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'Incredible' return to prime time for UVa grad Melissa Stark of Sunday Night Football

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Twenty years ago, Melissa Stark was the sideline reporter for ABC’s “Monday Night Football.”

But the University of Virginia graduate walked away from her high-profile job to be a mom.

Now she is back on prime-time television as the new sideline reporter for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”

“I love it. For me, life has come full circle,” Stark, 48, said in a phone interview last week. “To go back to prime-time sidelines 20 years later is incredible.”

Stark was the sideline reporter for “Monday Night Football” from the 2000 season through the 2002 season. But in 2003, pregnant with her first child, she decided not to return for the 2003 season.

“They said, ‘You could come back in October or November.’ And I said, … ‘I think I’m going to want to be home with this kid,’” Stark said.

Stark worked for NBC News and NBC Sports from 2003-08. But as her family grew to four children, she chose motherhood over that job, too.

“I had four kids under the age of 4, so I left,” she said. “I just said, “I’m going to be a full-time mom. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to it. I’m OK with being a full-time mom.’”

In 2011, she joined NFL Network for a job that required less time and travel.

And this season she has returned to NBC, succeeding Michele Tafoya as the sideline reporter for “Sunday Night Football.” Stark’s kids are older now, but she is still juggling work and family.

“It’s a constant juggling act as a mom with a career, especially one that you’re on the road so much,” she said.

John Madden a mentor

Stark graduated from Virginia in 1995. She has fond memories of UVa — and not just of interviewing football and basketball players for UVa’s weekly coaches TV show.

“My best friends from life are from UVa,” Stark said. “UVa was the perfect school to go to. … I was so into academics and studying, … but then it had the whole social life.”

She and nine of her UVa friends still get together once or twice a year, although she had to miss the most recent gathering because of “Sunday Night Football.”

“I miss out on a lot because of my job,” she said.

After a year at Home Team Sports (now known as NBC Sports Washington), she joined ESPN in 1996.

At the age of 26, she became the sideline reporter for ABC’s “Monday Night Football” in 2000.

“When I did ‘Monday Night Football,’ there weren’t many women in sports,” she said. “That sort of got into your head a little bit just because it was so rare.

“Now … there are so many more women in sports, I don’t even think about it.”

During the 2002 season, the late “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney gave an interview in which he criticized female sideline reporters.

“It was obviously directed toward me. So there was a lot of that, where I think maybe insecurities came in,” Stark said.

She was a guest teacher at a UVa broadcasting class earlier this year, before NBC hired her. She told them she wished she knew back in her “Monday Night Football” years what she knows now.

A student in the class asked her what she would have told herself.

“That I belonged,” Stark told her.

The late analyst John Madden joined Stark and play-by-play man Al Michaels on the “Monday Night Football” team for the 2002 season.

“I was young … and I was working with legends,” Stark said. “John was incredible. We became amazing friends and he was such a mentor to me. But it was different because I didn’t feel like I was on their level.”

Stark was among those interviewed for the Fox Sports documentary “All Madden” that aired last year.

“John and I were very close,” Stark said last week. “He absolutely took me under his wing.

“He believed in me, and that gave me so much confidence.”

‘The middle of the action’

She joined NBC in 2003. She served as the national correspondent for the “Today” show, as well as a host for “Early Today,” a fill-in news anchor for “Today” and an anchor for MSNBC. She also was a part of the NBC Sports coverage of three Olympics.

Stark said being the “Today” show’s national correspondent was difficult.

“As a mom, it’s very hard to cover news, in my opinion, because it’s breaking and you have no sense of a schedule,” she said. “That just didn’t work for me and our family.”

After leaving NBC, she resurfaced at the NFL Network in 2011 as a host and reporter. When the NFL Network began doing some December games in recent years, Stark served as sideline reporter.

She currently hosts “NFL 360” for that channel. She is also part of the channel’s NFL Draft telecasts, interviewing players after they get picked. She will also be a part of the channel’s coverage of Super Bowl week.

Stark is enjoying her new “Sunday Night Football” job, where she works with play-by-play man Mike Tirico and analyst Cris Collinsworth.

“I’m a reporter at heart,” she said. “I like finding information that nobody else has. There’s nothing like the adrenaline of being on the sideline in the middle of the action. Nothing.”

Stark said the challenge of her job is finding unique stories that won’t feel forced in the broadcast.

“I’m going to … try and track down any information that you might not know about Aaron Rodgers or about a Tom Brady or a Russell Wilson,” she said. “I’ll try and talk to a high school coach or a father, … get stories that will resonate with the viewer so they’ll say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’”

The travel required for “Sunday Night Football” is hard for her, though, because she has to be away from her husband and kids in New Jersey. She has to arrive on Thursday nights in the city that is hosting the game so she can be at the home team’s practice Friday and meet with the home team. She meets with the visiting team on Saturdays.

“As a mom, I’m so involved with my kids, so I don’t take that part lightly at all, that I’m gone from them for more than half the week,” she said.

Her oldest son is now a freshman at her alma mater.

She won’t be able to attend UVa’s family weekend next month because of her new job. But she is glad her son is there.

“I’m so happy for him to be there, just knowing the experience I had and what he’ll get out of it,” Stark said. “When he calls he’ll say, ‘I’m walking to the library’ and I’ll say, ‘Which one?’ Or he’ll say, ‘I’m walking to the dining hall’ and I’ll say, ‘Which one?’ … That helps me feel closer to him.”

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Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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