The first college football game to be played during the coronavirus pandemic took place two weekends ago.
Giles High School graduate Lauren Sisler was there to cover it for ESPN.
“It was really special,” Sisler said last week in a phone interview. “I don’t think it hit me until after the game. … It was just after midnight when I got in my car and kind of sat there and was like, ‘Wow! I just covered the biggest game of my college football reporting career.’
“I’ve covered a lot of big games, but this certainly tops them because of the magnitude of this pandemic. … We finally have arrived at a place where people can actually watch a college sport on television. It was the first NCAA-sanctioned event in 170 days.”
This is Sisler’s second year as a sideline reporter for weekly college football games on ESPN and ESPN2.
She lives in Birmingham, Alabama, so it made sense for her to be chosen for the Aug. 29 FCS Kickoff game in Montgomery, Alabama, between Austin Peay and Central Arkansas.
The former Rutgers gymnast was the only on-air member of the ESPN broadcast crew who was at the game. Play-by-play announcer Matt Barrie and analyst Mike Golic Jr. were back in the ESPN studios in Connecticut.
Sisler had to take a COVID-19 test two days before the game.
She wore a mask not only during the game but for seven straight hours.
“I got a few drinks of water … but that was about it,” Sisler, 35, said. “As someone that has not been in a situation … that required me to wear a mask for longer than an hour, … definitely an adjustment. But once we kind of got into kickoff and into the game, it just became part of my uniform, if you will.”
Sideline reporters usually stand right next to the coaches for interviews, but not this time.
“I had to socially distance from the coach for our halftime interview,” Sisler said. “I’m almost doing a two-person press conference, … where I’m facing him with at least 6 feet of distance, if not more, asking him a question and he’s responding to it in a separate microphone.”
A sideline reporter is usually permitted to be near the team benches during a game so he or she can eavesdrop on what the coaches and players are saying to each other.
Not this season.
“We cannot stand behind the bench,” Sisler said. “We had parameters that were set … as to where we were allowed to stand and watch the football game and observe from the sidelines. Much different than what we’re accustomed to as sideline reporters, where typically we’re the eyes and ears on the field and typically right up on the bench.”
About 2,000 fans were on hand at the 22,000-seat Cramton Bowl.
“Definitely a different feel — everyone spread out,” Sisler said. “Not the crowd noise you’re accustomed to.
“[But] even though you didn’t have the fans, you definitely felt this unique energy on the field because we’re here and we’re finally playing college football. It didn’t feel to me like a scrimmage or a spring game. It felt like a real football game.”
Sisler teamed with play-by-play announcer Roy Philpott and analyst Kelly Stouffer for games last season, but she will be working with various announcing teams this year.
She flew around the country for games last year, but her travel will be limited this season because of the pandemic. She expects to be assigned a lot of Southeastern Conference games.
“I don’t know how much I’ll be flying this year,” she said. “I’ll be doing more driving.”
She will be in Mobile, Alabama, for the Tulane-South Alabama telecast Saturday night on ESPN2. This time, play-by-play man Mike Couzens and analyst Dustin Fox will join her at the stadium.
Another Giles High School graduate, Marty Smith, will also serve as a sideline reporter for ESPN college football telecasts this season.
Before being promoted to weekly sideline duty, Sisler was a reporter for SEC Network’s Saturday morning show, “SEC Nation,” and was a sideline reporter for ESPN bowl games.
She also works as a sports reporter and host for AL.com.
The FCS Kickoff was not the only highlight of her year. She married former Christiansburg High School and Roanoke College golfer John Willard on May 30.
“Getting married during a pandemic is not ideal, but we felt strongly about getting married and not waiting until next year,” she said. “I feel fortunate that we were able to still go through with it and have a small, intimate ceremony.”
Because of the pandemic, the plan to hold the wedding at Mountain Lake Lodge in Giles County was scrapped. Instead, the wedding took place at a Birmingham church.
“We went from 200 guests down to eight,” Sisler said.
But when the bride and groom emerged from the church after the ceremony, they got a nice surprise.
One of Sisler’s friends had asked the couple’s Birmingham friends, as well as some out-of-town folks, to wait outside the church to cheer on the couple after the wedding. About 40 people with pom-poms and noisemakers turned out.
“That was pretty cool,” Sisler said.