Michele Tafoya has always been the best of the best.
Her career has spanned decades. She’s covered the Olympics, worked for every major network and made history in 1996 when she became the first woman to call TV play-by-play of an NCAA tournament game.
But Thursday night, as the Texans face the Chiefs on NBC, the sideline reporter will have to adapt to COVID-19 protocols. Tafoya talked with KPRC 2 earlier this week about the challenges during such a strange time.
Vanessa Richardson: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will have to adapt, but you’ll have to adapt the most. How will your duties change and what will look different?
Michele Tafoya: Things are going to look really different. The fact that I can’t be on the field is still kind of startling to me, and this notion of showing up at a stadium for a game and not walking right onto the field is so foreign to me. But I’ve just thought about this as we’re going to embrace this. We’re going to make the most of this challenge and see what we can do with it and get creative. Overcome the hurdles somehow and make an opportunity out of it. But it is going to be strange and whether there are 15,000 people in the stands or none. It’s just going to be a very different experience. For the first time, I’m taking binoculars on the road because I’m going to be needing them.
Richardson: How has it changed the way you prepare?
Tafoya: So far I’m preparing sort of the same way. On game day night, I usually love to go down to the field and talk to people, talk to coaches, talk to kickers, talk to whomever I can talk to. That interaction is so important, especially right before a game. You can break news that way, or even just break a small story when you’re able to be down there and someone suddenly tells you ‘My wife just had a baby’ or whatever it happens to be. So taking that away.. it’s going to be strange. We’re going to have to adapt at halftime talking to the coaches. We have multiple ways we can do that. We’re going to have to adapt with post-game interviews. We have multiple ways we can do that. And I think it’s just going to change week to week to week.
Richardson: Heading into this fluid situation, what conversations were you having with producers and fellow members of the broadcast about making this work.
Tafoya: We’ve thrown around a lot of ideas about how we can do things. Do we put a table down on the field for a post-game interview and the subject is at one end and I’m at the other. We’ve come to a different conclusion about that. We’ve also talked about how much we’re going to miss the social element. We go into a town and we sit down with teams; the quarterback, the head coach and a couple of other players in that little production meeting area and you get that face time, and some really meaningful conversations come out of that. So we’re all going to miss that a lot. You know? Do we even get to go have dinner together? We don’t even know that. So it’s kind of sad, but at the same time, everyone is kind of in the same boat. The teams are staying in their bubble and we’re going to stay in ours.
Richardson: Even with COVID-19, this is still Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. You’ve seen them play. How excited are you to see these dynamic, young quarterbacks and what is your prediction for the game?
Tafoya: I have no prediction for this game because I think both of these quarterbacks are so unpredictable. The things that they can do outside of the pocket are just remarkable. The fact that both of them can extend a play and keep their wide receivers and tight ends running around and just trying to get open... I do know that both of these defenses are going to key in on these quarterbacks and try to keep them contained. And I say ‘God bless you and good luck’ to both defenses.
Richardson: You could argue this is going to be the biggest sporting event since COVID-19. What could this do in terms of lifting the country’s spirits?
Tafoya: I hope that this game is as meaningful to other people as it is to all of us. I know that the players are looking forward to using their platform to advance some social justice initiatives. I know that they also really want to get back to playing the game that they love. I can’t tell you how often I’m out and about, or even on the phone with someone, or even texting and they say ‘Please tell me the season is going to happen, I need football in my life.' With so many of the colleges pushing their seasons out, the NFL becomes even more of that go-to entertainment that people want so much. So I truly hope this is a time where we can sort of just disappear into the game for a little while and have some fun together as a country.
Richardson: You were supposed to be a poolside reporter for the Olympics. I know you can’t reveal too much, but what are some of the conversations you’re having with the athletes?
Tafoya: These athletes train for the Olympics like it’s the most important event of their lives. For some, it is, for many it’s not, but to have to put that off another year, and to have to disrupt the schedule....these are regimented athletes with tapering schedules and eating schedules... so for them to have to put it off a year really throws a wrench into what they’ve been doing for the past four years. That’s where I feel the sorriest for them, but then again, they’re all in the same playing field, so it’s not like someone is more disadvantaged than another. I just hope it still goes off. It’s an amazing event to be in that aquatic center and watch these athletes compete. It is simply scintillating, and fingers crossed that we’re going to get out there and see great swimming like we saw in Rio.
Richardson: What do you think this has taught athletes about resilience?
Tafoya: I always think, in my life personally, control what you can control. And the other stuff you have to just fix your mind and say, well, ‘This is what’s here.' I think we’ve all had to realize this is mother nature at work; this is a virus that is evolving and we’re all evolving around it. We can’t control that part of it. So the things that you can control, do. I know athletes found other ways to workout. They found other ways to have their meetings. We found other ways to do interviews. So everyone has found ways to adapt, and I hope that gives everyone a little bit of juice and realization that they can overcome some of this stuff.