This column originally appeared in the November 25th, 2009 issue of Patriots Football Weekly.
Visser no stranger to Pats success
By Bruce Allen
“Hi, I’m Lesley Visser, I know Will McDonough.”
With those eight words, Lesley Visser, the longtime CBS sportscaster voted this past summer as the No. 1 Female Sportscaster of All-Time, would approach players, coaches and officials during her first season on the Patriots beat. The year was 1976, and the 23-year-old Visser was working for The Boston Globe, yet was not allowed in the locker room, and her team-issued press credential flatly stated “No Women or Children allowed in the Press Box.” Oftentimes she would have to wait in the parking lot to interview players. There wasn’t even a ladies room available to her. Dropping McDonough’s name was the only “in” that she had until she could establish herself.
Despite her distinguished career, I sometimes feel that Visser isn’t always properly appreciated by the public for being the true pioneer that she is. In an age where more and more women are seeking careers in sports media, Visser set the standards by which they all measure themselves. Thus, having the chance to chat recently with the very gracious Visser was a great privilege.
Both her remarkable life and career began right here in Massachusetts. Born in Quincy MA, sports and football were in Visser’s blood from a young age. As a little girl, she dressed as Celtics guard Sam Jones for Halloween one year, and asked Santa for a pair of shoulder pads one Christmas.
In 1966, Visser attended her first professional football game, when the Patriots took on the Oakland Raiders at Fenway Park. The 13-year-old Visser managed to get down to the Raiders sideline where she saw future Hall of Fame center Jim Otto up close. “He was the biggest human being I’d ever seen,” she remembers, “and my eyes grew as big as his double 00’s.”
She had the goal of being a sportswriter when she grew up, and as an English major at Boston College, she obtained an internship at The Boston Globe through a Carnegie Foundation grant. Joining the paper full-time following graduation in 1975, she immediately started making her mark in a male-dominated field.
It started that bicentennial year of 1976, when Visser became the first woman assigned to an NFL beat when the Globe sent her out to cover Patriots on a daily basis.
“The first day of training camp, I think I brushed my teeth in the parking lot of Bryant college.” She recalls her biggest fear in those first days on the beat: “Working with people like Peter Gammons and Bob Ryan and Bud Collins, I was terrified I’d let the Boston Globe down with their historic decision.”
Dropping McDonough’s name became her “Magic Credential,” as she puts it. McDonough, the most respected football writer in the country, even spoke to Billy Sullivan on her behalf, telling the Patriots owner that she would work hard, and asking them to be forgiving of her mistakes.
Mistakes? She made a few, some of which pain her to this day. She recalls one incident early in her tenure when she was doing a story on Sam Cunningham, (Visser says that Sam was much more famous than younger brother Randall.) and included some notes at the end of the story. The Patriots were banged up along the offensive line, and she asked coach Chuck Fairbanks who would start at tackle, Tom Neville or Bob McKay.
In the Globe the next morning, Fairbanks was quoted as saying, “Neither one can play the position”. Visser relates: “I got a call at 6 am. ‘Are you out of your mind?'” It was Fairbanks, shouting on the other end. “I said EITHER one can play the position!” Visser still shakes her head at the recollection. “I wanted to move to Bimini. Instead, I flew down to Miami with the team – as all members of the media did back then. I heard about it the whole flight, and, OK, maybe the whole season. I think Dave Smith and Vince Doria, our legendary editors at the Globe, remind me of it to this day.”
All in all, she says that “The Patriots were great to me” and that first season in Foxborough was a memorable one, the team went 11-3 before losing a heartbreaking playoff game to the Raiders on the infamous Ben Dreith “roughing the passer” call on Sugar Bear Hamilton, the Patriots tackle who Visser says had watched game film with her that year, giving her an even deeper understanding of the game.
Though he was just a Patriots season ticket holder at the time, Robert Kraft had a big impact on Visser’s career even back in the 1970’s. Kraft owned the Boston Lobsters of World TeamTennis, and was the first person to let Visser into a locker room in any sport. She adds that Kraft “has been so supportive of women in this business, an advocate for more than 30 years. I’m happy to report that the struggles of Schaefer stadium are now the glories of Gillette. It’s no coincidence that the Patriots are the model, the envy of the NFL.”
With her history with the Patriots, it only makes sense that Visser’s favorite memory from her long career covering sports involves the franchise from Foxborough, MA.
“One of my most favorite memories in all of sports was Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans.” She proudly recalls “I was on the field when Adam Vinatieri drilled it through the uprights, and as the confetti came raining down, I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is the team I grew up with, the team that gave me my biggest opportunity, and now I’m here for their most shining moment.'”
Visser had moved on to television with CBS in the early 1980’s, and made history there too, working almost all major sporting events the network covered, including the NFL, where she became the first woman to host the postgame Super Bowl Championship trophy presentation. She stayed at CBS until 1994. She then moved on to ABC/ESPN, where she become the first woman on the announcing team of Monday Night Football, as sideline reporter. She returned to CBS in 2000, and has remained there ever since. She currently is a reporter for The NFL Today, and writes a column for CBSSports.com. In July of this year, Visser was voted the No. 1 female sportscaster of all time by the American Sportscasters Association.
Also this summer, Visser became the first woman to serve as a color commentator on an NFL TV telecast, during a Dolphins preseason game. Visser says of the experience “It was an enormous challenge, but I was careful to stay within my experience. I’ve never been in an NFL huddle, so I never said anything I couldn’t possibly know – I think that philosophy has helped me for 35 years. I don’t assume, I ask.”
Visser’s distinguished career covering the NFL led to the ultimate honor. In 2006 she became the first (and only) woman to be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as recipient of the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. Among those congratulating Visser that day was Jim Otto, “Pretty good,” he said, “for a little girl shivering on the sideline.”
Visser says that “Being honored as the first woman in the Pro Football Hall of Fame made me glad I went through all the ups and downs. I have a genuine respect for sports, I’ve always said it’s the most meritorious business in America. It doesn’t matter where your father went to college or how much money your mother has, if you hit the jumper or sink the putt or kick the winning field goal, it’s because of your talent, your will and your skill.”
Fittingly, talent, will and skill are all qualities that Lesley Visser possesses in abundance.