Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images

Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images

Top Schef

by Adam Rosen, ’05 | Fall 2018

Adam Schefter’s fans know him as an expert on all things NFL, from his television show and Twitter feed to his podcasts and books. Now, he reveals another side in a personal memoir about his family.

 

It’s a quiet Thursday morning in early June at ESPN’s sprawling headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, and Adam Schefter, ’89, is limping ever-so-slightly through the halls of the world’s largest sports network. The day before, the 51-year-old reporter and anchor agreed to let a correspondent from Barstool Blue—the U-M affiliate of the frat-friendly website Barstool Sports—record a video of him running a 40-yard-dash, and Schefter’s hamstrings are rewarding him for his kindness.

Even hobbling slightly, however, Schefter moves quickly. He bounces from the television studio to the conference room to the makeup nook, conversing constantly with those around him and on the other end of one of the two phones he carries. By midday, he has learned that Terrell Owens, the gifted and unpredictable retired wide receiver, has decided not to attend his own induction into the Football Hall of Fame, making him the first player ever to decline the honor. When Schefter posts this news on Twitter, his tweet convulses with the number of likes, comments, and retweets spinning upward and beyond. So much for an off-season snooze.

Schefter is always talking or texting: at home, in the office, on vacation (in the rare instance when he takes one), and sometimes when he is co-hosting “NFL Live,” ESPN’s flagship, weekday football program. He also regularly appears on “Sunday NFL Countdown” and “Monday Night Countdown,” hosts a weekly podcast, writes stories for ESPN.com, and works several times a year as a sideline reporter at NBA games. (He is a diehard basketball fan.) Adding to his roster, he has also written five books, including his latest, “The Man I Never Met,” released this September. It is Schefter’s first non-sports-related book and covers a subject much dearer to him than athletics—his family.

Schefter does all of this in addition to constantly breaking NFL-related news. To put his influence in contemporary terms, he has 7.1 million Twitter followers—more than Gwyneth Paltrow, Magic Johnson, or Tiger Woods. His network of sources—whether NFL players and personnel, journalists, or other purveyors of inside information about the country’s most popular sport—has made him a one-man intelligence-gathering operation and one of the most influential journalists in American sports media.

“In terms of an informational resource, there’s no singular reporter more connected to the NFL at this particular moment than Adam Schefter,” says  Richard Dietsch, a former longtime Sports Illustrated reporter who now writes for the website The Athletic. “He’s made himself indispensable because he’s a very well-connected, dedicated reporter. He’s a grinder.”

Given his visibility on a number of platforms, Schefter is accustomed to being in the public eye. Yet in 2016, he did something highly unusual: He shared his private life with viewers. In a seven-minute ESPN segment that aired on the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11, Schefter and his wife, Sharri, talked about her first husband, Joseph Maio, an equities trader who died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At the time, her son with Maio was just 15 months old. The airing of that story led to “The Man I Never Met,” Schefter’s recently published memoir, which is a touching tribute to a figure whose absence has loomed large in the journalist’s life.

According to Schefter, it was Sharri’s idea to tell their story on ESPN. The two married in 2007 and now have a daughter, in addition to her son. “Sharri said, ‘You discuss so many things publicly, and you never discuss Joe.’ She then said she would like it if I remembered him,” recalls Schefter. “I said it would be an honor.”

Though he has co-written the memoirs of several former NFL players as well as the former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, the demands of his job and the emotional difficulty of writing such a personal story led him to contact Michael Rosenberg, ’96, a fellow U-M alumnus and Sports Illustrated writer who agreed to co-author the book with him. “Frankly, I don’t think I could’ve written it without Michael’s help,” Schefter says. “It was personal. It was complex. It was about me.”

The book delves deeply into what Schefter pondered on the ESPN segment with Sharri. In the televised piece, he asks, and then answers, his own question, “How can a man I’ve never met still manage to have one of the single biggest impacts on my life? It speaks to all he accomplished and the man he was. Joseph created a life for himself and, without knowing, helped create one for us, too.”

Schefter and his colleagues on the set of “Postseason NFL Countdown” during Super Bowl week.

Photo by Don Juan Moore / ESPN Images

Schefter began his sports writing career at The Michigan Daily, eventually earning his own column, titled “The Schef’s Specialty.” He readily admits that he wound up at The Daily only because his other options did not work out.
He tried rushing a fraternity but did not make the cut. He asked the football team if “they needed somebody to pick up jock straps and hand out water bottles”; they did not. He tried the same approach with the basketball team, to no avail. He finally ended up at the school newspaper. “I didn’t think, ‘Boy, it’d be great to write about the Michigan basketball or football teams.’ It just sort of happened.”

Highlights of his time at the paper, he recalls, were the weekly Monday luncheons he conducted with football coach Bo Schembechler at Weber’s Inn. Schefter would get the whitefish and, along with all the other beat writers covering U-M football, listen to Schembechler talk. Despite the regular access, no single football story he wrote at the paper stands out for him today. “I honestly didn’t know how to cover stories back then,” he says. “You’re learning how to do it.”

After college and graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Schefter moved to Denver to work for The Rocky Mountain News. Though he wanted to cover the Colorado Rockies (the expansion team Major League Baseball had just awarded to the city), he was assigned to the Broncos NFL beat instead. Friendless and free on the weekends, he started gaining familiarity in front of the camera by pursuing video reporting assignments for the NBC affiliate at the time, KCNC-TV. Six years later, he moved to The Denver Post, where he continued to cover the Broncos, and in 2004 took a job at the NFL Network. When they declined to renew his contract in 2009, he moved to ESPN to become one of the network’s NFL Insiders.

The main lesson Schefter has taken from his path is that “when one door closes, another opens.” It may sound cliché, but this willingness to embrace second and third choices has paid vast professional dividends. His other mantra is that really, really hard work pays off. In the world of sports journalism, Schefter is known for having a draft horse-like character. “He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen,” says Bill Hofheimer, senior director of communications at ESPN. “Maybe the hardest.”

There is a method behind Schefter’s madness. “I always felt like I had to work to keep up because I wasn’t the best, I wasn’t the strongest, I wasn’t the smartest, I wasn’t the most creative. I wasn’t any of those things,” says Schefter. “So what could separate me was, ‘Well OK, I’ll always outwork.’”

“From a football perspective, I’d say I think he just wants to win championships,” says Tedy Bruschi, the former New England Patriots linebacker and one of Schefter’s co-hosts on NFL Live. As a former player, Bruschi says he particularly appreciates Schefter’s considerate, no-frills approach to breaking news. “A big motivator is for him to inform through information, not through pizzazz or sensationalism.”

Despite Schefter’s high profile, he lives a low-key, prescribed life. He spends roughly 50 nights a year in Bristol, confining himself to the ESPN office and a nearby hotel, where he gets room service so he can keep working. When he is not working, he is on Long Island with Sharri, their daughter and son (now a U-M freshman), and four labradoodles.

Rosenberg—who also happens to be a Michigan Daily alumnus—likens his friend’s career to a batting cage. “I think of Adam’s life like this: the pitches are just coming one after another, and he just hits every single one of them. There’s no break. Sometimes the balls aren’t in the machine, but as soon as they come he’s ready. That’s how he is.”

Correction: The print version of this article and the original online version referred to the interviews at Weber’s Inn as postgame interviews. They were actually Monday luncheons. 


Adam Rosen, ’05, is a freelance writer and nonfiction book editor in Asheville, North Carolina.