Lesley Visser

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 She Took the Ball and Ran With It

By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff

August 4, 2006

Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis. – It’s 30 degrees below reasonable, snow is massing in the great gray clouds overhead, and there’s a bite in the air so sharp it leaves teeth marks on your cheekbones.

On the floor of the stadium, as more than 55,000 bundled and toasted fans cheer, scream, and curse from the stands, the Dallas Cowboys burst out of the tunnel and run onto the crusty field. When the Green Bay Packers bust out across the way, the roar is deafening.

As the massive players mass on the sidelines, stomping their feet against the chill and grunting encouragement to each other, their white plumes of breath beating the air, a slim woman with a slightly ridiculous hat and a microphone steps up to the Packers coach, beams a smile at him, and leans in to ask a question.

The coach smiles back, and starts talking.

This is the air Lesley Visser loves to breathe.

For 30 years, Visser has been questioning National Football League players, coaches, general managers, and owners, first as a newspaper reporter the first woman on an NFL beat and for the last 22 years, as a television broadcaster.

She has interviewed tight end Don Hasselbeck of the Patriots, and she has talked with his son, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Her journalism career has included Jim Nance, a fullback for the Patriots in the late ’60s, and Jim Nantz, a broadcast partner at CBS. Along the way, she has also covered five Olympic Games, 28 Final Fours, and scores of events spanning the globe: Wimbledon and the US Open, horse racing’s Triple Crown, the NBA Finals, and even the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Tomorrow in Canton, Ohio, the Pro Football Hall of Fame honors her with the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award, which recognizes “longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.”

True love

Visser takes her place in the Hall for two reasons.

First, she knows her stuff, whether it’s football, or basketball, or tennis, or horse racing. A kid who liked sports, playing them and watching them, she knew as a youngster she wanted to be a sportswriter, though no such thing existed for women in the 1960s. Sort of like saying, “Mom, when I grow up, I’d like to work on the Internet.”

The what?

She loved the games and the players, dressed up as Celtic Sam Jones for Halloween, carried Ike Delock’s baseball card, idolized Auburn football player Tucker Frederickson and the Packers. But she idolized sportswriters Frank Deford and Ray Fitzgerald, too. And her mother, Mary, a high school English teacher, inspired her to go after what she wanted.

She knew football and basketball and a hopper full of other sports because she followed the games. When she moved from fan to reporter, she prepared for every event she covered, making sure there was never substance to the claim she didn’t know what she was doing because she was a girl.

“My real core knowledge and my passion met opportunity,” Visser said. “I wasn’t pretending to love football, I really do love it. I’ve said this before: There are two kinds of women who do television sports: the women who love sports and end up on TV and the women who want to be on TV and end up in sports.”

The second reason Visser is the first woman to be welcomed into the NFL Hall of Fame is that she has a charm and a generosity bigger than any of the obstacles the NFL could throw at her.

It’s nearly impossible not to like Visser, said Vince Doria, who worked with her at The Boston Globe and ESPN. Even the snarly, gruff, men-men-men of the NFL, who tried to keep her out of their locker rooms when the Globe first sent her to report on the Patriots, quickly learned to love her.

Visser came to the Globe in the summer of 1974 on an internship funded by a Carnegie Foundation grant intended for college women who wanted to go into jobs that were 95 percent male, an opportunity Visser called “just stunning when I look back.”

Marblehead lawyer Lori Long, one of Visser’s roommates at Boston College, said, “She was just a psychology major like the rest of us, and then she landed this thing and it all took off. She became famous before I knew it.”

Visser worked part time for the Globe during her senior year, while also writing at the BC paper with future New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica, another writer she idolized (“He could write!”), then took a full-time job at the Globe after she graduated from BC, along with fellow newbies Dan Shaughnessy and Kevin Paul Dupont.

“About two weeks ago, I was at a birthday party on Nantucket,” Visser said, “and it was overwhelming to think I started 30 years ago, and remembering being on a ferry to the Vineyard to cover some Division 4 football game.”

Complete coverage

Visser stepped into a Globe sports department that was packed with powerful pens: Will McDonough on football, Bob Ryan on basketball, Peter Gammons on baseball, Bud Collins on tennis, and columnist Leigh Montville. In those days, the Globe published morning and afternoon editions. Doria, then the assistant sports editor and now vice president and director of news at ESPN, said it was an ideal situation for Visser when she was assigned to cover the Patriots in 1976. “She was young, she was a good writer, and she obviously was someone who related easily to people.”

With McDonough working the morning beat, Visser had someone to make the introductions as she picked up the afternoon beat. In the female-fearing NFL, she was forced to interview players in the parking lot. A ladies’ room did not exist in the press box, but she simply carried on.

“She barged her way right into the situation,” said Doria. “She leaned on Willie when she had to but nobody pushed her around. And Willie, there was nobody better at being receptive to young people. And Lesley being Lesley . . . she just had a personality that was ideal for making friends. People remembered her.

“The fact that she was about the only woman standing in the crowd made her stand out, of course. But she has a way of making people feel immediately that they’re her best friend.”

Visser, in turn, has been a role model for scores of young people, primarily women, trying to find a way into the business. She fields calls, answers e-mails, speaks at colleges. Said Doria, “She’s got time for people.”

Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today and a best- selling author, is one of Visser’s pals (well, who isn’t?). She followed Visser onto the NFL beat, covering the Washington Redskins for the Washington Post, beginning in 1985.

“I always looked at her as a role model,” said Brennan, who now does television broadcasting, too. “I couldn’t wait to meet her. But Lesley, with her personality, I didn’t have to seek her out, she found me. We met in 1982 at a Florida-Georgia football game when I was with the Miami Herald. I bumped into her in the hotel. I always say we met at breakfast over bowls of oatmeal, and she says no, we met in the bar, over martinis. We laughed about what a metaphor that is for us.”

In the 1980s, the Globe was a springboard to television for many of its prominent writers: first Collins on tennis and McDonough on football, then Gammons on baseball and Ryan on basketball. Visser, quick-witted and camera-friendly (Long said Visser’s college nickname was Legsley), started reporting for CBS in 1984, and moved to the network full time in 1988. In 1983, she married sportscaster Dick Stockton, whom she met at Fenway Park on the night of Carlton Fisk’s magical home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

“I feel like I’ve had a billion-dollar life,” said Visser.

Screen idol

The transition to television wasn’t smooth. At first, Visser was stiff on camera. And she was cold. “I was at a Packer playoff game, and it’s always 10 below there, and my producer got me some battery- powered socks. But I got to the field at 10 a.m. and kickoff was at 1; the batteries were dead by the second quarter. So there I was, freezing, with these batteries clanking around on my feet. John Madden said to me, `You are the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen.’ ”

But Green Bay has given Visser poignant moments, too, including the Packers’ 1997 comeback victory over Carolina in the NFC Championship, when Green Bay earned its first trip to the Super Bowl in 29 years. “Everybody stayed,” Visser said. “It was so great to be on that field when Green Bay won, and nobody left, they just kept playing `Roll Out the Barrel’ and crying and celebrating.”

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s press release, Visser is the first woman it has recognized.

Well, duh.

The first woman on an NFL beat, she was also the first female broadcaster to report from the NFL sideline, the first woman on “Monday Night Football,” the first woman to handle the postgame presentation ceremony at the Super Bowl, the first woman to be an analyst for NFL broadcasts (on Westwood One/CBS Radio Sports), and, in the words of Visser herself, the first woman to “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah . . .”

That was Visser’s chippy response to crosspatch Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, after he answered her question in a postgame interview on national television with a caustic, “Oh, you media people . . .”

“It was fantastic,” said Brennan. “It was just what anyone on earth wanted to say to the guy. That’s really Lesley to a T; there is no secret here for any of us who know her so well and her ability to laugh at herself and keep that sense of humor at her darkest times.”

Visser’s darkest times, a disastrous fall in Central Park in 1993 when she broke her hip, and getting fired by ABC’s “Monday Night Football” in 2000, replaced with young, blond Melissa Stark, were brief pauses in a fast-moving life.

“There’s no doubt that any of us who appear in front of the camera have Lesley Visser to thank,” said Brennan. “Lesley made it easier for all of us with her generosity. I mean, she’s introduced me at [award banquets] and not only does she pay her own way, she sends me a gift afterward. She’s remarkable. Let’s face it, she knows as much about sports as anyone because she is so quick and so sharp and her ability to convey to the viewer is remarkable.”

Now Visser is the first woman to get an invitation into the NFL Hall of Fame.

Another stunning accomplishment, but really, an obvious choice. Of course, they want her in the Hall. The party doesn’t start until Lesley Visser gets there.

Visser is honored, and grateful, but at 52, she has no time to stop.

“I go from Canton to our NFL seminar for CBS,” she said. “After all, we have the Super Bowl this year.”

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