By Jamie H. Vaught
Shannon Spake has been to Rupp Arena several times, including Tuesday night's Kentucky-Missouri basketball game.
And the personable ESPN sideline reporter really likes her courtside media seat at UK's home games for one special reason. She gets to sit very close to the passionate and youthful Big Blue supporters.
"I love the fans at Rupp," said Spake, who also covered Kentucky's 63-51 victory over Texas in early December. "It feels like you are sitting in someone’s living room with over 23,000 of your closest friends. My seat is the best because it's right in front of the student section and there is nothing better than the emotions the students exude for 40 minutes."
According to Spake, she is also scheduled to work for ESPN at three Wildcat games on the road -- Florida (Feb. 7), LSU (Feb. 10) and Georgia (March 3).
A Florida native who is a working mommy with five-year-old twin boys, Spake has been covering various sports for ESPN since 2006. And you may remember her early days when she was a reporter for the Speed Channel (later replaced by Fox Sports 1), covering automobile racing.
Interestingly, not long before she joined the Speed Channel, Spake hardly knew anything about NASCAR.
"Before moving to Charlotte in 2003, I knew very little about NASCAR or any type of racing for that matter," recalled Spake, who has a bachelor's degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. "While working for the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets), I received a call from a friend at the Speed Channel. They were looking to fill some positions on a new show they were launching. I auditioned and got the job.
"A few years later when ESPN got the rights to cover NASCAR, I was fortunate to be one of the reporters hired. It’s amazing to think I spent 10 years covering NASCAR. I have been to every racetrack (multiple times) and still have very good friends in the garage."
While working at NASCAR events, she became pregnant, but Spake continued to work in the garage. She added that it turned out to be the overall favorite moment of her television career.
Spake said she will always remember "the entire five months I spent working on pit road while pregnant with my twin boys. I had an expandable firesuit designed to grow with me. A few of the driver’s wives (Kate Edwards, Krissie Newman, Katie Kenseth, and Nicole Biffle) were pregnant around the same time and it was amazing to be part of that motorsports' baby boom."
Spake is close to her father, who got her involved in sports when she was growing up.
"My father made sure sports was part of my life from a very young age," said Spake, a friendly personality who looks younger than her age of 38. "I grew up in Fort Lauderdale and he would take me to high school football games at St. Thomas Aquinas in the early 1980s. I also followed in my dad’s 'swimming footsteps.' I was a swimmer throughout high school and my first year in college."
Her favorite team? Favorite athlete?
"The Miami Dolphins remain my favorite NFL team," commented Spake. "I have been a fan my entire life. I had a few favorite athletes growing up. (NFL Hall of Famer) Walter Payton and (U.S. Olympic swimmer and TV personality) Summer Sanders were at the top of this list.
"I met Walter Payton at a Chicago Auto Show when I was 14 years old and was able to spend a few minutes with Summer Sanders in 2005 at the NBA All-Star game. And, yes, I reverted to 'fan mode' during both encounters."
With her current job requiring a lot of traveling, Spake also has a second full-time job at home.
"Being a working mommy and balancing all of our schedules are a full-time job, on top of my full-time job," said Spake, who was married in Ireland. "I do make sacrifices and I’ve missed some special moments with my family over the years, but I love my job and have no regrets. However, I couldn’t say that if I didn’t have my support system -- my husband, mom, babysitter, and aunts and uncles. I know when my kids are safe and loved when I am out of town."
Spake -- whose first assignment for ESPN was as a pit reporter for the 2006 All-American Soap Box Derby Championships -- had a great time covering the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans when John Calipari's 38-2 Wildcats captured the national championship. According to Spake, that's her most memorable moment as a basketball reporter.
"When the game ended, I was sitting right in front of Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis when they hugged each other and realized what they had accomplished," remembered Spake. "The entire experience was amazing and to have a front row seat for the post-game emotions and celebrations was a career moment I will never forget."
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.
Shannon Spake is shown with injured UK star Alex Poythress before the Kentucky-Louisville showdown at KFC Yum! Center. Photo by Chet White/UK Athletics