“A first-ballot inductee into the I-Can’t-Believe-I-Ever-Lived-Without-This Hall of Fame,” was how SI’s Phil Taylor once described it.
When I talked to Hanson last week as he prepared for a preseason RedZone dress rehearsal, he came across much like he does on screen, filled with intensity and exclamation marks and amazement over just how great his product is and how fun his job is.
“Dude, I get fired up about it!” Hanson told me, describing how people stop him on the street to gush about his show. “Heck yeah that gets you fired up, man! I mean, I’m an excitable guy to begin with. But to know that people have really invested in something you’re working on? It’s a thrill.”
If you’re from the D.C. area, you might also remember Hanson as a reporter and anchor at Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, where he worked for four years, covering, among other things, the Nats’ first season in D.C. Prior to joining NFL Network, this was his longest career stop.
What you probably don’t know is what happened to Hanson in the year or so between leaving CSN and re-emerging with a national platform at NFL Network: He took a sabbatical of personal discovery that led him to sell his Georgetown condo, pack all his immediate possessions in his car, visit around 30 states, travel to Africa, and stay in a group house while working with the homeless in Southern California. It wasn’t, I’m pretty sure, a typical mid-career sports broadcasting step.
“I was burned out,” Hanson told me during a recent phone conversation. “I was totally burned out. I love sports, I LOVE football, but it’s not life. Life is a lot bigger. It’s a great aspect of life; but it’s not life. I’ve been blessed with a lot in my life, and I wanted to help bless other people.”
Now, Hanson didn’t call me to talk about any of this. He called this because he was working a fantasy football corporate event for the NFL, and a league PR person asked if I’d like to interview him about RedZone. I’m not even quite sure how we started talking about Thoreau and Hemingway and St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis instead of, say, Arian Foster’s hamstring. But I’ve talked to plenty of football people about football before, and very few about leaving a weekend sports anchoring job in the midst of a metaphysical crisis.
See, back in the late ‘90s, when Hanson worked at the NBC affiliate in Springfield, Illinois, he would arrive at work at 10 in the morning and stay until 3 a.m., all to prepare for his two-minute newscast. He would watch his clips over and over, trying to become “the next Bob Costas.” He called himself “a broadcasting machine,” and was sure he would soon be a network star. And then?
“It just unraveled,” Hanson told me. “I found myself in an empty, broken place, and I turned to God....People thought I went crazy, and maybe I did.”
This led to Hanson’s first sabbatical, when he thought he might leave the world of sports television entirely and possibly join the clergy, even as his friends told him he was committing professional suicide. Among his pursuits during that time away was a stint with Missionaries of Charity, the aid group founded by Mother Teresa, whose brothers and sisters take vows of poverty.
Hanson said he lived with them in a downtown Los Angeles home, tending to quadriplegics who came in off the street, eating donated food and staying in a room the size of a fancy hotel closet. After an extensive bit of soul-searching and prayer, he eventually decided to re-enter the world of sports broadcasting, fully aware that “nobody hires someone who’s been serving spaghetti to the poor, that’s not what television executives are looking for.”
But he landed a job as a weekend guy in Tampa, went from there to CSN in Philly, and from there to the D.C.-area Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic. After his contract expired in Bethesda, it was time for another break. This time he visited all the babies whose births he had missed to work nights and weekends, all the couples whose weddings he hadn’t experienced. He went to Mauritania — “did a little Dave Chappelle thing” — and was back with the Missionaries of Charity in L.A. when a friend asked him to work a Redskins-Cowboys game at FedEx Field.
So after he explained the situation to “Brother Bob,” Hanson flew back to D.C., and soon began working as a regular freelancer for NFL Network. That led to full-time work, which led to an audition for the RedZone gig; he’s now set to enter his third year as a hero to fantasy football players everywhere.
But he still make nods to his other life; Hanson worked at a school for impoverished children in Nairobi this summer, for example. While in Africa, he also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, which goes along with those times he ran with the bulls in Spain, swam in the Amazon and went shark-cage diving – “the normal, calm stuff you’d expect an NFL RedZone host to do,” as he put it.
And yet, Thoreau, I suggested at some point, might be a bit turned off by Hanson’s day job, by the explosion of NFL stats and triple-screen action fed into the maw of a fantasy football gambling monster.
“You know, I’ve never thought about it that way, other than I know I’m a person who is prone to extremes. Whatever I do, I do it 100 percent,” Hanson told me. “Thoreau wrote, ultimately, to make his money. I talk about football to make my money, but it’s not my life. I love it, and I give everything to it when I’m doing it, but it’s not my life.”