Shining a spotlight on celebrities and athletes who love to travel. Created and developed by Stacy Steponate Greenberg.
Whether it’s the SEC, The Big Ten or the NFL, if it’s all about football then ESPN’s Sam Ponder is all in. Football is the most popular sport in the United States, and all her life it has been something that Ponder has lived and breathed. Her love of the game began when she was a child in Phoenix, her father was a coach and two brothers were both quarterbacks. At ESPN beginning in 2011, she quickly went from one of the top college football reporters for College GameDay to the host of Sunday NFL Countdown, quite a ride and one she worked tirelessly to earn. Sunday NFL Countdown has been on the air for 32 years and Ponder is just the third host in its history, and despite all the research and prep necessary for the show, Ponder also finds time to work on NFL interviews and features. The Overhead Compartment went a few yards down the field to meet up with Ponder and learn how this busy mother of three balances life, football and being married to a former NFL quarterback.
The Overhead Compartment with Sam Ponder begins now…
OC: What was the best advice you received about replacing a legend?
SP: Don’t try. I know that sounds ridiculous because obviously I want to do my best, but trying to replace someone only makes you a second rate version of them. I certainly want to honor the incredible legacy he left and make him proud, but I’ve got to put my own spin on it if I don’t want it to be a poor attempt at imitation.
OC: How much preparation for the show do you do?
SP: The bulk of my preparation comes in the form of a lifestyle. It’s not necessarily dedicated hours to studying the NFL (although there’s some of that too) but rather adjusting the “white noise” of my life. Meaning, when I’m running errands, I’m listening to NFL radio, when I’m on the subway I’m reading NFL articles, I’m talking with anyone and everyone about the latest stories around the league. Some weeks it means strategic phone calls to get more context from some friends in the league, sometimes it means a text to an NFL wife for a pop warner picture of her husband to use on the show. We also have conference calls on Wednesday and Friday and an in-person meeting/dinner on Saturday nights to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of discussions and the flow of the show.
OC: What is the biggest difference between covering the NFL and college football?
SP: I think it parallels the transition from playing in college to playing in the NFL in some ways. There’s a lot more of a “business” element to it. There’s more talk about what you should or shouldn’t say and a lot more talk about money, for obvious reasons. My transition was even more drastic because I moved from games and campuses to inside a studio in Bristol. That was a bit of a shock at first. There’s no natural sound to play off of, no crowd to react to and no game action. In year one, that was hard. I didn’t know how to create that same energy in studio and make the show feel comfortable like I had envisioned. Thankfully, I’ve now realized that chemistry covers a multitude of sins, if you will. The more time we’ve spent together, eating, talking about family, etc., the better our show has been. The more it feels like a little TV family, the better it is for the viewer. Successful football teams are the same way, I guess. Hopefully it just keeps getting better.
OC: With College Gameday you traveled all the time. What was the key to passing time when you spent so many hours on a plane?
SP: Bringing Scout with me her first year made the time fly by because I was so preoccupied with her. I also became a podcast junkie. I binge them like most people do Netflix. I genuinely feel so grateful to be able to learn from so many incredible people at the top of their fields and try to implement some of their knowledge into my work.
OC: What would you do when you had time off in a town?
SP: Sadly, I rarely had any free time. That’s one of my goals is to eventually take my kids on the “gameday” tour and get to explore all the college towns I’ve been to but never got to fully enjoy. I can’t wait to go to games as a fan and expose my kids to something so special to me!
OC: Which school had the loudest fans?
SP: This is a dangerous answer for me, being married to a Nole! The most intense crowds I’ve ever been around were at Clemson, Oregon and Penn State. I’d also say the sneakiest loud crowd is at Iowa State!
OC: What advice would you give young people interested in sports broadcasting?
SP: Get all the internships. Use social media to your advantage… beg people who are doing what you want to do to let you shadow them. To me, it’s always been really important to see what life looks like in the career I think I want. I shadowed people like Erin Andrews and Craig James early in my journey and it really helped me figure out what role I felt most comfortable in. Don’t be afraid to ask and always offer to provide a service… bring coffee, record them for social media, etc.
OC: You are the mother of three small children, what’s the secret to staying balanced with work and home life?
SP: Not expecting balance. I think balance is a unicorn. My goal is to be “all there” wherever I am. When I’m with my kids, I put the phone away. When I’m at work, I trust my husband or whoever is caring for them to do a great job.
OC: Your first born daughter Scout was with you on the road for many games. What’s the one “you know you’re a parent” story you will never forget?
SP: I literally changed my daughter on top of an airplane toilet seat on multiple occasions. You get to the point traveling with children where all rules go out the window. As my doctor says, “love em and feed em” and you’re good.
OC: You now reside in New York City. What’s the best part of living in the city? The hardest?
SP: Living in the city with kids has been amazing. There’s constant stimulation… so many people, places and things. The best part is that there’s so much potential for learning exposure. We live next to the Natural History Museum, the Met and Central Park so every day life feels like an amazing field trip. The hardest part is not having much space (says every New Yorker).
OC: You’re from Phoenix and still spend a lot of time there. What’s the three things visitors should not miss?
SP: Hike Camelback mountain. Go to Sedona. Eat at Steak 44.
OC: What’s the first thing you do when arriving at a hotel in your room?
SP: Take a nap. I’m the nap queen. It makes me want to cry thinking about all the years I avoided sleeping.
OC: Complete the following sentence: I never leave home without:
SP: My phone. FaceTime has saved my life in so many ways. Feeling connected to my family has made a huge difference.
Sam Ponder, please use care upon departure as items may have shifted in The Overhead Compartment during our journey. Thanks for choosing us for your travel tips! Have a wonderful day!