Saturday, February 7, 2004

Sideliner Suzy Kolber has got game



By MICHAEL TSAI
The Honolulu Advertiser

HONOLULU -As a pigskin-passionate 8-year-old, Suzy Kolber conned her folks into getting her a football helmet and pads, supposedly for Halloween but really so she could try out for the neighborhood football team.

She earned her jersey and playbook before a bunch of uptight adults forced her to hang up her cleats.

"I didn't know it at the time, but that situation helped set me up for my career," says Kolber.

Host of ESPN's "Edge NFL Match-Up," Kolber, 39, has proven herself one of the most adept football analysts on TV, more than holding her own with former NFL players Merril Hoge and Ron Jaworski.

Like her counterparts, she'll break down an offense with slow-motion replays and chalkboard-type analysis, pointing to why a formation was used, how a defense is disguising its pass coverage or who the unheralded blocker is who made the play work.

Kolber is perhaps best known as a sideline reporter for NFL games, where she dispenses quick-hit insights that an entire nation of Monday-morning quarterbacks faithfully repeat at work the next day.

"I love covering sports, all sports, but my passion is football," Kolber says. "Football is in my blood forever."

Earlier this season, Kolber gained some unwanted national attention when NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, admittedly drunk at the time, told her, "I want to kiss you," twice during a live interview.

She received high marks for handling the situation with grace and received a public apology days later from a thoroughly embarrassed Namath.

It wasn't the first time her good looks threatened to overshadow her journalistic credibility. A few years ago, she earned praise when she (and ESPN) declined to go along with Playboy.com's "Hottest Sports Babe" poll.

And, of course, simple (and simple-minded) sexism still lingers among some football fans. Kolber adroitly defended herself when "60 Minutes" commentator Andy Rooney kvetched that a woman's place was not on the sidelines.

"I can do the job and I know what I'm talking about," Kolber says. "I think the coaches and players know that about me, and that's what matters.

"Everybody wants to be asked a good question. (Being a woman) has never mattered, and I've never had a bad experience."

Kolber, above all, asks good questions. A key reason she is in Honolulu this week is to work Sunday's Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium. She provides locker room insight that has typically been provided only by past beat writers such as John Clayton or Chris Mortenson.

But as ESPN continues to spread its wings over the NFL, Kolber and her Prime Time counterparts have become the one-stop, all-you-need-to-know-about-your-team-and-this-week's-game's information center.

"It's my personality to be a perfectionist anyway," she says. "I'm more demanding of myself than anyone else is."

She broke into the national sports scene when she was tapped to help launch ESPN2, serving as an anchor for SportsNight and a reporter on College GameDay. She was also the host of the X Games in 1995 and 1996.

In 1996, up-and-coming Fox Sports lured Kolber over with the opportunity to cover the NFL. Kolber spent three years there covering football, hockey and other sports, but was not inspired by the network's high-gloss approach.

"Fox values very slick entertainment," Kolber says. "ESPN is more about news, and that fits my personality more."

When Kolber returned to ESPN in 1999, she found herself living a football lover's dream as host of "Edge NFL Match-Up," co-anchor on SportsCenter and NFL sideline reporter.

"She's really done the sideline bit at a completely different level than anybody else," says ESPN colleague Chris Berman. "Some people worry about memorizing their notes. Suzy just knows her stuff. She's at home there on the field."




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ON THE AIR
Sideliner Suzy Kolber has got game
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