One of life’s most important endeavors is finding purpose. For some, it’s a journey that takes several years, but for others, it is never truly recognized. For Taylor Rooks however, her purpose was realized at a very young age.
Like most people who grew up in Georgia’s Gwinnett County, Rooks developed an affinity for sports early on. She was raised during the height of the Michael Vick Experience, and was surrounded by athletes and sports enthusiasts. So having a passion for the game was something that was almost inevitable for the Emmy-nominated journalist.
“I tell people that all the time,” she says of her upbringing. “I owe my love of sports to two things – that’s my family and being from the south; because in a place like Georgia, you are living, breathing and eating it.” Her father, Thomas, set the rushing record at Taylor’s alma mater, the University of Illinois. She is also the niece of both baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock, and former NFL player Marv Woodson. While the heavy presence of athletics may have inspired many to pursue it as their profession, Rooks decided to take a different route.
After graduating from Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Rooks enrolled at the U of I, covering football and basketball stories on collegiate and national levels. Her service there eventually materialized into opportunities with SportsNet and CBS, and later with Bleacher Report and Turner Sports. In the time since her matriculation, the 31-year-old’s work has been highly documented, and she’s interviewed figures ranging from Candace Parker to President Barack Obama.
While she may have established herself in the media due to her NBA coverage, Rooks continues to remind audiences that she is an authority on all sports. Last fall, Rooks excelled as the feature reporter for NBC’s Thursday Night Football broadcast, where she spoke to many of the NFL’s biggest and brightest stars. When asked about returning to what is described as her “dream job,” she expresses excitement, as well as gratitude.
“To be a part of TNF, that is one thing I will say I did not think I would ever do,” she responds. “So I’m really happy and really thankful that I get to do it.”
In what is now a purpose-filled career with endless potential, Taylor Rooks has plenty to be grateful for.
ESSENCE: A while back, you posted a video on Instagram when you were about 11 years old. In the caption, you wrote about how you would watch journalists on television and interview yourself. Can you remember when you wanted to become a storyteller? And why sports, specifically?
Taylor Rooks: Oh my god, this is a good question. For quite a long time, I’ve felt like I wanted to talk to people on camera. I wanted to deliver information to others because growing up, I would see my mom watch the news every night and every morning, and she would learn about what was happening by watching the news. It was those moments that were really important to her, and meant something to her. So I wanted to be one of the people that told people what was going on and the one to be able to deliver that to them. So I’ve always had an interest in asking questions and having those conversations.
But I don’t think that I really realized, okay, I can do this specifically with sports until I was maybe in high school. I would say I started to focus on doing sports media and sports interviewing and learning how to be good at specifically that. When I went to college, I tried to do the same thing. I just think when I made the decision, I didn’t look back.
Was there ever a point in your career where you questioned whether your path was the right decision?
There was never a time that I questioned if it was the right decision. I think that when I made the decision, I said I’m going to go for this completely. I’m going to dedicate everything that I can to it to make it work. I never questioned this decision, but I do think I more so questioned why there were so many things in sports media that were the way that they were, but my questioning was never coming internally. All of my questions were external.
When you say that “you questioned why things were the way that they were,” can you speak to me about what you mean by that?
When I was growing up, sports media obviously looked a lot different than it does now. There were a lot of not-Black faces talking about a lot of Black faces. There were a lot of white male media members. And so you have those moments where you’re like, “Okay, well, this isn’t exactly what I look like. Is this a thing that I will be welcomed in?” I never questioned my ability. I questioned what space they made for others, and I would always have questions about the role that women could play in sports media.
I think that with any person – specifically women and people of color – the issues are rarely about whether you’re capable of the job. People don’t stop doing something because they don’t feel like they’re capable. People stop doing it because they think that others aren’t seeing them as capable. So it was always important to me to understand the difference between those two. I feel that at that time I was incredibly lucky and I was very blessed and I’m eternally thankful that there were people that saw what I was doing and gave me a chance.
I’ve always said that the first person who decided to give me a job was at the Big Ten Network, and his name is Quentin Carter. He’s the supervising producer there, and he’s Black. There were so many Black people that were working at the Big Ten Network, and that is because the person that was in charge of the hiring was somebody who also understood that diversity isn’t just something that you do because you say you’re doing it. You do it because it actually makes your organization better. I think about this all the time. If Quentin Carter was not at the Big Ten Network, my life certainly does not look like the way that it does now. That’s more so what I mean when I say there were things I was questioning, but myself was never one of those things.
Speaking of diversity, with you being one of the few Black female sportscasters, especially in football, do you ever feel any added pressure?
I don’t know if I would say that I feel pressure, but every day I do always feel that I have a responsibility. I feel the responsibility to try to nurture and mentor other young Black girls that want to do sports. I feel the responsibility that when I am going to be on camera, I never want to look like or sound like somebody that is not like you, if that makes sense. I want what I say to be aligned with Black people. I want them to understand and relate to what I’m saying. I want young Black girls that look like me to look on TV and see somebody that has braids or locs in her hair or is wearing her hair natural and say, “This is somebody that I know.” I want to always feel like that when I’m on TV. That’s the responsibility that I always feel like I have.
Throughout your career, you’ve spoken to some impressive people. What is your process like when preparing for an interview?
It’s a lot of scrolling on their social media. I will always Twitter search them too, because I want to know what fans and other media members think about this person. Then I go and look at every single interview that they do, not just because I want to hear what they’re saying, but I want to hear how they’re reacting to questions. What makes them talk a lot? What makes them talk a little? What is something that I heard them talk about, but they didn’t talk about a lot, but they clearly had more to say? It’s almost like a scattered report of how they interview so that can help me with the questions that I’m creating. I’ll watch all of those. I’ll read every article, then I will ask people that I know that may know that person, about that person, and bring it in.
I do that for two reasons. One, because it might lead to a question, but also because if I’m in an interview and I say, “Oh, and I spoke to X, Y, and Z,” and I don’t know the person I’m interviewing, but they hear that, they become more comfortable with me because they’re like, “She knows this person that I know.” It’s definitely an extensive process, I would say, but I just want to learn everything about them that I can because that allows me to ask better questions, and also understand why they answered a certain question a certain way.
People tend to be more transparent with you than they are with a lot of other interviews. Why do you think that is?
I think the reason people get really open when we do our interviews is that they can tell that I did my research and I really care about the thing that they have to say. I am really talking to them because I want to understand them. I’m not asking because I want to judge them or because I want a headline or a click. I say, “We have a full hour and nothing is going to be cut out. You can talk about exactly what you want, however you want.” It’s very important to me that the person feels heard. I think it starts with that in terms of why they want to open up. I also think that I’ll ask some things that they haven’t been asked or things that they want to talk about more, but they haven’t had the opportunity to. Sometimes when people do interviews, they almost get on autopilot because they’re being asked those same things over and over.
I had a producer when I first started who would say that athletes’ persona enters into the room before they do. And when she told me that, it changed how I interview because I realized when we think we know what an athlete is like, our questions just fit that narrative. So we’re not giving the athlete the opportunity to be anything other than what people already think that they are. I think that the best interviews come when they are showing you who they are. You’re deciding what you think about it, but they’re doing it in a way that is not confined by what already exists out there about them. I always try to give them the space as opposed to them fulfilling a narrative that I know already exists.
Also, congratulations on your return to Thursday Night Football.
Can you speak to me about your position as the feature reporter on the program?
Yes. Thursday Night Football is truly my dream job. Getting able to be a part of the NFL, but then also to be a part of the show, as well as the programming of a broadcast. When a Thursday night game is on, you know that everybody who likes football is watching that game, and you know how much it means to people. Whether it’s because you are a fantasy football player, whether it’s just because you love the game, whether it is that you love a player that’s on the field, it means a lot to people. So it’s really cool that we as a crew get to introduce people into that nice matchup, and it’s been really great.
I get to speak to one of the marquee players every week in my future interviews. I’m excited about our Week 1, but it’s the NFL’s Week 2. We have Vikings and Eagles, and Justin Jefferson is going to be my feature for that week – I’m really excited for people to see that one.
With this being your dream job, why didn’t you think you’d ever get a chance to do it?
I think that I have thought so much about being an interviewer and thinking that it was a standalone, and I’m happy to have been wrong about that. I wasn’t always thinking about features in the same way that I do interviews, because I’m used to having an hour or an hour and a half talking to somebody really in depth. Now, talking to a player for maybe 20 minutes for that airing, and then you’re going to have this full length version that you can watch later, it has been a challenge for me to talk about things in a shorter time. But I think that I have learned the art of it, I’m getting into the swing of it, but it just isn’t a thing that I thought I’d be doing as an interviewer, but I obviously love that I get to.
With everyday that you’ve done in your career, how do you want to be remembered as a journalist?
I’ve honestly been thinking a lot about this question because I get asked it and I feel like it’s so hard to really know what you want to be remembered as. I always say that I know how I want people to feel. I want people to feel like they had to watch my stuff and if they didn’t watch it, they were missing out. Like what people felt when they watched Oprah’s stuff.
Yes, I want to be remembered as a journalist, but I think I more so just want to be remembered as a personality. I want to be remembered as somebody who had real conversations with others, whether that is in sports, whether that’s in entertainment, whether that’s in arts, whether it’s in politics, whatever. I just want people to say, “When I wanted to really know what a person was like, I watched an interview that they did with Taylor Rooks.” That’s what I want people to think about, the body of the work. There was this interview that Denzel Washington once did on the red carpet, and somebody was like, “What are you most proud of in your career?” He said, “The career. I’m proud that I’m still right here, that I’m talking to you, that I did things that made me feel good, that were memorable. I am proud of the career.” And so that’s what I want. I want to be proud of just everything that I did, that all of it meant something to just the overall feeling that I want to bring out of others.