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Interview: ESPN’s Laura Rutledge discusses headbutts, “Homegating,” and Kyle Trask for Heisman

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Baby in tow and pandemic raging, the multi-talented Florida alumna continues her rise,

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 13 CFP National Championship - LSU v Clemson Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Laura Rutledge has become a star and stalwart at ESPN over the course of the last several years, rising from sideline reporter to SEC Network host to fixture on a variety of ESPN platforms. And we’ve been keeping up and keeping in touch with her, speaking with her in 2018 and 2019 — the latter chat as she was balancing pregnancy with an impending college football season.

Now her daughter Reese is in the world, presenting another complication — and hazard, it turns out — for one of the most-watched people in sports media. Alligator Army contributor Ashley Kummer caught up with Laura last week to chat about headbutts, “Homegating” in a pandemic — and, yeah, that Florida quarterback who looks like the Heisman front-runner.

Since we last spoke, quite a bit has obviously changed. Currently, you’re not only hosting SEC Nation, but have also added NFL coverage into the mix with NFL Live, and you’ve appeared on The Paul Finebaum Show, Get Up!, and SportsCenter amongst others over the last few years. What would you say has been the biggest adjustment for you and your somewhat-fixated broadcast schedule?

It’s funny you use the word “fixated” because I think that’s something that had never been a part of my life up until this point. It’s just almost being a product of everything that’s happened with the worldwide pandemic — adjusting the way that work is done, us now making the move to Connecticut and being here every day, and going into an actual studio every single day instead of reporting remotely and hosting shows remotely — this all has been a change that I never even really considered. I was so used to living out of a suitcase — I mean, I wouldn’t even unpack my suitcase when I would go home. I wouldn’t unpack my toiletries! I would just add a different outfit and take something else out!

So now, I’ve unpacked my bags and I’m here and it’s great to have that routine, especially with baby Reese in the mix. Being able to see her every day has been such a blessing that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, so I’m very thankful for that.

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been absolutely loving all your baby Reese content on Instagram. How is mom life treating you?! How are you balancing everything?

I’ll be totally honest, some days are better than others. Some days, I feel like I’m failing at both or failing at one, and then sometimes I’m like, “Oh, I’m actually nailing it.” (Those days are few and far in between to be totally honest.)

But for me, it’s just been a great realization of focusing on where my feet are in that current moment: Trying to be as present with Reese as I can when I’m at home even though there are a lot of pieces of my job that happen while I’m at home because of working some remotely, and then when I’m at work, I’m fully focused on work, but also will give myself moments to look at pictures that my husband Josh sends from home.

I really think that trying to be as focused on what I’m doing at any given moment helps me be better at all of those things, but I also spend a lot of time sort of frazzled.

A couple nights ago, Reese accidentally headbutted me in the eye and I thought “I am going to show up to work with a black eye!” Thank goodness it didn’t actually bruise, but it was kind of swollen and I thought “people are going to wonder what’s wrong with me,” but anyway, I don’t think she meant anything by it, although I haven’t necessarily checked in with her on that. Maybe she did actually mean to do it on purpose. You never know!

Take me through what your typical week looks like now. What goes on day-to-day?

So every single day, I host NFL Live at 4 p.m. on ESPN and my day starts — well, my day starts when baby Reese wakes up, which is very early, like 6:30 — but my work day starts a little bit before 10. We start going through some ideas for the show — and we’re always texting throughout the days and nights with our group text of the crew on the show and our producer Mark Eiseman, kinda just collaborating all the time and thinking of ideas.

Then we get on a meeting at 10 a.m. which is a Zoom call — which everyone is very familiar with at this point — then we have a few other meetings leading up to our big 1:30 ESPN meeting which is right around the time I get on to ESPN campus, and then throughout that, I’m writing the show and getting everything ready for the show. Then we go live at 4, and then at 5 we have a post-show meeting to talk about what we need to do different and how we can be better — things we liked and didn’t like — and then depending on the day, sometimes I’m writing pieces in addition to that, because that’s something that is important to me — kind of exercising that muscle and writing as much as I can.

And then throughout the week, I’m also preparing for SEC Nation on Saturday, so depending on the day of the week, I’ll have some extra meetings around that and some extra writing and getting things ready to go for that show, which then really dials in on Friday nights. Then Saturday morning, I get to talk about college football and by the time noon Saturday hits, I’m usually kind of a vegetable, but then I rally to watch the games and enjoy my college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays.

What would you say the biggest difference is in prepping for NFL coverage during the week and then switching gears to college coverage on the weekends?

Because the NFL show is daily, there is a little more continuity every single day. It’s kind of like we approach each day differently, but also have some of the same things and same themes throughout the week, so you feel like you’re sort of in that mode. I will say, transitioning from being totally in the NFL world to immersing myself totally into college football is sometimes difficult to do, so I kind of try to keep my toe in college football throughout the week while staying real focused on the NFL, but always being aware of what is going on in college football so I’m not trying to figure all that out on Saturday morning.

The NFL sometimes has more of a serious tone based on certain things, and with college football, you just always have to remember that these guys are amateurs and as we stand right now, they’re not being paid for what they’re doing, so I always try to keep that in mind in the way that we speak about the young men in college football as opposed to the NFL.

So obviously this season has been crazy for both NFL and college football in terms of everything going on amidst the pandemic, but outside the obvious decrease in stadium capacities, what would you say the biggest difference in this season is compared to seasons past?

I think the toughest part and the biggest difference has been dealing with the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, and seeing many players and coaches test positive. I think it’s also important to point out that through all of that, there has been a lot of success in the way that the teams and universities have approached caring for their student athletes and making sure they’re staying safe and healthy, and taking the proper protocol in order to limit the spread of this virus.

But yet, we’re still seeing postponements—we’ve seen it happen at the NFL level, and we’ve seen it happen at the college level. Just trying to navigate through all that as a fan of both sports, there’s some days that have felt like a lot of doom and gloom, and have felt like ‘how are we going to carry on?’ Yet we’re finding ways to, and I think that part has been so unique and challenging, and will be so memorable for years to come.

I really am impressed by so many who are working so hard to make this as safe as possible for these players and these coaches.

How do you think fans at home can best make 2020 still feel like a normal football season?

I mean, I think that’s where Homegating comes into play! We think about the way that we’ve always tailgated and that’s just not realistic this year, so here’s an opportunity to show what you’re made of, especially as an SEC fan. Johnsonville (the official sausage of the SEC) actually has an incredible contest for this (the SEC Homegate Pro contest) where you can enter so easily — I really cannot wait to see what people are working with when it comes to their elaborate Homegate set-up.

All you have to do is get your set-up going — make it as epic as you want because that’s going to give you an advantage, I’ll go ahead and give you that hint — post a photo or video of your challenge on Instagram or Twitter, use the hashtag #SECHomegateProContest, make sure you tag Johnsonville, and just get as wild and crazy as you want! I think that in a time where things are so difficult for a lot of people, and we’re so aware of that, this is just a great chance to not only win $10,000 if you win the grand prize, but also just to participate in something fun and show how you’re still celebrating.

That being said, what does the ultimate Homegating set-up look like for Gator fans?

I mean, you need to have a lot of orange and blue, right? You might want to get some actual gators — not, like, real gators, but, like, blow-up gators!

Wait, so you’re saying don’t go get a six-foot gator out of Lake Alice?

You know what, just go wrangle yourself an alligator! (Laughs) No, don’t do that! Maybe some inflatable gators — get Albert and get Alberta out there!

Really just bring it with your Homegate spirit, and then bring some great Johnsonville sausages out there! Put those things on the grill — they taste amazing. I really emphasize to get the grill going because that’s where you can really show your skills as a Homegate Pro, right?

Listen, if you want to throw a chandelier in there, if you want to throw some table cloths, do you! I think that as intense as you can get, and then in your photo and video, you should wear your Gator stuff and be all decked out and be really celebrating as if you were at the game or at a tailgate at the stadium like you normally would be.

So when we last chatted, Dan Mullen had literally just gotten to The Swamp and made his debut as head coach. You said he had brought a new energy to the program, and it absolutely still holds true even years later. This said, give me a quick rundown of how you envision the remainder of the season shaking out for the Gators.

I think Florida is in a really great spot. I’m so happy for Dan Mullen and the job that he’s done. The thing with Florida is that we knew the offense was going to be great. They’ve weathered dealing with their own COVID situation, and after coming out strong from that, beating Georgia, and showing defensive improvement which, I think, that’s the biggest key because that was a question mark early on in the season against Texas A&M and all of that.

Now, listen: You win out, you get to the SEC Championship — which they’ve gotta take care of business up and to that point — but let’s say they get to the SEC Championship. I think that they are in position to be very competitive with Alabama. Make no mistake about it, Alabama is deservedly the top team in the country and will present a challenge to any team that they face, but Florida can go toe-to-toe offensively. You’re looking at an Alabama offense who would definitely put some pressure on Florida’s defense, but that’s where it’s going to come down to, right? At that point, depending on what else has happened in college football — which, who knows what could happen this year because you really never know.

Even a Florida team that loses by a really close margin in the SEC Championship game — you never know, they might still be squarely in consideration for the playoffs, and if they beat Alabama, I don’t know if there’s any way that they can be left out of the playoff if they’ve won out until that point.

Last question—because I feel like our readers will kill me if I don’t ask—back in May, you predicted that Justin Fields would be this season’s Heisman winner. Are those still your thoughts or have they shifted at all?

Oh, no, they have shifted. I have to give myself a little bit a leeway there because back in May, who could have imagined where we are now?!

Listen, Kyle Trask is, in my opinion, the Heisman leader. I think that the way Florida’s offense is run, and the way that Dan Mullen calls plays and isn’t afraid to — shall we say, run up the score — is going to make Kyle Trask’s numbers so ridiculous by the end of the season. They already are, but I’m talking even further down the road when the Heisman is decided. I just don’t know if there’s any way he’s not in New York. He’s gotta stay healthy and stay on track, and I hope for him that he can because what an incredible story. It’s such a great testament to him sticking around and saying “Look, I’m going to wait my turn” and have that chance.

It is interesting though, because Mac Jones, who doesn’t necessarily have the same type numbers — still has great numbers, but not the same type as Kyle Trask — I think he’s sneakily having an equal season. It’s not that he’s better than Trask necessarily all the time, but I wouldn’t count him out by any means either. I think they’ll end up being a little neck-in-neck toward the end, but, I think Trask has squarely put himself right at the top of the list.

And I love to see it.