The last time Melissa Stark was a regular on the sidelines, Tom Brady was a one-time Super Bowl champion and Matthew Stafford was a freshman in high school.
As Stark returns to the sideline for the first time since 2002 after starting a family, Brady is still in the league and has added six more Super Bowl rings to his collection. Stafford is part of the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.
Stark will report on both quarterbacks this week for NBC. The Rams begin their title defense in Thursday night’s opener against the Buffalo Bills, while Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my life would come full circle this way,” said Stark, who replaced Michele Tafoya after she decided to leave sports broadcasting. “Being part of hosting a live show in a studio is one thing, but being part of the action and being on the sidelines in the middle of the game is completely different. And that’s what I love.”
Stark was the backstage reporter on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” from 2000-02. She spent four years with NBC News (2003-07), including stints as a national correspondent for the “Today” show and as an anchor for MSNBC, along with covering three Olympics for NBC Sports.
Stark left the business for a few years when her family grew with four children, including twins, before joining NFL Network in 2011. She anchored Sunday morning coverage during the season, was a reporter, contributed to its draft coverage NFL and did some sideline reporting when the network produced games in London.
Stark started on “Monday Night Football” when she was 25 and is returning to primetime football at 48 with four teenagers.
“I always said to my husband, ‘I’m going to be replaced by someone younger.’ And he always said, “Stop thinking about that. No you are not.’ To be able to come back with a family is very validating and an important message for women,” Stark said. “I think it offers a lot of opportunities for women and shows that they can find a way to have this family and also have a career.
“I feel so honored that (NBC NFL executive producer) Fred (Gaudelli) thought of me. I feel privileged to be able to come back and do this.”
As for how sideline reporting has evolved over the past 20 years, Stark cited additional resources, including having someone on the truck to relay information directly to the producer.
“Access to stories and research has also increased tremendously. Ultimately, the sideline reporter’s job is to be the eyes and ears on the field. So we can have a story here or there,” he said.
Stark isn’t the only mixed-up personality on “Sunday Night Football,” which has been primetime’s top show for the past 11 years. Mike Tirico becomes primary play-by-play announcer after Al Michaels moves to Amazon’s ‘Thursday Night Football’ package. Rob Hyland is taking over as coordinating producer after Gaudelli moved into an executive role at NBC as well as producing Amazon’s games.
Cris Collinsworth returns for his 14th season as an analyst. The crew worked last month’s Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
“If I learned anything in Canton, it’s that I have to trust my gut. We’ll be fine. Everyone communicates. Everyone is connected, getting along. Like-minded people,” Tirico said. “We haven’t played a regular season game together, but I know what (director) Drew Esocoff is thinking and doing, certainly Rob. Cris, I don’t have to look and see, “um, what’s he thinking?” I have heard Cris. I have worked with Cris. I have a sense of exactly where she’s going and what she’s trying to say, and it’s the same with Melissa.”
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL