It’s 6:40 a.m. in a frigid South Jersey TV studio, and in 20 minutes Melissa Stark—who looks better at this groggy hour than you ever will—goes live on-air. Is she nervous? Not really: She’s been preparing all week for Sunday’s slate of NFL games. And anyway, she’s an old pro in front of the camera. And in front of millions of rabid sports fans.
Still, this job is different from the gig that first thrust her into the spotlight at age 26 in 2000, as Monday Night Football’s star sideline reporter. The new project, First on the Field, is a pre-game show that airs from 7 to 9 a.m. on football Sundays, and it runs like a morning talk-fest, lighthearted and info-packed. Playing as co-host with ex-Green Bay Packer Sterling Sharpe, Stark is charged with keeping it all moving—although “I don’t want to be a traffic cop here,” she says.
No worries: On the set in NFL Films’ Mount Laurel studio (Stark lives in Central Jersey), she’s nothing but smooth, interrogating Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, dubbing lovably cantankerous analyst Michael Lombardi “the Grinch” and correctly predicting another Giants loss. She jokes. She narrates. She scores.
“She’s a great ambassador for the network and the league,” raves NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger, who wanted Stark for her “NFL presence” and reporter’s instincts. Weinberger highlights what was obscured a decade ago, when all anyone seemed to focus on was Stark’s empirical attractiveness. On the Monday Night Football sidelines, she was subjected to catcalls and marriage proposals. Playboy put her in contention for the dubious title of “Sexiest Sports Reporter.” Says Stark: “I didn’t let it faze me.” Part of the job, that’s all.
But lost in the pie-eyed gawking was Stark’s relationship with the game. Her dad, the Baltimore Colts’ eye doctor, would take young Melissa to the locker room at halftime. She was developing valuable sources even then: Star quarterback Bert Jones taught her how to throw a football.
Her pigskin education continued at the University of Virginia, where she covered UVA’s football and basketball teams for statewide TV markets. She landed at a regional sports network in D.C. a year after graduation; Monday Night Football—and recognition in bars and airports—followed. She briefly stepped away in 2003 to start a family, then came back to co-host The Today Show, also anchoring on MSBNC and covering the Olympics before giving up TV again in 2008 to focus on her kids. Missing oldest son Michael’s first birthday—and first steps—while at the 2004 Summer Olympics “was the hardest thing as a working mom I’ve ever done.”
So when the NFL Network came courting, Stark initially balked. But they promised to work around her family-first schedule. She covered some football for them in 2011, and the network, eager to use its East Coast talent, then asked her to host First on the Field, which debuted late in 2012. “This is really perfect for me,” says Stark, 39, now a mother of four. She says she likes the adrenaline rush of doing more.
Sure, balancing it all takes constant effort, Stark admits, but now that she’s back, her professional momentum is building. In other words: Prepare to see her everywhere. The NFL Network hopes to use her more during the off-season. The renewed attention isn’t likely to go to this veteran sports reporter’s head, though, thanks to the folks at home who keep it real: The preferred Sunday-morning viewing at her house, Stark says, is still Tom and Jerry.
This article first appeared in the February 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.