nce-in-a-lifetime moments are supposed happen just once: Martina Navratilova stepping off an airplane onto Czech soil in 1986 for the first time since she had defected to the United States to compete in tennis at age 18; Robert Kraft declaring “We are all Patriots,” after the Patriots’ first-ever Super Bowl win in 2002; Villanova, an underdog by every stretch of the word, upsetting Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Basketball Final. But Lesley Visser experienced them all.
Visser, BC ’75, will soon add another once-in-a-lifetime affair to her already miles-long list of accolades, as she is set to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sports Emmys on April 28 of this year. Visser will be the first woman to receive the award, which recognizes excellence in sports broadcasting on television.
After getting her journalistic start with The Heights as a student at Boston College, Visser quickly began to garner recognition: In addition to her most recent honor, Visser has won the Newseum Award for Lifetime Excellence and the Billie Jean King “Outstanding Journalist Award”; she was voted to the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and Sports Writers Hall of Fame; and maybe most notably, she was voted the No. 1 female sportscaster of all time in a poll by the American Sportscasters Association. And this list is nowhere near exhaustive.
Visser has made waves in the sports world throughout her life, as she’s known her destiny for decades now. As a 10-year-old, Visser boasted to her mother that she planned to be a sports writer. Though it was unheard of at the time, her mother’s response was precisely what she needed to hear:
“Sometimes you have to cross when it says ‘Don’t Walk.’”
And that’s exactly what Visser set out to do. That mantra, now the title of her autobiography, has helped her leap over every hurdle set in her way. At a time when women were mostly teachers, nurses, domestics, or secretaries, as she put it, Visser had alternative plans.
Sometimes you have to cross when it says ‘Don’t Walk.’
n her junior year at BC, she won a Carnegie Foundation grant, awarded to about a select group of women pursuing careers in fields that are at least 95 percent male. That award jump-started her entrance into the journalism world as she took on a job with The Boston Globe. Former Globe sports editor Dave Smith later dubbed the members of that section of the Globe in the early ’70s on par with the trio of “DiMaggio, Gehrig and Ruth.”
“Everybody there was the best at his position,” she said. “It was Peter Gammons on baseball, Bob Ryan on basketball. I went to Wimbledon with Bud Collins. I’d go to the NBA Finals with Bob Ryan, and Will McDonough was on football.”
Surrounded by colleagues whose names carried more meaning in the sports world than most meant that Visser had to work harder to put her own name up in lights. But she also had some of the world’s best confidants, many of whom continue to inspire her today.
“I have a whole block of women who’ve been on this journey with me,” she said. “I mean, obviously they came after me, but very close after me. … They go back either three or four years, or they go back 40. We’ve really been a sorority for each other.”
Dozens of such supporters will attend the presentation of her most recent award, including Dan Shaughnessy, her BC roommates, and other friends from 45 years in the business.
Another of Visser’s well-recognized colleagues, who will also attend the event, was Vince Doria, an assistant sports editor for The Boston Globe at the time Visser entered the force as a junior at BC. Though Visser was one of the only women in the sports journalism field when she started out, because, as she put it, “the job did not exist for women,” Doria knew that he had hired the right woman for the job.
“You could already see an emerging talent there,” he said. “You could see that she had a way about her that prompted people to open up to her—people who weren’t interested in talking to the media.”
Her personality filled every locker room and press box she walked into. Once, Visser even tried to coax better answers out of grumpy Patriots players with a bag of peanut M&Ms—and it worked.
But much of Visser’s outstanding presence in locker rooms stemmed from a disadvantage, Doria said. Growing up in the middle of the 20th century meant she was ushered into a box from a very young age—a box that kept her away from experiencing sports in the same way the boys did.
“She was determined to catch up,” said Doria. “And she was determined to catch up in about 10 minutes. … And she went about it in a terrifically aggressive manner.”
ven as one of the only women in her field, she still had role models within the sports world to look up to. Case in point: Billie Jean King.
King won 39 Grand Slam titles in her storied tennis career, and Visser was there to report on many of them. In the early ’80s, in a post-game interview after King had just won yet another Wimbledon title, Visser gained yet another life-altering piece of advice.
“I said ‘Billie Jean, what is the pressure of always being in the Wimbledon final?’ And she looked at me, and it actually changed the chemistry of my brain. She said ‘Are you kidding? Pressure is a privilege.’”
And from there, Visser had her two charges through which to build her lifetime of achievement: Shatter the status quo, and learn to love challenge.
I said ‘Billie Jean, what is the pressure of always being in the Wimbledon final?’ And she looked at me, and it actually changed the chemistry of my brain. She said ‘Are you kidding? Pressure is a privilege.’
Her success in front of the camera has been a direct result of the combination of those two things, she noted. It’s hard to come up with any woman in sports journalism—or any person, really—who has a longer list of firsts than Visser does. Her website lists quite a few: Visser was the first woman enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the first woman assigned to a Super Bowl sideline, the first woman to appear on the broadcast of the World Series, and the first female sportscaster to carry the Olympic Torch, among plenty of others. It’s no wonder she was named one of the Ten Pioneers of Women’s Sports by USA Today.
And yet, even with a laundry list of accolades under her belt, she recognizes that she didn’t arrive here on her own.
“There are dozens of people that I know personally that could have won this, so it’s completely unexpected,” she said. “The winners are people like Jim McKay… who’s one of the 10 most revered people in the history of our business.”
Visser expressed her gratitude for the many who have shown her support in the past week: Mark Cuban, Billie Jean King, countless athletes—both professional and collegiate—and BC’s very own Martin Jarmond, among others, each retweeted the announcement about Visser’s selection for the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The words “first woman” precede the vast majority of her lifetime achievements, but according to Doria, it’s Visser’s relentless drive and incredible talent developed over four and a half decades of work that set her apart from the rest of the journalism industry. And after Visser’s storied career, Doria can add another once-in-a-lifetime chance to his list: working with a journalistic superhero of the highest caliber.
“Lesley Visser’s résumé says gender isn’t a qualifier,” said Doria. “It simply says ‘one of the best damn journalists I’ve ever worked with.’”
Images Courtesy of Lesley Visser