Ed Werder, honored at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, always knew he wanted a career in sports journalism

By Lyndsey Crum, Photography Courtesy of Ed Werder

A change in the play call can be a game changer if you’re willing to seize the opportunity. Ask NFL insider and UNC alumnus Ed Werder ’82.

Werder reported from the sideline of the 1986 AFC Championship Game when Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway led the offense in a 98-yard, 15-play comeback to tie the game against the Cleveland Browns. “The Drive” was Elway’s opportunity to seize momentum and beat the Browns 23–20 in an overtime win.

“They had already taken the trophy to the Browns’ locker room,” Werder recalls. “They had to hustle it back. It’s the moment (Elway) became a legend.”

“The Drive” is one of Werder’s favorite memories from this 30-plus year career as a sports journalist. A career that includes coverage of 28 Super Bowls, countless playoff and Monday Night Football games, and game-day mileage spanning Lambeau Field in Green Bay to the Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium.

 Ed Werder

Werder’s name was added to a roster of McCann Award winners that includes other ESPN reporters John Clayton, Len Pasquarelli and Chris Mortensen.

Follow Ed on Twitter @EdwerderRFA

Like many impressive careers, Werder’s role as one of the nation’s top sports journalists was a series of seized opportunities and a commitment to doing what he loves.

From Bear to Beat Writer and Broadcaster

Although originally from Florida, Werder’s family moved to Colorado during his youth. He attended Longmont High School and began working for the local paper.

“Since grade school, I knew what I wanted to be,” he says. “While the other kids put their heads on their desks during breaks, I had a pen and paper out, making up games in my mind. And when we played outside, we would announce the game while we played it.”

When it was time for college, Werder had a choice between CU and UNC.

“I applied to CU but they didn’t have the broadcast facilities I was looking for, and I wanted to play tennis.”

Werder found both at UNC. He enrolled in 1978, played a season of tennis and began gaining experience as a sports writer. He followed the columns and articles of Denver’s well-known sports journalists of the time and focused on emulating their style and career path.

“I may have been the only kid on my floor to have The Denver Post delivered to Wiebking Hall.”

With professional role models in mind, Werder took on a student assignment with the UNC Mirror; his first story was coverage for a UNC wrestling match. By his last semester, Werder had enough bylines to his name to earn an internship with 9News.

“I didn’t get a job out of it, but I gained a lot of experience, including an interview with famed racing driver Mario Andretti.”

Following graduation, Werder took a position with the Arizona Daily Star. It wasn’t his dream job. It wasn’t even a writing assignment, but he put his head down and got to work until a new opportunity emerged.

“I felt I had been promised the first writing opportunity on staff, but was passed over for a former colleague of the sports editor,” remembers Werder. “As a result, I was determined to leave and write elsewhere. I returned to Colorado and took the position Rick Reilly vacated at the Boulder Daily Camera.”

For five years, Werder covered Colorado football for the Camera. From high school and college games to pro games with the Denver Broncos, Werder quickly made a name for himself with his ability to get the inside scoop in Colorado sports. All the while, he was ready to seize the opportunity to join a larger newspaper.

Married with two children, Werder was somewhat settled in Colorado. And when it came time for a change, Werder planned to join the sports staff at The Denver Post to cover CU, but an opportunity to leverage two job offers landed Werder and his young family in Fort Worth.

He began as the Dallas Cowboys beat writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, then moved on to The Dallas Morning News. Werder covered the Cowboys during the mid-1990s when the team was a household name for Super Bowl wins and had one of the most shocking coaching changes in NFL history. He also took on assignments with the Orlando Sentinel, The National, and Sports Illustrated.

By 1998, the former UNC Mirror had writer earned a broadcast spot with ESPN.

“I took my tapes up in a plastic bag to Bristol when I interviewed with (former ESPN executive) John Walsh” in Connecticut, Werder said during an NFL segment on the broadcaster. “And I walked into his office, and the first thing that was said to me was, ‘I just want you to know that we think you’re great, and we want to hire you.’ So I took those tapes and pitched them out the door because the only thing they could do at that point was cost me the job.”

From 1998 until 2017, Werder was the face and voice who NFL fans, especially Cowboy fans, tuned into each weekend.

“They were long days,” he recalls. “You were the first to arrive and the last to leave.”

Working six days a week, plus travel, Werder hustled to create original material for multiple ESPN shows. For nearly 20 years, he focused on building relationships with team players and owners, looking for the inside story to each week’s match-up.

“You’re always on the clock.”

Until the clock stopped. On April 26, Werder announced that the network laid him off. He was one of a long list of on-air talent and staff let go last spring.

As shocking as the news came for Werder and NFL fans, he never lost focus of his career ambition — being a sports journalist — or the connections that made it possible.    

Embracing Change and Opportunity

Fans and followers of Werder know that he’s an active Twitter user. They also know that @EDwerderRFA’s two favorite subjects are football and Little Henry, Werder’s young grandson.

Werder often takes to Twitter to share personal and professional experiences. Six weeks after the ESPN layoff, Werder shared some unexpected news with his followers.

“Thanks to everyone for all the thoughtful notes about the HOF Dick McCann Award,” he wrote. “I truly appreciate each of them.”

In June, the Pro Football Hall of Fame named Werder the 2017 McCann Award winner, the highest honor given by the league to a journalist, based on quality of coverage over time. “He represents the journalistic model in which every dogged reporter methodically turns over every stone in pursuit of the facts,” says his friend and former colleague, Chris Mortensen, who won the award in 2016. “He loves journalism, and he loves covering the NFL, exceeded only by his love of family. I’m reasonably certain these are the things that motivate Ed.”

Winners are recognized in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and during the annual NFL Hall of Fame ceremony, which Werder attended in August.

“I’m grateful to my peers who voted for me and to the other outstanding finalists,” Werder shared in his induction speech. “I appreciate every entity that hired me, every colleague who collaborated, every competitor who forced me to give my all.”

The award was a bittersweet recognition of a career unexpectedly halted. But thanks to Werder’s Twitter coverage and deep connections within the NFL, it wouldn’t be halted for long.

Today, Werder (who remains under contract to ESPN through August 2019) refers to himself as a “restricted free agent.” He’s doing five national radio broadcasts of NFL games for Westwood One and actively provides commentary on the NFL from Twitter. He knows that the emergence of social media sites like Twitter have changed how journalists report the news and how audiences react. Werder has embraced those changes, launching the Doomsday Podcast with colleague Matt Mosley.

On the podcast, weekly episodes provide an insider view of the Dallas Cowboys, with topics ranging from game-day recaps to the unexpected cultural commentary concerning the national anthem. The Doomsday Podcast covers it all and fulfills Werder’s drive to continue evolving as a sports journalist.

“You have to be willing to experiment and embrace the unexpected,” he says. “The podcast is one of the few outlets where I can do what I want.”

Werder uses Twitter to help disseminate each week’s episode, keep up on fan reactions, and throw in some family time with Little Henry. He’s also shown an openness on Twitter to connect and seize new opportunities when the time is right.

So when it came time for UNC to reconnect, there is little surprise that the opportunity came through Twitter.

Following an on-air interview with 104.3-FM “The Fan,” UNC took a shot at getting Werder’s attention. In the span of a few tweets and direct messages, one of UNC’s most renowned journalism graduates was sitting down with us to share a cup of coffee and about the role that UNC played in building his career.

Werder recalled his favorite professors and the classes that helped him take the first steps in his career. He even recalled some of his shenanigans on the intramural hockey team, and  how he had lived down the hall from his high school girlfriend, and now wife, Jill.

A few weeks after connecting, Werder was back in his element. Standing on the sideline prior to the UNC vs. CU football game on Sept. 16, he broadcast live during halftime with 1310-AM KFKA, taking every opportunity to share UNC with his 200,000-plus Twitter followers.

“My UNC education was the foundation of everything,” he says. “I always tell people to take advantage of the opportunities that you have.”