As Samantha Ponder begins her seventh season hosting ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, two words that her missionary father has said to her countless times resonate more than ever.
This stop-in-your-tracks, look-in-the-mirror, soul-searching, reality check of a question overtakes Samantha’s thoughts anytime she has a weighty decision to consider.
In June, when the cable sports giant laid off about 20 of its most accomplished broadcasters, Samantha wondered if she would be included in the cuts. Then what?
Instead of being anxious, Samantha counted her blessings, including a career for which she gives God all the credit. “Just knowing that God did it in the first place means that if it works out, ‘great.’ And if it doesn’t, it wasn’t supposed to be in the first place,” she said.
Samantha has hosted ESPN’s NFL pregame show on Sundays since 2017. The iconic program, which launched the same year she was born, averaged 1.24 million viewers per show last season, the most since 2019. One of her colleagues on the show was let go, but Samantha, 37, survived the cutbacks.
Meanwhile, few in the sports broadcast industry have been more outspoken lately about fairness in female sports than Samantha and her former ESPN colleague Sage Steele. Both have repeatedly tweeted their unequivocal support of former University of Kentucky women’s swimmer Riley Gaines, who has testified before Congress against allowing biological males, or transgender “women,” to compete in women’s athletics.
And in late July, when former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Paula Scanlan testified in front of Congress about being traumatized to share a locker room with a biological man, Samantha applauded the swimmer’s bravery to speak up.
“I think the fact that there are many young women who were in this situation who were told not to speak—not to speak their fears or concerns or what they were uncomfortable with—is actually a really dangerous message to send to young women, especially when it comes to consent in a locker room, but also in competition and in fairness and in the reason that we had separate sports in the first place,” Samantha told Decision.
“I’m passionate about this because I lived it. I was a beneficiary of having essentially a safe space to compete as a young girl all through high school. I mean, it was really formative for me, the relationships with the other girls, and was just a place to know that there is fair competition.”
Cancel culture or not, Samantha will not be silent when it comes to defending truth.
“I don’t want to live that way, afraid of some backlash,” she said. “It’s scary because of the world we live in right now, but there are just some battles I’m going to choose to fight.”
In late May, when a female columnist with USA Today described Samantha’s opposition to biological males participating in women’s sports as “bigotry,” Samantha responded on Twitter: “Biology is not bigotry. Loving people does not require the absence of boundaries.”
The mother of two young daughters and a son learned how to love people from all walks of life growing up in Phoenix. Her parents led an inner-city, multi-ethnic ministry that combined Gospel sharing with recreational basketball leagues and safe places to hang out in a structured environment.
“We grew up in a home where we would have anywhere from 25 to 100 inner-city kids at our house three nights a week or at the gym down the street,” Samantha said. “Our home just had open doors all the time. My parents are some of the few people I know who live out their faith so obviously.”
Instead of sharing gifts with each other at Christmas, Samantha’s parents and their four children would visit places such as Harlem and Ecuador to serve and share Christ with the those in need. “We didn’t go on all the fun vacations and eat out,” Samantha recalls. “Most of the money my parents made went into the work that they were doing with the inner city in Phoenix.”
Samantha’s Christian lineage runs deep. Her great-grandfather and grandfather were pastors. And her dad, Jerry Steele, professed his faith in Christ as a 12-year-old in 1968 while attending a Billy Graham Crusade in Kansas City, Missouri. Jerry became a lawyer to help support his Make A Difference nonprofit ministry.
Samantha became a Christian in her early teens. “It was a huge blessing to have the knowledge of what it means to have my identity in Christ at an early age,” she said.
At 18, after graduating from high school, she moved to the Big Apple by herself to pursue a broadcasting internship while attending a private Christian college in New York City.
Her first job was serving as a hostess at the ESPN Zone restaurant in Times Square. “We didn’t have cable growing up, so I’d never even seen ESPN,” she said. The restaurant housed a studio for ABC Sports radio, where Samantha landed her first internship, followed by another with ABC Sports television. Her first interviews included NBA stars Dennis Rodman and Kobe Bryant. On college football Saturdays, Samantha provided the TV studio hosts with information-laden cue cards for their broadcast commentary.
By her junior year in college, Samantha could no longer afford splitting the rent with her New York City apartment roommates, so she moved back home to attend Arizona State University.
She loaded her credit card with purchases of red-eye flights to New York City on the weekends to continue interning with ABC during the college football season. The opportunity to host a mock broadcast of ABC’s college football show provided Samantha the coveted professional audition tape every aspiring broadcaster needs in order to be taken seriously in the industry.
Liberty University offered Samantha her first broadcast job, providing television coverage of their football and basketball programs while she completed her college degree. A stint covering college football and basketball for Fox Sports followed before she joined ESPN in 2011 to launch the Texas Longhorns Network.
A year later, Samantha met Christian Ponder—then quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings—on Twitter. After a three-month courtship, the couple married a week before Christmas at a courthouse in Hudson, Wisconsin. For the record, Samantha said, the marriage was not a “shotgun wedding.”
“Our marriage has strengthened our individual faith so much more, I think, as a couple and as partners than it would have had my life just been about me and my career,” she said.
As the football sideline reporter for five years for ESPN’s Sports Emmy Award-winning College Gameday, Samantha was prepared to step away from the travel-demanding position after learning she was pregnant with the couple’s second child. Her first child, Scout, had made more than 100 airline flights with Samantha before she was a year old. But the soon-to-be mother of two was shocked when ESPN asked her to succeed Hall of Fame broadcaster Chris Berman as host of Sunday NFL Countdown.
The opportunity to work from a studio overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge in lower Manhattan has allowed her to do the job she loves without sacrificing her passion for being a wife and mother.
And five years ago, after Samantha gave birth to their third child, a daughter named Price, their faith was tested when the chief surgeon at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital performed lifesaving surgery on the newborn to repair an intestinal blockage.
“Christian and I were on our hands and knees in the waiting room at Mount Sinai all night long, just us two, singing and crying out to God asking that He would spare her—and He did,” Samantha said.
“God’s been so gracious to let me have the things I thought I wanted really early in life and to learn really quickly, that that’s not it,” Samantha said. “My story is one of God being faithful when I was not. I’ve known in my heart who Jesus is, and that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.” ©2023 BGEA
Photo: Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images