Charissa Thompson is taken aback at the mention of this being her eighth season as the host of Fox NFL Kickoff, where she spends an hour every Sunday morning breaking down the upcoming day of football with Michael Vick, Charles Woodson, Sean Payton, and Peter Schrager.
“I mean, it’s my longest relationship personally and professionally, so, yeah, I think that says a lot about how much I love Fox and I love the NFL — marriages fail, but my love for the show hasn’t,” Thompson said with a laugh, flashing the same self-deprecating humor she uses on set.
Getting to this point has been quite the journey for Thompson, who spent the early years of her career saying yes to any opportunity and figuring out the details on the fly. After starting in the business in HR at Fox Sports, she became a production assistant in Denver for Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain, where she got her first crack on-camera doing fill-in work on Colorado Rockies all-access shows. From there, she did everything from sidelines for college football and NFL games, to web videos for Yahoo covering everything from the Olympics to the World Cup, to hosting NHL coverage for Versus. Stints with ESPN and Extra were also stops along the way.
It was trial by fire for Thompson, who did something of a sports broadcasting speed run, gaining experience in reporting, studio hosting, short-form video, and just about everything in between. During one football season, she was on the road so much she didn’t bother having a house and kept everything in a storage unit. Saturdays and Sundays were spent doing sidelines, Mondays and Tuesdays were in studio for NHL, and Wednesdays and Thursdays were shooting video for Yahoo, all in different places.
That experience has made her appreciative of her slightly less chaotic schedule today, as she goes from Amazon’s Thursday Night Football desk to Fox NFL Kickoff on Sunday mornings. For someone who has felt, at times, like a “jack of all trades, master of none,” it’s been a nice change of pace to get a chance to fully immerse herself in the NFL world during the season without being pulled in too many different directions, something that’s required some personal growth to learn to say no in order to not spread herself too thin.
That entrenchment and comfort in her role has also led to her taking on more responsibility for Fox NFL Kickoff, while also doing the same as she starts something new with Thursday Night Football, recognizing that she is the TV veteran on set.
“I always try to look through a lens of what’s best for the team and that collective, but I do feel an ownership that it is my show and I say that only because it’s my responsibility to lead,” Thompson says. “There has been a turnover of the cast, and this isn’t the same group that I started with eight years ago, and almost every year, there’s been a new member of the team or someone else has left and things like that. So, with that turnover comes a responsibility on my end to be the constant and also a responsibility in leading guys — I mean, there’s some guys that come on that have, yes, their resumes are so extensive in the NFL, whether in coaching or playing, that have never done television, so, even something as simple as how to hold the microphone or when we’re going to break and things like that.
“So yes, it’s been a reminder to me that it is my job as the quarterback to make them all feel comfortable, but it’s also my job in the editorial sense, I have a lot more say,” she continues. “I used to be a little bit more passive in the construction of the show because I just defer to producers, and now I’m like nope, we’re not doing that.”
It’s been a noticeable shift for those she works with on Kickoff, as producer Jeremy Mennell pointed out how she’s taken more of a vocal role in show prep and the curation of the rundown and topics.
“Charissa, she’s always obviously been a star since she took over the show years ago, and I think what she’s been doing recently is just in establishing even more so as to why,” Mennell says. “She’s very involved all week and not just with us — I know the Thursday night stuff she’s doing, too — she still finds the time to make sure she’s checking in with me, checking in with Mike and Charles and coach Payton. And she’s really good at finding that perfect blend of getting the point across of what she wants to talk about, what the guy’s strong suits are, and then also the fan wants to hear. She has a very good and different perspective than the guys who just played football, and she’s a perfect middle ground to kind of mesh those things together. And this year, especially, she is being more vocal about it and being even more passionate and really taking pride and stepping up and being that leader on camera and behind the scenes.”
The most recent example of that came in Week 4 following the scary injury for Tua Tagovailoa on Thursday Night Football against the Bengals, when he was carted off with a concussion late in the second quarter. Thompson was on the halftime coverage for Amazon that faced criticism from some for not addressing Tagovailoa’s previous injury from that Sunday, when he was wobbly after a hit but returned to the game after being cleared through concussion protocol, citing a back injury as the reason he was unstable.
All of that was heard by Thompson, who explained why they handled it the way they did in the moment and noted it was something they would learn from moving forward, as well.
“I know that we received a lot of criticism, Amazon did collectively, in terms of coverage,” Thompson says. “I will stand by this: We did what we thought was right in that moment, which was it was just about the injured player. And all the other stuff as far as how we got there and stuff was going to be addressed, whether that was in halftime or whether that was in postgame, but the immediate thing was in remembering like, I’m on a desk with a guy that was teammates with Tua and friends with Tua in Ryan Fitzpatrick. And he was very emotional about what had just happened, as all these guys were. They all played the game and knowing and seeing someone in that state is that for us, it was just getting out the information, making sure that he was okay, and reacting as humans.
“Of course, you can say we could have done this better or we could have done that better, absolutely,” Thompson continues. “And, the same way that — I always make the sports analogies — if these guys in the film session on Monday go back and go, ‘Hey, we threw an interception here. We fumbled the ball here.’ We could have done a lot of things different or better, but that’s why for us, it comes back down to this as a new team, a new scheme, and we will be better next week. We never want to have to have that situation, but that’s not the reality of it. And ultimately, our responsibility was to deliver the news and make sure that he was okay, and that was done.”
The follow through on that came Sunday morning, as Thompson was able to lean on being on site on Thursday to use the A-block on Kickoff for a discussion about the issues with concussion protocols that allowed Tagovailoa to return against the Bills and then play on a short week against the Bengals, and how the NFL needs to proceed as they began looking into changes to the protocol.
The resulting conversation featured Payton discussing how coaches navigate concussion protocols, Woodson giving a passionate plea to both the league and players to be more careful in trying to rush back onto the field knowing what we know about how head injuries can impact players long-term, and Vick detailing how he had a similar situation when he was with the Eagles and how Andy Reid shut him down to protect him from himself trying to come back into a game. All three analysts provided their own experiences to explain how something like that can happen, how it can be fixed, and how the onus is on a number of parties to fix things going forward, which is where Kickoff is at its best and Thompson is always trying to get it to go.
Unlike Fox NFL Sunday, where the same group has been doing the show together for decades, the Kickoff and Thursday Night Football desks have much newer groups that are still be figuring out their on-set chemistry. This can also provide a fresh perspective given how much closer those on set are to their playing and coaching careers. For Thompson, her job is to set the analysts up to provide that unique insight of having played and coached against a number of players still starring in the league, because that’s where they can separate themselves from other shows.
“I couldn’t ask for a better person to know what does it feel like to be Lamar Jackson? Like, oh, I don’t know, it’s Michael Vick to my left,” Thompson says. “Or working with Charles Woodson, I mean, best to play the position in a passing league and ask how you cover these guys like Tyreek [Hill]. And so it is really cool to have access to the answers of my questions right next to me and, really, truly be able to take the audience inside that mindset or something that’s so close to the game.”
Sometimes it’s easy to find that connection. On Thursday nights, that means letting Richard Sherman rant after a Russell Wilson-led team throws instead of running in a short-yardage situation near the goal line, or Fitzpatrick break down an offense he ran just a few years ago. But it also is on Thompson to push deeper than basic questions to avoid getting cliches and coach speak from guys trained their whole lives not to give too much information away, and for her, it always comes back to one simple premise.
“I want it to always feel conversational, but I always say in the preparation for the show and whether it’s the rundown or construction of questions is, it’s not a good question if I can answer it,” Thompson says. “If I can answer the question, then I’m not asking the right one to the experts that I don’t know what their answer is going to be. So, I try to create and craft questions that elicits the best response that I’ll say, oh, wow, I didn’t know that. Oh, that’s interesting or that’s funny.”
That requires constant effort on her part to work with the analysts at the desk to find out want to talk about, how they like questions to be asked, and how to facilitate that conversation in the most efficient way possible, because a one-hour show to preview a full day of games really becomes half an hour or less after breaks, features, and interviews. This is where her past experience pays dividends, whether it’s knowing how to get the most out of a short segment from doing quick bite videos for Yahoo, or the directness required in sideline interviews to get to the heart of a question.
There’s also a confidence in herself that has grown over the years, a sense of belonging and comfort in who she is and being a woman in the sports media, with all the good and bad that come with it. Thompson notes 10 years ago, she would’ve spent time doing hair and makeup for our Zoom interview, ever aware of her presentation, but over time, she’s grown more comfortable.
“I think it’s just my own maturation of self and getting older, it’s kind of like, okay, I don’t need to try to impress as much — I think that I’ve been so open with who I am it’s sometimes a blessing and a curse,” Thompson says. “I think I’ve always had this fear of being a fraud, that I always want to overcompensate for that and be like, I’m an open book. I don’t pretend to be something I’m not. Being authentic is very important for me. Because I know when I watch people on TV, I can tell if they’re being authentic or not, or when they self deprecate, it makes me feel like I’ve broken that third wall. Like, I would want to hang with them, and if I’m watching someone that I want to hang with, I want someone to feel the same way about me. I also think that there’s been the stuff that’s happened to me that’s been made public when I got my phone hacked and I had certain things happen that you can’t help but be like well, okay, there it is.
“And so it’s like, when your most vulnerable situation has happened publicly,” she continues. “You can do one of two things. You either go, ‘Alright, well, that happened and I’m a great girlfriend so let’s move on,’ or you retreat and go the other way and then you crawl into a hole and never want to come out of it. And so, I think that I’ve always just leaned into finding a positive in a negative situation as opposed to letting the negative situation define me, and then I just go away and I avoid all criticism. I mean, that hacking happened a long time ago and I still get people all the time making comments about it, but I don’t care anymore. Because I know being a victim of something is not something that’s laughable, but I have to be able to walk into a room and bring some levity, no matter what the situation is.”
That 2018 hacking in which photos of her leaked online was a low point and left Thompson worried about her career, unsure what the response would be from her employers. What she found instead was unwavering support.
“I remember because my friend Erin Andrews was covering the NFC Championship game and they flew me to Philadelphia to be with her and to just be surrounded by people that I love — the Strahans, and the Jay Glazers, and Howie [Long], and Terry [Bradshaw] and like, literally flew me there to just be with them,” Thompson recalls. “Which still makes me emotional, because it’s like, who does that? It was like, ‘oh, you should have been fired,’ they did the complete opposite. And I was working at Extra at the time and they did the same thing where it was like, you’re a victim of something, we’re here to support you. How can you do that? And you never forget how you’re treated in the worst moments of your life and who’s doing that. So I am forever indebted to the response of my both of my employers in a time that they could have done the complete opposite and I know some other employers probably would’ve.”
The support helped Thompson emerge from that situation confident in herself and her standing in an industry that isn’t kind, particularly to women. As Thompson tells it, doors may open faster for women because there are fewer of them in sports media, but they also close faster, too, as they aren’t afforded as long “to be a guest in the house.” For Thompson, she learned that finding people upon whom she can lean and be vulnerable for support, advice, and knowledge was of the utmost importance. She recalls being asked to do hockey and having to learn the basics on the fly, but found willing teachers in some very capable hands, citing Sidney Crosby and Doc Emrick among those who would take the time to answer questions.
Now, she is far from a guest and has made herself at home, while still seeking out chances to learn more. Every new experience affords a chance to grow even further, with taking on halftime and postgame coverage for Amazon giving her that opportunity each week. But the lessons learned on her journey to this point have provided her with the confidence that she can navigate those situations and belongs in that chair. And now, she wants to pay it forward for the next woman that eventually takes that seat.
“When young women in this business ask for advice, I say do everything,” Thompson says. “Do everything that you can and I will never fault someone if they … there’s gonna come a time where someone takes my job. I hope it’s not tomorrow, but you have to understand there’s an ushering in of new people, and Melissa Stark’s career for example, it can come back. You don’t know when or where, but I’m trying to keep getting better even as I’ve been lucky enough to do this for a long time.”