There are moments when Tracy Wolfson must feel like her professional life is careening at 100 mph, and she is the racecar. That's because Wolfson, CBS's lead college football sideline reporter, gives new meaning to the concept of frenetic. Actually, her mode of travel is in the air, where she crisscrosses the country every weekend in pursuit of the NCAA's biggest games. It's a steady blur of airports, hotels, stadiums and crowds loud enough to wage a decibel war on her eardrums.
That's why Wolfson cherishes her downtime during the summer, when the college scene is finally dormant and she's allowed to breathe deep, exhale slowly and reconnect with her epicenter: her husband, David, and their three young sons.
With a laugh, Wolfson recalls, "On Mother's Day, 6-year-old Dylan made a card that said, 'My mom is always reporting, and sometimes she plays with me.'"
That ratio, although not entirely to Wolfson's liking, is the trade-off for one of sports media's most compelling jobs.
Unlike broadcasters and studio analysts who work in a controlled environment, Wolfson's world is the trenches: on the sidelines and often in a coach's face. There's no margin for error in that setting; Wolfson gets one shot at asking a question as the players and staff members run off the field at halftime. That's where Wolfson's gift kicks in. With millions of viewers watching, she's crisp, on-point and serious about her journalism.
It took guts, for instance, for Wolfson to tell Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino his team was "emotional and fragile" between halves of a Nov. 26 game against LSU. Only days earlier, the Razorback community had been traumatized by the sudden death of 19-year-old tight end Garrett Uekman. The team was obviously still in mourning by game time, trailing 21-14 at the half and spiraling to a crushing 41-17 defeat.
It was Wolfson, not her peers in the studio, who was responsible for the afternoon's heavy lifting with Petrino. "I love asking the questions and not tiptoeing around them," she says.
But mention the profession's burdens – jet lag, suitcases, the media-haters among college coaches – and Wolfson's eyebrows hit the ceiling. Are you kidding? She loves the job; it's been in her genes since...well, forever.
"I've always wanted to be a sideline reporter," she says. "My friends from all the way back in elementary school say, 'Tracy, we can't believe you're doing exactly what you said you would.'"
Growing up in Rockland County in the '80s, Wolfson was drawn to sports not just as entertainment but as therapy when her parents would argue. The TV set in Tracy's bedroom was the only refuge in the house, where she became BFFs with the '86 Mets (although she would later switch allegiances to the Yankees), along with the Knicks and Jets. But the games had a different sort of hook for Wolfson, who wasn't content just consuming the action. She envisioned becoming one of the broadcast's moving parts, although Wolfson was aware that trying to get on camera was beginning a journey on a long, flat road to nowhere.
Ambition? Tracy had plenty. An education? She had that covered, too, as Wolfson attended the University of Michigan. All that remained on the to-do list was catching a break, although the path seemed hopelessly cluttered. Wolfson worked a few internships at CBS while in school and eventually hired on as a runner and lower-level field director. One of the network's executive producers noted Wolfson's familiarity with sports but flatly told her, "You don't know sports like guys do."
It was like an attorney being told they'd never make partner. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Wolfson says. "It was a wake-up call."
She was wise enough to recalibrate, leaving CBS to spend a year working with a media agent. It was then that Wolfson came to understand the machinery under the hood – how to contact news directors, how to learn which jobs were opening and where, and the importance of sending out a tape with one's best work.
Trouble was, Wolfson had nothing – she had never worked in front of a camera. The solution? With another laugh, Tracy says she made a fake one that, given her editing skills, fooled everyone. The segments looked live, even though none of the spots had ever aired.
No matter: The powerbrokers realized Wolfson had that unquantifiable trait that separates good interviewers from the ones who traffic in clichŽs. Tracy finally broke through as an anchor at WZBN in Trenton before landing her first live gig at MSG. The next step was ESPN in 2002 before completing the arc of her ascent by landing back at CBS in 2004.
While most sports fans know Wolfson for her work in the fall, she has branched out to cover tennis, ice skating, auto racing and college basketball, including the 2009 Final Four. Just this past winter, Wolfson worked the NBA playoffs for TNT, which would seem to be the first step toward a transition to pro sports.
For now, however, Wolfson prefers the NCAA.
"There's something about the colleges that's fun – the passion, the rivalries," she says. "Every year is different; the players change. In the pros, there's no loyalty. Covering the NBA was refreshing, but right now, I'm very content."
Still, Wolfson knows she's navigating that thin line between work and family, strained to the max on each front. But she considers herself living proof that career-minded women can successfully raise their children, even if the sacrifice in time and energy seems infinite. Wolfson has no intention of slowing down – she even planned her pregnancies so she wouldn't miss any of the college football seasons.
"I don't want anyone to be able to say, we don't need her, we didn't miss her," she says.
That's why the peace and quiet of Tenafly is so precious to the Wolfson clan. After four years of living in Bergen, they're hooked on its balance and how it allows Tracy to rediscover her equilibrium. And to a surprising degree, there's anonymity for Tracy, too.
In these parts, college sports have a lower Q-rating than, say, the Yankees and Giants. When Wolfson says "there's nothing like covering an SEC game," you'll have to take her word for it. Mostly, it's transplanted southerners and mid-westerners who recognize Wolfson around town. And it's hard not to notice Wolfson in her second home, either – the airport – where she's likely to be hunkered down in a conversation with a total stranger talking sports.
You don't have to ask whether Tracy minds, either. Not when the conversation rolls around to the colleges and football in particular. It's those arching eyebrows that speak the truth: Are you kidding?