Before she was a Tampa legend, Gayle Sierens was an NFL trailblazer

Published May 20 2017
Updated May 21 2017

TAMPA — It's in a picture frame on a wall in Gayle Sierens' South Tampa home, a home she and her husband have mostly filled with photographs of their three children. But there are photos of Sierens with Pope John Paul II, with Laura Bush, with Oprah, with Bobby Bowden, with Arnold Palmer, part of her long broadcasting career at WFLA-Ch. 8, including 29 years as a news co-anchor. Sierens, a two-time Emmy winner, retired in 2015 as one of the best-known names and faces in Tampa Bay.

Now, back to the memento.

"It's my spotting chart," Sierens said. The kind of crib sheet that sports announcers use for games. She took it off the wall. It's 30 years old. It's in Sierens' handwriting, big block red letters for numbers and names of the 1987 Kansas City Chiefs, with Sierens' notes about players scribbled in blue ballpoint pen. She went through three or four drafts of the chart.

"I didn't want to screw it up," Sierens said with a deep laugh, always her trademark.

Gayle Sierens made history on Dec. 27, 1987. She became the first woman to call play-by-play of an NFL game. Seahawks-Chiefs at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. Gayle the experiment. Gayle the trailblazer. She kicked down the door.

No one else came through it for three decades.

Until now. That's why Sierens, who turns 63 next month, treasures the text she received the other day. It was from longtime ESPN broadcaster Beth Mowins.

"Well, it's not official until tomorrow, but I'm calling a Monday Night Football game on Sept 11. Honored to be putting my name next to yours. Been a long time coming. I want you to know that you've always been the star to reach for. Thank you."

Beth Mowins, the next woman up. Chargers at Broncos, 30 years later.

"Oh, I'm so proud of her I can't even stand it," Sierens said. "She's much more deserving than I ever was. There's no comparison. She's a seasoned professional. I was fresh meat. It could have happened years ago. It should have. Don't ask me why it didn't. Beth has built up such a resume with her college games. She's not a rookie by any means. I'm yesterday's news. She's today's news. I mean that from the bottom of my heart."

Mowins, 49, will have none of that.

"I think she'll always matter," Mowins said of Sierens.

The story has been told, and well, but let's tell it again.

Once upon a time, Michael Weisman, a free-thinking executive producer of NBC Sports, had this mad-genius idea about having a woman call an NFL game. He sought out Sierens, Tampa raised, a former athlete and cheerleader at Tampa Catholic High and a communications major at Florida State who later helped break ground in Tampa Bay as a female sportscaster. She'd free lanced some for ESPN. Did some play-by-play ... at equestrian events.

"I was a Michael Weisman experiment," Sierens said. "He was the guy who'd done the 'silent' game, the announcerless game. Michael saw this as an opportunity to do something very Michael Weisman.

"I had just gotten married and I was a month and a half pregnant with my first child. And I wasn't doing sports anymore. I'd been a news anchor two years. The station had just spent all this money to do promos to remind people I was their news anchor, not a sportscaster. I had to get permission from them. They weren't all that happy. They wouldn't let me do a game that was shown here. I was their news anchor, not a sports chick anymore. But they realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so they let me do it."

Sierens called three practice games, including one in Tampa, working with Marty Glickman, the legendary broadcaster. Gayle and Yoda.

"Marty was awesome," Sierens said. "I loved that man. He was the one who sat with me and taught me to do play-by-play. It was like going to college and studying for an exam. Marty was always right there."

December 27. A cold winter day at Arrowhead Stadium.

Sierens was a nervous wreck.

"It wasn't just me — everyone was nervous," Sierens said. "Nervous for me. I didn't feel the burden of being embarrassed if I was bad. I felt the burden of screwing it up for a lot of other women if I was bad. I wanted to be good enough to where the door did not get slammed closed."

Sierens doesn't remember the final score (Chiefs, 41-20) or much else about the game. except maybe the kindness of the crew, especially her booth partner, former NFL defensive lineman Dave Rowe. Oh, and she remembered the first play she ever called.

"My spotter, God bless him, on the opening kickoff, spotted me the wrong player," Sierens said.

She laughed.

"I kept thinking, 'Don't screw this up.' I don't think I did. I got good reviews. Still, we went all those years without another woman ..."

At halftime, Sierens was escorted to a rest room by her husband, Mike Martin, who had been a star linebacker at the University of Kentucky. The press box was packed with people, including media who were trailing Sierens. National story. Martin made way for his wife. An older man fought through the crowd.

"Mike has his arm on the guy," Sierens said. "The man said, 'I just want to tell her she's doing a great job. I'm Lamar Hunt.' It was the Chiefs owner."

Weisman asked Sierens to do six games the following season.

BETH MOWINS Q&A: 'I've been doing Monday Night Football since I was knee high'.

"I had to make a choice," Sierens said. "Did I want this 'maybe' career as a sportscaster, running around the world, or do I want to stay in Tampa, where I had a great gig, made good money, where I grew up, baby on the way?"

We all know what she decided.

"There are certainly times when I wonder if I should have pursued it. Not for me, because it would have made my life stinking crazy. I mean it. But maybe I could have opened a door for women a little sooner, a long time ago."

Mowins and Sierens didn't meet until a few years ago. Mowins was calling NCAA volleyball games. Sierens' daughter, Maddie, played for powerhouse Penn State. Funny, but Mowins had lived in Tampa Bay from 1996 to 2006.

"I kind of kicked myself for never reaching out to Gayle," Mowins said. "I was a little shy. I mean, she was Gayle Sierens. Gayle was a big deal in Tampa."

Somewhere in Sierens' home, there is a copy of her 1987 game. She has no idea where it is. Ancient history. But she has a new hero: Beth Mowins.

"She's going to be an all-star," Sierens said. "A lot of other women who thought they'd never get an opportunity until way down the line might get opportunities because of Beth. They'll say, 'Look at her.' Me? I was a flash in the pan. It was big and fun and I guess important, but I wasn't a trailblazer. Beth is blazing trails."

Beth Mowins was on the phone from her home in San Diego. A reporter mentioned Sierens' spotting card, the one in the frame on the wall.

"Could you do me a favor?" Mowins asked. "You have a picture of that? Could you send me it? I'd love to take that in the booth with me when I do the game in Denver. That would be pretty cool."

A torch passed. Finally.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or 813-731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

 
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