Sporting His Faith: An Interview with ESPN’s Tony Reali

Television host, sports junkie, husband, father—all of these could describe this popular ESPN personality. His Catholic faith keeps him grounded.

Five days a week on ESPN, Tony Reali hosts Around the Horn, a 30-minute television show viewed by a half million sports lovers. This popular program accentuates his quirky talents as puppeteer and lion tamer, someone with an almost supernatural ability to mute any of the sportswriters or sportscasters on the four screens in front of him with the push of a button.

“I can talk for hours about giving voice to people, and, oddly, my job is to silence people with a mute button,” says Reali, 39, laughing. “But I trust they know it’s done with a wink.”

Anthony Joseph Paul “Tony” Reali—as he often introduces himself on Around the Horn, as a tribute to the times growing up when his parents wanted him to “get over here” right now—can get serious when it comes to communicating who he is and what is important in his life.

For the past 16 years, Reali has worn ashes on his forehead on Ash Wednesday while on the air at ESPN. It wasn’t noticeable at first, when Reali was the 60-second, end-of-show “fact-checker” and “stat boy” on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, which features sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon bantering about the day’s sports topics—and sometimes making errors.

Quiet Show of Faith

As a Staten Island-born sports junkie who grew up in Marlboro, New Jersey, and attended Fordham University in the Bronx, hoping one day to follow in the footsteps of Fordham broadcasting alums Vin Scully, Mike Breen, Bob Papa, and Michael Kay, Reali reveled in lightheartedly correcting his more famous superiors.

Because of his increased air time after becoming the host of Around the Horn, Reali’s ashes became far more noticeable. Reali says his bosses at ESPN had no reservations.

“I never asked if I could do it; I expected that I could do it,” Reali says. “That, eventually, comes from a place of privilege, but it also comes from a place of acceptance. I knew Tony and Mike and my producers would accept me. But I never wanted to be ‘the story’ either.”

The story moved to center stage in March 2017 when Reali wrote a guest column for the Washington Post to explain why he wears ashes on TV on Ash Wednesday. As someone with a keen sense of the power of social media to build up and tear down, Reali knew he was making himself a target to those disturbed by public manifestations of religion.

Reali felt the time was right to explain his public expression of religious devotion. His wife, Samiya, who grew up the daughter of a Muslim mother and a Southern Baptist father, was not immune to the growing threats to religious freedom across the world. At the time of President Donald Trump’s first efforts to ban travel to the United States from several Muslim countries, Samiya was away on business in Africa.

“Although she’s not a practicing Muslim and she is a US citizen, on her passport it says, ‘Country of Birth: Morocco,'” Reali says. “All this was echoing in my head as I was doing something publicly like wearing ashes, and I was, for the most part, being praised.”

Reali was used to receiving the occasional anonymous rants on Twitter from fans who were upset that he took the “wrong” side in a sports debate.

“I was already up to speed with fans who might be upset when you say something about their team,” Reali says. “That, of course, is usually innocuous.”

His Washington Post column (titled “I’ve Worn Ash on My Head on ESPN for 16 Years. This Year Was Different.”) garnered more than 700 comments, skewed slightly in praise of his decision. As with any story on a secular outlet involving religion, the anti-Church trolls came out in force.

Marlowe53 wrote: “I don’t mind you wearing ashes. I do mind you promoting an organization that denigrates women at every level. How dare they? How dare you?”

1Ronald penned: “Hey, Tony. Most people have enough self-esteem, enough self-resolve, that they don’t trek across town to be defiled in the name of religion.”

IIIntgrty added: “Get off your preachy, cringy, victim soapbox!”

Others analyzed the issue in the light of their own experiences with the Catholic Church.

Jacki Cepe Lake wrote: “I remember my Catholic school days and feeling the temptation to wipe off my ashes after I walked away from campus. I didn’t want to feel any more ‘different’ than I already did during those awkward years. On Wednesday, seeing you on TV, the word brave came to mind.”

Commentator Ted David, who described himself as a “nonpracticing Jew,” wrote: “I have no personal use for religion, but respect those who do. And I have great respect for Catholics like you who wear their ashes proudly.”

Tony Reali, host of Around the Horn. (Photos Courtesy of Tony Reali/ESPN Archives)

Reali says some of the interesting responses he has received over the years of his ash wearing have been from people who have no idea what the practice means and are simply inquisitive. He has had discussions with priests about his decision to wear ashes on TV, and one piece of advice about potential criticism has stuck with him: “The idea we landed on was that anybody who thought I was being overly pious was trying to pick a fight. The ashes, to me, are an acknowledgment of our sins. They are an acknowledgment of our place in the world: ‘From ashes you have come and will go again.’ I’m still working it out in my head.”

There is no sugarcoating the facts, Reali says, that the Church, through its history, has sinned. The sexual abuse of minors has been a vile side of its history that must be owned.

“Initially, I wasn’t really considering that people would attach me to pedophilia, to the worst things that we have had in our religion,” Reali says. “The crimes, the cover-ups. Those are despicable. There is no mincing of those words. I’m not trying to defend anything in that regard. I am trying to show that a middle-aged person can be proud of his faith.”

A Knight in Service

Reali was grounded in his Catholic faith by his parents, Joe and Madelyn, who took their four children to Mass each Sunday at St. Gabriel Church in Marlboro, New Jersey. His father, a former tax attorney with MetLife, was coaxed out of retirement by American International Group (AIG) to clean up a historic bailout.

“When it was AIG’s job after the bailout to pay back everything, who was the straightest arrow in the world? Joe Reali’s the straightest arrow in the world,” Reali says. “When you need somebody to get clean, call Joe Reali.”

Although Reali was never an altar server, as a teenager he became chief squire for the New Jersey Columbian Squires (the official youth organization of the Knights of Columbus), “which sounds very impressive,” he says. “Technically, I guess I am still a knight. Once a knight, always a knight, right? I know I’m still on a list somewhere.”

At Fordham, where he studied broadcast journalism, Reali got busted playing “hall sports” by Sister Rose, the resident assistant, and was coaxed into helping out as a sacristan his last two years at Fordham University Church.

He discovered a few things of interest about the church, which opened its doors in 1845: The six French-made, stained-glass windows of Sts. Peter, Paul, and the four evangelists were originally slated to be installed in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street in New York, but subsequently were gifted to Fordham because they were the wrong size; also, the church’s bells were the subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells.”

“Poe was living in the Bronx, and those were the ‘bells, bells, bells’ he heard when writing the poem,” Reali says. “I know all this useless information about sports and great churches.”

One of Reali’s jobs on muggy days was opening the windows using a 12-foot pole with a hook.

“I was on my tippy-toes, and I recall one year putting the pole right through a corner of a window—and I had to tell Sister Rose,” he says. “We had to have a new piece made. So that was my good service as sacristan.”

Two Dreams Realized

Reali says the Catholic faith of his youth and young adulthood “always made sense to me.” That faith was tested during the years when he and Samiya struggled to conceive. Their daughter, Francesca Zahra Reali, was born in 2014.

“The name Francesca just rolls off the tongue,” Reali says with a laugh. “You can hear the music in it. You can taste the lasagna in it.”

Being a dad, he says, “is everything I dreamed of and more, and we’re hopeful to have more children, God willing. I love being the father of a girl—a little girl’s daddy. She’s the one calling the shots. I wanted to be a dad and I wanted to be a sportscaster, and I’m happy to say I’m both.” (It seems God has been listening to Tony’s prayers since, as of this writing, the Realis are expecting twins this summer!)

As wonderful as her arrival has been, Reali openly admits his “relentlessly optimistic” persona displayed daily at ESPN masks his struggles with anxiety. He has turned to his faith, the counsel of priests, and professional help.

“I’m a high-strung person,” Reali says. “I draw a comparison to being a duck. Above the water, I’m as cool as a cucumber, sitting in the [studio] chair. Underneath the water, I’m paddling very hard. On TV, I was trying to project that every day was the greatest day ever because the viewer is watching the show for entertainment purposes, and my job is to entertain.”

The anxiety attacks became so pronounced when Samiya was out of the country and Reali was alone with Francesca that his priest suggested he seek professional help.

“It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Reali says. “That is maybe another instance that could rock somebody’s faith—when you’re experiencing mental strain—but the professional help and my faith got me through all that. I think all of us need to hear that. It’s OK not to be OK, and your faith can get you through those moments. I went from trying to have the greatest day ever to trying to have the ‘realest’ day ever.”

A Heart for the Homeless

When Reali lived in Washington, DC, while taping Pardon the Interruption, he landed inside St. Augustine Church in northwest DC, the founding church of the city’s African American Catholics. He was struck by the vibrant liturgy, the joyful music, and especially the homilies that spoke to real-life issues.

When Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed in 2012 in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, Reali recalls the homily in which the priest compared Martin’s hoodie with the “hoodie” worn by Franciscan priests.

“He just drew the analogy out, and I just remember thinking, Really? It was like simpatico,” Reali says. “Our Church is not just about the two weeks of the year when the missionaries come and how can we support the building of a church where a church needs to be built—or food needs to be put on the table. Food needs to be put on the table five blocks outside of this parish right now.”

Since moving to New York, Reali attends the Franciscan-staffed Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua in Soho. While it is known to movie buffs as the backdrop for the San Gennaro feast in The Godfather: Part II, and as the church where Cher, in Moonstruck, enters the confessional, Reali says his namesake church resonates with him because of its concern for the poor.

A group called the JoyJ Initiative regularly prepares sandwiches and comfort items for the homeless throughout the city.

“We go to some of the great parks of New York City—Washington Square Park and Tompkins Park—and we go to Penn Station and Grand Central Station,” Reali says. “For me, it’s faith and works, and it’s not just about preparing that bag for the homeless and giving them food and even gloves and hats. The outreach there is those conversations. That’s what we all need. We need to be part of our community. They are us—our homeless.”

Opening (and Breaking) Windows

In a way, just as St. John XXIII opened the windows of the Church during the Second Vatican Council, Reali believes Pope Francis is singing from the same sheet music.

“I believe Pope Francis is remodeling the windows completely,” Reali says.”And they have a great potential to be beautiful windows—with a great view of the world and of all the people in the world. He’s constantly thinking about how we’re treating other people and lifting up other people and listening to other people.”

Just don’t hand Reali a 12-foot pole with a hook inside Fordham University Church and ask him to let the fresh air in.

“When I did,” he says, “I broke a window.”

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