ESPN winner back at school

Friday, April 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:16 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mike Hall sits on the futon in his room, munching on day-old popcorn and sipping a Dr. Pepper. Despite the whirlwind his life has become, Hall is calm and collected, but that’s no surprise. It’s Hall’s coolness under pressure that has gotten him where he is.

During his triumph on ESPN’s “Dream Job,” Hall held up when the teleprompter went out and he had to ad lib his lead-in to a Yankees-Red Sox highlight. He didn’t flinch when breaking news came in the middle of his interview with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. When viewers voted to make him the show’s first cut, he didn’t break down. He made sure he didn’t get another vote. Ever.

So it seems playing catch-up for the past six weeks of his college career should be easy for Hall.

Keeping up with school has become easier since his weekly commute to New York City ended, but Hall is understandably having a hard time concentrating.

“It’s important that I finish, but it’s tough to study,” Hall said. “Senioritis alone makes it tough to study, but, oh by the way, your mind is completely elsewhere. What do I care about learning about the geography of Ontario when I could be studying the Edmonton Oilers?”

Since his tromp through the world of reality television, which landed him a one-year, $95,000 contract as the newest “SportsCenter” anchor, some things in Hall’s life are back to normal.

He’s back in Columbia, working to finish his degree in broadcast journalism, and he’s back to performing with the Comedy Wars improv group Wednesday nights at Memorial Union. Other things will never be the same.

“Nothing’s really the same anymore, in a good way,” Hall said. “I can’t go to a bar and have a conversation, which is bad. But the flip side is there are all these new people who are trying to meet me and say nice things to me.”

Hall didn’t anticipate the celebrity that would come from his stint on ESPN, but like everything else, he’s taking it in stride.

“During ‘Dream Job’ I still believed I was a quasi-pseudo celebrity; if I looked for it I could find it,” Hall said. “Now it’s looking for me.”

The day after “Dream Job” ended, Hall was immediately thrown into a media blitz. He appeared on ESPN2’s “Cold Pizza,” made the radio talk show circuit and did a segment on three “SportsCenter” editions, all on about 1½ hours of sleep.

He finally turned in about 1:30 the next morning, only to be awakened with a phone call from a radio talk show in Chicago four hours later.

“I had just done two of the best, longest, craziest days of my life on an hour and a half of sleep, and these guys called me at 5:30 in the morning,” Hall said.

The next day, Access Hollywood and Inside Edition interviewed Hall, and he said he has gotten “anywhere from six to 12” phone calls per day for newspaper interviews since he won “Dream Job.”

It’s safe to say that Hall’s world has turned upside down since the show ended.

When it was time for the final decision to come down and “Dream Job” host Stuart Scott said Aaron Levine’s name, Hall said he didn’t know which emotion to act on: agony or ecstasy.

“I had a feeling he was going to say who was cut, because that’s the way they did it all along,” Hall said. “But I sure as hell was waiting for him to finish that sentence.”

At the time, the pause between Scott saying, “Aaron Levine,” and, “You’ve been cut,” was excruciatingly long. After watching the tape, Hall realizes it wasn’t as long as he remembered.

“I remember it being like people were napping in the middle waiting to see what he was going to say,” Hall said.

Like almost everything in his topsy-turvy life, Hall doesn’t know what to expect after he graduates from MU on May 15, but he’s looking forward to it.

“My guess is they’ll give me a week to move out,” Hall said. “Maybe they’ll give me a week to move out, and then a week to get settled and I’ll start June 1. I don’t know.”

“They won’t start my contract until I’m done with school, but once or twice, or three or four times, in the next six weeks they’re going to have me doing things.”

Hall is confident he will succeed on “SportsCenter,” but he has no idea whether the potential is there for his contract to be extended beyond a year.

“Nobody’s talked to me about that,” Hall said. “To be fair to them, they don’t know me that well. They don’t know if I can do an hour show. They don’t know if I can do it day after day.”

Assimilating to ESPN is Hall’s next challenge. Before the show began, Hall expected to take some flak from current “SportsCenter” anchors, most of whom have established themselves through years of hard work in small markets, but Scott told Hall to ignore his critics.

“Like Stuart Scott said, ‘Nobody who’s on ESPN right now did what you did,’” Hall said. “Nobody had to do those tasks at your age. Nobody had to go through that kind of stress and anxiety when they tried out. Nobody beat 10,000 people to get their job, and nobody did it in front of America.”

For four days after the show’s finale, Hall’s e-mail box was full of messages from friends, family and strangers. Some told him they were proud. Some told him he was an inspiration. That’s the best compliment Hall could imagine.

“For me, that’s the whole point of performing anything, to try to make somewhat of an impact,” Hall said. “Even if it’s a little thing like making someone laugh or be entertained or give them inspiration, that’s what it’s all about.”

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