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Nerves of Steele

Channel 28 sportscaster Sage Steele succeeds in a field where women still have it tough.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000


TAMPA -- It took her three years to work up the nerve, but on a winter afternoon in 1995, when she saw him leaving Assembly Hall, she finally did it.

"Coach Knight," she called out to the man hurrying toward a door. "Can I ask you a question?"

Sage Steele was a 21-year old senior at Indiana University. She'd heard the stories about Knight, how he ate reporters and athletic directors for breakfast. Especially if they asked a lot of dumb questions.

But she had to know.

Did he remember her father?

Gary Steele was the first African-American to play varsity football at West Point. He was shooting baskets one day in 1966 with some friends when, for no reason other than the joy of it, he dunked the ball.

At that precise moment, Knight, then the basketball coach at West Point, walked into the gym.

"Steele!" Knight screamed. "Who the hell do you think you are hanging on my rim?"

Sage Steele shook her head and smiled as she told the story. "My dad never forgot that," she said. "For all that time he hated Knight."

So there they were again, Knight and a kid named Steele.

In a gym.

"He was leaving with some of his assistants, and I thought, "This is my chance.' I asked him if he remembered my dad. I said his name is Gary Steele."

Knight answered so quickly he startled her. He reeled off her father's height, weight and hometown, where he went to high school and prep school, and all his accomplishments at Army.

Correct on every point. Gary Steele, he said, was one of the finest athletes the Point has ever had.

"We talked for about 10 minutes and he was as nice as can be," Steele said. "And then I started to run to a pay phone to call my dad."

Knight stopped her. He had one more thing to say.

"By the way," he called to her, "ask your dad, "What the hell kind of name is Sage?' "

Then he winked.

Sage Steele, who works for WFTS-Ch. 28 and Fox Sports Net Florida, is not the first female sportscaster in the Tampa Bay market. And she's not the first minority woman to hold such a job.

But sports reporting is still a man's domain. Of the four Tampa Bay TV stations that have newscasts, Steele is one of only two female sportscasters (WTVT-Ch. 13's Chris Field is the other).

So she gets tested. A lot. But if you can handle Bob Knight . . .

She'll ask a question in a locker room, and an athlete will smile and give her some version of: "I'll answer that if you have dinner with me tonight."

Steele, who is 27 and married, will shrug and give her standard response. "Well, it looks like I won't get that answer." Then she'll turn and start to walk away.

"Okay," the athlete will say. "What do you want to know?"

That kind of confidence and persistence didn't come from a book or a class. It came, in large part, from her senior year at Carmel High.

Steele was born in Panama and grew up in several cities, depending on where her father's military career took the family. Her dad is black and her mom is white, but she never felt the need to choose one race or the other.

"Whenever I filled out an application," she said, "I always checked "both.' "

In 1989, her family moved to Indianapolis. For her senior year, she went to suburban Carmel High. Of the nearly 2,000 students, she was the only minority.

"I didn't fit in physically," she said. "It was . . . not the ideal."

Not the ideal? Some of the kids called her a n---. Others refused to speak to her at all.

She wanted to go out on dates. No one asked. A teammate on the track team did ask her one thing: where she kept her gun.

"She thought all black people sold drugs and carried guns," Steele said.

Her parents gave her the option of transferring to another school. She said she'd stick it out.

"Maybe it's the military in me," she explained. "I wasn't going to let those people run me off. It was the toughest year of my life, but looking back now, I'm kind of glad it happened.

"My senior year in high school is the reason why I'm here today."

Sports had always been a place she could go to feel safe. Watching football and basketball with her father and two brothers was a regular routine, especially in Europe, where it was one of the family's few links to America. ESPN's Robin Roberts, one of television's first black female sports reporters, became her idol.

It was only natural that she found her way to sports reporting. After graduating from IU and working as a news trainee in South Bend, she got a job as a weekend sports anchor at WISH in Indianapolis.

With no on-air experience, her first assignment was a report on the 1997 Final Four basketball tournament, which was being held in town that weekend. Remember, college basketball is to the state of Indiana what the royal family is to Great Britain.

"I was scared to death," she said. "Here's this 24-year-old kid, the first female sportscaster on TV in Indianapolis, and I'm shaking like a leaf. I can now look at the tape without throwing up.

"But once again, that was one of the best things that happened to me."

A year later, she moved to Channel 28, and this week she signed to become one of three regional reporters for Fox Sports Net Florida, a regionalized cable sportscast. She'll remain at Channel 28 to host Sports Rap, an hour-long call-in show that follows the 11 p.m. news, until the Super Bowl.

She readily admits she's a fan -- that she can't sleep the night before a Bucs game. But she's careful not to treat athletes like deities. "If a player doesn't do a good job, I'm not going to ignore it. I'd lose all credibility. It's easier to just tell the truth."

Her biggest decision now has to do with starting a family. If she were a male reporter, it wouldn't be a problem. If she were an anchor, someone who spent most of her time in the studio, taking time off would be easier.

"I think it's possible to do both," she said. "But it's scary to me. I don't want to do anything halfway -- whether it's work or being a mom."

She paused, and recited an adage about the TV business: "They forget about you when you're off the air."

So for now, she stays in the game.

"I need to see how far my career can take me," she said. "It's like asking coach Knight that question. I have to find out."

It's 10:56 Sunday night. The Channel 28 late news starts in four minutes. A scheduling mistake has left Steele to produce and host the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. sportscasts, as well as Sports Rap.

Naturally, it has been a wild night in sports. Murder charges against Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis have been dropped. The Lakers squeaked past the Trailblazers to advance to the NBA finals. The Lightning found out where it gets to draft. And the Devil Rays won a game.

Steele takes a deep breath, adjusts her earpiece and settles in behind her desk. She has two minutes for her report. The red light blinks on and she flies through the scores and highlights. There's no time for commentary or banter with the other anchors. Just the facts.

Her sportscast done, she races to the Sports Rap set and helps her guest, Bucs assistant head coach Herman Edwards, clip on his microphone. As the show unfolds, Steele loosens up. If the Bucs sign Randall Cunningham, she asks Edwards, she'll be the first person he'll call, right?

After the show, Edwards, a player and a coach in the NFL for 23 seasons, separates Steele from the usual pack of sports reporters.

"She has great presence, she's obviously very knowledgeable about sports, and she puts people at ease," he said. "It's tough for a woman. I can remember when there the was one woman sports reporter in Philadelphia.

"But women have shown they're very capable of doing sports, either as a writer or a TV reporter. Sage Steele has a bright future."

For now, at a little before midnight, her bright future is this:

"I've got to tape this voice-over for tomorrow," she said, hurrying to a sound booth, "and then I just want to go home."

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