Michele Tafoya has lived in often-frigid Minnesota for almost 25 years. The day she moved there, the wind chill was minus-35 degrees. She has worked as an NFL sideline reporter in some of the coldest game conditions on record. Still, the thought of even a tame winter night in Chicago isn’t a pleasant one.
“I was born in California; my blood is still thin,” said Tafoya, a native of Manhattan Beach. “I guess I get used to [the cold], but I don’t necessarily love it.”
Tafoya will patrol the sideline Sunday at Soldier Field for the Rams-Bears game on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” with play-by-play voice Al Michaels and analyst Cris Collinsworth safe in the booth. The forecast calls for a low temperature of 25 degrees.
That’s a far cry from the 2-degree game-time temperature Tafoya tolerated for a Packers-Bears game Dec. 22, 2008, when she worked for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Worse yet was the Seahawks-Vikings playoff game Jan. 10, 2016, when the thermometer read minus-6, tied for the third-coldest kickoff temperature in NFL history.
“My husband grew up in Minnesota, and he’s always told me, if you have the right equipment, you can handle anything,” she said.
Tafoya makes sure she’s equipped for the elements. In addition to the wardrobe purchased with an allowance from NBC, she stocks up on other items, such as boot insole heaters. The network also has hand warmers available all over the sidelines for its crew. When the conditions reach arctic proportions, Tafoya will sacrifice style for substance.
“I’m not afraid anymore to wear snow pants on the sideline,” she said. “I see a lot of people that don’t want to, and I used to be one of them because it kind of looks goofy. I don’t care anymore what it looks like. I’ve got to be warm to do my job.”
And she does it well, whatever the weather. The two-time Emmy winner will work her 263rd game on the sidelines, a prime-time record for an NFL sideline reporter. Tafoya began in prime time in 2004 on ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” then followed the show to ESPN in 2006. She joined “Sunday Night Football” in 2011.
Though this will be the 8-4 Bears’ third appearance on “SNF,” the 11-1 Rams will be making their first. As intrigued as Tafoya is to see the Rams’ No. 2-ranked offense in person, she’s especially excited to see defensive tackle Aaron Donald up close.
“I’m one of those old-school people; I love hard-hitting defense,” Tafoya said. “I’ve seen him before, but it’s totally different when you’re field level, and you can hear the hits and you can see how hard a player’s been hit and you see the players’ facial reaction and how they get up from being hit.”
Tafoya said that while the NFL has been leaning in favor of offense, defense still can rule the day. She points to Donald and Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack being in discussions for league MVP.
“The pendulum always swings, and then it kind of comes back and finds a middle ground,” she said. “I think we may see that here at the end of the season, that defense still wins championships. I’m still a big believer in that.”
Tafoya knows the Bears are big believers in quarterback Mitch Trubisky. She said injured guard Kyle Long told her that Trubisky is his seventh quarterback with the Bears and that he’s “lucky No. 7.”
“He really feels like this is the one,” Tafoya said. “That’s high praise coming from a guy like Long.”
Tafoya figures to deliver more telling sound bites during the broadcast, for which she started preparing not long after the game last Sunday night in Pittsburgh. The weekly legwork begins on the flight home the next morning, when Tafoya starts making notes on every player on both rosters. She watches video of previous games and interviews players on the phone.
She has her regular Thursday call with “SNF” executive producer Fred Gaudelli to critique the last game and plan for the next one. Tafoya was scheduled to arrive in Chicago on Friday morning and head straight to Halas Hall, where she’ll join Gaudelli, director Drew Esocoff, Michaels and Collinsworth to watch practice and meet with players and coaches. The crew will meet with the Rams on Saturday at their hotel.
Saturday night is Tafoya’s “school night,” as she calls it. She stays in her hotel room and writes, assembling her notes and preparing her on-camera opening. She has the ritual down to where she can stop around 10 p.m., then unwind before bedtime.
During the game, she’s watching everything. She’ll write down every play, keep tabs on injuries and pay attention to the mood on the sideline. Much of what she reports is relayed to the audience by Michaels and Collinsworth. Just because Tafoya isn’t doing the talking doesn’t mean she isn’t working.
At halftime, Tafoya will walk off the field with one coach and come back with the other. She usually walks off with the road team’s coach to give the home team’s coach the slight advantage of reaching the locker room first. After talking with Gaudelli, she’ll make what she gleaned into a pseudo-script and deliver it to the audience at the start of the third quarter.
Then it’s back to following the action.
“I’m walking around, I’m watching stuff,” she said. “It’s a nonstop thing.”
Which hopefully helps keep her warm.
Rick Sutcliffe reached a multiyear contract extension with ESPN. The former Cubs pitcher and 1984 Cy Young Award winner has been with the network since 1998. He will continue as a game analyst for “Wednesday Night Baseball,” as well as for postseason games on ESPN Radio.