St. Petersburg native Laura Rutledge ‘excited’ for opportunity to host ‘NFL Live’

In some ways, Laura Rutledge can’t believe her latest, high-profile opportunity with ESPN.

And yet, the St. Petersburg native and University of Florida graduate knows she’s never been more ready for it.

Rutledge, a former Rays sideline reporter and Miss Florida pageant winner, will host the network’s relaunch of “NFL Live.” She’ll work with analysts Mina Kimes, Marcus Spears, Dan Orlovsky and Keyshawn Johnson.

“I really can’t even fathom it, like it doesn’t even feel real to me,” said Rutledge, 31. “And yet at the same time, I feel like I know that I’m so ready for this and that every one of the steps that I’ve taken along the way has prepared me for this moment right here.”

Rutledge, who now lives in Birmingham, Ala. with her husband, Josh, a former major-league baseball player, spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the show, her career progression, increased visibility for women in sports broadcasting, and more.

What are you most looking forward to with the relaunch of “NFL Live”?

“I haven’t been sort of one to have an ease of time, recently, so this will be a crazy schedule, and I’m so excited about it. The opportunity to host “NFL Live” and to host a daily show on ESPN, I really can’t even fathom it, like it doesn’t even feel real to me. And yet at the same time, I feel like I know that I’m so ready for this and that every one of the steps that I’ve taken along the way has prepared me for this moment right here. And so, going into it with that knowledge feels very powerful, and the only reason why I share that is not to pat myself on the back, because I do not like to do that, but it’s more that I think women — especially in male-dominated fields — it’s just, in general, we need to accept that we’re ready.

Related: Laura Rutledge: Florida Gators ‘closest that they’ve been’ to beating Georgia

“We need to accept that and internalize that power and use it for the greater good, and with all that I will be staying as far out of the way and highlighting my analysts on the show as much as I possibly can, because that’s truly what makes a great host. But, I mean, I’ve had a chance now to learn from some of the best to ever do it — Paul Finebaum, Mike Greenberg, just all of these people who I watched even growing up and even in college and thought, if I could only ever be like them. So, now to have been able to learn from them closely, I feel really prepared, as well, just with that skill set.”

What experiences have you had to fight through to get to each new step in your career?

“I still think back about particular times when Paul Finebaum would have me on his show for the entire show and people would call in and be saying, well, you’re just a beauty queen, you don’t know anything, all this stuff. And Paul never once spoke up in my defense, and he did that because he knew I could handle myself and he knew that he didn’t need to do that. And I always have appreciated him so much for that.

“I think, had he thought, whoa, no, I need to save her from this, and that’s not right. I needed to be able to save myself, and I think, winning over a crowd that way is, unfortunately, important in this business still. But I think the more we do that, it’s just one more step closer to things being better for your generation of female sportswriters and broadcasters and then the generations beyond that, too. He knew as somebody who has been in this business for so long, he knew that he didn’t need to say anything and that it was really up to me to kind of sink or swim in those moments. There’s been a lot of that, and I’m really thankful for that.”

Laura Rutledge holds a “Rally Banana” that had been a good-luck charm for the Mississippi State baseball team during the 2018 College World Series. [NATI HARNIK | AP]

What moments stick out as turning points or that you think changed the industry?

“I think we’re still seeing them happen real time, and I’m really proud to just be in a business and to work for a company frankly that will let that happen. One that will always be really special to me, and it’s a terrible subject matter that ended up creating this opportunity, but during kind of the initial reaction to George Floyd’s death and then the protests and I just happened to be hosting “First Take” that week, I was filling in for Molly Qerim. Maria Taylor is one of my closest friends, I absolutely adore her, and she was scheduled to be on “First Take” that day to share her opinions and all of that, which that, by the way, even right there is great progress — that we would have a woman coming on sharing her opinions, because I think what we’ve seen is there’s been a shift of, well, yeah, it’s totally acceptable to have a female host or you have a woman on the sidelines and maybe even a little bit to see like a female in the booth (doing) play-by-play, there’ll be more of that, I think.

“But to have a woman who’s on there just to share opinions and a different perspective, I think, is progress and we need more of that, as well. As she was sharing, I mean, we were all just awestruck, and it was amazing, of course. Her appearance ended up going viral, and a lot of people were really affected by what she said. And as it was happening, not only did I feel like I wanted to stand there and clap for her and also hug her, and just, I was so proud and happy for the way that she was able to share. But I also thought, I want to find a way, like, how can we have more of this?

“And it’s funny, because one of the things that happened is, during it the producer was in my ear, saying, ‘We’re going to get to the next subject. We’re going to keep Maria for that subject, but we’re going to get to the next subject.‘ And I said on air, which I’ve never done this before, but I said, ‘I am so sorry to the producers, but I have to just ask one more thing to Maria,’ because I felt like she needed more time. And the fact that it just was, it was two women on there with Steven A. Smith and Max Kellerman was on there that day, too, so two of the most powerful men in sports media, and for them to sort of sit back and watch and respect as that exchange and as Maria was sharing her words — as all of that was happening — I thought, this is a really, really pivotal moment for me, personally, and I was honored to be a part of it, a small part of it.”

Is anything you’re doing while working from home something you see becoming part of your everyday work life?

“I really do think it’s going to be more mainstream to just sort of see people at their own studio and to see people from, like, a random FaceTime call in a car. I mean, people just don’t care as much about those things as maybe we all thought they did. And so, I think you’ll see a lot more of that. I think you’ll see networks across the board just sort of utilize that as as a resource, and you can kind of throw people on TV whenever, which is amazing.”

Have you developed any hobbies during this time?

“Josh has picked up a hobby of making candles. And we really only made one so far, so I don’t know if it really qualifies for a hobby. But I would claim it as my hobby a little bit, too. But the funny thing was, we got the wax and we got all of the things that we needed to make it, but then we realized we didn’t have the right scents, so we just put some essential oils in there that we thought would smell good. But the candle kind of smells like Vicks VapoRub. So, it’s not the best-smelling candle, but he has gotten other smells in lately, and so we need to try again and try with our new fragrances because I think it might be an improvement.”

Contact Mari Faiello at Follow @faiello_mari.

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