Aaron Rodgers is trying to stop smiling.
The problem: he’s currently talking to Kenny Mayne, a man who could wring a grin from a disgruntled tire iron.
“As long as I’ve had ESPN, I’ve tuned in to watch Kenny Mayne,” the ace Jeopardy! replacement host/pretty-good football player says, doing his best to pay tribute to the supremely sardonic sports anchor during his final show on said network before leaving the company in May.
“This isn’t what they want, Aaron,” Mayne deflects, engaging in some verbal ping-pong with the superstar Packers quarterback. “They didn’t call on you for a tribute to me.”
So it goes for 11 odd, endearing (and oddly endearing) minutes, the segment ending with Mayne dropping a four-letter word on Rodgers for some dubious cryptocurrency investment advice.
It’s a typically atypical moment in a career defined by them.
A knowing, wily smirk incarnate, Mayne is a natural born cut-up with a sense of humor endlessly compared to really, really dry things — deserts, sawdust, a mountain of burnt toast; take your pick.
“I take serious things seriously,” Mayne explains from his home in Connecticut. “And the rest of it, less so.”
And it all began at UNLV, where Mayne was a broadcast journalism major and backup quarterback for the Rebels, graduating in 1982.
In the decades since, Mayne ascended to become one of the top anchors on ESPN’s flagship, SportsCenter; introduced the masses to Irish road bowling and other out-there pastimes on the segment “Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports;” gave some early exposure to future stars like Aubrey Plaza and John Mulaney on his web comedy series Mayne Street; and served as a fixture of the network’s horse racing and NFL coverage.
Yes, Mayne left ESPN earlier in the year. No, he’s not retiring any time soon.
The injury that changed everything
If it wasn’t for a drubbing by the Oregon Ducks, he might not have found his way to ESPN in the first place.
Oct. 25, 1980. It was a day that would alter the path of Kenny Mayne’s life. He remembers it vividly. The Rebels were down big.
“I want to say it was like 33-9,” said Mayne, a transfer from Wenatchee Valley College in his native Washington who was in during mop-up time. “We were just ending the game and I said, ‘Might as well throw one more deep pass. Why quit on the game? Might as well get one more touchdown if we can.’”
It was raining; the ball slipped out his hand.
“It was a terrible pass, and right as I released it, some guy stuck his helmet on my ankle,” Mayne said. “I had what was called a fracture dislocation — that’s not a great injury to have.”
Remarkably, Mayne would still play the next season. He’d even get signed by the Seattle Seahawks after his final year. And then came the team physical, revealing the bum ankle. Mayne’s NFL career was over before it began.
And so he pivoted to journalism, landing a part-time gig as a reporter for Seattle station KSTW, doing news during weekdays, sports on the weekend.
He always thought of himself as someone built for hard news, not sports journalism. But when the Seattle station had him start doing sports, it opened up the possibility in his mind of taking a shot at the Worldwide Leader.
ESPN hired Mayne in 1994 after he sent them an epic cover asking the network to check one of three boxes, the last of which read, “We’ll hire you when there’s an ESPN5.” Within a few years, he was co-anchoring SportsCenter.
Paying it forward
Mayne hardly wanted to get out of bed some days.
“About 10 years ago, I was in a really bad place,” Mayne said of the severe ankle pain that dogged him for years after his football injury. “I was limping all the time; just didn’t want to do anything. I started seeking a final decision, like, ‘What am I going to do with this thing?’”
He even considered amputation. Then in 2018 came a breakthrough.
He discovered the ExoSym, a prosthetic-orthotic device that was initially designed to aid injured veterans coming back from war.
All of a sudden, Mayne could lift weights and golf and play flag football again. He wanted to pay things forward.
“Gretchen, my wife, and I decided, ‘Let’s do something good with this,’” Mayne said, “It was such a blessing for me to get this, to do things pain-free again.”
And so they started a foundation, Runfreely.org, that provides ExoSyms to vets. The foundation is close to helping a veteran per month at this rate.
In addition to his charity work, Mayne kept busy over the summer by helping cover the Olympics for NBC Sports. Now, he’s focused on pitching new projects and seeing what comes to fruition. “We’ll see who likes our ideas,” he said.
One company that did was Caesars Sportsbook, which in September hired Mayne as a brand ambassador and content creator.
UNLV was a launching pad for Mayne. Some 40 years later, his flightpath remains uniquely his own.
“We all kind of take different paths; mine was definitely unusual,” Mayne said. “I was kind of a longshot to ever get hired (at ESPN) in the first place, and then a longshot to get picked to rise up. “I just kept on doing my thing. I never gave in and did it any other way than the way I felt like I should be doing it.”