Tribute: My ‘Musburger’ moment with Phyllis George

This is an opinion tribute.

Thank you, Phyllis George. Thank you for lighting the way for female sports broadcasters. Thank you for making the entire state of Kentucky feel better about itself. And thank you for that special moment we shared when I was a dork in college.

George, the Miss America beauty queen from Texas, was hired as a reporter and co-host for the CBS Sports pre-show “The NFL Today” in 1975, becoming one of the first women to hold an on-air position in sports broadcasting. She teamed with Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, and eventually Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder.

“Phyllis George was special. Her smile lit up millions of homes for the NFL Today,” Musburger tweeted after news of her death. “Phyllis didn’t receive nearly enough credit for opening the sports broadcasting door for the dozens of talented women who took her lead and soared.” Just as her smile lit up a room, Phyllis George lit up the entire state of Kentucky.

I was born and raised in the hollers of Kentucky. Our state wasn’t in the national news much - not for good reasons, anyway. There was that 3-week man-hunt for two guys - my cousins - on the run from the murder of a sheriff in Indiana. But that’s another story. Generally speaking, Kentucky is famous for its low self-esteem.

In the 70’s, about the only time our ego got a boost was during basketball season. Basketball is to Kentucky what football is to Alabama. Any time UK was in the Final Four or the Kentucky Derby was on TV, my mom would say, “Can you believe it? Li’l ol’ Kentucky.”

In 1979, famous Miss America/TV sportscaster Phyllis George married John Y. Brown, the Kentucky Fried Chicken multi-millionaire, and the glamorous newlywed couple’s campaign for governor quickly turned “Lil’ ol’ Kentucky” into a bonafide celebrity state. It was a big deal that autumn when Phyllis George made a campaign appearance at the Keen Johnson Building on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University. Her radiance filled The Ballroom as she spoke to the jam-packed crowd of students, awed by her presence. I was wedged in the middle of the throng when she moved into the mass to take questions. Her divine cheerful soul shined bright as she got closer - I think I made eye contact! My hand shot up.

“Yes, the dork in the middle,” she probably said sweetly as our eyes locked in an intimate gaze from about 90 feet that seemed more like 90 inches. Uh oh. I didn’t have a question, I just wanted to stare. Teamed with his wholesome rock star bride, chicken-rich John Y. Brown easily won the election. And for the rest of her life, First Lady Phyllis George gave Kentucky something to crow about.

Finally, I said something stupid about how she traded up from a ‘Musburger’ to a bucket of Colonel Sanders chicken. Her cheeks blushed, she laughed politely. And she moved on. Sigh. The moment was over.

Thank you, Phyllis George.

Rest in peace.

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