Photo by Karen Goldschmidt
It’s how the little girl who grew up in Bergen County, NJ by way of the Bronx, chasing fire trucks and police cars when she wasn’t rooting for the Yankees or Giants, made her way to ESPN.
Russini ran just over an eight-minute mile when she was in kindergarten, broke records every time she ran and never enjoyed it.
“It’s funny, of all the sports I played I was always a naturally good runner,’’ the four-sport athlete at Old Tappan High School said. “But I hate running. That was the problem. When I was in kindergarten I broke the school record for the fastest mile. I ran an eight-minute, 16-second mile. People were like, ‘What the heck!’ Obviously, it was a God-given talent. My parents and teachers were like, ‘Just keep running.’ And I kept breaking all these records. And I hated running. I still hate running.’’
In high school, Russini played soccer, basketball, softball and painstakingly ran track her last two years. She had Division I college scholarship offers for both basketball and track. So, of course, she decided to walk on to play soccer at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
“Full scholarships, too,’’ she said. “Don’t remind my father; he’s still mad about it.
“That’s been a trend in my life though, I never pick the easy way. I got offered for basketball and track from many schools. Soccer was the only sport I didn’t get an offer for, but I loved it the most. I wanted to play it. And you don’t just walk on to George Mason, but I did.’’
And again it wasn’t easy, but the NFL Countdown and NFL Live host wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“The coach said to me ‘I’m going to be honest with you, you’re too scrawny, you’re not good enough, your skillset stinks. We recruit the top women in the country.’ I asked him to just give me a shot,’’ Russini remembered. “I made the team but at the end of the season he said, ‘Look, I really like your attitude. You were a great example for the other freshmen who were really good, but lazy. And I used you as an example of what hard work is, but you’re just not good. I’m going to have to cut you.’ I asked again, what do I have to do. He said I had to gain 25 pounds and my skillset had to get better. I told him to give me the spring season to do it. My teammates really helped me. We trained every day, hit the weight room, worked on drills and that spring I was the leading scorer. He gave me a scholarship.’’
Before she shocked the women’s soccer world at GMU, Russini grew up in the same vicinity as future NFL linebacker Brian Cushing and future NFL tight end Greg Olson. Another infamous character from her town was Jeffrey Maier, the 12-year-old who had a big part in helping the Yankees win Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS on the way to a World Series title.
Maier’s part in a Derek Jeter home run was fine with Russini, who grew up in a Yankees household.
“I had no choice,’’ she said. “We were from the Bronx originally. So I grew up right near Yankee Stadium. We were always about baseball. We were huge baseball fans and that sort of became our obsession. I was probably in 6-7-8th grade when the Yankees went on that World Series run. I remember my brother Michael begging my parents to let us sleep at the stadium, so we could get up early and get tickets. They let him go, but they didn’t let me go and I was so upset.’’
Russini’s family—her brother, younger sister Nicole, parents Camille and Rick and even grandmother Lorraine—was always behind her from being the youngest reporter ever at WNBC in New York to Seattle to Connecticut to Washington D.C. and eventually to the Sports Leader. Even if they never quite knew what to expect from her.
Russini didn’t get married until this past September, eight months after her 37th birthday. So she got to do more. And she’s done it rather well.
“She’s a rising star,’’ Sal Paolantonio, her colleague at ESPN, said about her. “She’s a great reporter with great sources. She is thought very highly of at ESPN.’’
Russini landed at ESPN from Washington D.C. where she was the sports anchor at WRC, the NBC affiliate. But it goes further back than that, much further back.
“My parents tell stories about me as a little girl chasing fire trucks and police cars,’’ she says with a laugh. “I loved being a messenger. That’s what I enjoyed. I loved telling stories to everyone. As I got older and sports became such a gigantic part of my life I needed to step away from it and challenge myself.’’
So after being the sideline reporter for the George Mason men’s basketball team the year before they made that historic Final Four run (she also left D.C. the year before the Caps won the Stanley Cup and two years before the Nats won the World Series) Russini began her news career.
“I had success in news,’’ she said. “But I realized very quickly you can’t determine what you love. You can’t choose it. In between news stories and interviews I would have sports talk radio on, talking to everyone about the Yankees, or Giants or whatever. I realized my head wasn’t in news. So my grandmother actually pushed me over the edge. She said she watched me on TV, but she didn’t see her granddaughter. ‘I don’t know who that person is,’ she said. I knew what she meant, because I was pretending to be something I wasn’t. I switched to sports and started my career over at 27.’’
Russini’s sports career began across the country in Seattle with Comcast Northwest.
“I had never been further west than Pittsburgh,’’ she said.
A Jersey girl in the Pacific Northwest is change enough; this was also a switch from hard news in New York to the Seahawks and Mariners. Frasier Crane may have done all right going from Boston to Seattle, but Russini struggled.
“When I switched to sports I had to learn the culture,’’ she said. “I was terrible in Seattle, but I learned a lot. It was a big market to be in to not have any experience in sports. It was hard.’’
Would she want it any other way? Of course not.
She moved back home, without a job. “I’m living with my parents at 28,’’ she said. An old e-mail she came across led to a job at the NBC affiliate in Hartford, Connecticut where she split time between news and sports.
As luck, or fate, would have it the news director from WRC in Washington was taking his daughter to visit Harvard and stopped for the night in Connecticut where he saw Russini on TV. He called the next day and asked if he could hire her to work in the nation’s capital.
“I was going to be covering the Redskins and I didn’t know anything about football,’’ Russini said.
She took the job anyway and was the number three anchor for about a minute. The number one sports anchor left for a job at NFL Network and the number two guy didn’t want to be number one.
“I’m number one now and I can’t name one player on the team,’’ Russini said.
Again, it’s never easy. She didn’t hide her lack of knowledge from the players and coaches or try to fool them into thinking she knew more than she did. Instead, she used them to learn the game and quickly became the No. 1 sports anchor in the D.C. area.
It wasn’t long after that ESPN came calling.
“Everyone thinks I went to Washington to get to ESPN,’’ she said. “That wasn’t it at all. I loved Washington. I loved the people there. I was close to George Mason. But a friend told me you only get one or two of these moves in your life. ESPN, The Today Show, Good Morning America doesn’t call you; you call them. So answer the phone.’’
That might have been the easiest thing she’s ever done.