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The transition from jock to jock talker isn't always easy, especially when the subject is football. On-the-field talent, and the fame that comes with it, is no guarantee of success (Joe Montana, perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, flopped as an analyst), and neither is a controversial nature (longtime lightning rod Eric Dickerson has a high-profile sideline job right now, but chances are strong that he won't this time next year).
So how did former Denver Bronco Mark Schlereth manage to beat the odds so quickly, landing a featured-commentator spot on ESPN's NFL 2Night, not to mention a full-time post during the afternoon drive time on KTLK-AM/760, mere months after announcing his retirement?
"I think a lot of guys wait until they're done playing before they start exploring other options," says Schlereth, who played for twelve years. "And I didn't wait."
This certainly isn't the only reason. Schlereth is actually good, particularly on television, where his blend of wit, charm and pigskin knowledge is seemingly effortless; he appears to be every bit as comfortable and assured as colleagues (and former athletes) Mark Malone, Merril Hoge, Mike Golic and Sean Salisbury, who have several years of experience on him. He's such a natural, in fact, that Denverites may wonder why he's even bothering with KTLK, where he co-stars in a show dubbed Stink and the Ump with former Major League Baseball official Bob Davidson. After all, the station has suffered from mediocre ratings for ages despite being part of the mighty Clear Channel empire, and its latest makeover, as the Zone, a business-and-sports outlet ("stocks and jocks," as program director Don Martin puts it), has not led to a huge boost in listeners, at least so far.
On top of that, doing both ESPN and KTLK sentences Schlereth, 35, who's married and has three kids ranging in age from eight to sixteen, to a travel schedule even more hellish than the one he dealt with as a Bronco. Between July and February, he's slated to spend approximately half the average week in Denver and the other half in fabulous Bristol, Connecticut, where ESPN is based. (When he's in Connecticut, Schlereth connects with KTLK's Tech Center studio from his Bristol hotel room, using a device known colloquially as a "hot shot.")
Who in his right mind would volunteer for that duty? Setting the "right mind" part of that question aside for the moment, the answer is Schlereth, who actually signed a three-year contract with Clear Channel after inking a two-year pact with ESPN. Schlereth had two main reasons for doing so, he says. "I want to keep a very strong local presence in Denver. This is my home, where I'm raising my family. And I also think staying on the radio will help me hone my speaking skills and my ability to ad lib. Right now, I don't know enough about different sports to comment intelligently across the board. I have a great deal of knowledge about football, but when you're talking about professional baseball or basketball, I'm not there yet. So the Zone is a place where I can develop those skills."
Schlereth has applied this same ethic to other areas of his life. An Anchorage, Alaska, native with such severe dyslexia that he didn't learn to read until he was in "seventh or eighth grade," he played his college ball at the University of Idaho -- hardly a gridiron powerhouse. But Schlereth managed to make enough of an impression there to attract the notice of the Washington Redskins, who drafted him in 1989. And during his Redskins tenure, he pushed himself to get better at communicating, speaking once or twice a week at area schools.
Such efforts didn't make Schlereth a household name in the nation's capital, in large part because he was a left guard, among the least glamorous positions on the roster -- and his jump to the Broncos, who signed him up in 1995, initially gave him even fewer opportunities for personal exposure. For much of his tenure with the Denver squad, the men on the offensive line chose not to talk with the press -- period -- as part of a strictly enforced code of silence; anyone who broke it was made to pay a fine. Schlereth may not have always enjoyed following these guidelines ("It was toughest on me, because I like to talk"), but he went along, thus making it all but impossible to stand out from the pack.
Not that he didn't try. In June 1997, Schlereth hired a local agent, who helped him set up a slew of speaking engagements, where he polished his rap. (Much of his radio material is ribald, but he's a non-denominational Christian who enjoys talking football and faith with church groups.) This practice paid dividends when, following the Broncos' 1998 Super Bowl victory, the no-interviews policy began cracking. Schlereth took advantage immediately, stealing the show from two teammates during an appearance on Conan O'Brien's show and appearing regularly as a fill-in yakker on KOA, where he built the number of surgeries he suffered through during his career (29, most of them on his knees) into a sadomasochistic comedy routine.