Antonietta “Toni” Collins is one of the up-and-coming young anchors at ESPN. You might have seen her on SportsCenter and other programs, but how she got to Bristol is a very interesting story.
We sat down with Collins recently to discuss a number of topics, including her time growing up in Mexico, how she got her career started, what it was like learning from a mom who is a reporter and much, much more.
The Spun: You have a really unique background, having grown up in Mexico and then later the United States. Also, your mom (Maria Antonieta Collins) is a longtime, well-respected journalist. How did you get into this field?
AC: I was born in California. My mom was working there. We moved when I was a baby to Mexico City when her job assigned her there, and I grew up there until I was 9. Spanish was my first language. Then, my mom’s job transferred her to San Antonio and we went there. That’s where I learned English. We stayed in San Antonio for a year, and then moved to Miami and my family has been there ever since.
My mom is a television news reporter, so I grew up in that environment. People tell you ‘Oh, I wanted to be a doctor or a veterinarian, or something,’ I knew nothing but to be a reporter. I would tag along with my mom and her stories. I grew up in it and wanted to do it. I have an older sister who has nothing to do with it, but I was more of an athlete and she was more of a ballet and piano girl. I had sports in me.
The Spun: About that: you had the chance to train with the Mexican women’s national soccer team for two years. What was that like?
AC: I played soccer and softball, and I was lucky enough when I was in high school to be recruited to the Under-19 Mexican national team. I played for them for two summers, between my junior and senior year of high school and the summer after I graduated. It didn’t go further than that.
It was amazing. Given the fact that my mom was a national reporter, every time there was a soccer story she would talk about me. I remember, my senior year of high school, I didn’t go to prom, because my mom had to do a story on Mia Hamm. She was still playing for WUSA in Washington. I got to go with my mom instead of prom, and she made me the reporter for it. It was told through my eyes. I think word got back to the Mexican Football Federation. I also had a close friend who played for the national team, so they gave me a tryout. I stuck there for two and a half months the first time and it was intense. It was the first time I did something that scared me but also gave me adrenaline. We trained in Mexico City at their training facility. It was crazy, like three-a-days…It was just so much fun. We were training for the Pan-American Games. I never got to play with the team, because I was in school, but they still called me back the following year. For the girls on the team, that was their livelihood. It was a lifestyle. For me, I had the honor of wearing my parents’ country’s colors but my life didn’t depend on it.
The Spun: Getting back to your career. How did you wind up at ESPN?
AC: After college (Mount Union, in Ohio), I moved back to Miami. No one wanted to hire me (laughs). I became an intern at Univision. I was a gopher. I don’t know if that is still a term. But I would legit just get cups of coffee. I’ll never forget, I was the umbrella holder for singer Luis Fonsi and was the handler for DJ Flex. I applied for a job at a local radio sports station in Tampa. I had no experience in sports. In college, I did work for a minor league hockey team, but I did front office stuff and in-game entertainment. It wasn’t reporting. But this station hired me. They took a chance on me, and I went up to St. Petersburg from Miami and I was a board operator on the midnight graveyard shift. They would send me to USF stuff, Tampa Bay Buccaneers press conferences or the Rays. They gave me opportunities.
I was getting frustrated even though it was only six months in, so I made a fake demo tape and sent it out to a bunch of places. McAllen, Texas bit, but it was in hard news. I needed the experience so I didn’t care. It was in Spanish, a dual-station: Fox Rio and Univision. I did reporting for Spanish at 5, 9 was Fox and 10 was Univision. I got to cover the local sports beat on the side on the weekends if I wanted to. I was there for two-and-a-half years and it was my first TV experience. I covered border stories –homicides, drug busts, all the border issues you can think of. It was an awesome experience, because I got to do everything there: producing, anchoring, weather, sports.
In 2011, I applied for a job as a Univision sports anchor in Dallas. They gave me a chance. I was very lucky. I was there for a year, and while I was there, the Mavericks won the NBA Finals and the Rangers lost in the World Series. That was awesome. Our network Univision was launching a sports network. Everything has been timing for me. They pulled talent from local TV stations, and I was one of them. We helped launch a Univision Deportes network. I was there for about a year, and then ESPN reached out and asked if I was interested.
I totally said yes. I auditioned and bombed it. I can’t tell you how depressed I was that I bombed it. They told me that I wasn’t ready but that I had potential. I think about close to a year-and-a-half passed again and they told me to audition again and I did. They said I had potential and they could work with me.
The Spun: You actually started in digital media at ESPN, anchoring news and video segments for ESPN.com. What was that like?
AC: I covered just soccer and whatever Latin player was in a major American sport when I was at Univision. So they told me they could start me in digital and ease me into it. I was going to cover more than just soccer–I barely cover soccer now. I was doing baseball, all American sports, Bracketology. I had never heard of Bracketology! I love Joe Lunardi with my entire life. I was really blessed to be able to start in digital and ease the transition into ESPN.
The Spun: Earlier, you said how much of an impact your mom had on you choosing your career. How much has she continued to influence and help you now that you are deeper into that career? Also, what does she cover now?
AC: She still is a reporter. She is a senior correspendent at Univision and she hosts her own show, Cronicas de Sabado. She’s still active. When I left Dallas, I got transferred to Miami where I grew up and where she’s at. We worked in the same building. She’s a tough mom. She’s not one to say ‘Aw, sweetie, you did so good.’ She’ll say ‘I had to turn you off because why do you keep using this crutch word?’ She’s very mom, very business in that sense. It is different now, because she doesn’t follow all the sports, so I’m always explaining it to her. But now, she mostly looks at delivery, my use of hands and how I express myself. When I was in the Dominican Republic [for a recent story], we had to alter a lot of things, so I would call her and ask her for advice and she would lay out the options. She’s very candid but she means well and she’s awesome to have because she’s so good. Not because she’s my mom, but because she is so good at storytelling (in Spanish) and that’s what I’m trying to get better at in English…Also, she’s very supportive, because TV can be really cruel at times, as rewarding as it is. She understands that, and that’s so good to have. She gets it. She’s very supportive in my life.
The Spun: Among the other people at ESPN, who are you tightest with? Who has had a major impact and influence on your career?
AC: Oh man, without a doubt Jemele Hill. When I got here, they were starting a program of mentors and mentees and I was paired up with Jemele Hill. Jemele is one of the busiest women here at ESPN. One of the smartest, busiest, kindest women. I can text or call her up any time and she’ll make time to talk.
Linda Cohn as well. She is someone I reached out to and she took time out of her day and talked to me. I can still text her. Nicole Briscoe as well. I can’t forget Elle Duncan either. Those women are my role models. The way they handle themselves, the way they are so real, so you and so cool is something I hope I can one day be like. To see them be so accessible and so genuine with me and with anyone, it was unheard of for me, because in Univision it wasn’t like that. I feel as if it’s like, you’re in the minor leagues and they’re in the major leagues, but they want to see you succeed. It is empowering.
The Spun: You’ve covered the NBA Finals, the World Series, a bunch of other major events. What is one event that you haven’t covered and you wish you could cover or hope to cover in the future?
AC: World Cup. World Cup, without a doubt. Oh my gosh. I can not imagine what it must be like to really see the diversity, soccer, the stars. It gets me really excited. I would love to cover the World Cup.
The Spun: Recently, you were in the Dominican Republic for ESPN. I know you covered some MLB players who are part of “Striking Out Poverty” in the DR, but you also covered and reported on [Kansas City Royal pitcher] Yordano Ventura’s funeral after his tragic auto accident. That must have been an emotional and unforgettable experience.
AC: “Striking Out Poverty” is helping out communities in the Dominican Republic that are really underprivileged and poor. These communities don’t have water to cook, bake, do chores or anything. It has been like this for years. [Pittsburgh Pirates outfield] Gregory Polanco, [New York Yankees infielder] Rob Refsnyder and some others were a part of that group. Roberto Clemente, Jr. also works with them. You hear about poverty and you see people that are so grateful for the little that they have…We went to the communities that they are helping. We went to one that was a 45-minute climb up a mountain. I was wearing sneakers, but there are people in sandals or barefoot going and getting buckets of water to use in their homes. We went to another where they have a drainage system that runs to the homes, but it still isn’t purified. We went to a third community to see how they now have a purifying system and how it is changing the community. Gregory Polanco took us to his hometown –villa Mella, in Santo Domingo–and it was amazing to see where he came from. He is so humble. I remember we were riding through this bumpy hill, and he looked at me and said ‘Toni, do you see this? No one can tell me that dreams can’t come true because this is where I started.’ That was really awesome, but that was the latter part of the trip.
When we landed in Santo Domingo, we landed to the news that Andy Marte and Yordano Ventura had died. We called my boss and said ‘We’re here.’ Both Marte and Ventura had played for Las Águilas Cibaeñas of the Dominican Winter League. Ironically, they were playing that night in Game 4 of a best-of-nine series. We went to the game and covered it. It was really emotional. One of our former analysts, Manny Acta, was managing that team. He talked to us about how he found out, how he got two phone calls in the morning telling him what happened. That was tough to cover.
Coincidentally, we were staying at the same hotel that the Kansas City Royals were staying at when they came to pay their respects. We were talking to [Royals GM] Dayton Moore and assistant GM Rene Francisco and giving them our condolences. They asked how we were going to the funeral and we said we had a car. They said ‘Listen, you’re going on the team bus. Today you are family.’ That was so nice. We were with them from beginning to end. Just seeing them, they were heartbroken. I’ll never forget walking out and seeing David Ortiz and Yordano Ventura’s mom was screaming her son’s name. We got into the house and she just fell into the arms of [Royals first baseman] Eric Hosmer. All the guys were crying. It was tough to see. That town is very poor and very humble and he meant so much to them. Here in the United States, we saw him as a very passionate kid who had an attitude but he meant so much to a town who had nothing. He was their hopes and dreams. I talked to a guy on the street and he was crying. He didn’t know Ventura but he said how he represented them and made them proud. It was a different perspective than I’m used to seeing in the United States.
The Spun: We’re always curious about this with people who have covered hard news and sports. What was your gig like covering hard news and how did it affect how you cover sports today?
AC: Covering the Ventura funeral reminded me of my time in the [Rio] Valley. I used to cover homicides, bodies in the river. You become immune to it. It was like an adrenaline rush. I could tell you so many stories, but I remember my first one. It was a guy who went in, shot the girlfriend, shot the mom and then killed himself. Obviously, we covered a lot of immigration issues too, undocumented immigrants coming in. Being from a Mexican background and seeing the kids and people that the coyotes (smugglers) would leave stranded there. It broke my heart every day. That was one of my soft spots. Even stuff like a body being in the river and when you pull it out, its skin starts peeling off. I saw the craziest stuff.
I think it helps you be more aware. It helps you try to tell a story and not get too wrapped into it but just do your job as a reporter. I think that came in handy for stories like this and even things like covering the World Series, to be detailed and be curious. Little things that you start picking up, it definitely makes you be more aware of what you need for the story.
The Spun: Now for some more fun and lighthearted topics. When the NFL held a game in Mexico this year, you did a feature on youth football in Mexico and the impact of the NFL in general. What was that experience like and what is the influence of the NFL in general in your home country? In America, everyone associates soccer and baseball with Mexico.
AC: Yes! The Little Raiders. The NFL is huge. I knew of the NFL growing up in Mexico because my dad was a Steelers fan in the 1970s and that’s how I became a Steelers fan. Even growing up there and knowing about the NFL, I was in awe how passionate the parents are to bring the kids to these practices and how even though soccer will always be the main sport, the NFL is making leaps and leaps. The kids don’t see any obstacles. Like the little girls, I would ask them if they wanted to be a football player and they would say ‘Yes!’ very confidently while wearing their little pink bows. A dad told me he brought his daughter one day and she liked it and now she’s the starting center. Here, they would tell you to go play soccer. But there, there is no gender barrier or people telling them they can’t play. It is getting more and more popular and reaching the youth. What’s happening is my generation used to watch it with our dads, and now my generation has kids and is passing it down to their kids. It is a tradition now, and while it might never reach the height of soccer, it is getting there and it has fans of all ages and all genders.
The Spun: That kind of leads into our next question. How did you become a Steelers fan? You said your dad was one, so it must have just been in the family right?
AC: My dad was a Steelers fan, and I honestly didn’t care much about them, but everything was the Steelers in my house. We hated the Cowboys. My parents divorced, and when I moved to Miami, I never rooted for the Dolphins. I went to college at Mount Union in Ohio and I was 45 minutes from Pittsburgh and 45 minutes from Cleveland. Everybody was either a Browns or Steelers fan and most of my friends were Steelers fans. I already had that connection, and I started reading more about the Rooney’s. I loved Troy Polamalu. I loved how he played at USC. I loved how tough he was on the field and how quiet he was off of it. I loved Jerome Bettis. In college, I just bandwagoned completely into a full-blown fan.
Now that I work here, I’m friends with Jerome Bettis. He gives me advice to. When I first moved over to the TV side, he told me ‘Toni, it’s not going to be easy, but you’re here for a reason. No one handed this to you. It’s your time to shine.’ He would give me like a football pep talk.
The Spun: Can you compare and contrast what sports coverage is like in Mexico vs. what is like here in America? What are the main similarities and differences?
AC: I feel the one big difference I’ve noticed–and maybe it is changing now–but when I first started, you would do sit downs with players across the room or meet them somewhere. When I covered Mexican soccer and sports for Univision, we would go beyond the sit down and into their homes. It was like, how can we relate to you? You’re captain of this team. I feel like we do more about taking us to their lives and showing the fans. That’s my personal experience.
Also, when I was at Univision, they would send us out in the community to be with the people and make us more human to them. We weren’t just behind a desk. I feel like that is changing more though with SportsCenter and things like that.
The Spun: Last question: what was the most memorable interview you have ever done or most memorable person to interview?
AC: For me, it was when the Mavericks won the championship. I was at a crossroads there, because I was from Miami and they were playing the Heat. I was never really a hardcore NBA fan but I was from Miami. People would ask me who I was rooting for and I would say I was cheering for Dallas.
So during the playoffs, I kept seeing this family, a Latino woman and an Anglo guy. They were at every playoff game. I was thinking, wow, they must have money. So, I was screwed out of soundbites because every player spoke English except JJ Barea, and he didn’t really talk. I kept seeing this Latino lady in the stands, and I got to be friends with her. The day that the Mavericks won, I see her in the locker room. She ends up being the daughter-in-law of [Don] Carter, the former owner of the Mavericks. They gave me their soundbites and what it meant for Mr. Carter to see the Mavericks win. It was such a love story, because he bought the Mavericks for his wife. Years later, Mark Cuban bought the team, but just seeing the community and being able to interview them and see Cuban give the respect to them was great. The bond of that team, it was awesome to cover it. They just had the right pieces, and being able to know the backstory about the Mavericks, that was the best coverage I’ve ever had.
Note: Antonietta Collins’ interview is part of a series of Q&As we’re doing with various media personalities. You can read our recent interviews with ESPN’s Michele Steele here, Dianna Russini here, Sarina Morales here, and Sam Ponder here.