In demand, Stark says I do to ABC, too

`MNF' proposal comes right after her fiance's

June 24, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

All Tiger Woods got out of Pebble Beach last week was a trophy and a nice fat winner's check. Melissa Stark got a ticket to prime time and a marriage proposal.

Nine days ago, Stark, an ESPN reporter, was working her first golf tournament, the U.S. Open, when her cell phone rang.

It was one of her bosses, Bob Eaton, ESPN's vice president and managing editor, on the line, telling her to contact Don Ohlmeyer, the new producer of ABC's "Monday Night Football."

Common sense and context told Stark why. Ohlmeyer, who took over "MNF" in March, was looking to recast the show, and he apparently wanted to talk to her about coming aboard prime-time's longest running show.

That's pretty heady stuff for a 26-year-old, just 10 years off the Roland Park Country School tennis team and five years removed from covering the Orioles, Washington Capitals and Bullets for Home Team Sports. But Stark had an immediate job to do and a likely marriage proposal from her boyfriend to mull over.

"I tried to put it out of my mind and concentrate, because I wanted to do well at the U.S. Open," Stark said. After completing her assignment Sunday, and accepting the proposal from Mike Lilley, a bond trader, Stark met with Ohlmeyer in Los Angeles on Tuesday. By Wednesday evening, she was in as one of two sideline reporters.

ABC announced Thursday that Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and comedian Dennis Miller would join Al Michaels in the revamped "Monday Night Football" booth and that Stark and Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson would work the sidelines.

Stark's career move came together so quickly that she didn't even immediately call her agent.

"When people are calling to say congratulations, I'm going, `For what?' " said Stark, laughing yesterday during a phone interview. "It was overwhelming. ...

"I am still getting over the fact that I was proposed to," she said. "People say these things come in threes. Maybe I should get a lottery ticket."

All of a sudden, Stark's name has become one of the hottest in sports television, but, then, her career has been one of fairly meteoric rises.

Stark, whose father, Walter, is a professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Virginia in 1995. She went from producing and reporting on the school's football and basketball coaches shows right to HTS, where she spent a little less than a year.

During one week in 1996, Ravens president David Modell approached Stark about being the host of the team's pre-game show and ESPN offered her the anchor slot at "Scholastic Sports America," its weekly high school sports show.

"Everything in my life has happened fast," Stark said. "I've been very fortunate not to have these things linger. Things have worked out or forced another decision. It has been fast, but I feel like I'm trying to make the most of it and take it all in."

From "Scholastic Sports America," Stark joined ESPN's reporting staff, based out of New York, and has covered the NFL, the NBA playoffs and baseball spring training as well as contributing features to "Outside the Lines."

"She's a good reporter and she comes prepared. She will do just fine," said Eaton, who heads ESPN's news operation. "In many ways, some of the things that we call on reporters to do on `SportsCenter,' while not before an audience as big as `Monday Night Football,' are challenging. The depth of knowledge they have to show, under less-than-ideal circumstances, is demanding and she has a good level of confidence and a good feeling of who she is."

Ohlmeyer, who produced "MNF" in the 1970s and was head of NBC's entertainment division in the 1990s, took note of her work. "I've always been impressed with her knowledge," Ohlmeyer said Thursday. "She's a very talented reporter and we're just getting the tip of the iceberg of her growth."

Walt Disney owns ABC and 80 percent of ESPN and personnel from the cable outlet often appear on the broadcast network.

"I am the type of person that I would never, ever put myself in a position to fail," Stark said. "From talking to Don, he's the first person to say, `The only way you could fail at this is if you weren't committed, if you didn't work hard.'

"And I know myself and I give everything 120 percent effort. He [Ohlmeyer] has reassured me that he's not going to put me in any kind of position that I am not comfortable with, that I'm not ready for. I just think that if I continue to do what I've always done at ESPN, which is work my tail off, and be committed, I'll be fine."

Starting in July, Stark will become a part of sports television's biggest weekly show, as part of a campaign to restore the show to the heights it enjoyed before she was even born. For some, the fear of failure on such a grand scale could be the kind of thing that can be debilitating, particularly for one as young as Stark.

She's not worried.

"Yes, it's `Monday Night Football,' and yes, it's ABC, but when the show starts, you can't be thinking that. You've got to be thinking, `This is a natural extension of what I've been doing at ESPN.' You can't be thinking, `Gosh, I'm so young. Oh my gosh, what's going on here?' That cannot enter your mind," Stark said.

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