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Grant Paulsen just took over the Washington Redskins beat at WJFK-FM. His résumé shows that the team’s current training camp is the 12th straight he’s covered, and that he’s attended every single Skins home game since 1999 on behalf of one news organization or another. Paulsen has also worked in front of the camera on the Super Bowl broadcasts of two networks, and has hosted national sports-radio shows for a decade.
But Paulsen views the WJFK job as a huge career step. In fact, until he got hired, he was afraid the station’s deciders might think his C.V. was strictly J.V. “This is the first time I’ve gotten a job where being young didn’t help me,” says Paulsen. “It actually could have hurt me.”
See, Paulsen, for all his years in the business, is still only 22. He was a child prodigy, the sports reporting equivalent of Macaulay Culkin or Danny Bonaduce, growing up before our eyes and ears. His career break came as a third grader, when he so wowed an uncle, Pittsburgh sports-talk host Scott Paulsen, that the elder Paulsen decided to show his little nephew off to a Western Pennsylvania radio audience.
The local paper back home in Virginia’s King George County found out about the local kid doing Pittsburgh broadcasts, and offered the youngster a chance to write up his views on the sports issues of the day. That led to Paulsen being offered a regular spot on WUSA-TV called “Ken and the Kid” doing football picks with Ken Broo, then the sports director of the D.C. CBS affiliate. At 10 years of age, Paulsen was a major market broadcaster.
It didn’t take long for national outlets to come calling. The Broo segments caught the attention CBS network types, who put Paulsen into fairly heavy rotation on The Late Show with David Letterman, where the young guest would catch the host up on the goings on in the sports world. Letterman liked Paulsen so much he sent him to New Orleans in 2002 as a special correspondent during Super Bowl XXXVI. His assignment: take the precociousness to a nuclear level.
As the cameras rolled, Paulsen taunted a New England Patriots cheerleader for (wink-wink) refusing his invitation to a King George Middle School dance. He convinced St. Louis Rams offensive tackle Rod Jones to let him try on his jacket. While putting on the 6’5”, 355-pounder’s garment, Paulsen asked Jones if he’d ever tried “the Subway diet.”
And there was his favorite bit: “We were at an event with Franco Harris and Joe Montana, just living legends, and I walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, guys, how about an autograph?’” Paulsen recalls. “And they say, ‘Sure, no problem! Absolutely!’ Then I whip out a pen and a pad and say, ‘OK. Who do I make it out to?’ And everybody was cracking up. That was the most fun week of my life.”
ABC Sports hired Paulsen to reprise his role as the cub reporter a year later for Super Bowl XXXVII, and also kept him on for the Little League World Series broadcasts.
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“When I grow down, I want to be Grant Paulsen,” Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin wrote in 2002 of the hot sports kid. Rushin, after listing all of Paulsen’s media gigs, called him “Doogie Howser, emcee.” After one of the Super Bowl trips, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star profiled Paulsen. “If I could keep doing all of this, and make a living at it when I get older,” he said, “that would just about be perfect.”
But life ain’t perfect. And precociousness ain’t wine. It ages horribly. By his mid-teens, Paulsen stopped getting calls from media bigwigs. “For years, my age was always the reason I was getting opportunities,” says Paulsen. “That all changed. I don’t know what happened. I’m not so cute anymore? The novelty has worn off? I don’t know, but there was definitely a change.”
But Paulsen actually played the smart-aleck only for entertainment purposes. In real life, he comes off as overly self-deprecating and just plain raised right. His love for sports never wavered even when the networks stopped sending him to the big events to crack wise.
“Even before any of this, I remember breaking down the keys to the game, writing them up for Orioles games just for myself, when I was 10,” he says. “And when I turned 16, I started driving up to pretty much every home Orioles game, a two-hour drive from King George, because I wanted to go, not because of any job. My parents finally sat me down one night and said, ‘Why the hell are you doing this?’ Like I was crazy. I said, ‘It’s either that or I go over somebody’s house and drink.’ Sports is my passion.”
Even as the media big boys were no longer calling him while he finished up high school and headed to George Mason University, Paulsen continued to look for any sports-related work he could get. He wrote football columns for the local newspapers. He originated a radio show “Minors and Majors,” about minor league prospects, and got XM to broadcast it. He did play-by-play on internet-only narrowcasts of Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League games and for the Bowie Baysox. He wrote up sports on NBC’s D.C. blog for $15 a post. He covered Wizards games for the WJFK website. And he assisted Chris Russell, then the station’s Redskins reporter, in any way he was asked.
So when Russell took a job with Dan Snyder’s WTEM a month ago, Paulsen was on WJFK management’s radar. He applied for the job. Chris Kinard, WJFK’s program director, said he had no worries about handing the biggest beat over to a 22-year-old.
“None. Zero,” Kinard says. “Grant has more reporting experience, and specifically experience and contacts with the Redskins, than anyone else I talked to.”
Kinard says his only concern came when Paulsen, who describes himself as a “fifth year academic redshirt” at George Mason, said that he wanted to get the 15 credits he needs to complete his communications degree as soon as possible, even if he got the job. But Kinard stopped fretting after talking over the class situation with Paulsen. “He’s so driven that he wasn’t going to let anything get in his way,” Kinard says.
Sure seems that way. Since seizing the beat, Paulsen has been leaving his house at 6:15 a.m. and heading to Redskins Park at least six days a week, not returning home until 8:30 p.m. or later. On a typical weekday during training camp, Paulsen might go live on every locally produced show aired by WJFK.
“This job opportunity isn’t about me being some young fast-talking kid,” Paulsen says. “It was an opportunity I got because somebody thinks I’ll do a good job.”
But he’s also realized, in hanging around Redskins Park, that running from his childhood is futile. “A couple players have asked me, ‘Hey, were you that kid on Letterman?’” he says. “Yeah, that was me.”