Gordon Monson: ESPN’s Holly Rowe comes back to Utah — with gratitude in her heart

The University of Utah grad is a self-made star in the sports world, a cancer survivor

(Barry Reeger | AP) ESPN reporter Holly Rowe looks over her notes before an NCAA college football game against Auburn in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept.18, 2021. The Utah Jazz announced Friday, Sept. 24 that Rowe will join the Jazz's broadcast team this season.

Holly Rowe sat in a doctor’s office five years ago and heard the news that hit her like a swinging 36-ounce Marucci. And like a lot of people who get hit with that same news, that same swinging baseball bat, it sent her into shock.

A melanoma which already had been treated had spread now to her lungs. A significant tumor — tumors — had formed there, and the prognosis was grim.

“One doctor told me to mind how I was spending my time,” she says. “It was his way of telling me …”

Telling her she was a dead woman walking.

And talking.

That’s what Rowe did, after all, had done on sports broadcasts for two or three decades. And has done ever since, including now being hired as a court-side reporter on Utah Jazz telecasts, in addition to her ongoing extensive work at ESPN. Over the span of her career, she had reported from the sidelines at games of all kinds, but particularly college football and women’s basketball. Her face had — has — become one of the most recognizable in those realms at ESPN, known for her solid reporting.

Rowe, on account of her skill and her hard work, had blown past both the chauvinism that exists to this day in sports, hopefully lesser so now, and the glamorized component to traditional approaches to sideline reporting.

She was not there to be a beauty queen. She was there to give viewers the information they wanted inside the game and to do smart, on-target interviews at the half and postgame — in a concise, professional manner. That’s exactly what she did, does.

To the extent that when the news of her cancer surgery scrolled across the bottom of ESPN television screens, Alabama coach Nick Saban sent her a box of apples, rooting her on and reminding her that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer sent their best wishes along. Everyone in sports, it seemed, sent their versions of hope and optimism.

They, too, knew Holly Rowe for the work she’d done.

She came to that endeavor naturally.

Raised in Bountiful, Utah, in a family full of sports maniacs, including a dad who watched games with the young Holly on TV, and not only took her to Utah basketball games and BYU football games, but also hauled her and her sisters to the old Deseret Gym to hoop it up in whatever run into which they could wedge themselves, Rowe loved sports.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) ESPN television reporter Holly Rowe works from the edge of the court before a WNBA basketball first round playoffs, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. The Utah Jazz announced Friday, Sept. 24, Rowe will be part of the Jazz's broadcast team this season.

No, she devoured sports.

When most of her grammar-school friends were concerning themselves with their own matters of the day, Rowe was reading Sports Illustrated.

“I wanted to play football,” she says. “I wanted to be a football player.”

She settled for what she calls “the next best thing.”

She reported on football.

That journey took a meandering course with direct intention through managing her high school sports teams, everything from wrestling to volleyball. When she went to the University of Utah, she started stringing for the Daily Chronicle, under the guidance of Dirk Facer, who went on to become a well-known, longtime sportswriter.

She took football and basketball classes from Utah coaches Ron McBride and Rick Majerus. And when she applied for an internship at CBS Sports in New York City, Majerus sent a letter of recommendation for her, a move that Rowe appreciates all these years later.

“He helped me,” she says.

Some of what she did when she got that internship falls into the inglorious category of go-fer, but it gave her an insider’s view of what being involved in sports media was like. What it really did was throw fuel on an already raging fire.

In 1992, she got hired at the Blue and White Sports Network, covering BYU and Air Force football and basketball games, working the sidelines, staying with that for 10 years. She did every additional bit of sports reporting she could, a comprehensive tack that covered television and radio work in and around Salt Lake City.

A few years later, when Rowe saw that the BYU-Utah football game was being televised by ABC and that the network at that time had no sideline reporter assigned to the game, she volunteered her services, continuing to do that for lower-level broadcasts, traveling to games at her own expense. As she did so, she bombarded ESPN with her resume. At the same time, she went on working at KBYU.

She also was aware that nobody was paying any attention to Utah and BYU women’s basketball games on any local radio stations, so she bought air time on KALL radio with her own money, sold advertising for the broadcasts and did the play-by-play.

Through all of that, Rowe was a single mom of an infant child, sometimes taking a stroller to work.

ESPN took note of the fact that, as she says it, “I’m a hustler.”

Bit by bit, they gave her more work.

Rowe started in on Big Ten football games on ESPN2, then was assigned to work with one of ESPN’s prime broadcast crews, Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge, doing all sorts of games. She also covered what seemed like a hundred women’s Final Fours.

“It’s been an awesome journey,” she says. “I’m that dorky person who never worked a day in her life.”

The first part is truth, the second is B.S.

As Rowe goes on working college football and women’s basketball games for ESPN, she’ll now do court-side reporting on Jazz broadcasts, a gig she’s psyched about. She’s owned a house in Salt Lake for decades, the one she sold in April to move to a beach home in Florida. With the recent offer from the Jazz, she’s returning to live in Utah.

“I’ve been doing sports at the highest level for a long time,” she says. “Nothing has made my family, all of whom live in Utah, more excited than me doing Jazz games.”

Nothing, except the something that made everyone a whole lot more excited, the fact that, you know, she’s gone on … living.

Finding a way to good health has been an even more circuitous route.

Rowe’s response to that is the same as it’s been to her work: “I’ve just kept it moving.”

She’s wandered through a world that traditionally has been dominated on all sides by men, and not just dominated, but absolutely ruled in a more than chauvinistic way. Rowe has powered through whatever Cro-Magnon attitudes she’s encountered, but says she’s managed by not allowing herself to “sink into those negative places.”

She’s just … kept it moving.

When she was diagnosed with a rare type of the aforementioned melanoma from a spot on her chest and, especially after the cancer spread to her lungs, she plumbed the depths the way most humans would, looking at what her future might be, looking back at what she had already experienced.

“I’ve had a cool, awesome life,” she said, and still says.

At 50, she was faced with and asking herself meaningful questions, far beyond any she ever asked a player or coach. This wasn’t a Saturday night game to be won or lost. Her very existence spun in the air much more undecidedly than a spiral downfield.

“I’d been relatively young, healthy, and then, something was going on inside me that I had no control over,” she says. “… I was dying.”

Rowe did a clinical trial at UCLA for a new treatment that could, at least in theory, shrink the tumors in her lungs. It worked. And more good news: “I haven’t gotten any new ones,” she says. Days after she’d undergone one significant procedure, she was at a Notre Dame game, walking the sidelines, wearing a wig, giving live-game updates.

She … yeah, kept it moving.

She kept living, reporting, writing down joyous moments she was yet allowed to experience and remember, and she kept inspiring.

And Rowe received a whole lot of support from family members, friends, associates, coaches, players, viewers. Those viewers thought they knew Rowe because, as one lady wrote to her, “You’ve been a guest in our home for years.”

Says Rowe: “People tell me, ‘You’re an inspiration.’ Well, I’m just trying to stay alive.”

The apples, the good wishes, the flowers, the kind and encouraging remarks, gifts from the famous and the not-so-famous arrived in stacks.

“The support I’ve gotten and get was so big,” she says. “It helped save me. It was overwhelming. It showed up when I needed it the most.”

Holly Rowe, as it is, continues on her way, doing what she always wanted to do, what she loves to do — work in sports, spend time with her son and loved ones and friends, and breathe.

“I want to say thank you to everyone,” she says.

The woman behind the microphone is out of her mind with enthusiasm over the privilege of doing all of the above, and now for the chance to report on the Jazz. She takes none of it for granted, not anymore, not for a single second, harboring gratitude for what she has and who she is. Where she is.