Walk-on mentality serves Steffi Sorensen well

Steffi Sorensen never wants to lose that walk-on mentality.

“When you’re a walk-on, nothing is given to you and you have to work hard for everything,” Sorensen said between planes Sunday afternoon. “If you’re a walk-on and you want to make it, you have to have an attitude that you just won’t take no for an answer and that you won’t let anybody work harder than you.”

That attitude served her well at the University of Florida where she walked on after spending her freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast and her sophomore season at Santa Fe College. Her work ethic and determination – not to mention a dagger of a three-point shot – caught the attention of Amanda Butler, whose set career records for floor burns during her four seasons as a Florida point guard back in the 1990s. Butler probably saw a little bit of herself in Sorensen, who came to work with the same get it done attitude every day.

When Butler awarded a scholarship to Sorensen there was an instant feeling of accomplishment.

“When I came to the University of Florida, Coach Butler didn’t have to give me the opportunity to play but I think she liked that I wasn’t going to let anyone outwork me,” Sorensen said.

That won’t let anyone outwork her mentality that has turned Florida’s former “Lethal Weapon Three” into a rising star as a sideline reporter for ESPN. She is the third Florida alum to make it in front of the sideline mike for the network, preceded by Erin Andrews, now at Fox Sports, and Jenn Brown, a former Gator softball player.

Following graduation from Florida, Sorensen spent a year playing professional basketball in France but when she came back to the United States she really wasn’t sure what she wanted to do until she got an unexpected call from Kathy Cafazzo, the sports information director for women’s basketball at the University of Florida.

“I thought about trying to play in the league (WNBA) here, but then Kathy Cafazzo called me and told me that ESPN3 was looking for a color analyst to do basketball who lived here in Florida,” Sorensen recalled. “She told them, ‘Actually I have the perfect person for you.’ They put me in a booth, I talked about basketball and they told me I was hired. I owe Kathy about a year of dinners for that.”

It turns out, ESPN had a natural talent on its hands.

That first job was color commentary for AAU basketball games in Orlando at the Walt Disney World sports complex. She did 16 games in one week, all without a whole lot of training. She was learning on the fly.

“I was thrown right into the fire,” Sorensen said. “I think a lot of it was instinctive. I was always playing and being interviewed and now I was standing in front of the camera asking the questions, which is night and day different, but I thought about it and said, ‘You’ve done this before, just on the other side’ and plus I was really fortunate I had good people working with me.”

That one-week gig turned out to be an audition that led her to a role as a women’s college basketball analyst, a role that continues to expand with ESPN. Her success with basketball analysis led ESPN to offer her a job as a sideline reporter for football for the 2013 season, a role for which she is growing increasingly comfortable.

“This year I think they (ESPN) wanted to see how I could do so they started sending me to these different ACC games,” Sorensen said. “I guess they wouldn’t keep calling me if I wasn’t doing an okay job for them.”

She grew up playing football with her brother in Jacksonville and would have continued except her mother intervened and told her she could play the game anymore. So, she turned to basketball and became Florida’s Class 5A Miss Basketball for 2006, but she never lost her love for football.

Or any other sport. Sports brings out her competitive nature and saying she is competitive is being kind.

“Yeah, I’m competitive,” she said. “I’m the one who can’t stand it when you tell me I can’t do something. Can’t do something? That gets me going. I’ve had people tell me I can’t do something all my life.”

It got her through two years of SEC basketball and it has taken her to a point in her television career where her star is definitely ascending. But it really wasn’t supposed to be that way.

In a moment of self-evaluation, she admits she really didn’t know what it was supposed to be.

“I’m the girl who always wanted to take the last shot, so I always thought I was ready for anything but I just didn’t know what was in store for me,” she said. “When I came back from France, I really had no idea what I was going to do. Then came the call from ESPN and I was kind of thrown out there. I really didn’t know what I was doing but when you get your shot you take it. Even if you don’t know everything you need to know, you at least have to look like you know what you’re doing. If you don’t have that confident look on your face like you’re ready for anything, then you will get eaten alive. This is a tough business but I feel like I’ve been prepared for it.”

One thing she has gotten used to but wasn’t prepared for were the comparisons to Erin Andrews. Wherever she goes, she is instantly mistaken for Andrew, who made her name at ESPN before moving to an anchor role with the new Fox Sports Network.

Sorensen understands the physical comparisons but notes that Andrews spent years preparing for this moment.

“We’re tall and we’re blonde, so I get that part when people think maybe I’m Erin,” Sorensen said. “They’re used to seeing her on the sidelines and I hope they get used to seeing me and knowing who I am, too. She got where she is because she was well prepared for her opportunity. I’m learning it as I go, but I feel like I’m ready for anything. When they asked me to think about doing football, I said okay, but I really don’t want to stop at just football. You got a sport you want someone to cover? I’m there – football, basketball, golf, NASCAR, tennis, X-Games. If they’re doing it, then I want to be there.”

And no, she doesn’t want anyone to consider her the “next Erin Andrews.” Instead, she wants to be the first Steffi Sorensen.

“Erin is great at what she does and she’s earned everything she’s gotten,” Sorensen said. “She prepared to be great at what she does. I’m an athlete who is learning as I go. I want to be my own person, my own brand but I want to be like her in this respect: I do hope some young girl out there will see me and think she can do it too. Hey, I was a walk-on. I know you can get the things you want if you’re determined to work harder than anyone else. I hope that’s what someone will see in me.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.