For my most recent column for Patriots Football Weekly, (November 25th issue) I had the great priviledge of talking with CBS broadcasting legend Lesley Visser – the only woman to be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Visser was a pleasure to deal with, and seemed genuinely excited to talk with me about her career and the things she has accomplished over the years.
After submitting the column, I had a bunch of material left over from the interview, some of which I thought was too good to let go to waste, so I thought I’d share it with you here.
Most people today know mostly her for her television work with CBS, ABC and now CBS again, but in the article, I talked with her about how she became the first woman assigned to an NFL beat when, in 1976, the Globe sent her as a 22-year-old, to cover the Patriots. The press credential issued her by the team actually stated “No Women or Children Allowed in the Press Box.” She couldn’t get into the locker room either, and there was no ladies room easily available to her. It wasn’t an easy time for her, but she tried to keep a sense of humor about it. At least now she can look back on some of those events and laugh.
I had my own challenges, which I mostly kept to myself and later wove them into funny stories. There were no provisions for equality in 1976, no locker room access, I had to wait in the parking lot, rain or snow, to interview the players.
After the third game of the season, when the Patriots went to Three Rivers and beat the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, I was waiting outside for Terry Bradshaw. when he finally emerged and I went to ask him a question, he took my pen and notepad, signed an autograph and hustled away. I had to chase him, saying, “No, wait, I’m a reporter!”
Terry’s now a great friend of mine and he always tell me his autograph was worth more “than any damn story” I was going to write.
We talked about Robert Kraft, who at the time was just a Patriots season ticket holder, but he was also the owner of the Boston Lobsters of World TeamTennis. Kraft was the first person to let Visser into a professional sports locker room with the Lobsters. (They were actually a fairly big deal at the time.) Visser says:
The Krafts, including Jonathan and Myra, have always been risk takers. back with the Lobsters, Robert Kraft took a chubby Martina Navratilova and gave her a place to thrive, a chance to adjust to the United States. I still talk to Martina about it, and she remains grateful for the opportunity.
She mentioned watching game film with Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamiliton that first season to help her pick up a deeper knowledge of the game. Even though she had some ups and downs, and made some mistakes on the beat (one of which is chronicled in the PFW column), the Patriots as a whole, were great to her, and they have remained that way to this day.
Some things don’t change. Gino Cappelletti and Gil Santos were as wonderful then as they are now. Stacey James is one best P.R. men in the business and the coaching staff has magnetic names like Pepper Johnson and Dante Scarnecchia. Tom Brady is as classy now as Steve Grogan was back then, Chuck Fairbanks was kind to me.
I hope it doesn’t blow his cover, but I actually have a couple of hand-written Christmas cards from Bill Belichick.
We talked about some of her memories from her years on television, and among the things that stood out to her was all the times she was out in the elements on the sideline, and the various things she tried out in an attempt to keep warm:
In 15 years of doing network sideline reporting, I’ve been freezing in Buffalo and Kansas City, Soldier Field and Foxboro. and I’ve tried everything to stay warm. I remember doing a game in Green Bay and I tried battery operated socks. They were primitive, (with) giant “D” batteries hanging out the back of my boots. I was clumping around the endzone and, of course, the batteries went dead in the second quarter.
John Madden said to me, “You’re the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen.”
Visser has been a pioneer for women in the field of sports media. I mentioned to her that when you’re the one blazing the trail it’s not always easy to find role models, and asked how she dealt with the pressure that came with each challenging and groundbreaking assignment she was given.
I remember once asking Billie Jean King what the pressure was of always being in the Wimbledon final and she said, “Are you kidding? Pressure is a privilege.” She wrote it on a napkin for me 20 years ago and I have it framed next to my computer. I’ve reminded myself of that quote, most recently when I became the first woman analyst in an NFL booth.
We ended the conversation by talking once more about her connection to the Patriots, both past and present. She’s been back here in New England to cover the Patriots this season, (and written about it for CBSSports.com) and how she feels about her role in New England football history.
A few weeks ago, I covered that wonderful snowglobe of a game against Tennessee. In the locker room afterwards, Junior Seau laughed, “Don’t call those throwback uniforms, I played against those uniforms!” We had a private laugh. I was proud to have covered those uniforms.
This interview was one of the highlights I’ve had since getting into this sports media thing back in 2002. It’s opportunities like this which really make this experience rewarding.