So there’s Tracy Wolfson of Tenafly, a dark-haired 40-year-old woman gripping a microphone. She’s standing in the middle of a huge crowd of big, sweaty, exuberant men.
Other men of all ages, holding cameras of all shapes and sizes, press in on her.
Ms. Wolfson is looking up — way up — into the face of a very famous man. He’s wearing a baseball cap, speaks with a southern accent, and looks extraordinarily happy.
That man is Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback, whose team had just won the 50th Super Bowl (and who did not tell Ms. Wolfson whether he is planning on retiring, as most people assume he will — but not because she didn’t ask).
Ms. Wolfson is a sports journalist who has made her way up through a profession that is not particularly welcoming to women until she has reached one of its pinnacles. She is a sideline reporter for CBS, covering huge games, reaching the country’s biggest audiences.
Ms. Wolfson grew up in Congers, in Rockland County, and went to Clarkstown North High School in New City. Since she was a small child — around 8 or 9, she said — fiercely loyal to her teams, increasingly and deeply knowledgeable about them, and then about the games they played — she knew she wanted to be a sports reporter. She went to the University of Michigan so she could major in communications. “I not only wanted a great education, but I also wanted to be around big time sports. I wanted to watch it and to talk it.”
Ms. Wolfson is athletic, but her interest in sports was far more in reporting than in playing. “I played flag football for my sorority in college, I played basketball, and tennis was my main sport, but I didn’t want to pursue it,” she said. She got an internship “so I could see a behind-the-scenes perspective. I didn’t get a chance to do anything on air then, but I saw how it works.”
After she graduated from Michigan, in 1997, Ms. Wolfson worked for CBS and was able to go to Japan for the Olympics — “my work was all behind the scenes, but it was a great chance to learn. But I wanted to be on the air,” she said. She spent a year working as an agent, learning an entirely different side of the business, including how to put together an audition tape. Soon, working as a general reporter at a college station out on Long Island, she used the information she’d gleaned to make her own audition tape.
“It was a fake tape,” she said; her talent was real, but the games she was announcing were not. “That is a way of getting a tape together. No one will hire you if you don’t have a tape. I didn’t have the opportunity to make one — this was my opportunity.
“So although the tape had never aired, I sent it across the country, and I got a job in Trenton, at WZBN. It no longer exists, and then it was mom-and-pop. And that’s how I got my start. I spent about a year and a half to two years there, doing all sorts of news. They needed me to cover news, and I was their only sports reporter.”
Trenton is sort of in the New York market — “I can’t really say that I started in New York — I didn’t — but people in New York were able to see you when you are in Trenton,” she said.
From there, she went upward. She worked for ESPN, and then for CBS, where she was hired to be the number two college reporter. That was 12 years ago; she’s still at CBS, but her portfolio has expanded tremendously.
Being a Jewish sportscaster is absolutely no big deal, she reports; being a woman perhaps presents a few more challenges. “You are scrutinized a bit more,” she said. “Every little thing is watched closely. Your looks are more important, and that’s what people seem to care about.
“It means that you have to know your stuff, you have to prove yourself every day, so you have to go out there and be solid. I just focus on myself; I don’t worry about being a woman out there.
“Fortunately, I have worked with a lot of great people, and the teams have respected me. Sometimes you wonder if they would have treated me in the same way if I were a man, but you don’t go into the business thinking that. You have to do your thing, be sure you know your stuff, and put out the best stuff possible.”
Ms. Wolfson is a sports reporter at the top of her field, sure, but she is also a wife — her husband, David Reichel, went to the University of Michigan, but they didn’t date until later — and the mother of three sons (Dylan, 9, Ari, 6, and Evan, 4) and a member of the local Jewish community. It’s a tricky balance, but she makes it work, she said.
“My family is my real life, and being a mom is my number one priority. I have an amazing job, and I worked really hard to get where I am, and I love it, but I always say that when it doesn’t work out for my family, that’s when I’m out.
“I couldn’t do it without my husband’s support — I travel so much — and without the friends I made in town, and my children’s friends’ parents. I’m so lucky with the relationships I have.
“I can’t tell you what a morning is like when I’m on the road. It is 5 a.m., I’m in San Francisco, and I check in with my sons, I check in to school. I have a great nanny who lives with us — I couldn’t do it otherwise — and it is constant texting with all my friends. ‘Can you pick my son up?’ ‘Who needs a play date?’ ‘Who’s going to the birthday party?’ It’s constant.”
She knows it’s because of where she lives. “The suburbs mean community,” she said. “And I met a lot of those parents at the JCC.”
That’s the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, where Ms. Wolfson is on the board of directors, the board of the early childhood parents association, and the incoming co-chair of the JCC Golf Classic.
It’s hard to ask anything about professional football to a sports reporter without asking about concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy — CTE — the syndrome that causes dementia and early death in many players.
“There is a risk, and we see it,” Ms. Wolfson said. “I see concussion on a daily basis. I cover it. I see the player going through the concussion protocol. The NFL is doing a good job of detecting concussion early, adjusting to it, trying to teach awareness, teaching children and young football players about how to approach it, how to protect their heads.
“To me, concussion is part of the game. That is how I have to approach it.”
Will she allow her own sons to play football? “My 9-year-old played flag football. He doesn’t love contact. I would have my kids play flag football; I probably wouldn’t put them into tackle football until their bodies are a little more developed.
“I can be 95 percent certain that none of my kids will be playing football. It’s not their sport of choice. They play basketball, soccer, lacrosse; they play tennis. You can get a concussion playing lacrosse or soccer too. They love football around the house. We’ll see as the little one gets older.”
Last Sunday was not the first time that Ms. Wolfson was at a Super Bowl game in her professional capacity. “I worked it a few years ago in New Orleans, but just the pre- and postgame report,” she said. “The lights went out” — in that 2013 game, a power outage caused a 22-minute blackout and a 34-minute game delay — “and I did wind up on the field, but this is my first Super Bowl working the action game.”
So what was it like?
“You go in thinking, ‘Let’s treat it as another game,’ but it’s not. It one of the biggest games.
“It’s a weeklong event, not just a game. It is everything that goes into the game, the media day, the radio day, the interviews, the meetings. It’s a weeklong anticipation, culminating with the enormous number of people on the sidelines, extra cameras, extra equipment.
“It’s just bigger in every possible way.”
Now that the Super Bowl is over, Ms. Wolfson plans to “regroup, and spend some time with my family. I was away for more than a week, and that’s tough.”
But her work will pick up again very soon. “I will start the first week in March, with a regular season college basketball game, then the Big 10 tournament, and then all of March Madness and the Final Four.”
One of the most wonderful unanticipated experiences at the Super Bowl was the support she got, Ms. Wolfson said. “I have gotten so much support from other female sideline reporters who have been at the game before. They have come up to me and wished me well and gave me little tips every time I talked to one of them. They are genuinely happy for me, that I am getting this opportunity. And I say to myself, ‘Wow, I know how lucky I am.’
“And they all say the same thing,” she continued. “They all say, ‘Take a breath. Look around. Let it all soak in.’
“And I did.”