wedding?

May 27. He [fiance Mike Lilley, a bond trader] was saying, "I have the only fiancee out there who had to plan her wedding around football season!"

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