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Willie Colon Fits Into Media Roles He Never Expected

“Evan and Babs already had a fanbase. They were already established in the radio world. People know them. A lot of celebrities and entertainers are well aware of who they are.”

Derek Futterman

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The careers of professional athletes are finite in that there is only so much the human body can withstand until time eventually expires. Some athletes are given the fortune of being able to choose when to retire, but for others, injuries and other internal and external factors often play a hand in the decision. For former offensive guard Willie Colon, his career ended after his age-32 season due to a sprained MCL that landed him on injured reserve, limiting him to just six games.

Before suffering the knee injury as a member of the New York Jets, Colon was playing for the team that drafted him – the Pittsburgh Steelers – where he put together productive seasons but battled through other ailments. Those included a torn Achilles prior to the start of the 2010 season and a torn triceps muscle in his first game returning to action in 2011, meaning he only played one game in two years.

Colon, who was born in the Bronx, N.Y., experienced various highs and lows throughout his decade-long stint in the National Football League. Broadcasting was not initially in the playbook for Colon, as he had never collected experience in the field nor did he think he would be forced to officially hang up his spikes in 2017.

As an interdisciplinary studies major at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Colon split his time between attending classes and playing on a scholarship on the school’s now-defunct football team. During his final injury as a professional athlete, Colon contributed to local sports coverage on SportsNet New York, a regional sports network in the New York metropolitan area. While he was not earnest about working in sports media, his wife persuaded him to take broadcasting more seriously once retirement became a legitimate possibility.

“I was still very bitter about how I left the field. If it was up to me, I’d still be playing but my knees had other plans if you will so I was forced to walk away from the game,” Colon said. “Nevertheless, I was meeting a lot of important and successful people in media who… kind of put that battery in my back and it was like ‘Hey man, if you just start working at it, start doing things, be willing to do spots, be willing to dive into the business, you can make a career out of this.’”

Colon got his start in the business in San Francisco, when he and Julie Stewart-Binks auditioned to appear on Fox Sports’ network programming alongside Jason Whitlock. Neither Colon nor Stewart-Binks received the role and both returned to New York City to progress in their careers and pursue other opportunities. During his early days in sports media, Colon appeared on 98.7 ESPN New York, a traditional sports talk radio station, to discuss football and other sports throughout the day, and also did live hits for other west coast stations.

After some time had passed, Stewart-Binks called Colon to tell him about her new job with Barstool Sports, a digital media company with content spanning both the worlds of sports and entertainment, and persuaded him to audition to join. While he had no prior knowledge about the company, he felt joining a digital media platform would give him the ability to be more authentic with his audience.

“I had never heard of it,” Colon said. “For me, it just sounded like an opportunity for me to kind of be more ‘me,’ because when you’re doing ESPN, you’re doing more traditional radio [and are] kind of boxed in. Yeah, you can have a personality, but there’s only so far you can go with your commentary or what you want to say or how you want to go about things.”

Following an audition that took place with Stewart-Binks and Francis Ellis, Barstool Sports President Dave Portnoy extended an offer to Colon to join the brand. By mid-January 2018, Colon was officially added on a brand new morning show called Barstool Breakfast, airing across Barstool Media’s broadcast platforms and SiriusXM Channel 85.

Colon took a leap of faith joining Barstool Sports and was a fixture on the morning show during the three years it was on the air, along with show producer Kevin Rafferty (“Wayne Jetski”) and newer co-hosts Patrick McAuliffe (“Pat”), Michael McCarthy (“Large”) and Peterson Zaha (“Zah”). In fact, signing on with the brand was something that people around him were not completely sold on, questioning its premise and the overall prudence of the decision.

“I just jumped at the chance,” Colon said. “It came with a warning label. A lot of people who knew Barstool and how Barstool went about its business were telling me to approach with caution…. We had a really, really good nucleus of fun, in-your-face [and] opinionated [talk] – and it was just great all-around and I loved it.”

While he was a member of Barstool Sports, Colon and McCarthy shared a close relationship based on the similarities in their backgrounds. They are both natives of New York City born in the Bronx who went to Catholic high schools and consider family among their core values. The chemistry Colon was able to kindle with McCarthy on the air enhanced the sound of the show and made it more relatable and casual for listeners, especially those aligned with the company’s target demographics.

“One of the greatest compliments I got working with ‘Large’ on Barstool Breakfast was ‘Every time we listen to you guys, we feel like we’re tapping into a conversation between two best friends,’” Colon said, “and it felt like that, honestly. We had our ups and downs, and we went through things together, but I honestly believe we had each other’s backs.”

Joining Barstool was indicative of a liberating feeling for Colon in terms of topic selection, as he escaped to a form of aural content creation and dissemination free of Federal Communications Commission regulation. During the time he was on traditional radio, Colon was cognizant of the effects his words could have on the station and made sure to carefully express his opinions on certain topics.

“You can have a personality, you just can’t piss off the sponsors,” Colon expressed. “There’s people who are paying the bills. Disney… owns ESPN, so you have to walk a fine line. They want you to cut onions, but they also don’t want you to go to the point where you’ll jeopardize any sponsorships or say anything that’s really going to stir up some stuff.”

While with Barstool Sports, Colon participated in a variety of podcasts, some of which were focused on football and sports while others were more centered around commentary centered around larger cultural issues. He left the company in 2021 and eventually signed on with SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio to join a bonafide duo in Evan Cohen and Mike Babchik on Morning Men. Since his start on the show in September 2021, Colon has sought to seamlessly slot in as a co-host without disrupting the previous chemistry between veterans Cohen and Babchik.

“Evan and Babs already had a fanbase. They were already established in the radio world. People know them. A lot of celebrities and entertainers are well aware of who they are,” Colon said. “Me getting the nod to be a part of their show, I was only apprehensive because it wasn’t a matter of ‘How do I fit in?’, it was a matter of ‘Do I fit in to where I don’t want to hold these guys back?’ because they had so many things going on for themselves.”

Cohen is a traditionalist who is more erudite in nature with profound sports knowledge and the ability to rapidly perform calculated analyses to formulate a cohesive opinion. Conversely, Babchik is, according to Colon, a “sex, drums, rock ‘n’ roll” type of personality with a great sense of humor and high level of showmanship he brings to the air each show. Finding the medium to which Colon could slot in and avoid disrupting the engrossing divergence imbued within the show was essential for his assimilation and the program’s sustained success.

“If anything, my mindset was like, ‘Alright, I’m the jock/dude. I’m a man’s man, I’m a guy’s guy,’” Colon said. “That’s pretty much my angle. I’m obviously a former Super Bowl champion [who] played for two great organizations, but I’m a man’s man… and I’m a family man. I have two children now and I’m married. I’m the all-American male, if you will, on top of being a guy who had a hell of a career in the NFL.”

A common criticism of some former athletes beginning careers in sports media is in their inability to relate to the average fan, sometimes disclosing esoteric knowledge not understandable to consumers. Having played professional sports and expressing one’s opinions on such topics usually heightens the credibility of a program or media outlet though, and it is an asset Colon brought to Morning Men that was previously absent from the show.

The challenge for a preponderance of newer sports media personalities is in being able to relate to an audience composed of a broad range of listeners with varying levels of investment in the program. For Colon though, playing professional sports has given him the confidence and determination to adapt under pressure in the number one media market in the country.

“I think what sports has done for me is [being able] to be fearless in the moment,” he said. “When you’re on-air and when you’re in front of the camera, there’s a big sense of vulnerability because once you open your mouth, you’re telling people who you are. I try to be conscious of that and not try to be somewhat bullish in my approach.”

One particular criticism that has come from some sectors of listeners of the show is Colon’s sporadic use of foul language. Although it bothers certain listeners, he believes that talking in this manner sometimes is the most optimal means to get his point across, something he would not be able to do if he were broadcasting on federally-regulated airwaves.

“I’ve always been told [that] people who are honest curse,” Colon explained. “They tell you exactly what it is and they tell you exactly how they feel. However, you have to be mindful that there are people who are listening to you who may have loved ones in the car and they don’t want their four-year-old to develop a curse word. If they don’t want to digest that, then they’re turning you off – so now, they’re not listening to you.”

As a former professional athlete, Colon has friends still playing in the NFL and those who are retired, along with relationships with other coaches and team personnel. In his role now though, it occasionally becomes necessary to criticize someone with whom he has a connection, and it was an aspect of the industry that initially dismayed him from pursuing a post-playing career in the industry.

Jerome Bettis, a former member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back currently hosting an eponymously-named television show on WPXI in Pittsburgh was asked for advice by Colon on discussing situations with some players and personnel. It changed Colon’s outlook and espoused to him a new way of thinking about this type of commentary.

“One of the things [he said] that I thought was very true and trite was… ‘You never talk about the player. You talk about the situation and you talk about how you would respond in that situation or how they should have handled the situation,’” Colon said of Bettis’ advice to him. “Any time you directly talk about a player – especially when somebody’s close to you who you know is going to get back to it and they may have some hard feelings about it – you don’t want to necessarily dig at them about their character or anything about them.”

Some media programs today, whether they be in television or radio, remain focused on discussing players individually and it has led certain athletes still actively playing to strive for their own voices to be heard. In response, they have launched podcasts and other multimedia content that allows them to rewrite the narratives being propagated about them, whether they are true or false. This “new media” movement, especially popularized among athletes within the National Basketball Association, gives fans primary sources regarding certain information and demonstrates the revolution technology and frequent intersociality has instantiated among consumers.

“Now [there are] a lot of programs [that] kind of want you to say, ‘Hey Player A, this is how I directly feel about them.’ You have to be careful or you can just be bold,” Colon articulated. “….It’s all about what you’re comfortable with at the end of the day. I try to do both – I have no problems talking about a player individually. However, I understand that sometimes it’s more about the situation and context that has to be explained rather than who he is as a person.”

Colon had a positive relationship with the media throughout his NFL career, understanding their job and his own role in supplying them answers. Now being on the other side of the microphone, he knows of the difficulties professional athletes face when being faced with questions, some of which they are hesitant to answer. Yet just because the media may be undertaking a task with which one may not be comfortable, it does not mean they should behave towards them in an adverse way.

“I tried to tell a lot of young ball players that you shouldn’t treat the media like the enemy,” Colon said. “If anything, when you treat anyone like the enemy, you give them the power. I feel especially in the New York market even with my own team in the New York Jets, we put so much attention [on] what the media is going to say and how they’re going to react to certain things that happened within or around the building or even on the field.”

Nonetheless, there are occasions where interactions with the media can have the opposite effect they are intended to by the players, making the unintentional creation of embellished and superficial headlines all the more feasible. Colon was aware of the consequences his words could have on him and his team during his playing days and avoided falling into those traps. Instead, he opted to focus more on his play on the field, as he thought if it was exceeding expectations, there would be little if any negative commentary towards him overall.

“Too many times young athletes, because they’re asked a question or if they’re confronted with a trap question that could become a nugget or something viral for them to say… feel like they need to say something,” Colon said. “The player always has the power because the person trying to get the report is literally asking for you to say something, and you can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”

Colon’s sports media career quickly took him beyond the radio studio when he joined SportsNet New York in 2017, the regional sports network he contributed to towards the end of his playing career and official television home of the New York Jets. He is a frequent analyst appearing across studio programming such as Jets Game Plan and Jets Post Game Live, providing his insight on upcoming matchups and completed games. Radio and television, while they are both traditional platforms of content creation and subsequent dissemination, possess stark differences in terms of the workflow of hosts, analysts and on-air talent in general.

“[In] TV… you talk in sound bites. You just have to deliver the meat and potatoes of whatever you’re trying to say – and it has to be quick because there’s obviously commercial breaks and segments that cut up everything,” Colon said. “You have to know what you’re trying to say and get it out as real and clearly as possible.”

Radio is more difficult than working in television, Colon affirms, because on-air hosts rely on their voices as the primary form of entertainment they transmit to the audience. As a result, it is essential one has a certain aural presence about them in order to captivate listeners and keep them coming back for more.

“You can be as animated as you want to, but if you can’t necessarily get that out via words coming out of your mouth, then it makes for bad radio,” Colon said. “There’s a lot of tricks to the trade that you have to learn and there’s a lot of things that come with radio other than just picking up a mic and just talking about what you’re willing to talk about.”

Outside of sports media, Colon is involved in numerous other projects that are keeping him busy since he exited the playing field for the final time. For example, Colon is the owner and operator of the Bricks & Hops beer garden in the Bronx, N.Y. and also enjoys golfing and fishing in his free time.

Moreover, he hopes to become fluent in Spanish, learn a form of martial arts, lose weight and focus on being both a good father and good husband. On top of that, he wants to continue to work in both radio and television and is looking to become a gameshow host similar to Michael Strahan, who currently hosts The $100,000 Pyramid on ABC, or Steve Harvey, longtime host of the syndicated program Family Feud.

“When you talk to people about how they evolve, they can only address their bank account,” Colon said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you changed, that means you earned a lot more money. I want to evolve.”

Former athletes entering into the world of sports media garner credibility to large sectors of the viewing audience because they have firsthand experience playing professional sports. However, that ethos can quickly diminish if they are not able to effectively express their knowledge to an audience.

Colon often thinks about Tedy Bruschi, a three-time Super Bowl champion and current NFL analyst on ESPN and how he was able to assimilate himself into the industry. Reflecting back on his first year on the air, Bruschi was not satisfied with his performance and decided to act more resolutely towards the profession so he would be able to deliver viewers the best product possible.

“He said, ‘You know what? If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this,’” Colon said of Bruschi. “He showed up with a briefcase. He showed up with a suit and tie and he took on the craft and he attacked it. That’s why he’s good on-air and that’s why he’s good at what he does right now – because he took the role seriously.”

Willie Colon is willing to put in the time and effort that it takes to make a name for himself in sports media and he has no plans of slowing down. Improving on a daily basis in both television and radio is on the front page of his playbook, and he knows that operating off of his résumé will only take him so far. Instead, it takes establishing legitimacy within the sports media industry itself to genuinely succeed in a post-playing career no matter the medium.

“If you’ve been blessed enough to wear a gold jacket, meaning the Hall of Fame, they love you in the beginning,” Colon said regarding large sports media networks. “After a while, you’ve got to understand that you… probably [have] a two to three-year period where you can ride off your name and then it becomes: ‘Okay, what else do you have?’ They’re kind of over the allure and over the mystique of you [and] you’ve got to put in the work.”

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