Football commentator and WCCO host Michele Tafoya has become a go-to gal in a guy's world. Just don't call her Mickey.
You might think Michele Tafoya is always switched on, plugged in, ready for her close-up. Especially this time of year, when she's juggling her afternoon drive-time talk show on WCCO Radio with the highest-profile gig of her career -- sideline reporting on "Sunday Night Football."
But comfortably ensconced in her toy-strewn living room, wearing an untucked chambray shirt and white jeans, bare feet propped up on a leather loveseat, Tafoya is the picture of relaxation -- save the slight, ever-present hum you can almost hear buzzing just under the surface. The kind of hum that emanates from a highly organized brain capable of going several places at once.
The subject on the surface at the moment was the mistaken public assumption that sideline reporting is a cakewalk, via the Jets-Ravens game she'd just returned from a few days earlier.
"I'm out there six hours, freezing, listening to Al and Cris in the booth, two different producers and the director in different earpieces," she said. "And I have to be aware of everything on the field. If I'm on one end and something happens on the other, I've got to run down there. I love my job, but does that sound easy?"
If this is Tafoya unplugged, she's not all that different from the person she is on air -- which is a big part of the secret to her likability and success.
In the Twin Cities, Tafoya has been known as an appealing radio personality since her days on KFAN in the mid-1990s. For the past several years, she has also built recognition with national sports audiences as a sideline reporter for the NBA as well as "Monday Night Football." With her latest Sunday night gig, Tafoya is raising that national profile even higher. "SNF," the most-watched program of the fall season in most recent years, is averaging 23 million viewers this season, or about 10 million more than "MNF."
Tafoya's onscreen time may amount to only a few minutes per game, but she has a movie marathon's worth of stories from a long career of being a go-to gal in a guys' world -- listening to Brett Favre spin tales for hours, hanging out in the MaddenMobile telling bawdy jokes, snagging a highly emotional Kevin Garnett interview right after the Celtics won the 2008 championship.
On sidelines, no wallflower
Tafoya, 46, has taken her lumps on the way up. During a national college championship football game early in her career, she was giving a report when the next play began.
"I didn't have the sense to cut myself off, and kept talking over the play," she said. "I was ripped for it, and rightly so."
Football fans may snicker at some glammed-up sideline reporters who serve more as eye candy than keen observers. But Tafoya, no slouch in the looks department, is part of an unofficial A-list who were hired because they know their stuff.
Sports media pros who have worked with Tafoya, including WCCO sports director Mark Rosen and radio personality Chad Hartman, say she has staying power in a competitive field because she's driven, works extremely hard and does her homework.
"SNF" play-by-play guy Al Michaels has worked more than 40 consecutive games with Tafoya through three NBA seasons and two football seasons in the past eight years. He says he knew right off the bat that it would be a great partnership.
"She's been there, she's done that, yet she's very fresh in terms of her approach," Michaels said. "But more important, you can take whatever she tells you to the bank. I know I can always count on her."
Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser, who worked on "MNF" when Tafoya was there, said "she can distill a whole lot of information into one brief point. And she's not a camera hog -- I get no sense of vanity from her."
So will we someday see her up in the booth with the guys?
"Not in my lifetime," she said. "The unspoken rule is that women have never played football. The analyst needs to be someone who has played or been intimately involved with the game. I was asked to do play-by-play for college, but pro football is what floats my boat. I'm not sure audiences would accept it."
Hartman recalls how Tafoya got hired at KFAN in 1993, when he was still on the air there.
She was working at a station in Charlotte, N.C., under the name Mickey Conley -- Conley, her mother's maiden name, because the Spanish-derived Tafoya was considered "too ethnic," and Mickey because her co-host was a big Mickey Mantle fan. ("Can I tell you how much I hated that?" she said.)
After she was hired to do a report for KFAN, the program director "came storming down and asked, 'Who is that? I want to talk to her right away,'" Hartman said. Not long after that, and some wining and dining at W.A Frost, "my kind of place," Tafoya was on her way north to Minnesota.
Hartman and his KFAN cohort Dan Barreiro gave Tafoya quite a bit of ribbing on the air.
"People thought Chad and Dan were mean to me on the air, but I thought it was good-natured teasing and I gave it back," she said. The guys dubbed her "Limo Head" after she started getting TV gigs, implying that she was always swanning around in fancy hired cars.
"Bad rentals is more like it," Tafoya said. Still the nickname has stuck: "Every now and again I'll be walking downtown and someone will yell "Limo!"
For her current afternoon drive-time show on WCCO, Tafoya, who replaced Don Shelby, covers a mix of topics including pop culture, politics, parenting issues and current events.
"I do think about ratings -- that's what we're in the business for," she said. "But at the same time I wouldn't compromise what I want to talk about every day."
California girl beginnings
Tafoya grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Manhattan Beach, the baby of five children born to a Spanish-teacher mother and aeronautical-engineer father who worked on the space program. Dad was also a big 49ers fan with a pair of season tickets, so each home game he'd grab one of his kids and make the six-hour drive to San Francisco.
Tafoya's interest in sports sparked early -- she played basketball, soccer and volleyball. She was also anorexic, at one point dropping to 80 pounds as a teen.
"I feel lucky, because not a lot was known about eating disorders then and the doctor just told me to 'Eat, kid.'"
She eventually saw a psychologist, and learned to train her perfectionist tendencies elsewhere. Her advice to parents of children with eating disorders: "Take over. Force the issue and get them help. When you're a kid going through this, you won't listen to anyone."
No crying over spilled beer
Tafoya has not read her Wiki page. "I don't want to," she says with a boisterous laugh.
Most of it would be pleasant for her to peruse, but there is mention of one infamous incident that brought her unwanted headlines in 2003, when she worked for ESPN.
While taking in a Gophers game at the Dome with friends, Tafoya dumped some beer on two loud fans below them. Accusations of cursing and name-calling followed, and sports and gossip columnists across the country had a field day.
"I learned a great deal from that. It reminded me that if I can't handle it, I should get out. You can't realistically pretend it isn't fair. My husband always tells me, 'That's what you signed up for,' and he's right. I did."