Almost 25 years ago, one of the most recognizable faces in sports broadcasting walked away from it all. The beautiful and talented Jayne Kennedy left football, NFL Today, Hollywood and celebrity behind to take care of her health and her family.
While in high school, Kennedy (nee Harrison) won several beauty pageant titles, including her history-making win as the first African-American to be crowned Miss Ohio. She was a pioneer in her field as one of the first African-Americans and females in sports broadcasting and was the first female host of TV’s longest running syndicated sports series, Greatest Sports Legends. She also worked ringside as a commentator for men’s professional boxing through her work at Muhammad Ali Professional Sports.
She won many awards for her work, both in and out of sports, including an EMMY for her Rose Parade coverage. She produced one of the first celebrity home fitness and exercise videos, “Love Your Body,” which was #3 behind Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons.
How do you feel when people call you a pioneer and a trendsetter?
Thank you! It makes me feel old (laughing) and I have to stop and think, because I never really had a chance to think about the impact I was making. And I now have people telling me this and it seems like it was so long ago and such a different life. It only sinks in when I hear my daughters’ reactions. My youngest is 20 and Savannah is 30, and they say, “Oh my god, Mom, all of our friends are talking about this that,” and I’m like, “Whoa!” Then it finally hits you!
Where did your love of sports come from?
My dad wanted boys, but he got five girls before he ever got a son. So all his girls grew up in the world of sports. We grew up in Cleveland Browns territory when Jim Brown was playing. So it was really hard to grow up in Cleveland, Ohio at that time and not be a Browns’ fan. You would walk down the street and people would have their front doors painted brown. Jim Brown was idolized in the city and everybody loved him. My dad played baseball on his company team and on our church team, so we would go with him to all his games. I competed in the junior Olympics in the softball throw and in the standing long jump, which is what they had at that particular time.
But, other than that, there really wasn’t anything to do. I played basketball and volleyball, but just for our school team and never played other schools. But I was always highly competitive.
Right in the middle of a great career, you put everything aside to care for a health issue and to raise your family. Why did you do that?
It was a crazy choice. And in the moment, it didn’t seem as crazy as it does right now, but it was the right choice for me. And it was a lot of sacrifice and effort to get to where I was at a time and culture in this industry that was designed to allow let black females succeed, whether it was in sports or was an actress. You know, Hollywood was not ready for it, Wall Street was not ready for it and America was not ready for it. And to be able to succeed was a big deal.
I had always been a very healthy person. I put off having a family because I knew that I wanted to be there for my family and I was traveling a lot. At that time, the industry was not ready to allow pregnant women the opportunity to still be on camera or on the silver screen. Today it’s a completely different story, but back then, I would have lost my contract. I would have never been hired again because people were just not ready for that at that particular time.
You were diagnosed with endometriosis and took time to get well and have and raise your children. Now you’re back!
My youngest is graduating from college, so it’s me time and we’re pitching a talk show to do with my daughter.
Since your time in sports broadcasting, it’s a whole different age and there are so many more channels covering sports.
It was three networks, that was it. If you didn’t have a job on those three networks, you didn’t work in sports, at least not on camera. I remember when I was in the studio at CBS, and you would not only be covering the game as a fan, you’re sitting at home and you’re watching one game, but on your desk you’re watching all the games and that was overwhelming. Now, with all these channels, with all the expansion of the leagues, with all the opportunities, you can’t possible watch and be aware of every single thing. And the sad part is that the talent, whether as an actress or as an athlete, have to be so careful of every single thing they do and say because people nit-pick and scrutinize, and it’s almost like you can’t even be yourself anymore. You have to worry at every single second, “How are they going to misinterpret what I say, if I say anything at all? If I don’t, they’ll misinterpret that!” You know, the digital era has made it extremely complicated to actually be a human being.
I remember a conversation that I had with Willie Stargell. I interviewed him for Greater Sports Legends. He was telling me how hard it was at his time to be an athlete because you’re just a target. You know, people have their eyes set on you, on “How can we put him down so that we can step up?” And so now, with digital technology, people feel like they have the anonymity behind their screen name. And they just, I think they’re more interested in their personal vendettas than they are in the actual sport. And it’s sad.
Speaking of sports. You’re involved in soccer with your kids, right?
Oh yeah, that’s my game. Even though I love football, oh my god soccer’s my game! All my girls play. My youngest, played so we would travel all over the country and I coached her team for a while. It was important to be there, because I wanted to see some of these players compete who didn’t have the means to compete in highly competitive soccer, but they had the most outstanding talent that I had ever seen. So I would work adamantly trying to get them in the program, trying to get sponsors for them. I’m an advocate for female youth in sports, so that was always very important to me.
And what about the women soccer players?
Christie Rampone is one of my favorites to watch, I just love her. And Abby Wambach, when she retired, I literally cried!
How did you feel about her Gatorade commercial controversy?
I have to admit that it hit me the wrong way, because I completely understood the message, because she was saying that the game is bigger than her. But at the same time, you cannot forget the individual accomplishment. To me, it’s like, as a black woman, if somebody says to you, “Oh, forget about your history, forget about slavery, forget about the Civil Rights movement, we’re moving forward now!” You can’t forget that stuff! You have to be able to use that, you have to stand on those shoulders. You have to move forward knowing that somebody made that sacrifice, made this contribution. And to me, it was the wrong message in the campaign. And I’m a huge fan of brilliant, creative campaigns, and people that write for ads that are memorable for years to come. I don’t know who advised her, but I would have said to her, “This is not what you want to do. Not at this point in your life. Yeah, okay, pass the baton, but, you know, somehow you have to be able to stand up and take credit for everything, brilliantly, that you have done. And then we can move forward. We can’t forget you.”
That’s fantastic. You are such an inspiration. Are you working on a book about your life experiences?
I am. It’s called “Plain Jayne” and it’s about the process of living. It takes you through the four stages of my life, the first one being Jayne Harrison, my maiden name. And it’s about growing up, and the values my parents taught me, made me who I am, Jayne Kennedy, which is Hollywood’s wife, and all of the things in the industry. And then Jayne Overton, which is about being a mom, and family values, the importance of that particular part of my life. And then “Plain Jayne,” the last part of the book is about finding who you are authentically. It’s not about being somebody’s title, not somebody’s daughter, wife, or mother, but finding out who you are, your authentic self.
To follow Jayne Kennedy Overton, visit her Facebook page and http://jayneko.wix.com/jayne-and-savannah.
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