Dianna Russini always wanted to be a sports broadcaster, so when she was 5 years old, she provided commentary for her older brother’s backyard games, delivered into a hairbrush. When she was a walk-on-turned-scholarship striker for George Mason’s soccer team, she presented fake news scenarios to her teammates during bus trips, and then asked how they felt when they missed that crucial penalty kick, or how they could have gotten into that off-field incident.
When she was still in school, Russini worked as a sideline reporter for Comcast SportsNet’s CAA basketball broadcasts. She also regularly drove her dying Ford Explorer from Fairfax to D.C. to serve as Verizon Center’s in-arena host during the 2004-’05 Wizards season.
And yet, when she graduated, Russini thought she needed to challenge herself, to get outside the world of sports and prove she could make it in news. So the Bronx native headed home, working as a Westchester County crime and general-assignment reporter for News12. She soon moved into the city, as a news reporter for NBC 4 New York.
About a year into her tenure, she was sent to help sports anchor Bruce Beck cover the closing of Shea Stadium in the fall of 2008. Fans were weeping. In at least some corners of the stadium, the mood was somber. But Russini couldn’t stop smiling.
“Bruce looked at me and said, ‘Get out of news,’ “ Russini said with a laugh last week, not long after she began working as a sports reporter and anchor for WRC in Washington. “That was the first time in probably 10 months I had smiled on camera. I felt so comfortable. That was the world I had lived in forever. News was a challenge for me, but sports was natural.”
So she took Beck’s advice and did what she always imagined she would. First came 18 months in Seattle, where she did sideline reporting for the Seahawks and anchored the Blazers’ pre- and post-game coverage for CSN Northwest. Then came a sports anchoring gig for NBC Connecticut, where events on the ground tossed her back into news, from the Sandy Hook shootings – which she covered for days – to the Boston Marathon bombings, which sent to her Massachusetts for a week.
While there, she convinced her bosses to let her cover a Bruins-Sabres game, the city’s first pro sporting event after the bombing. That game, and the crowd, and its already famous National Anthem, reinforced her career choice.
“I don’t want to do blood and murder,” she remembered thinking. “I want to do this. This is why I love sports.”
A few days later, she found out that NBC Washington wanted to talk to her about its long-vacant sports anchoring job, created when Lindsay Czarniak left the D.C. market for ESPN. Russini said her mind was made up within 10 seconds of entering the newsroom, and she started at the station in early June. She did so mindful of her immediate predecessor at WRC.
“I have gigantic shoes to fill in this place,” she said. “Not just because of what [Czarniak] did at WRC, but because of what she’s done for women in sports. I know I have my work cut out for me, to try to be as credible and as respected as she was.”
Which helps explain why Russini spent her first two off-days in Washington sitting in the stands at Nationals Park, trying to soak up a bit of the sports culture.
“The only way I can cover sports here the way I should is by trying to be like the people who live here,” she told me. “I want to feel what Nats fans are like, what they’re feeling. I’m in my sponge mode, and I feel like I’m playing catch-up. I’m sitting in a desk where George Michael sat. I’m sitting in the same chair. I need to act like every broadcast is the Super Bowl, because of the people who sat in that chair.”