NFL Network reporter Stacey Dales isn’t afraid of a challenge. That competitive drive is something that was instilled in her over the 25-plus years she played basketball.
Dales, who played four seasons in the WNBA and two with the Sky, loves the adrenaline rush that comes with breaking a story; it’s similar to that of hitting a clutch three-pointer before the buzzer.
While most professional athletes struggle with the transition to their post-playing careers, Dales has never had to stop grinding, though she learned the hard way the importance of taking time for herself.
In her 20s, Dales essentially had two full-time jobs. As she trained in the U.S., while most other WNBA players went to play overseas after the season, Dales also worked as an in-studio analyst and field reporter for ESPN, covering a wide range of sports, including college football, men’s and women’s college basketball and the NBA.
“I was a workaholic, I’ll tell you that,” Dales said. “I try to avoid perfectionism, but fall into that perfectionism hole sometimes.”
That pursuit for excellence has taken a toll on Dales throughout her career.
By the end of the 2004 season, Dales, whom the Mystics drafted third overall in 2002, needed a break. The All-Star guard was both physically and mentally exhausted. It was later revealed she also had been suffering from Raynaud’s phenomenon, a disorder that causes blood vessels to constrict which can cause numbness and, occasionally, pain in one’s extremities.
Dales moved to Florida after the season, while continuing to work for ESPN. She enjoyed her time there and was just starting to accept the idea of retiring from playing basketball. Then, Sky owner Michael Alter called.
Dales didn’t think twice about accepting the offer to be a member of the Sky’s inaugural team in 2006. She went back to the long, yet rewarding days packed with scouting reports, interviews and rigorous training regimen. She also maintained a strict low-carb diet.
Dales became a fan favorite with the Sky, but that season unfolded in a way she hadn’t envisioned it would. The team went a disappointing 5-29 under first-time women’s coach Dave Cowens and struggled to jell.
“It was incredibly difficult,” Dales said. “I had always been on winning teams, and so it was definitely an adjustment and also . . . that was a real test of character and toughness.”
After two seasons with the Sky, Dales retired from basketball again — this time for good.
“I was burnt out and I needed to take time off,” she said.
She quit ESPN and moved to Los Angeles. Some felt her decision to leave the WNBA was premature.
“Athletes grapple with retirement all the time,” she said. “I mean, when you think about stopping something that you’ve done since you were a child and saying goodbye to it, it’s like you’re leaving a relationship and it’s incredibly difficult to stop playing and to leave ESPN.”
Dales used that time off to reflect on her career and plan for the future. Nine months later, the NFL Network offered her an in-studio host job — something she had never done before.
“It was an absolute, unequivocal yes and then let’s go and learn,” she said.
Dales immersed herself in her work. She has experienced trials and triumphs along the way.
“I can reflect back and look at all the challenging times and when your character is tested or you have to learn something new or any adversity, and again, I see all the good things and the wins and the gains,” Dales said. “And I reflect on a near 20-year career and I have incredible gratitude, pride, and I like where I’ve come.”
Last fall, Dales kicked off her 10th season with the NFL Network while on assignment at Soldier Field for the Bears-Packers season opener. The whole day was a universal moment, she said. Along with it being the start of the 100th NFL season, Dales turned 40.
Dales soaked in the moment.
“It’s just another part of the journey and you have to learn from everything and kind of grow from it,” she said. “We all do that at different stages of our lives and always see the gratitude and the blessing that come out of the great times and tough times.”