Contest draws Hall closer to his calling

Tuesday, February 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:08 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

At the risk of sounding “utterly cheesy,” Mike Hall will tell you moving people is his true love.

To laugh, to cry, to feel, Hall tries to invoke emotional response through performance, in plays, musicals, improvisational comedy, you name it.

Now, Hall has a shot on his biggest stage.

Hall, a University of Missouri journalism student, and 11 others are the stars of the newest (for at least a week) reality television series, ESPN’s Dream Job.

Starting Sunday night at 9, Hall will compete for a one-year contract as a SportsCenter anchor, on live television. Hall, who doesn’t watch reality TV because “it’s not really my thing,” is about to star in it. As you might expect, his stance is changing.

“Now, reality TV’s awesome,” he said.

You better believe it. If Hall can be the last man or woman standing, he will get to play career leapfrog, jumping past entry-level and straight to, well, his dream job. If he wins, Hall expects he will sign a contract to work at ESPN on March 28, about 1½ months before he graduates with his bachelor’s of journalism degree.

Nice work if you can get it.

If he doesn’t win, Hall will be back to finish his degree, graduate in May and start working toward, well, his dream job. As he puts it, if something happens, he goes back to his “normal life,” a prospect with which he has no problem.

Hall is trying to keep himself from making a big deal out of the situation, because he has no idea what to expect from Sunday’s premier episode.

He doesn’t want to get his hopes up only to be the first person eliminated. That’s why his expectations are “nothing and everything.” He has all the bases covered.

“I expect to have a good time,” Hall said. “I expect it to be the most memorable thing that’s happened to me. As long as I look at it like that, nothing bad can happen.”

Everything about Hall screams that he will win this thing. He has a clean-cut-but-not-too-clean-cut look, complete with a Jimmy Fallon-like carefully messed-up hairdo.

His voice is clear and crisp. He has a knack for storytelling. And he is funny. Man, is he funny.

It’s easy to see why Hall has earned minor-star status on campus through the Comedy Wars improv show.

Please see Jarrett, page 3B

He’s constantly joking, tossing out punch line after hilarious punch line, and he is not afraid to poke fun at himself.

All of that means Dream Job plays to Hall’s strengths because so much of being a SportsCenter anchor is being able to ad lib and make people laugh.

“I’ve gotta have a leg up, in that regard,” Hall said.

He has to be right. Hall’s personality is all over the place. His wit is so quick that he’s always one joke ahead; by the time you have laughed at the last one, he is cracking you up again. His comedy turns on a dime, though, so without the full context, it would likely go over one’s head.

It’s hard to say how Hall will come across on ESPN; his over-the-top, goofy persona will probably invoke a love-him-or-hate-him attitude among viewers.

I can’t help but choose the former. Hall’s lust for life is infectious, his congeniality genuine, his attitude the perfect balance of confidence and modesty.

Hall has no reason for his humility, other than he is a genuinely nice guy. His confidence, though, is justified. He has swept himself into the final 12 for the job of a lifetime, at 21 (he will be 22 later this week). And he got there by being himself.

At the casting call in St. Louis, he scored the highest on the sports quiz and pretended to be a hockey puck at a producer’s request.

At the regional final in Chicago, he confessed to Stuart Scott that given the option of hosting Late Night with David Letterman for a month or anchoring SportsCenter for a month, he would choose Letterman “eight days a week.”

At the national final in New York, he led Barry Sanders through the “most off-the-wall interview” Sanders has done, the former Detroit running back said.

Despite it all, Hall might be a bit too humble in some regards. He seems to have underestimated the celebrity status he’s about to experience, at least in Columbia.

“Everybody’s saying that, I’m not so sure,” Hall said. “I assume it will be similar to what I get with Comedy Wars. Occasionally someone will say ‘Hey, Mike, I thought you were really funny last week,’ but it’s not like people are feeding me grapes and I’m riding around on elephants. I assume it will be kind of similar. Now maybe I’m wholly underestimating it.”

His charm is another thing Hall has underestimated. He is worried that the SportsCenter anchors will dislike him because of his opportunity to prematurely ascend to the top of his field. He also worries that he will skew immature, rather than young.

Hall’s happy-go-lucky attitude and confident air will help him get over those stumbling blocks.

This show might as well have been made for Hall. There’s a good chance Hall would have landed a SportsCenter anchor job eventually; this gives him a chance to cut to the chase.

“I came to school because I wanted to do sports broadcasting,” Hall said. “I wanted to do sports broadcasting because I watched SportsCenter and thought I could do it, and that’s what I wanted to do.

“Here I am not even graduated, and I have a chance to do it. It’s surreal.”

I’ll root for him.

Justin Jarrett’s columns appear Tuesdays.

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