“I didn’t see the actual fall,” Wolfson said. “Everyone was watching the game. The fall isn’t what you’re looking at. I heard him when he hit the ground. I was probably one of the first people who realized what took place. I remember I picked up my mic (and told producer Mark Wolff), ‘He’s down and it’s bad.’”
In seconds, Wolfson, CBS’ sideline reporter for the Louisville-Duke game, went into scramble mode for what would be the most challenging assignment of her career. Ultimately, she was lauded for securing vital information about the horrific injury and an emotional post-game interview with Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Yet when I talked to Wolfson nearly 48 hours after Sunday’s game, you could sense the intensity of that situation still had a grip on her. She still hasn’t watched a replay of the telecast.
“You’re running on adrenaline when it’s going on,” Wolfson said. “It didn’t sink in for me until I got to the airport. I looked at Jim (Nantz). We let out a big sigh. It was a feeling of, ‘Oh my God, what just happened?’”
Here’s my Q/A with Wolfson on how she handled Sunday; how it validated the role of sideline reporters; how she hopes to see Ware during the Final Four in Atlanta; and how the Michigan grad intends to be impartial at the Final Four.
What was Sunday like for you? Did you ever have a comparable experience?
No, it was so unprecedented. You don’t expect to be in a situation like that. Sports is supposed to be lighthearted and fun. Then all of the sudden, you’re facing a news story like that. It’s almost like when the lights went out in the Super Bowl.
I remember I put my hands to my face. I knew I had a few seconds to catch my breath. You saw how devastating it was and you don’t want to get in the way. Then I realized, ‘OK, now I’m part of the story.’
Your job is to get as much information as you can get while trying to be respectful to the team and the coach. You have to find the right balance.
How did you and CBS achieve that balance?
CBS decided not to do any on-cameras interviews with the coaches at halftime like we normally do. Let’s just talk to (Pitino) off-camera. Let him regroup with his team and then see what he wants to say. If he didn’t want to say anything, that’s OK too.
He wound up giving us an inside look at what Kevin Ware said to his teammates and a reminder that his mom lives in Atlanta.
Louisville (sports information director Kenny Klein) was tremendous. There was no panic in him whatsoever. He gave us the information we needed.
How did you mentally prepare for the post-game interview with Pitino?
I wasn’t supposed to do the interview. Normally, (Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg) do the interview with the winning coach during the celebration. I interview the loser.
With three minutes to go, the producer said, ‘Tracy, we’re going to try to get this live before we go to 60 Minutes.’ The only possible way was for me to do it.
It was another delicate situation. You have to ask the right questions. I didn’t want to neglect what the team did. That was the one thing on my mind. You need to ask about Kevin Ware and the incident, but I wanted to get in one question about the team and how well they played despite everything that was going on.
Were you surprised at how graphic Pitino was in talking about the injury?
It did catch me by surprise, I have to admit. We saw the emotion. Maybe for him the best way to keep going was to give the facts. Sometimes, it brings you back to reality. It caught a lot of people by surprise, but they wanted to hear that.
A few days have passed. Are you still replaying what happened in your mind?
I’ve got to be honest. There’s a little bit like a sadness. Not that you don’t get to grieve, but I didn’t have time to actually process what went on. It was trying for everyone involved to not only balance it, but to feel for this kid. It takes a lot out of you. You don’t really have time to think.
What I’ve been doing is following him and seeing his progress and things he tweets out. It brought a smile to my face knowing that he’s going to try to be in Atlanta. I really hope we get a chance to sit down with him to see he’s OK.
You have heard people question the need for sideline reporters. Did your work Sunday provide a sense of validation?
I used the example earlier of what happened at the Super Bowl. I truly believe that is the need for a reporter.
I work with Jim and (Verne Lundquist). They are two of the best storytellers in the business. If you have a game without an incident, you don’t necessarily need someone.
It is in those situations (like Sunday) where you need someone. I’m OK being that person who only steps into that role when it is necessary. I’m not someone who needs to be on the air six times a game because you have a reporter there and you have to put them on. We’re all a team and I add to the broadcast. I try to give to the viewer something they can’t necessarily get. In those situations (like Sunday), that’s a perfect example.
CBS doesn’t use sideline reporters for regular-season NFL games. You work as a sideline reporter for CBS’ college football games. How do you feel about that?
I’m biased. Of course, I believe there’s a need for sideline reporters. It’s my job. I want to work. I see the difference between college football and the NFL. Any relevant information, injury reports. In the NFL, a lot of that stuff goes directly to the booth. But you did see in the Super Bowl where you need them.
There’s nothing wrong with having a sideline reporter present and just utilized pregame, halftime interview or report, postgame. It doesn’t mean they have to do those out-of-the-box stories during the game.
But you have access down there. You can see things that you don’t necessarily get from a PR person. In college you can hear things. You have relationships where you can get information.
It’s great to hear from a coach. It always brings to life the emotions, especially in tight games or when upsets are happening. I think that access is huge.
There’s nothing wrong with having someone down there and not doing a typical sideline reporter job that we’ve all known in the past that gets so criticized. The No. 1 thing is to have someone that can do that job and is knowledgeable is about sports. Also, (that person) can adjust on the fly to have to cover a blackout or a horrific injury like we saw Sunday.
The most visible element for the sideline reporter is to interview a coach after the first half. How do basketball coaches compare to football coaches when it comes to the halftime interview?
It’s always challenging. It depends on the situation and the coach. If his team is getting blown out by 20 points, he’s not going to be happy. It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to put them in a bad position with your questions, but you want to get the best out of them.
You’re a 1997 grad of Michigan. How is it going to be having the Wolverines in the Final Four?
I’ll definitely know a lot of people in the stands. However, I won’t be wearing maize and blue. This is the Final Four. Once they tip off, it’s just another game.