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Moving on from 'Monday Night Football'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As a sideline reporter for ABC's Monday Night Football, 29-year-old Baltimore native Melissa Stark earned a big-league reputation chasing down reluctant linebackers, dodging beer bottles and, once, after 9 / 11, tracking a mysterious gas that was causing players to throw up blood on the sidelines (it was pepper spray).

In August, after she and her husband had their first child, Stark decided to trade her microphone for a baby bottle. But not for long.

She was back in town recently chasing down world-class swimmer Michael Phelps, who she will follow next year in the Summer Olympics for her new employer, NBC. She sat down, with babe in arms, at her parents' house in Roland Park to talk about sports, her new job [she starts reporting for the Today Show in January] and how much she misses her old Monday night haunts.

This is your first year away from football after three seasons -- what happens for you on Monday nights now?

Sometimes I'm asleep when the game starts but wake up for the baby's feeding and see the end of the game. But I usually talk to Al [Michaels] and John [Madden] on Tuesdays and catch up.

Do they miss you?

I think so. And I miss them. But my baby was due the first week of the season, so it just wasn't going to work out.

Did they try to talk you into staying?

They did. They said, "This is perfect. You can come back the middle of October!" And I said, "What am I going to do with my baby?" They said, "Bring the baby on the road." Four days a week? A newborn? I don't think so.

But weren't you at Meadowbrook [aquatics center] at 6:30 this morning doing a story about Michael Phelps for NBC?

Well, I was watching him swim. But there were also all these moms there for the "Mommy and Me" class, and I thought, "Oh my gosh, I have to get home to my little boy!" I don't know how people do it. I have to figure out the balance between career and family life.

So you're not doing a story?

I was there because Michael's going to dominate -- or let's hope dominate -- swimming during the Olympics. He could be the story. So I was there about four hours talking to him and his coaches.

What kind of guy is Michael Phelps?

Well, he talks about cars, he talks about music, and he loves the NFL. So we talked about the NFL -- and funny commercials he likes on TV. He's 18. He's a kid.

Are you working on any other stories?

I'm supposed to be on maternity leave. However, I did do a story on Sept. 11 about a friend who had a baby about the same time I did who lost her [first] husband on 9 / 11. We had been out walking one day and she had this amazing story about new beginnings. On Sept. 9, I said, "Oh my gosh, why hadn't I thought of this?" I pitched it to the Today Show on Sept. 9, we shot it on Sept. 10, they edited it all night on Sept. 11 and it aired that morning.

When was your son born?

Aug. 22.

So by Sept. 9 you found a story to work on? What does that say about you?

Oh, gosh! [Laughs.] I don't know. It's all a blur after you have a baby. I think it says I'm a little bit crazy.

Do you ever feel wistful about beautiful nights on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field?

I don't know about the frozen tundra or any of those places where you need five pairs of insulated socks. But I do miss the people and the electricity of a Monday night game. It was almost like a mini-Super Bowl every week, and it's not something you can re-create -- having everyone around giving high fives and hugs and working a job where you have no idea what will happen next or what you will be covering. That's the kind of an adrenaline rush I don't think I could re-create. Even on the Today Show, I don't think we'll be going around the studio high-fiving everybody.

Why wouldn't you go back to it?

I really love sports, but I also love news. I love politics. I love entertainment. I want to explore all those areas.

How did you gravitate to journalism?

That's funny you should ask. I was just going through my high school yearbook recently -- I went to Roland Park Country School -- and in the yearbook they put a caption under everybody's name about what they most represent. Mine said, 'Most Interested.' I just have a natural curiosity, and I care about the answers.

Did you start there?

At Roland Park we had something like an internship where every Wednesday as a senior instead of going to school you went to a job. So I went to work at Channel 2. I would log stories and go out in the vans on stories. That was my first exposure.

How did you get into sports reporting?

I started in college at Univer-sity of Virginia with something they called The Coach's Show. I did features.

But why sports -- and why football?

It's something that started when I was little. I was in my first NFL locker room when I was 5 years old. My father was the eye doctor of the Colts, so my brother and my sister and my dad and I would go to all the Colts games and I would go down into the locker room so he could check the players' eyes. By the time I was in college, I was majoring in foreign affairs and Spanish and thinking I would become an international correspondent like Christiane Amanpour. But ... when I got out of school, sports was the natural step. And it just took off.

Is it true you learned to throw a spiral from Colts quarterback Bert Jones?

Right out there in the yard. My dad and Bert developed a relationship after one of Bert's children had some eye issues. So he would come over to the house. I was probably 9 or 10.

Did you play sports as a kid?

I was the captain of the tennis team at Roland Park.

You didn't play with dolls.

Never played with dolls. Never baby-sat. Never did those girly type things. I would always do guy-type things.

You did pretty well with that -- outlasted Dennis Miller and Eric Dickerson at one of the biggest sports venues in the country. How did you manage it?

As far as Dennis Miller, when John Madden became available, it was just a no-brainer. And Eric Dickerson knows all there is to know about football, but TV was not for him. As for me, I just strived to get better and better.

Do you ever get a little fed up with debates about whether women are capable of understanding football?

I always try to stay out of the fray with that. On the one hand, you just have to earn your credibility through your work. On the other hand, I think there will always be men who are uncomfortable about women talking about sports.

At one point, you became a candidate in Playboy magazine's poll to name the sexiest female sports reporter -- what about that?

I think that only devalues and damages women's credibility even more. For me, through my whole life, I've always wanted to downplay looks so people would actually want to listen to what I have to say. So the attention from Playboy ... it's exactly what you don't want.

Last year you declined comment when Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes made his infamous statement about female sports reporters who "don't know what the hell they're talking about." Comment now?

It was just one man's opinion. But I think he's from a different generation. You actually notice a huge difference between generations of athletes, too. For instance, I remember one time working a golf tournament and the difference between Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods was astronomical in terms of how they reacted to having a woman around.

Was that true in other sports?

It's different in different sports. Baseball is tough. You're hanging around BP [batting practice] or standing around and players want to think you're there for a different reason. They read into it.

So covering sports is now leading to the work you originally wanted to do?

That's just it. If you had asked me in college or high school, I never would have said I would do Monday Night Football. But if you had asked me if I wanted to be on the Today Show or if I wanted to be like Katie Couric, I would have said, "Absolutely." So this has been a circuitous route ... For women in sports, the top, top positions aren't there yet. I was not going to be a sideline reporter for the rest of my life, so what else would I do?

How would you describe Baltimore in the pantheon of sports venues?

It depends on how you rate them. I mean there's nothing like Lambeau Field, but other than that there's nothing else really going on in Green Bay, Wis. New York is a huge sports town. Boston is a huge sports town. Baltimore is up there. But I think with the Colts leaving, it affected things. And the Orioles haven't been winning. That definitely helps -- to have a winner.

Any forecasts for this year's Ravens and next year's Orioles?

This year's Ravens have a lot of the right pieces. Ray Lewis is as good as they get and Jamal Lewis, we saw how he's done this year leading the rushing attack. But the big position? Quarter-back. It's all about consistency and they've got a young guy. So they have to rise to the challenge. And the Orioles, you know, I think they could start with a new manager, but until they change their approach ...

What do you think about your sidelines replacement on Mon-day nights -- Lisa Guerrero?

I want her to do well. It is a much tougher position than people think.

You will soon be the new national correspondent for the Today Show. Over the next few years, how would you want your peers to describe you as a journalist -- tough, sensitive, pretty or smart?

Smart. Definitely smart. I wouldn't want to be known as tough. "Tough" is terrible. But I think "smart" combines the best characteristics. If you're smart you'll ask the tough question when you need to and be sensitive when you need to. And I definitely don't want to be known as pretty.

I understand that you made Phi Beta Kappa in college.

That's right. I graduated magna cum laude.

Last question: Did you ever see the softer, more feminine side of John Madden or Al Michaels?

Oh, all the time! John Madden is a big teddy bear. He is the funniest, nicest person. Here's a tough football guy, and he's always calling to see how my baby's doing. He wants to know how you're doing, how you're feeling and he notices every little thing you do.

And Al has a daughter my age, so while he's always treated me like a colleague, he's always looked after me just a little bit more. ... Yeah, they're great guys. In fact, if I get nostalgic about it at all, it's that I get sad missing those guys. Very, very solid people. That's the hardest part about leaving Monday Night Football.

An extended version of this interview can be found online at www.SunSpot.net / arts.

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