UNLV Magazine – Fall 2008
By Matt Jacob
Degree: '82 BA Communications
Occupation: ESPN broadcastor
Perseverance, and a peverse sense of humor, led Kenny Mayne to ESPN
Some 30 years ago, Kenny Mayne was reading defenses as a second-string quarterback at UNLV. Today, on a hot June afternoon, Mayne is back in his college town, and he’s reading once again.
Microphone in hand, Mayne addresses a group of about 20 — most of whom have hair a similar shade of silver as Mayne’s spiky mane. He’s reading from his first book, An Incomplete & Inaccurate History of Sport, a tome that’s 80 percent autobiography, 20 percent sports commentary, and 100 percent Kenny Mayne. It’s full of the dry wit and self-deprecation that made Mayne one of the most popular personalities on ESPN and earned him a memorable stint on the reality show Dancing With the Stars.
Mayne gazes toward the stacks of his books for sale. People are walking by and windowshopping. “I’d just like to say, not only is (the book) a great Father’s Day gift,” he deadpans, “but there’s Flag Day, too.”
He scores a laugh and another book sale.
Weeks earlier, I’m interviewing Mayne, and he’s delivering off-the-wall one-liners as if he were on the air. On his time at UNLV: “I wasn’t a great player, but I wasn’t terrible. And I got to go to school for free.” On his career at ESPN: “I’m just about to sign a new two-year contract, so I’ll say nice things about ESPN. I know it’s popular to say bad things about ’em, but I like that place. And I love my wife. And I love my country.” On his two-week run on Dancing With the Stars (he was the first “star” to be kicked off in its second season): “(Former NFL star and Dancing champion) Jerry Rice said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done. And I’m not Jerry Rice. So you could imagine how difficult it was for me.” And, for no reason whatsoever, on his favorite weekly pastime: “I still take my own garbage to the Huckleberry Hill landfill in Avon, Conn. It just feels good. You don’t have to drag the cans down the driveway and hit some deadline. It’s fun to throw the Coke bottles into the bin and break them. And I just felt like telling you that.”
Finally, he jokes about how his recently released book contains repeated mentions of a school-age crush. “I hope my wife can handle the fact that I seem to still be fixated on Susan Nelson from seventh grade. But she was on fire.”
An Incomplete & Inaccurate History of Sport is hardly revolutionary. To wit, he concludes the foreword with: “Enjoy your coaster.”
Still, it’s much more than a coaster. Beyond the funny anecdotes – like the time he cheated on (and yet still failed) a geology test, something he regrets to this day – is a buried (if unintended) message of perseverance.
After an honorable-mention All-American season in 1978 at Wenatchee Valley Community College in his home state of Washington, Mayne received several scholarship offers to play Division I-AA football at places like Weber State in Utah and Eastern Washington. But Mayne believed he was good enough to play at the premier Division I-A level. UNLV recruited him and put him through a workout, but gave the scholarship to eventual starter Sam King.
“I thought [then-head coach] Tony Knap was great and it just felt right,” he says. “So I was like, ‘You know what? I have offers elsewhere, but I want to walk-on, I want to be there.’”
He quickly proved himself worthy of a scholarship … unfortunately, it came with a side of bad luck. A cut finger before fall camp in 1979 forced him sit out the season as a redshirt. Late in the 1980 season, Mayne was on the field for the final play of a blowout loss at Oregon. He got hit after releasing the ball and suffered a broken and dislocated right ankle.
He came back to play in several games in 1981 (even starting once), but seven surgeries later, the ankle still isn’t 100 percent.
Despite his game injuries — he also broke his left femur at age 10 and his right ankle in high school — and despite a less-than-spectacular college career, he pursued a professional career for more than two years after graduation. He signed a contract with his hometown Seattle Seahawks, but was cut when he failed a physical because of the ankle injury. Attempts to catch on with the Canadian Football League and the now-defunct United States Football League also failed.
“Even though I was not even close to being a star in college, I still thought I had some football left in me,” recalls Mayne. His UNLV career numbers were 83 pass attempts, 43 completions, 637 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, and one game started. “I was really hoping more for Canada or the USFL – it wasn’t like I thought I was going to be Joe Montana or anything. But I wasn’t worth the risk to anybody because I was a marginal player.”
Time to put that UNLV broadcast journalism degree to work. Mayne latched on with a station in Seattle, but it would be three years before he would get on the air. He began pestering ESPN, which brought the unorthodox broadcaster to its Bristol, Conn., headquarters for an interview in 1989. They took a pass. His perseverance gene kicked in.
He periodically badgered the “worldwide leader in sports” over the next several years, even after quitting his Seattle TV gig. He took a job assembling garbage cans for $10 an hour and sold prepaid legal insurance and then long-distance phone services. But he also did a lot of freelance field reporting. ESPN invited him for a second interview in 1993, but told him “No, thanks” once more.
“I just kept wearing them down to hire me,” Mayne recalls. “In spring of 1994, they brought me back for the third interview, and I told them, ‘I still don’t know who the fifth starting pitcher on the Cubs is, but if you tell me to do a story on the son of a bitch, it’ll be the best story you got.’”
More than 14 years and thousands of hours of national exposure later, Mayne is one of the network’s most versatile personalities. He also writes a biweekly column for ESPN The Magazine and is launching a project for ESPN.com
“There were a whole bunch of [doubters] in Seattle. One guy actually said to my face, ‘What a dreamer, thinking he’s going to get to ESPN.’ But it was sort of like with football – no offense to the guys doing it, but I saw what was on the air and I said, ‘OK, I can do that.’”
Such perseverance was needed in his personal life, too. In early 1996, less than two years after getting hired at ESPN, Mayne looked forward to being a first-time dad. His wife, Laura, was pregnant with twins. While vacationing in Portland, Maine, and just 23 weeks and four days into the pregnancy, Laura went into labor. She delivered two boys: Creighton was stillborn; Connor weighed just 1 pound, 7 ounces.
Over the next six months, Connor would undergo multiple surgeries and rally through each. Laura remained by his side virtually around-the-clock; Kenny treked back and forth from the Portland hospital to the Bristol studios to work under the most excruciating of circumstances: trying to deliver funny highlights while his son was clinging to life. Connor grew to more than seven pounds, the couple was hopeful he would finally come home. He died after yet another setback.
“When people go through a tragedy, you always hear the cliché about how it gives you perspective,” Mayne says. “There’s some truth to that, and it’s [still] very regrettable when I get upset about small things, because I almost always try to remind myself that, you know, Connor wasn’t in [the hospital] complaining. He had five surgeries. He got a heel stick every day of his life.”
The heartache didn’t end there; two subsequent pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Finally, in August 1999, Riley Mayne was born healthy and was joined 18 months later by sister Annie. Now 9 and 7 years old, the girls are featured in their father’s new book and sometimes are a part of his ESPN reporting.
“When it first happened,” Mayne says of losing Creighton and Connor, “we were about as low as you could be. But it seemed like whoever fell apart, the other person never did. We just kept hanging in there, and then Riley came along, and we really saw that as a miracle – or if not, a very great coincidence.”
The miracle/coincidence has a bit of a UNLV connection that is detailed in An Incomplete & Inaccurate History of Sport. In 1998, Mayne was in Minnesota doing an ESPN story on the storybook comeback season Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham. Cunningham, who was a freshman at UNLV when Mayne was a senior, had rediscovered his Christian faith. So when his college friend told him about the loss of his twins, Cunningham, his team pastor, and Mayne went into an office. A fire-and-brimstone prayer ensued as the pastor and the star quarterback asked for the Maynes to be blessed with a healthy child.
Mayne appreciated the gesture and shared the story with his wife. By Laura’s calculations, a baby could not possibly be forthcoming. Two weeks later, a pregnancy test proved her wrong. Perseverance.
The night before his June appearance at Red Rock Station, Mayne was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The host – another former UNLV student – was joking about the budding author’s decision to stage a book reading … at a locals casino … on a Friday afternoon. Just what kind of crowd, Kimmel wisecracked, was Mayne hoping for?
Sure enough, it appears that Mayne was a bit overly optimistic. Some 90 minutes after his arrival, the stack of books for sale has barely shrunk. Still, Kenny sits cheerfully signing copies for the two dozen people who did make a purchase. No, he’s not going to make the best-seller list today, but that’s hardly the end of the world.
“The book is quirky and funny,” says Sam King, a friend of Mayne since their playing days at UNLV. “But I’m not surprised that the deeper message is about perseverance, about going through the hurt and the pain and being able to come through and still have wit.”
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