When Shelley Smith returns to ESPN’s airwaves on April 30, she will be bald. And Smith says being bald on television is a beautiful thing for her.
“I have a friend who is a former oncology nurse who tells me that when your hair falls out, it means the chemo is working,” said Smith, a Los Angeles-based reporter. “That’s the attitude I took into this. I miss my hair, but I took what she said to heart: My bald head means I have a fight and I look at it as being fortunate to have a battle.
“There are so many people out there who don’t have a fight or who don’t get extra time," Smith continued. "I think every day about my friend Bryan Burwell who found out in October that he had melanoma and died in December. He never had a chance to fight. Stuart Scott would have loved my fight. So I’ve never once dreaded going into chemo or cutting my hair or walking around bald. Yeah, people stare. But I want them to know that I am fighting. If they stare too long, I’ll just tell them: Yeah, I have breast cancer. Ask questions. What do you want to know?”
The longtime ESPN journalist—Smith joined the network in 1997 after working at Sports Illustrated—announced last October that she had breast cancer. Over the last six months she has taken time off from ESPN to undergo multiple radiation treatments with the final cycle concluding last week. On Monday, she went to the gym for the first time in weeks, where she jumped rope and deadlifted.
“I wasn’t very good, but I did it,” said Smith, 56. “I get stronger every day and that really helps my confidence. You never really know how strong you are until you go through something like this and I feel really strong. I’m excited to get back to work.”
On April 30, Smith will be in Hawaii with Marcus Mariota for a pre-NFL draft feature on the Oregon quarterback. She will also interview Mariota after he is selected. After that assignment, Smith will go back for five more rounds of radiation, starting May 11. She said she is “basically cancer-free” and that the next round of radiation is to eradicate any microscopic fibers that might have gone undetected.
Smith credited her 29-year-old daughter, Dylann Tharp, as being her primary source of strength during her treatment. The L.A.-based Tharp is a producer at the NFL Network and she and her mother are working together on an ESPN Films 30 for 30 on the 2006 BCS National Championship Game between Texas and USC. As she heads forward, Smith will continue to cover L.A.-based stories and possibly college football sideline work.
“My daughter has been the one forcing me to drink Gatorade, water and eating the right foods,” Smith said. “Without her, I would not know what I would do. I don’t have family here. My parents are in Denver and in their eighties, so they can’t do much, but I have great friends and a great support group. It's payback with Dylann. I bossed her around for years and now she is doing it to me."
Smith said her doctors have told her that she has a very good chance for a long and healthy life given her age. She will continue to get MRIs and checkups after radiation.
Said Smith: “There are no guarantees, but I have been told if I do everything I have to do now I give myself the best chance possible to stay cancer-free for the rest of my life."
The reporter credited her colleagues and ESPN management for their support throughout her treatment. ESPN college basketball reporter Andy Katz ran with Smith’s name on his bib and arm on Monday during the Boston Marathon. Smith was reticent to name ESPN people who have stepped up for her given she didn’t want to omit anyone, but did highlight [senior coordinating producers] David Brofsky, Gerry Matalon, Tim McHugh, Elida Witthoeft, [senior vice president, SportsCenter and news] Rob King and [news editor] Claire Smith.
“The whole company has been amazing,” Smith said. “I mean [president John] Skipper called me. They really know what to do when you have trouble. Everybody has called. They’ve been unbelievably supportive and I am so lucky because there are a lot of women who don’t work for that kind of company. A lot of women don’t want mammograms, they don't want to know they have breast cancer because they can’t take time off or they don’t have insurance or can’t afford treatment That’s why I fight: to try to raise awareness.”
Remarkably, ESPN nearly did not re-sign Smith last year. She said she was told by management that she needed to get better at live shots in order to continue on.
“So I worked really hard,” Smith said. “I went to talent coaches in Dallas to get better at my live shots. The problem was I was so freaked out, stiff as a board and could not remember anything. As soon as I just eased up, was myself and used my humor and personality, everything clicked.”
Smith said when King came on board to head SportsCenter’s content, he told her he respected her reporting talent and experience. It was King who pushed for Smith to get a multi-year deal, which she signed late last year. That gave her some financial and emotional security. The breast cancer diagnosis came two months after her new deal.
“I work hard, I know what I am doing and I think experience is something important,” Smith said. “We can hire a young, skinny, pretty girl, which I will never be and never was, but throw me on any story you want to throw me on and I’ll know what to do. I think our company values that and I think by them giving me a new contract, the company will continue to use me when I’m old and wrinkled, and I would say bald, but I’m already bald. I work really hard and I’m a team player. I would just as soon help someone with their story more than my own.”
On this note, Smith said she recently reached out to fellow bureau reporter Britt McHenry, who is D.C.-based, after the release of a videotape showing McHenry berating a tow truck worker.
“I know she is hurting,” Smith said. “She made a big mistake, but she is still one of ours.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the biggest sports media stories.
1. My Monday column featured more than two dozen members of the sports media, from Dan Fouts to Jemele Hill to Adam Schefter, answering the following question: If given commissioner-like power to make one change, addition or subtraction in the sports media, what would you do and why? The panelists were told they could write to whatever length they saw fit.
1a. NBC’s lead NHL analyst Eddie Olczyk will serve as a handicapper for the 2015 Kentucky Derby as well as the races on the card leading up to the big race. Olczyk previously worked as an on-air handicapper at the 2014 Breeders’ Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series. The network said Olczyk will also serve as a handicapper for its full Triple Crown horse racing coverage.
2. Here’s a worthwhile piece on Shelley Smith from NFL Network reporter Alex Flanagan.
2a. Something that was interesting from my conversation with Shelley Smith was how Twitter has become a source of warmth for her where it was once a place that featured vitriol.
“It has been an incredible source of comfort,” Smith said. “There are plenty of nights when its 2 a.m. and I am waiting for the pain pills to kick in and I can’t sleep and Twitter is always there. I used to avoid it all the time, but now I read it as a source of comfort. It makes me feel good that the message is getting out. People have been so supportive.”
3. Tim Tebow, who has worked the past year as an SEC Network and ESPN college football analyst, has signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. On Monday, ESPN released a statement saying Tebow, who was better than expected as an analyst, is welcome back at the network after his playing career.
“We appreciate Tim’s contributions to the launch of SEC Network and wish him all the best as he pursues his NFL dream,” said John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president, programming and production. “Tim quickly established a tremendous rapport with everyone he worked with in front of and behind the camera. He has a tireless work ethic and a unique passion for football. Tim developed quickly into an excellent analyst. He has a home at ESPN when his playing career is done.”
4. The always-fun and educational Blogs with Balls summit, an annual conference featuring sports bloggers and mainstream sports media members, will be held on April 29 in Chicago. There’s some promising panels on the agenda including “Justice, Society and the Rise of Online and Athlete Activists.”
5. NBCSN will air 40 hours of coverage of the 2015 IPC Paralympic Sled Hockey World Championship including the gold medal game on May 3. NBC Sports Live Extra will provide complete streaming coverage of all 20 games from the tournament starting April 26.