written by R.L. Bynum
Pryor path to working for ESPN, appearing on “SportsCenter” started at UNC festival
If not for a couple of conversations at FallFest early in Brooke Pryor’s freshman year at UNC, she might not have begun her path as a sports writer that’s led her to work for ESPN and make appearances on “SportsCenter.”
The editor of her high school yearbook at Salem Academy, she first stopped at the table for UNC’s yearbook, the Yackety Yack. When it sounded like her only options would be to work on back issues that hadn’t come out, she moved on to The Daily Tar Heel table.
Pryor, who played basketball, volleyball and briefly ran track in high school, wanted to be involved in sports. She figured that signing up for Carolina Fever, a rewards-based student program that promotes game attendance, might be the extent of that.
“I listened to their pitch,” said Pryor of The DTH. “I didn’t think of it as journalism. I just saw that they had a sports staff and I always associated sports with what I like to do. So, I was like, well, I’ll just apply for sports and see if I can do it.”
Indeed, she could. She was assistant sports editor by her junior year and sports editor by her senior year.
The love of sports lured her into the field but the love of journalism accelerated a successful career that has had her, at 29, covering the Pittsburgh Steelers for ESPN’s NFL Nation since September 2019.
In between, she’s covered fellow journalism student Marcus Paige in the 2016 Final Four for the North State Journal, Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in the College Football Playoff for The Oklahoman and Patrick Mahomes in the AFC championship game for The Kansas City Star.
Journalism school didn’t attract her to UNC
Pryor isn’t in the large group of journalists who decided to attend Carolina because of its journalism school.
The Winston-Salem native ended up in Chapel Hill partly because her parents earned degrees at UNC — her dad earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees and her mom a graduate degree. She went in thinking she’d major in history or political science — it turned out that she hated the courses she took in those departments — but got into the journalism school in the second semester of her sophomore year.
“I’m just so lucky that my dream school or the school that I always planned on going to happened to have some of the best journalism programs in the country,” she said. “I feel like I kind of lucked into it in a lot of ways.”
Early on, she got a lesson from Jonathan Jones, now a senior NFL reporter for CBS Sports but then the DTH sports editor. After a UNC game, he heard her say “we” lost. He asked what she said. She repeated it.
“He was like, ‘I don’t ever want to hear you say we when you refer to UNC ever again. You are not on the team. You do not have a scholarship. You are not in their practice. It is not a we,’ ” Pryor remembers Jones saying. “And I never said it after that and I still won’t do it even though I don’t cover UNC anymore.”
There are still reminders of her college years, though. During one of the first days of Steelers training camp this season, former Tar Heel Eric Ebron waved at her, saying, “Hey, Brooke. Hey, Tar Heel!”
Love for telling stories off the field
Her favorite stories aren’t about the games or the plays but the people who play the game, work around the game or whose lives somehow intersect with athletes.
“I just found that I really liked talking with people and hearing their stories and then relaying those stories,” she said. “You can write about an idea but people, for the most part, want to read about other people because we’re humans and we’re interested in our own species, I guess.
“I really liked getting to know people and writing sports stories that were not necessarily X’s and O’s or outcome dependent,” Pryor said. “I would much rather learn all about somebody and tell you why you should care about that person because of something that they do off the field so that then you’re more likely to follow them on the field.”
In August, she wrote about a Pittsburgh-area artist, Coby Sabol, whose speed-painting income evaporated during the pandemic. He was struggling financially to pay the mortgage and provide for his wife and son when Steelers players hired him to do work, starting with Devin Bush. Sabol had previously painted cleats and other artwork for players.
“I even had a Steelers scout tell me ‘that’s one of the coolest human interest stories I’ve ever read.’ ” Pryor said. “I don’t think I ever had a conscious thought of, ‘I want to be a sports journalist,’ I think it was ‘I just want to tell stories about people, and I really like watching sports.’ ”
Another story she enjoyed was written after Mayfield made it to a Rose Bowl press availability. The quarterback had missed four press conferences while trying to shake off an illness. She didn’t write about Mayfield, but the driver who somehow got him out of the hotel and to the press conference. The driver didn’t watch football and had no idea Mayfield was a big deal until he saw camera crews waiting for the newly crowned Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I just told the story of this guy, with a few details that I got, and how his life intersected with Baker’s that day and how he was the one who delivered Baker to show everybody Baker’s here. He may not be 100% healthy but like he’s gonna play,” Pryor said. “That’s probably one of my favorite stories. I liked having the opportunity to be creative to figure out, OK, how can I tell the story in a way that 20 other people aren’t also telling it.”
Quick rise to major newspaper beats
After earning her journalism and mass communication degree in 2014 and being editor for Carolina Blue magazine for eight months, she began her ascent in the newspaper business.
She covered N.C. Central for The Herald-Sun for 16 months and college sports for the North State Journal for six months before her first big move in August 2016 to cover Oklahoma football for The Oklahoman.
“I’ve had some other opportunities to cover different colleges or NFL teams,” Pryor said. “I never wanted to be a football writer. I always wanted to do college basketball. But I also knew that I wanted to kind of expand my horizons and go across the country and see what else was out there. And then, if I was going to leave covering college basketball, I just wanted to cover a team that was relevant and as high pressure as it could get. I like being in high-pressure situations.”
A program with the rich tradition of the Sooners fit that bill, as did shifting after three seasons to covering the Kansas City Chiefs with Mahomes coming off a dynamic rookie season. She covered the epic 2016 game in which Mayfield threw for 545 yards to lead Oklahoma to a 66–59 win over Texas Tech with Mahomes throwing for 734 yards.
Pryor covered the Chiefs through the 2019 preseason, made it to Steelers practice on the Friday before Week 1 and covered the season opener that Sunday night in New England.
Being a beat writer for an NFL team or a national college football power means being plugged in constantly. Her bridesmaids knew that, so they wouldn’t let her have her phone when she got married in April 2019 in Durham. She missed the first predraft Chiefs availability but fortunately, no big news broke.
Pryor was quickly back at it but she and her husband still haven’t gone on a honeymoon. That has more to do with the lack of PTO for her husband, who had just started a new job. The pandemic scuttled plans for them to vacation in Curacao last summer.
“I definitely have breaking news that just pops up all the time and my husband is wonderful and understands that I have to handle the breaking news and I’m on call 24/7,” Pryor said.
The right opportunity at ESPN
Before her second season on the Chiefs beat, ESPN contacted her about various opportunities and none of them felt quite right. When Jeremy Fowler went from the Steelers beat to national NFL writer, that created an opening that appealed to her.
The first hint that this job would be a little different from being a newspaper beat reporter was when she went through the “full carwash” during her interview process. She did her screen test with Jac Collinsworth, now with NBC, on the “SportsCenter” set and was interviewed about the Chiefs. It was meant to simulate a two-minute “SportsCenter” hit.
The weekly hourlong segment she did on a Kansas City radio station, frequent appearances on a television station and Facebook Live shows while on the Chiefs beat made the transition to ESPN easier. Writing is still about 70% or 80% of her ESPN job.
“The TV stuff is very much an extra thing on top of it,” she said of the writing. “So, most days, when I go to the [Steelers] facility, I usually have a tripod in my car. But it’s not super unlike when I was at the Star, or even on the OU beat when we would post videos. At the Star, I had to travel with the tripod everywhere. But now, I have a ring light set up in my dining room for my shots from home and that to me is just hilarious.”
Part of that non-writing portion of her job is appearing on ESPN Radio shows.
“I’m really comfortable talking kind of off the cuff and ESPN Radio hits are very much a fire hydrant as far as the speed goes,” she said. “Because you’re on, you give your information. They want it to be concise and it feels like after less than five minutes you’re done. And I really like doing those, too.”
She doesn’t get paid anything extra for going on ESPN Radio a certain number of times but Pryor always embraces the opportunities. She’s also appeared a few times this season on “The OG,” the afternoon drive-time show on WCMC (99.9 The Fan) with Joe Ovies and Joe Giglio.
“Whenever they texted and said, ‘Hey, can you do this?’ the answer is always yes,” Pryor said of ESPN Radio or other radio opportunities. “That’s the thing that I’ve done throughout my career is to say yes to as many things, as many formats, as many interviews as possible because more reps just make me more comfortable and more happy to do it.”
High school proclamation not connected to current reality
One day coming back from an AAU basketball tournament in high school, she told her coach that she was going to be an ESPN sideline reporter one day.
“I don’t think I really knew what that meant,” Pryor said. “I just knew that I liked sports and I liked watching sports. I liked being around the games. I don’t think that I ever made the connection of, well, I know that I want to tell sports stories.”
There’s no real connection between that high school proclamation and landing an ESPN job, though, because of the path at Carolina that didn’t include working for the student TV station or the broadcast sequence.
Did she ever envision doing live hits on ESPN when she decided to pursue journalism?
“No, not at all,” she said. “It’s been a really funny transition just thinking about their times when they’ll tell me, ‘We want you to do a hit on this SportsCenter’ or ‘We want you to take a walkthrough’ or any number of TV things that they asked me to do. And sometimes I think, ‘Are you guys sure because I don’t have a TV training background?’ ”
ESPN assigned her a TV coach. She texts with him every week and he’ll give her feedback on clips of her appearances. About 85% of her live TV hits are done from home.
“I love doing it,” Pryor said. “I love the rush. I love the adrenaline.”
Recently, a two-person crew from “NFL Countdown” came over to her house with three big lights set up in a huge production to interview her for a feature to hear her experiences talking with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“It’s weird to me that I wasn’t nervous or anxious because there might have been a time in the past when I would have been nervous,” she said. “It feels really natural, so I’m lucky that I guess I, at this point — knock on wood — don’t get nerves and get anxious about doing TV stuff. It’s almost like I go on autopilot. You rehearse what you’re going to say so many times and then it’s just go time. ”
Tougher than the live hits are the 30-second hits where there’s a small margin for error on the timing and memorizing a script is more important.
Plenty of contrasts from days as a newspaper beat writer
Her writing and the pace of the job are different from when she was a newspaper beat writer because deadlines are dramatically different and she’s writing for a national audience instead of a regional audience.
“It’s understanding the national storylines, and there are some secondary storylines that I really had to get out of my system or at least reframe my focus,” Pryor said, adding that she may not “get into the weeds” about some stories that newspaper beat writers would have to cover.
“There’s more advanced planning maybe than in newspapers where you just plan to have a feature in advance sometimes but the daily stuff is kind of dictated, day by day. And it’s tough not having a beat partner and feeling like you’re on an island sometimes,” she said. “But it also means that I have the luxury of writing the best story that day or the best feature without having to lose it to a columnist or something like that.”
She rarely writes game stories, although she wrote more this season during the Steelers’ unbeaten streak to start the season. For most games, she writes an instant analysis of the game rather than a traditional game story.
“That kind of hits the biggest angle of the game and then three or four categories underneath of breaking down quarterback play, or the silver-lining statistic or an eye-popping next-gen stat with some analysis,” Pryor said. “But it’s definitely an alternate storytelling form and then you have a follow story for the next day that’s maybe a little bit more in-depth or taking something from the game, and then filing it that night so it’s ready to go Monday morning.”
The Steelers have hit a bad stretch in the past few weeks before Sunday’s win. But judging from the success of the previous teams Pryor has covered, a deep playoff run figures to be coming.
Former Maven sites rebranded again as FanNation sites
The school- and team-specific sites that first launched in our area in August 2019 as Maven websites that were then all renamed and branded as SI sites have all been rebranded again as FanNation sites.
Although the N.C. State site, last called All Wolfpack, ended in late October, North Carolina sites remain that focus on UNC (All Tar Heels), Duke (Blue Devil Country) and the Carolina Panthers (All Panthers).
Quierra Luck is the publisher of the UNC site, with contributions from Isaac Schade and Shawn Krest. Krest is the publisher of the Duke site with contributions from Schade. Schuyler Callihan is the publisher of the Panthers site with contributions from Josh Altorfer and Jason Hewitt.
There are 28 school-specific sites, including other ACC sites focused on Boston College, Clemson, Notre Dame and Syracuse. There are five NBA-focused sites but not one for the Charlotte Hornets since All Hornets ended in March. There are team-focused sites for every NFL team except the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Los Angeles Rams.
Chapel Hill radio icon retires
Ron Stutts, a radio icon for 43 years at WCHL in Chapel Hill, retired earlier this month after years as the morning drive-time host for the station.
He talked sports quite a bit and was the host for the station’s “Countdown to Kickoff” show ahead of Tar Heel Sports Network football coverage for years, and was a friend to nearly every Carolina coach who came along.
Voice of Tar Heels misses game
Jones Angell, the play-by-play voice for North Carolina, missed last week’s Tar Heels game at N.C. State after having secondary contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. To be cautious, he isolated himself so Dave Nathan instead called the loss to the Wolfpack. Angell hopes to be back for Wednesday’s broadcast of the Tar Heels’ game at Georgia Tech.
Pandemic continues to be tough for freelance broadcasters
Like many in our country, freelancers who enjoy working on television and radio broadcasts and depend on that work for income have faced a difficult time during the pandemic.
Chris Edwards’ season ended abruptly in mid-March as the voice of Duke baseball. Also the voice of Duke women’s basketball, Edwards got more bad news on Christmas Day when the team opted out for the rest of the season. He still will work some ECU games for ESPN+ and Catawba games for streaming broadcasts in addition to radio work for Curtis Media.
Chris Hooks hadn’t worked a game since mid-March before he was on the ACC Network Extra call of the Wake Forest at UNC women’s basketball game Dec. 20.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In the Rock Hill Herald, Alex Zietlow wrote about the path of Wake Forest kicker Nick Sciba, his early struggles as a college kicker and how he was able to find consistency.
In The Charlotte Observer, Alaina Getzenberg wrote about the difficult path to the NFL for Panthers rookie Yetur Gross-Matos.
In The Charlotte Observer, Scott Fowler talked to Ric Flair, who remembered friend Kevin Greene, who passed away earlier this month.
On Inside Carolina, former offensive tackle Mike Ingersoll wrote about the 2010 UNC football season that began with high hopes but was marked with plenty of disappointment.
In The Athletic, Joseph Person wrote that it’s time for the Carolina Panthers to find their new quarterback with owner David Tepper cleaning house.