By R.L. Bynum
Rodrigue brings passion to Carolina Panthers beat
The passion for her craft is evident as Jourdan Rodrigue discusses a sports writing career that advanced to an NFL beat years before she expected.
You can tell that she approaches life with plenty of introspection. And it’s obvious that the native Arizonan loves storytelling and has the drive to learn every nuanced detail of the sport she covers.
She’s never satisfied with just reporting what happened on the field. Rodrigue wants to explain to readers why it happened and how it happened.
“My goal was always to make people feel like they are there with me in the locker room, kind of seeing the things that I’m seeing and understanding why these things are important or maybe not important,” said Rodrigue, who is part of The Athletic’s NFL coverage expansion announced July 16, continuing to cover Carolina Panthers beat as she did at The Charlotte Observer.
Thrilled to be a part of this growing team for @TheAthleticCAR with today's official addition of Jourdan.
— Ken Bradley (@KenBradleyNC) July 16, 2019
For someone who grew up with Arizona’s dry heat, there is only so much she can do to adjust to the steamy humidity of training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. “People are made of different fortitude over here to be able to put up with this. It’s just crushing you slowly.”
There is plenty of summer sweat during training camp. But she’s gathered plenty of sweat equity while covering Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., and, for the past three seasons, the Panthers. With training camp starting, she was busy, appearing on four sports radio shows across the state last week.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, you have to have that knowledge of what’s happening in front of your face in order to be great,” said Rodrigue, who shared a press box several times at Penn State with Sara Civian, The Athletic’s Carolina Hurricanes beat writer, who was a student there at the time. “I had always gone out of my way to try to grab coaches after games or players and just talk about what happened and ask them questions. There have been some amazing teachers in some unlikely places for me.”
Among those have been Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead (who was Penn State’s offensive coordinator when she covered Penn State), Penn State coach James Franklin and his associate head coach Sean Spencer, as well as Carolina Panthers coaches and players.
“A couple of years back, Kurt Coleman and I were just talking about different alignments and different coverages in the locker room and we had totally lost track of time and he was just showing me how defensive backs are supposed to position their bodies,” she said of the former Panther safety, who is now with the Buffalo Bills. “Just all these details that I was so interested in. Players, I think they really like explaining so that people know what they’re talking about when they’re writing so they’re not wrong and they aren’t being mischaracterized. That’s really important to me to not mischaracterize anyone.”
The talented duo of Rodrigue and Joe Person that produced excellent Panthers coverage for The Charlotte Observer (much of it also appeared in The News & Observer and Herald-Sun) is back together. Person joined The Athletic last August.
“I have the utmost respect for him,” she said of Person. “He taught me so much when I first got here, especially never having covered the NFL before. I strive to be an authoritative voice on this team in the same way that I saw he was.”
Rodrigue left the Observer in June, two weeks after accepting the job at The Athletic. Before taking the job, she had mutual, ongoing conversations for a while with the subscription-based sports content site. She had to stay quiet about the move until the announcement earlier this month because she was part of the site’s rollout of its NFL expansion.
“It was a really good thing for me to be in the lead role at the Observer for this last year, so it kind of came around at a perfect time,” said Rodrigue, who had a couple of other job opportunities as well. “It was tempting. There were some things that were really important for me to be here for the time being and I think that I can’t believe that this opportunity has been presented to me.”
In the nearly monthlong break between her last day at the Observer and her first day at The Athletic, she backpacked with her boyfriend through the Southwest, including visits to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Horseshoe Bend.
“This was my time to kind of collect myself and get some ideas flowing,” she said. “I’m a big find-an-inspiration-in-nature person.”
She caught up on her reading and used the time to recalibrate.
“I’m super into being meditative and trying to reconnect internally just with the things that kind of just set your soul on fire and that you’re passionate about and inspire you in your work. So, I try to do a lot of that,” she said.
It was the first break from work in around five years for Rodrigue, who graduated with a degree in journalism and mass communications from Arizona State University in 2014. She was an in-house writer for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm in 2014 before joining the Centre Daily Times.
Rodrigue says that she loves The Athletic’s model.
“I just love the idea of having a story that is worked on and developed by people who just want to feel it in their bones, kind of, and work on something that has this great cadence and flow and almost can sometimes feel like poetry if it’s a certain type of story like a profile or an enterprise,” she said.
“First of all, it’s not being interrupted by the latest company initiative or buzzword, or autoplay video or something. But, also, just really wanting to grow and develop strong writers and just be about writers by writers for writers,” she said. “It just felt right to me in terms of the type of writing that I want to do.”
There had been a number of changes since she joined the Observer in 2016. First Person left, then three of her editors followed earlier this year: sports editor Mike Persinger, deputy sports editor Harry Pickett and managing editor Gary Schwab.
Was it hard to leave the Observer? She paused before suggesting that it was a loaded question.
“It was extremely difficult to see all three sports editors leave, and that was so much institutional knowledge that has been so crucial to covering sports in this city. Each of them brought something different, and a level of knowledge. I tried to soak up as much from them as possible. It was just kind of untenable in terms of the workload and just some of the things. That really was hard,” Rodrigue said.
She is complimentary of the interim sports editors and said that she loved working with Marcel Louis-Jacques, who filled the opening Person created. Louis-Jacques, who she says has been a friend for a decade, now covers the Buffalo Bills for ESPN.
While Matt Stephens, the new McClatchy senior sports editor who started July 22 and is based in Charlotte, tries to hire two Panthers beat writers, UNC alum Brendan Marks is covering both the Panthers and NASCAR.
Rodrigue’s career goal as a student journalist was to cover college football because she assumed that writers rarely got NFL beat jobs until their late 30s. Yet, Rodrigue, who just turned 27, became a Panthers beat writer at 24.
“All the NFL writers I saw when I was growing up, they were older men and I thought that you had to go through all of that,” she said. “You do, you have to put in a lot of work. But a lot of times, the right person sees your work and sees something in you, then you have to rise to that occasion, and that’s what I did here. I thought that I was going to be covering college football probably for the rest of my life.”
That changed when her editor at the State College newspaper, which, like the Observer, McClatchy owns, saw the Observer’s Panthers beat opening. Although he didn’t want to lose her, he suggested she should apply.
The Observer hired her during Penn State’s bye week, and she moved to Charlotte during the Panthers’ bye week. The first Panthers game she covered was against her hometown Arizona Cardinals.
Introspection likely helped her power through after Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s condescending response to one of her questions in 2017 created a controversy that was expanded with the discovery of some of her old tweets.
Rodrigue says that a lot of it got blown out of proportion and she never brings up the subject. And she says that her working relationship with Newton is excellent.
“My biggest thing that I took from all of that personally was to exercise empathy and to just spend every day reflecting a little bit on something that was really stressful for both of us,” she said.
Rodrigue knows that athletes are just one bad play from a flood of criticism, and defends Newton.
“There are a lot of situations he gets put in that he can’t win,” Rodrigue said. “I think that any good person, the best people in the world, are capable of making mistakes because we’re human and we’re imperfect. I think that I have held such admiration for the way that he has rallied from a mistake that became extremely public. He’s just always working to make himself better and I just really admire that. I respect the hell out of him, so I just kind of refrain from bringing that up.”
Rodrigue says she tries to be a better version of herself each day.
“Just trying to be better and to just always remember a little bit of what that entire controversy, all of it, felt like,” she said. “Because, in that way, I can continue to push myself to just be a better example and to be someone people want their daughters to look up to.”
She hopes that girls can look up to her just as she looked up to Paola Boivin. A longtime sports columnist at The Arizona Republic, Boivin is now a professor of sports journalism at Arizona State University and the only woman on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
Growing up in Arizona, her English teachers praised Rodrigue but she thought that if she was going to be a writer, she’d have to write books.
She loved sports, having played catcher in Little League and goalkeeper in soccer, in addition to running cross country, playing tennis and sand volleyball and becoming a pro-certified competitive jump-roper.
But it wasn’t until she saw Boivin’s picture in the Republic that she realized writing about sports might be an option.
“She has been my hero for a long time,” Rodrigue said of Boivin. “She has just really been an inspiration to me for a long time as someone who loves telling good stories and never lets anything get in her way. She was just such a lighthouse for me. And if I can be even a fraction of that to somebody else, then I’ll consider myself to have done a good job because the critics, they are always going to be there.”
Seemingly every woman journalist faces unfair criticism, in some cases just because a male fan doesn’t want to get his sports news from a woman. ESPN’s Doris Burke, for example, is one of the top NBA analysts and was the 2018 National Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sports Media Association and still deals with on detractors on social media.
“I actually don’t think about that as much,” Rodrigue said. “There are times when you’ll notice that you’re the only [woman] in the box or when covering preps or things like that. Really, it’s more so that I want to do a really freakin’ good job, honestly. I really just want people to understand why I love this so much and I really want people to understand what’s happening because we have an obligation to explain what’s happening. I take a lot of pride.”
In her introductory story in The Athletic, she wrote about a very difficult time for her:
“There was a time not so long ago that I needed help. In a bottomless, suffocating and dark headspace and looking for a way out, I thought that perhaps I would just … go away.”
She goes on to explain that she encountered a Panthers player at a 7-11 and that conversation “saved her life.” Many readers may have assumed that this was related to the Newton controversy, but she says that’s not the case.
“No, I probably wouldn’t characterize it that way,” she said. “I don’t really want to expand much on that. That’s such a personal thing in terms of that feeling. I don’t really have a timeline I can give for that, just because it’s still a very raw place that I was in at that time and it took a lot to write about that.”
Now it’s on to writing about the Panthers. She admits that she won’t miss having to report on the minutiae of every team transaction, but still wants to make it clear to the readers that she still has her finger “on the pulse” of the team.
“I’m competitive, and I really think that if you can be right the first time and then you are quick to be right, then you can spend more time on doing deeper analysis and using sourcing to find those little stories that make a transaction all the more important,” Rodrigue said. “I think The Athletic is a champion for that kind of deeper transaction. Not just what happened, but why it happened, why it was important. I think I’m not going to miss writing up every injury report, every single day for six months … certainly not going to miss that. When it’s important, I really look forward to competing in that arena.”
Many Panthers fans are glad that she’ll be doing that while still covering their team.
The Athletic adds no college football reporters in N.C.
On July 15, as The Athletic announced the addition of former Sports Illustrated reporter Andy Staples and 10 local writers to cover college football as it heads into its third season covering the sport.
No North Carolina writers were added, with the closest addition being Josh Kendall, formerly of The State in Columbia, S.C., to cover South Carolina. Writers also were added to cover Arkansas (Kelli Stacy), Boise State (Dave Southorn), LSU (Brody Miller), Michigan (Austin Meek),Missouri (Peter Baugh), Oregon (Aaron Fentress), Texas (Kaelen Jones), Utah (Chris Kamrani) and West Virginia (Allan Taylor).
The Athletic already had reporters covering five ACC teams: Clemson (UNC alum Grace Raynor), Florida State (Tashan Reed), Georgia Tech (Tori McElhaney), Miami (Manny Navarro) and Virginia Tech (Andy Bitter).
Changes at WNCN
Sports anchor Jeff Jones’ last day at WNCN was Thursday, and he’s headed to KVUE, an ABC affiliate in Austin, Texas, to be its sports director. Alyssa Rae joined WNCN on July 16 as a sports anchor/reporter.
There is more big change ahead for Jones: He and his wife are expecting a baby girl early next year.
It’s a return to Texas for Jones, who graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio and worked for two years as a sports reporter and anchor at WOAI in San Antonio before coming to WNCN in August 2016.
“The option of moving back to my home state to take a sports director role, at a great station, was just too good for me to pass on,” Jones said via Twitter.
He’ll start behind the scenes at KVUE on Aug. 12.
Although the move is a drop in market rank from Raleigh-Durham (No. 25) to Austin (No. 40), he goes from a station that consistently is third in our market to one that is the most viewed in the key 25 to 54 demographic in Austin.
His departure leaves the Triangle without a black sports reporter at its three television stations.
Rae, a 2011 Virginia Tech graduate, comes to WNCN after more than four years at WSLS, the NBC affiliate in the Roanoke/Lynchburg, Va., market, meaning she jumped from the No. 68 market to the No. 25 market. Before that, she spent more than two years with WVNS, a CBS/Fox affiliate in Lewisburg, W.Va.
She anchored her first sportscast for WNCN on July 19.
“She has a ton of talent, she’s easy to work with, and is a quick learner,” Jones said of Rae.
“A strong addition to the team, for sure!”
All three Triangle stations now have one woman sports reporter.
ACC good ratings draw in NCAA tournament
Of the 35 most-watched sporting events of 2019 (through July 14, according to Sports Media Watch), nine were NCAA tournament games. Of those, six involved ACC teams.
Of the six, three were Duke games (Michigan State in the Elite Eight at No. 19, 9.4; Central Florida in the second round at No. 26, 7.8; and Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16 at No. 32, 6.1), two involved Virginia (its two Final Four games, the final at No. 13, 11.6; and the semifinal at No. 25, 7.6), and one each involved North Carolina (Washington in second round at No. 35, 5.6) and Virginia Tech (Duke in Sweet 16 at No. 32, 6.1).
Ratings for the NCAA championship game were better than any NBA playoff game.
Clemson’s College Football Playoff championship victory over Alabama was the highest-rated college sporting event at No. 11 with a 13.8 rating. The top 10 were all NFL playoff games.
ACC Network reveals game announcers
During the ACC Kickoff media event, the ACC Network, which launches on Aug. 22, announced its three football game broadcast teams. ACCN will air 14 football games in the first three weeks of the season.
Included is Dave O’Brien, a Syracuse graduate who was one of many ESPN laid off two years ago. He does Boston Red Sox play-by-play for NESN.
O’Brien will work with analyst Tim Hasselbeck and reporter Katie George. Hasselbeck has been an NFL studio analyst with ESPN since 2008. George, who played volleyball at Louisville, worked for more than two years at Louisville TV station WDRB and was a sideline reporter for Milwaukee Bucks TV broadcasts last season.
Chris Cotter will also do play-by-play for ACCN, working with analyst Mark Herzlich and reporter Kelsey Riggs. Cotter, a Georgia Tech graduate, joined ESPN in 2012 as a studio anchor, appearing on SportsCenter and College Football Live. Herzlich, an All-American linebacker at Boston College who notably beat cancer, is new to TV work. Riggs, a Charleston Southern graduate, was a sports anchor at WCNC in Charlotte.
Wes Durham, the radio voice of the Atlanta Falcons and also the co-host for the weekday morning show “Packer and Durham,” will be the play-by-play announcer for an ACCN team with Roddy Jones as the analyst and Eric Wood as the reporter. Jones, a former Georgia Tech slotback, joined ESPN in 2017, working as a sideline reporter. Wood, a Louisville graduate who was a Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills, also will be an analyst on Bills radio broadcasts.
More ACCN shows announced this month
Also at ACC Kickoff, ACCN announced two studio shows in addition to “Packer and Durham.”
“All ACC” will air Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. with Riggs, Jordan Cornett and Dalen Cuff as hosts with an array of analysts who will appear on various nights.
“The Huddle” will air Friday and Saturday nights with Jac Collinsworth as the host and Eric Mac Lain, E.J. Manuel and Mark Richt as the analysts.
Collinsworth, the son of NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris and a Notre Dame graduate, has been a feature reporter for “Sunday NFL Countdown” since 2017. Mac Lain was an All-ACC guard at Clemson. E.J. Manuel was a quarterback at Florida State and a first-round draft pick. Richt was a quarterback and, more recently, head coach at Miami.
Last week, UNC announced “All Access: A Season with Carolina Basketball,” touted as an exclusive multi-part series to provide an inside look at UNC basketball. It will debut in October.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
With the ACC Network launch only weeks away, David Glenn provided a good overview in The Athletic of the challenges and the ways it already has surpassed existing conference networks.
As Jon Machot wrote in The Athletic, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has developed quite the relationship with Dallas Cowboys coaches and players.
N&O/H-S intern Alex Zietlow wrote two good stories about retiring coaches: Jeff Ferrell, who coached Broughton’s boy’s basketball team for 22 years and Ron Miller, who coached UNC fencing for 52 years.
In The Athletic, Person writes that Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly has gone from camera-shy to a comfortable pitchman.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Patrick Finley writes that Chicago Bears quarterback and former UNC star Mitch Trubisky looks and acts like a player in complete control.
In The Athletic, C.L. Brown had a couple of interesting Carolina basketball stories. One looked at why elite recruits now consider the Tar Heels cool and another picked a UNC all-decade team.
How to Division II Raleigh schools Saint Augustine’s and Shaw recruit football players in the heart of ACC country and against established HBCU programs such as Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State? In The N&O and H-S, Jonas Pope IV talked to the coaches about how they do it.
Retired Charlotte police officer John Diggs, who is part of the Carolina Panthers’ security team, suffered debilitating injuries when he was hit by a wave at Oak Island. Feeling lucky to be alive, Theoden Janes, in The Charlotte Observer, writes that Diggs is a runner who thought he had completed his last marathon. He is now considering running another to honor “everybody who has helped put me back together.”