Mac Engel

NBC’s Sunday Night Football reporter Michele Tafoya explains our Cowboys’ addiction

The Dallas Cowboys are back to their maddening heap of average, so we need an outsider to explain why America’s .500 Team remains just so interesting.

Today’s outsider is the best football sideline reporter in the business, a damn Yankee who lives in Minnesota — the esteemed Michele Tafoya of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast team.

We chatted this week, and I asked this veteran voice who has called games for forever why the Cowboys continue to suck us all in despite the fact we are only 100 percent certain how this show ends.

“I think for so long there has been brilliant marketing around ”America’s Team.” Everything is bigger in Texas. You have this man, and I don’t care what you think of him, but Jerry Jones has done so much. He is this bigger than life character,” Tafoya said. “There is that part of it, and the fact that the entire family is involved. The stadium is second to none.

“The team is always on the cutting edge of the way they present football to the universe. They had enough championship years and they have had these huge personalities when I was a kid, like Tom Landry. There has been this mystique to it that never left.

“The Jones family is so wholly invested into it they continue to make the product interesting. I can’t pinpoint it, other than even if they are 3-3 there is this potential that everyone feels. It’s done masterfully.”

So there you have it. It’s the presentation. And she’s not wrong.

We always watch, and we will always watch.

Sunday will mark the 11th consecutive season the Eagles have played the Cowboys on NBC’s SNF. That is the longest streak for any one matchup in prime time history. It is because we can’t look away.

Tafoya has been on your television for so long that by now you take her presence for granted, and despite her security she fights insecurity like anyone.

Welcome to TV, or being in a job where you are begging for constant judgment.

“Aging on TV is really tough, especially for women. Thank God I have a great stylist,” Tafoya said in a phone interview this week. “It’s not easy. If people think this it’s easy, they are incorrect. ... Every week I am sent clips of what I have done during games, and whenever I hit play, every single time my stomach gets in a knot. It’s not just insecure about the way you look, it’s every aspect of it.”

Tafoya is the gold standard for TV sports sideline reporters. There are many good ones; she is the best.

She is a constant on NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecasts, and will call the game on Sunday night at Jerry’s Club when the Cowboys host the Eagles.

Personally, I have always been a fan of Tafoya. This is an interview I wanted for a while to which she said, “Why didn’t you ask?”

Fair question.

Star-Telegram: You get to talk to the head coach and top player or two in a pregame production meeting; how is Cowboys coach Jason Garrett with you?

Michele Tafoya: I think he gives us stuff that he might not everyone else. Our meetings are different. He’s not at a podium. It’s a group and we are chatting. He knows we are good as a group with off-the-record stuff. We take pride in that.

Star-Telegram: Do you think how a coach treats the media matters at all?

MT: I think it matters. He deals with me at halftime as well, so we do have a different kind of relationship in that way. As far as goodwill, I think every single human being has a different relationship with every single different human being. That’s the way it is. If you are respectful to players and coaches you will get that in return. Every coach handles it differently.

S-T: If the temperature around a coach is, ‘Fire him! Fire him!’ do you have to cover that in your broadcast?

MT: I think we cover things as they are, not as people wish them to be. The fact that fans are ticked is their right. They paid for the ticket. Fans feel one way and we will talk to the owner and the players and the coaches, but it’s not our role to feed into the frenzy of wanting a coach to be fired.

I’ve come away from games where a kicker misses an important kick and it doesn’t matter if he made the rest, it’s ‘Cut him! Cut him! Cut him!’ They forget the human side. It’s natural to forget that. We don’t have the skin in the game that the fans do. That’s the only way you can walk that line.

S-T: Are you at a point in your career when someone talks to you about your job are the questions about, ‘Why are the Cowboys losing?’ or is it still, ‘What’s it like to be the only girl in the press box?’

MT: It’s more the latter, what it’s like being in a man’s world. I am tired and bored with that question. I give the same answer every single time: I don’t believe in these monolithic blocks. I refuse to look at myself in that context.

I was in LA for the Chargers game and I saw (Chargers lineman) Russell Okung, who is out. I said to him, ‘They really need you’ and he said, ‘I know. And I know you know ball.’ That was a tremendous compliment.

S-T: What is your biggest on-air mistake?

MT: Early in my career, I was with CBS Sports and we had the national title game between Florida and Nebraska when (running back) Lawrence Phillips was there. I was started telling a story (on air) as Phillips is tearing down the field.

Poor Jim Nantz had to interrupt me. I remember afterwards the criticism I took was legitimate. I was too young to know.

S-T: For young people, and specifically young women, who aspire to be you what advice would you give them?

MT: Be so prepared. Thick skin doesn’t come on Day 1. It comes by making mistakes. If you don’t think you can develop that thick skin it’s going to be difficult. Don’t be afraid to look your best, or to downplay your femininity.

And don’t just look at women in the business; look at men, too. I learned a ton from Bob Costas, Dan Patrick and Jim Nantz. How to prepare. How to ask questions.

Don’t just look at me. Don’t just box yourself in as a female, or as a minority. Why do that to yourself?

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Mac Engel is an award-winning columnist who has extensive experience covering Fort Worth-Dallas area sports for 20 years. He has covered high schools, colleges, all four major sports teams as well as Olympic games and the world of entertainment, too. He combines dry wit with first-person reporting to complement a head of hair that is almost unfair.
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