In 1994, radio and TV sports personality Jim Rome's meteoric rise to fame came to a screeching halt. Rome, then hosting a sports-interview show on recently launched ESPN2, found his name splattered across every sports section and tabloid in the country after a run-in with an NFL quarterback who had heard enough of his infamous "smack."
"I was Tonya Harding, not for 15 minutes but for two weeks, and all of America was pounding on me," says Rome, who now hosts FOX Sports Net's The Last Word With Jim Rome. "There wasn't a newspaper column that didn't say I was the downfall of journalism."
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jim Everett, whom Rome had been calling "Chrissie" Everett-after the female tennis player-because of his questioned toughness on the field, snapped on the set of ESPN2's Talk2.
After Rome taunted Everett to his face on the show with chants of "Chrissie," Everett turned over the table separating the two men and went after Rome in front of the cameras. The footage of Rome being slammed down from his side of the table became the slow-speed O.J. Simpson car chase of the month. Many critics said Rome got what he deserved, while others wondered if the attack were nothing more than a publicity stunt à la WWF or professional boxing.
"It was absolutely real," Rome attests. "Do you think in a million years that I would have consented to something like that? It absolutely was not for ratings. It was not set up. Everett and I had a relationship that was not a very good one."
Rome says he had told Everett before taping the show that he was going to call him Chrissie and that the former quarterback agreed to the interview anyway.
Afterward, bad press was the only kind he got. In fact, he used a Los Angeles Times article, with the headline "The Fall of the Roman Empire," as motivation to redeem a radio-television career that had started in the early 1980s when he was attending the University of California at Santa Barbara.
"I had a bad night at work, I stepped over the line," Rome now admits. "But it was just one bad night. I didn't think it was right that my entire career, a solid body of work, was going to be based on one bad night of work.
"So I thought, Pound me while you can, kick me while I'm down, because I'm going to come back and I'm not going to let someone tell me what I can and cannot do in my career.'"
Nearly six years later, Rome is back on top of his game. The Southern California native now hosts the most popular radio sports talk show in the country, has his own national TV show on FOX Sports Net, and makes monthly speaking engagements all over the nation.
Rome's three-hour daily syndicated radio program, The Jim Rome Show (Premiere Radio Networks), is currently carried in over 140 national markets, and his cable TV series, The Last Word, is shown twice a day nationally. His name has been rumored for various TV positions of late, including the Monday Night Football announcing booth.
Rome's contract with FOX Sports is up at the end of the year, and sources believe he's currently negotiating a new, long-term deal there.
The Last Word, a Crossfire-like nightly talk show, started in 1997, co-hosted by Rome in Los Angeles and New York Daily News sportswriter Wallace Matthews in New York. The format featured Matthews, Rome and guests battling back and forth on the day's hottest sports topics, but the format didn't work until Rome got the show solo in 1998. Since then, The Last Word has become the Nightline of the sports world. Star athletes are still commonplace on the show, but The Last Word is now taking on topics such as gambling by college officials and racism in sports.
"I think if there is a topical issue that everybody is talking about or thinking about, viewers know that we are going to be dealing with it on the show," Rome says. "If it's John Rocker or the Confederate flag, we'll be talking about it. I do the radio program in the morning before the TV gig, so I know what people are talking about."
Listeners and viewers steal terms from his "Glossary." The New York Knicks are The Bricks; Andre Agassi is Andre the Client. "Smack'' is conversation. And anything and everything is open for discussion on either of Rome's shows, including the theft of a bald eagle from a local California zoo. Rome spent a good 10 minutes talking about the disappearance of the bird on a show two weeks ago.
"I talk sports all day long; I spend all my time thinking about sports and researching sports," he says. "But there is a whole world out there, and, every once in a while, something will strike me as peculiar. The fact that someone went into the Santa Barbara Zoo and bagged a bald eagle, struck me as something very, very strange.''
Rome, 35, says he can't see himself hosting both the radio and TV shows each day for too long. He says a straight entertainment, not all-sports, interview show at a broadcast or cable network is on his mind. "If someone from the [Fox] network would come down the hall and offer me a late-night talk show or a series like When Animals Attack, that would be great. Maybe get me on a Robbie Knievel jump show-that would be cool, too."