This week begins what promises to be a challenging year for the National Football League, just as 2020 has been for sports organizations at every level. For two alums of Illinois State University’s School of Communication, who both make their livings covering the NFL, this season and the lead up to it will prove to be anything but business as usual.
Mark Grote ’95 is the Chicago Bears sideline reporter for WSCR Radio in Chicago, and Josh Tolentino ’17 is the Miami Dolphins beat writer for The Athletic. Here are some thoughts from two insiders on what fans might expect from a football season being played against the backdrop of a global pandemic.
“Well, there were no preseason games, that was the most significant omission,” Grote said of this summer, which in a normal year would have included a slate of four preseason games. In addition, the Bears moved training camp to Halas Hall, and fans were not allowed to attend due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) threat.
The Bears start the season on the road this weekend in Detroit, but there will be no fans in the seats at Soldier Field when they host the New York Giants in the home opener on September 20. The Bears join several teams opting for empty stadiums, at least to start the season. Like teams and fans alike, Grote has had to adjust to a new way of doing his job.
“The reporting is a little different,” he said. “Normally I’d be standing on a sideline in the heat, but the biggest thing is I’m working from my home in downtown Chicago talking into a phone for a three- to four-hour broadcast.”
Growing up in Chicago’s western suburbs, Grote’s passions were the Bears and the Cubs. By now he’s covered every Chicago professional sports team in some form. He covered the Cubs for three years, including the championship season of 2016. Now he covers the Bears year-round and works all the games at home and away. In the offseason he spends a lot of time at Halas Hall and covers the draft and training camp. But, this year even training camp was different.
“I was doing Zoom calls with Bears coaches and players and whomever we could talk to,” Grote said. “The access was pretty good. The Bears PR staff has done a pretty good job.”
For Tolentino, he’s only been on the Dolphins beat for a few weeks, after covering the Green Bay Packers and most recently Tampa Bay Rays baseball, all for The Athletic over the past couple of years. No matter the team or the city, he’s seen that COVID-19 knows no boundaries.
“It felt weird covering opening day for the Rays with no fans,” he said.
In South Florida, Tolentino has covered all of training camp and will be heading north for the Dolphins’ week 1 matchup at New England. He’s one of five beat reporters who gets tested daily.
“It really feels like one of the safest places to be with all of the protocols, including the distancing, tracking, and mask wearing,” Tolentino said.
Unlike the Bears, the Dolphins will allow fans up to 20 percent capacity, which is equal to 13,000 people, when they play home games at Hard Rock Stadium.
Tolentino grew up in Aurora and also loved Chicago sports, especially the Bulls and Cubs. Now, even though he’s just at the beginning of his career, he stopped actively rooting for any teams.
“I learned objectivity as early as my senior year at ISU,” he said. “I’m just trying to tell good stories.”
He’s already logged a lot of miles and experience in the few short years since he was sports editor of The Vidette. He’s made stops in DeKalb, freelanced for both major Chicago newspapers—including covering the Cubs in the 2016 World Series—and he had an internship at the The Kansas City Star that connected him to one of the most famous athletes on the planet.
“I got to know Patrick Mahomes on a personal level,” Tolentino said. “This was before the $500 million contract, before people really knew who Patrick Mahomes was.”
Tolentino was invited to play pickup basketball with guys he met at church but almost stayed home because Sundays were his only day off. He’d interviewed Mahomes at mini-camp the previous Friday but was surprised to see him with a couple of his Chiefs teammates at the pickup hoops game.
“He was a great dude before anyone knew him,” Tolentino said. “We could relate, young dudes just out of college.”
Grote and Tolentino said their experiences at Illinois State prepared them well for their careers. Grote has fond memories of working at WZND, calling it “one big toy department.” Tolentino said working at The Vidette and being an active member of the Asian Pacific American Coalition were invaluable to his growth.
During these weeks leading up to the start of the NFL season, both covered quarterback competitions that have now been settled. Tua Tagovailoa, the heralded rookie out of Alabama, will start the season as a backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick in Miami. Tolentino will continue to watch closely.
“There are a ton of storylines, but I’m staying on the Tua watch,” Tolentino said. “He’s the most hyped athlete here since Dan Marino.”
In Chicago, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will start over veteran newcomer Nick Foles, but Grote’s question as the Bears come off last season’s 8-8 campaign is more basic.
“Can the Bears get better to a level to be at least average?” Grote said.
Grote and Tolentino understand that the story of the 2020 season will go well beyond the scope of the two teams they cover. The league itself and its ability to adapt on the run to an unseen foe will tell much of the tale.
“Everybody will hold their breath to see if they can pull it off,” Grote said.
“I’m grateful that I’m covering part of history,” Tolentino said.
Redbirds currently in the NFL
- Mike Liedtke ’14, Washington
- Davontae Harris ’17, Denver
- James Robinson, Jacksonville
- James O’Shaughnessy ’14, Jacksonville
- Luther Kirk ’20, Dallas
Editor’s note: Robinson, an undrafted rookie, was named the Jaguars’ starting running back over the weekend.
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