From BYU to ESPN, how Holly Rowe brings passion to sportscasting, cancer fighting

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ESPN reporter Holly Rowe interviews Coach Geno Auriemma of the University of Connecticut Huskies during the 2015 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game on April 8, 2015, in Tampa,
Florida. Rowe got her start in sideline reporting at BYU’s Blue and White Sports Network. (Scott Clarke/ESPN Images)

Holly Rowe realized she faced a dilemma while sitting in her fifth grade classroom.

Like the other students, she took a quiz on what careers might suit her someday. But looking at the results, she realized her future job wasn’t on the list.

“My job isn’t listed here,” she told her teacher. “I’m going to be a reporter like Shelley Thomas.”

Shelley Thomas was then an anchor at KSL 5 News in Salt Lake City.

“I just always grew up wanting to be like Shelley Thomas, who was so good,” Rowe, now 51, said. “She was warm and friendly and classy and good at her job. … So I had a very clear vision as a young person of what I wanted to do.”

In the nearly 40 years since that day in her classroom, Rowe’s childhood goal has become a reality.

Her career has taken her from hometown high school football games to NFL games; from her college newscast to a 2015 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Sports Personality; and from local newspapers to her current job as a sideline reporter for ESPN.

It’s also spanned her years as a student, a mother and most recently, as a cancer fighter. Rowe is currently working with the AIM at Melanoma Foundation and the Melanoma Research Foundation to bring awareness to the disease she is currently fighting.

But before she was a sports reporter and a skin cancer awareness advocate, she was a little girl from Utah who loved sports and later became BYU Cougar.

Bleeding blue

Rowe grew up in Bountiful, Utah, and began attending BYU football games as a child.

“When I say I love BYU football, I was obsessed,” she said.

So obsessed, she recently found yellowed newspaper clippings she saved as a teenager about BYU’s victory over Southern Methodist University in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.

Holly Rowe interviews Coach Nick Saban of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta, Georgie,
on Dec. 31, 2016. Rowe said she was “obsessed” with BYU football while growing up. (Allen Kee/ESPN Images)

When she graduated from Woods Cross High School in 1984, it was little wonder she headed straight to BYU. However, a year and a half later, she transferred to the University of Utah, where she studied broadcast journalism and “made up (her) own little minor” by taking a number of sports classes from Coaching Basketball and Coaching Football to Sports Ethics, Sports Law and Sports Psychology.

She also wrote for the Daily Utah Chronicle and the Davis Clipper, and according to her ESPN bio, she anchored for the University of Utah’s TV news station before graduating in 1991. 

From there, she did “a bunch of internships” before starting her first full-time work in 1993 with BYU’s Blue and White Sports Network. Her son was born two years later in 1995.

Mikel Minor, who hired Rowe out of an internship with CBS, said the Blue and White Sports Network was “the first unwired syndicated college sports network in the country featuring BYU and the Air Force Academy.” 

Holly Rowe smiles with her then-small son McKylin Rowe. McKylin Rowe recalled going to work with her as a child and playing with toys while she recorded a radio show. (Holly Rowe)

Rowe was the affiliate relations coordinator, working with 63 stations carrying BYU football. The network also allowed her some room to do feature stories, and eventually she became a sideline reporter.

Minor, Rowe’s boss at the Blue and White Sports Network, said though Rowe didn’t have much experience as a play-by-play reporter at that time, she was passionately driven and jumped into every assignment with both feet.

“I recall telling her she’d have to work harder than everyone else and would need to seize every opportunity in order to hone her broadcasting skills, especially as a woman at that period of the industry’s development,” said Minor in an email. Minor is currently the senior coordinating producer for BYUtv Sports. “She was a natural, with terrific aptitude and astounding work ethic.”

According to Minor, Rowe flourished on air, learning how to succinctly deliver information from the sideline while putting nervous and sometimes hostile coaches and players at ease during live interviews.

“She quickly grasped the unique skill sets of those positions, including the ability to be as knowledgeable and prepared with information and storylines of each game; in fact, as much or more so than the announcers in the booth,” he said.

Rowe said her time with the Blue and White Sports Network gave her confidence she could be a good sportscaster. In particular, she credits LaVell Edwards and other BYU football coaches for accepting her at a time when there weren’t many women in her field.

Holly Rowe stands with Coach LaVell Edwards. Rowe credits Edwards and other coaches for giving her confidence. (Holly Rowe)

“I don’t know that I would have this career and be where I am now if I hadn’t started with male coaches who treated me with class and dignity and included me,” she said.

Rowe also credits her father, Del Rowe, for not raising her like she had limits. Though people often ask what it’s like to be a woman in this field, she feels the better question is what it’s like to be a hardworking journalist.

“It honestly never occurred to me that there weren’t a lot of women doing this,” she said.

Rowe worked with the Blue and White Sports Network until 1997, when she got her break with ESPN as a sideline reporter. 

From there, she started covering women’s college basketball and volleyball, and she was one of four play-by-play announcers for ESPN during the 1998 Women’s World Cup. According to her ESPN bio, she now primarily covers college football, men’s basketball and softball, as well as the NBA and WNBA.

“I believe Holly was truly born to do this, and I’m not surprised in the least that she made her way into the ‘big leagues’ where she is firmly established as one of the most respected reporters in sports,” Minor said.

Battling skin cancer

But change came about two years ago, when Rowe noticed a spot on her chest.

Thinking it was nothing, she made an appointment to have it removed. Doctors discovered it was a fairly large tumor growing under her skin. She was diagnosed with desmoplastic melanoma, a rare form of skin cancer that accounts for less than four percent of primary cutaneous melanomas, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Rowe’s mother and her son McKylin Rowe drove for hours every day for two weeks to take her to her first round of chemotherapy. During the drive, they’d listen to Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” album, and after her treatment, they’d set up a bed for Rowe and watch movies together.

“It helped bring our family very, very close,” McKylin Rowe said. “We spent a lot of time with each other.”

ESPN reporter Holly Rowe was diagnosed with desmoplastic melanoma about two years ago after having a doctor check out a spot on her chest. (Holly Rowe)

After the usual rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Rowe went into remission, only to find a tumor under her arm and another in her lung in May 2017. In addition to chemo and radiation treatments, she’s currently undergoing a clinical trial of a new immunotherapy treatment. 

Rowe, however, remains dauntlessly cheerful. Her oncologist recently told her the new immunotherapy treatment didn’t exist three or four years ago, “so if I would’ve had this tumor in my lung just a few years ago, I would probably be dead already,” she said. “I just had scans two weeks ago and my tumor continues to shrink, so the prognosis is good.”

Rowe said that in addition to her faith and family, her job is helping her push through — in fact, she said she’s only taken ten days off during her entire sickness.

“I have found that when I have things to look forward to, I feel better, as weird as it sounds,” she said. “Someone is always winning in my work, and it’s important for me to see people winning right now … so I keep grinding.”

Another of Rowe’s motivations is the community of cancer survivors and fighters she’s met since her diagnosis.

“Nobody can really understand what you’re going through unless they’re in it themselves, and I appreciate this little community of cancer fighters that I’ve met that kind of lift each other up and help each other,” she said.

However, Rowe pointed to a number of preventative measures she could have taken in her youth that might have helped her avoid cancer, from wearing sunscreen at football games to not using tanning beds as a teenager. She particularly wants Utahans to know the importance of covering up, as Utah’s higher elevation makes them more susceptible to skin cancer. 

“I’m being very public and vocal about all of this because I had no idea how invasive melanoma was,” she said. “I want people to know that the sun is killing us and we can just be so much smarter about how we’re managing that.” 

ESPN reporter Holly Rowe said continuing to report is helping her push through her cancer. In fact, she said she’s only taken ten days off during her entire sickness. (Holly Rowe)

According to the Public Health Indicator Based Information System, the number of melanoma incidents in Utah steadily increased from 2002 to 2014 (from about 21 in 100,000 to about 42 in 100,000), while the US’s rate stayed nearly even (from about 18 in 100,000 to about 21 in 100,000). Risk of melanoma is greatly increased by using artificial UV radiation sources (such as tanning beds) before the age of 30. 

As of 2014, Utah has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the nation, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“So I think that where I’m trying to do good is educating people in a way that I was not educated growing up in Utah about the dangers of the sun here in our community,” Rowe said.

‘The definition of hopeful’

Looking back, Rowe said she’s sad she ever wasted time and energy worrying about what other people were thinking.

“Just be good at what you do, have passion, work hard, and good things will happen,” she said. “Don’t let the fear and the judgment of others determine your life.”

It’s a lesson she’s passed onto her son, who said he admires his mother’s no-quit attitude.

ESPN reporter Holly Rowe stands with her son McKylin Rowe. McKylin said he most admires how she doesn’t quit. (Holly Rowe)

“Not once has she ever tried to be anything less than tough,” McKylin Rowe said. “She is the definition of hopeful.”

Going forward, Rowe said her number one goal is being a good mother to her son. While beating cancer is certainly important, she said she’s focused on looking forward to grandchildren.

“I’m really trying the positive mental thinking to get past this cancer and have things to look forward to,” she said.

And she looks forward to continuing with reporting, just like her first role model, Shelley Thomas.

“My goals going forward are to keep doing what I love and to keep… telling (stories) with dignity and accuracy,” she said. “That’s a passion of mine.”

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