Veteran NFL player Ryan Clark on the impact the late Stuart Scott had on his life
We didn’t always have cable growing up in Louisiana. In raising three kids, having every channel available wasn’t much of a priority for my mother and father. I can remember being 14 years old when we did get it, turning on the television and seeing the man who would become my idol. He was smart, quick-witted, and he looked like me. There had been black anchors and contributors on TV—Bryant Gumbel and James Brown come to mind—but they never referenced anything that was a part of my life. This guy wasn’t just the best; he was speaking to us, and he didn’t seem to care about the consequences of being himself.
On Sunday morning, more than two decades later, I woke up and opened Twitter to discover the news much of America had already learned. Stuart Scott, 49, died of cancer in Connecticut. I texted my wife with the news, and she reminded me of something I’d told her years ago—I picked my college major because of Stuart Scott. In the whirlwind of freshman year at LSU, it seemed nearly every football player was majoring in kinesiology. I sat in the counseling office and figured I would too, just because it seemed like the thing to do. I sat down with Tommy Karam, then an academic advisor for football players, and he asked a question I’d never considered.
If you could be anyone outside of football, who would it be?
That’s easy. Stuart Scott.
So I majored in mass communications, and I spent most of my time off the football field trying to be Stu. I took journalism classes and television production classes, always volunteering to appear on camera. I tried to replicate his ease and flair, but found it impossible when discussing news topics or the weather. I felt like a phony, like I was trying to be someone I’m not. I came away thinking, There’s no way in the world I’m ever going to do this job as well as him.
In the football dorm, ESPN was on around the clock (with a sprinkling of Jerry Springer, because Jerry was really doing it at the time). I began to seriously contemplate what Scott was up against in doing things his way. He mixed rap references and southern church phrases in his commentary, and I’m sure it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Some black people who watched him thought to themselves, This is buffoonery. He’s trying too hard. But his fans outnumbered his opponents. In any case, he appeared unwilling to compromise who he was, and his competence and preparation made him bulletproof.
Scott’s act was so groundbreaking, he ruined groundbreaking for every guy after him. Whenever a young anchor shows up with a new, hip way of doing things, they’re compared to Scott. In that sense, he was the Michael Jordan of his industry. No matter what Kobe or LeBron do, we’ve already seen some form of it in Michael Jordan. Everyone else is a knockoff.
I went undrafted in 2002 and signed with the Giants, the same year Scott became a regular on NBA on ESPN, landing even more exposure. By 2010 he was battling cancer and somehow still the face of the network. It was during that January when I was invited to do what’s known as the carwash at ESPN, when an athlete visits Bristol and appears on a bunch of shows. That Sunday I was sitting in a room watching playoff football when in walks Stuart Scott.
In a sense, he was the Michael Jordan of his industry. Everyone else is a knockoff.
I froze up. It took a lot for me to not be starstruck and follow him around like a little kid who just met his childhood hero. He was smaller, frail from the disease. But his personality, his charisma, his charm, his attitude was as big as I always imagined it. He shook my hand and asked me about the season. He asked if I wanted to do this as a career. I said, I have no idea, but if I have a chance to do it, I want to be just like you.
He said, “That can work. Whatever you do, just stick to it.”
Regrettably, I never asked him a single question. Maybe I was too nervous, but I just watched and listened. I looked at the other people in the room, and noticed the way we all seemed to revolve around Scott.
When you believe in the things you say and do, people feel that. It's not something you can hear; you just feel it when they walk in the room. When you meet television people, they don’t necessarily embrace you. They don’t talk to you like an equal, and at the same time try to give you wisdom. Scott did all of that, and he was just cool.
In the years since he left that room, I’ve thought about what I might ask him if I got another chance. I think I’d ask him how he was so comfortable being something different and foreign. I’d ask him how he broke into an anchor role, when it was so difficult for black men to do so. I’d ask him if he had any wisdom he could share about the business.
But that’s impossible now. A brilliant life was cut short by disease, and the victim refused to let his sickness define him. Now all I can see is that face staring back through a smartphone, my idol, frozen and silent unlike he’d ever been on TV when he ruled the world.
My first and last question for Stuart Scott: How did you get so brave?
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