Next stop ‘SportsCenter’ for Aquinas grad

Lisa Kerney has come a long way since her childhood in Kansas City. These days, she’s an anchor on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
Lisa Kerney has come a long way since her childhood in Kansas City. These days, she’s an anchor on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” ESPN Images

Long before becoming a “SportsCenter” anchor and marrying a former NFL All-Pro defensive end, Lisa Kerney was just a girl from Kansas City with an unusual childhood passion.

Her favorite hobby growing up in Leawood involved “brushing up” on interviewing skills with her four siblings.

“I used to always take a hairbrush or a Popsicle, and we would videotape each other,” said Kerney, a 2000 St. Thomas Aquinas graduate whose maiden name is Gangel.

“I would always be the one asking interview questions. This is when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I was interviewing my siblings about made-up sports games in the backyard or the driveway. No one else was in charge of the microphone. It was always me.”

Kerney, who anchors “SportsCenter at Night,” has been at ESPN now for 3  1/2 years, and is officially in charge of the microphone. She juggles her hectic career with the demands of motherhood: She has four children ages 5 and younger.

She gives her husband, Patrick Kerney — a 1999 Falcons first-round draft pick from the University of Virginia, who now works as an investment manager primarily for NFL players — full credit for allowing her to balance her personal and professional dreams.

“I owe all of what I get to do every day to my husband,” Kerney said. “He is the most incredibly supportive teammate, best friend and partner there ever was. … He helps fully take care of all my little peanuts, so mama can work and follow her passion and not have to worry for a second. I could not do any of this without him.”

And her parents, siblings and extended family in Kansas City have always been her support system — and cheering squad.

Barbara Gangel, her mother, remembers Kerney interviewing her younger sister Angie’s friend during an icy afternoon after she’d pretended to be a famous Olympic ice skater.

“Any sport you could think of, she would get them to pretend they were doing and she would interview them on it,” Gangel said. “But I never thought that would turn into a career. I really didn’t.”

Kerney knew.

“I’m that lucky kid that knew from the time I was teeny tiny what I wanted to do,” she said. “Somehow, it worked out. To have other people think that I’m not too shabby at it is really a huge blessing, and I’ve really been incredibly fortunate to get to do what I love to do.”

Kerney has crisscrossed the country for her career, but her parents are grateful she’s only a five-second satellite delay away most nights.

“We miss having her around here, but we’re fortunate that we can turn the TV on and see her,” Gangel said.

Her father, Lou Gangel, added, “It’s actually pretty exciting. We’ve got a lot of friends and she’s got a lot of friends who have known her from high school and college. We talked to them from time to time and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I saw Lisa on TV.’ It makes you proud, because she’s done so well.”

It wasn’t a straight line from Kansas City to “SportsCenter” — and many sports anchors’ dream job.

Kerney, 35, interned at Metro Sports in 2003 and made her first professional stop a year later at KXLF-TV in Butte, Mont., part of the No. 185 U.S. television market along with Bozeman, Mont.

“I drove her to her first job in Butte,” Barbara Gangel said. “You know how you have to start out small. We come around the mountain and see this little town lit up and are like, ‘Oh, geez.’ We pulled up to the TV station and the director came out and said, ‘Lisa, I am so glad you’re here.’ 

Kerney — who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., in 2004 — needed to go on air immediately, because the sports director was trapped by a winter snowstorm.

Kerney popped her trunk and selected an outfit for the evening’s broadcast.

“I went back to the hotel room, and I’m just nervous as all get-out,” her mother said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope she doesn’t flub it,’ but she comes on, and I was in shock.”

Naturally, Kerney shined — “I guess she did go to school for it,” Barbara Gangel said with a laugh — and has continued shining ever since.

After a year in Montana, Kerney moved on to KING-TV in Seattle, where she met then-Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney in 2007.

When he was accepted into Columbia Business School’s MBA program three years later, the Kerneys moved east and she landed at the MLB Network for 14 months before making the jump to WCBS-TV in New York.

“The first time Bob Costas was doing a game and tossed it to the studio to me … I had that moment where I was like, ‘Gasp, Bob Costas said my name,’ ” Kerney said.

Two years later, in February 2014, Kerney, who also grew up admiring former “SportsCenter” and current “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, joined ESPN.

It was another gasp-worthy moment.

“When I officially took the job and started telling people I was going to be on ‘SportsCenter,’ it was hard for me to say,” Kerney said. “I was like, ‘Am I really anchoring “SportsCenter?” I know that’s what I signed up for, but do I really get to go do that?’ It sounded so weird out of my mouth when I would say it.”

Kerney says she now feels considerably more settled.

“I’m not pinching myself anymore, because I’ve got blinders on and am so focused on improving and getting better,” she said.

Recent layoffs at ESPN made for a rough spring, but Kerney was among those spared.

“I’ve never gone through anything like it in my entire career,” she said. “… So many friends and colleagues put so many years and their heart and soul into the job. To have it all gone in a day is incredibly sad, but I see it as an opportunity to go out there and try to make them proud.”

Along the way, Kerney’s role on “SportsCenter” also helped her settle into motherhood.

“I love the rush of being on live TV and being in the moment, breaking highlights and getting to react with the fans,” Kerney said. “... Sometimes, it’s a little chaotic and crazy, but, at the same time, that chaos and craziness seems normal to me and settles me a little bit.”

Kerney jokes she’ll have time to sleep and socialize in another life, but her schedule — working late nights and getting up early with the couple’s four children, with one set of twins — is no laughing matter.

She and Patrick live in Connecticut with three daughters and a son.

“People think we’re absolutely nuts,” she said of having children so close in age, “but you put one foot in front of another and do it with a smile and a lot of love. It is the most rewarding experience you could ever have.”

Except when it’s time to change diapers.

“I call it the ‘24 Change,’ ” Kerney said, noting that 24 pays homage to Jeff Gordon after she was embedded with his pit crew during a race weekend in Charlotte through NASCAR’s immersion program. “I’m a bit of a NASCAR fan, and we do it as fast as we can, like a pit stop.”

Interviewing wasn’t Kerney’s only childhood passion.

She credits her sports-loving parents — her mother was a competitive youth swimmer and runs marathons, and her father played basketball at Rockhurst University — for nurturing a love of athletics.

Lou Gangel used to tie his daughter’s right hand behind her back and put her through drills in the driveway to develop her left hand.

Kerney also could frequently be seen bounding down the streets of her neighborhood in moon shoes, dribbling with only her left hand on 2-mile runs.

“Our neighbors probably had to think, ‘This chick is nuts,’ ” Kerney said. “It’s funny to think about that now.”

Despite the travels and the success, Kerney still considers Kansas City home.

“All my cousins, my sisters, my brother, my parents — everybody is still there, so Kansas City is definitely still home for me,” she said.

She is the middle child of five Gangel kids with two older sisters, Jennifer and Jacque, along with younger sister Angie and younger brother Bobby.

Some of Kerney’s earliest memories involve her paternal grandfather, also named Lou Gangel, stacking TVs atop one another, so he wouldn’t miss any action on NFL Sundays or during baseball season.

“When he was retired, he was a big Chicago Cubs fan, and he’d have a couple TVs set up where he could watch multiple games,” Kerney’s father said. “I don’t know why that made such an impression, but Lisa has talked about that before. I guess she just thought it was kind of cool.”

Kerney played basketball and won two state championships in soccer at Aquinas before playing two seasons with the Northern Colorado women’s basketball team.

She transferred after her sophomore season and finished her career at Division II Lynn, where she was a captain for the Fighting Knights and earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications.

Kerney’s uncle, Paul McGannon, was an assistant trainer for the 1985 Royals during the franchise’s first World Series championship season.

When the Royals won the World Series in 2015, Kerney was filled with pride from 1,300 miles away.

“I was so jealous because my whole family went to the parade,” she said. “They were reporting to me that there were cars eight deep on I-35 and saying, ‘You’re not gonna believe it.’ I was really jealous, but also super proud of my town.”

Kerney hopes folks in Kansas City are every bit as proud of her.

“Success to me would be flipping the switch on the Plaza lights at Thanksgiving,” she said with a laugh. “If I put it out in the universe, maybe one day Kansas City will ask me and I’ll get to come back and flip the switch. Then, I’ll know that I made it.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer