#ThankYouSigi: Katie Witham and the Extra Mile

NOTE: On Saturday, June 29, the Columbus Crew will induct Sigi Schmid into the Circle of Honor. This is one of several stories I am writing in advance of the ceremony. An updated list of stories will be kept HERE. For tickets to Saturday night’s game and induction ceremony, click HERE.

 

Whenever anyone is starting out in soccer, the people who show you kindness will always have a special place in your heart. For me, it was Brian Maisonneueve, my first coverage subject who within moments of meeting me for the first time gave me his home phone number and told me to call any time I needed anything. He was kind and patient and generous to a 23-year-old kid who had no idea what he was doing. Some people suffer from imposter syndrome, but I literally was an imposter who stumbled into writing about my favorite soccer team despite having no training or qualifications whatsoever. Thanks to Mais, not to mention the friendship and tutelage of folks like Crew broadcaster Dwight Burgess and Columbus Dispatch beat writer Craig Merz, I eventually found my way.

When reflecting on Sigi Schmid, it occurred to me that he may have had a similar impact on FS1 broadcaster Katie Witham. I first met Katie while she was still in college and one of my many joys in soccer has been seeing her career develop, going from Columbus Crew broadcasts to Cleveland Indians broadcasts to national work with ESPN and FS1. She’s smart and funny and exhaustively well-prepared. (And she’s a fearless working mom who didn’t shy away from the camera during her recent pregnancy.) Katie has earned every last bit of her success, but like anyone, she had help along the way.

One of those influential helpers was indeed Sigi Schmid.

*****

While still in college, Katie started doing Crew work in 2005 when Greg Andrulis was coach, but Sigi would be come the first coach she worked with on a full-time basis upon her graduation in 2006.

“A major portion of my job is dealing with head coaches before the game, during the game, and after the game in all aspects,” she said. “There are some that make your job so easy and some that make it very difficult and make you doubt whether you should even be in this business. I was probably in the best situation ever because I had a little bit of Greg Andrulis, and Greg was always tremendous to me, and then Sigi was, and will probably always be, the best coach that I ever had the pleasure of being able to work with because of who he was.”

Breaking into soccer can be intimidating enough, but it was even harder for a young woman. Witham played soccer at the collegiate level, so she knew the game, but she still felt doubted. To this day, she said there are instances where people she interviews will look past her to one of her male colleagues when answering one of her questions. Sigi was not like that at all, even though she was a nervous novice at the time.

“That’s the thing about Sigi…there’s that saying that your character is defined by how you treat those who can do nothing for you,” she said. “I could do nothing for him and he had all the time in the world for me. Even when I did ask a stupid question, he never made me feel like I asked a stupid question. He’d sit there and talk about the game of soccer for as long as I needed on any given day.”

*****

One of Katie’s favorite parts of her job as a Crew sideline reporter was watching the game from behind the Crew bench and listening in on Sigi. It was a chance to see the game through his eyes. During excitable moments, Sigi would blurt out phrases in German. “Probably cuss words,” he said with a laugh.

One of Katie’s least favorite parts of her job as a Crew sideline reporter was being forced to do 60th minute interviews while the game was in progress. The interview coming off the field at halftime was standard and expected. The 60th minute bench interview felt like an imposition, especially depending on how the game was going.

“Sometimes it was NOT going well and there was a LOT of German being spoken on that sideline,” she said. “I’d wait until he finished yelling and then I’d tap him on the shoulder. He’d turn around, look at me, take a deep breath, and say, ‘Alright, I’m ready Katie.’ He would do it every time. What head coach, first of all, allows that to happen in the middle of the second half? But he never said no.”

Sigi was full of surprises like that. From time to time, during the game, he’d turn around and seek Katie’s opinion on how the match was unfolding. At first it was shocking, but Sigi’s occasional requests for her input were genuine.

“Sometimes he would ask me off camera, ‘What have you thought about this first half? No, seriously. What have YOU seen so far?’ It would be a dialogue. That is what made him so cool. It was like, ‘Hey, are you seeing something different?’ He always wanted a different perspective. He truly taught me so much about the game, just in speaking to me and how he carried himself on the sideline and the little things that he would point out. He was just one heck of a guy.”

*****

In September of 2017, Katie had one of her typically hectic weekends. She flew from Columbus to call an ACC women’s soccer match from a studio in Atlanta, then had to fly to Charlotte to host a college football show on Saturday, and then had to fly to Kansas City for a Sunday MLS telecast on FS1. Because of her college football commitments, she would be unable to attend the usual pre-production meetings for the MLS broadcast.

Kansas City’s opponent that weekend was the LA Galaxy. Schmid was in his second stint managing the club, and it just so happened that they played a midweek game in Atlanta and decided to stay out east before heading to KC. Katie had an idea. She reached out to the Galaxy to see of Sigi would be available in Atlanta since she wouldn’t be able to attend the pre-production meeting in KC. Within moments, she had a text from Sigi offering to come to her to meet up and talk about that weekend’s match.

“So here he is in the middle of his road trip and he goes out of his way to find me in Atlanta,” she recalled. “We have dinner, we talk soccer, we talk life, and then he flies to Kansas City and I fly to Charlotte to do college football and then we meet up at the game on Sunday. Again, he goes out of his way to make my life easier. It’s not making his life easier. It’s just little things like that. It’s just Sigi. There was nobody more thoughtful, caring, or generous.”

*****

Mike Lapper spoke to me about how people in Sigi’s orbit naturally came to him for advice on any situation they may be wrestling with. Sigi had so much life experience and knew so many people that he always seemed to have the necessary wisdom or the right connection. It could be something as simple as being in the market for a new car, and Sigi would know someone who owned a dealership and he’d call the guy and help you get a good deal. Or it could be something far more important.

In 2017, Katie was in need of some major career advice. She was contemplating a move from ESPN back to Fox. To that point in her career, she had never had an agent, preferring to handle all the details herself.

“You know me,” she said. “I always do things the hardest way possible.”

The thought of representing herself in these new negotiations was daunting and exhausting, but she was also skeptical about signing with an agent. After all, she had gotten herself that far in her career on her own. She didn’t know which path to take, so she picked up the phone and instinctively sought the counsel of the first person that came to mind for advice.

“I spent a good hour on the phone with Sigi,” she recalled. “He went through all of the reasons I should have had an agent already. Sigi was like my broadcasting manager in that moment. He was telling me how getting an agent could make my life easier. He told me I am a really bad negotiator and I do not point out my strengths well enough. He said, ‘You need somebody to go to bat for you because you’re not good at going to bat for yourself.’ He was very honest. He would do it with a smile and a chuckle, but he’s definitely the reason I ended up getting an agent.”

Once Katie decided to get an agent, Sigi offered to connect her with his own agent, Richard Motzkin, whom Katie describes as “the Jerry Maguire of soccer.” She felt comfortable in those discussions and became the first female reporter on Motzkin’s impressive and expansive roster of soccer clients. It has made all the difference in the world to her.

“It’s better in every way,” she said. “Sigi explained to me that getting a good agent would take stress off my plate, get me better jobs at better pay, and allow me to focus on my job and doing it well.”

It has all proven to be true. Katie Witham is just but one of many examples of how Sigi Schmid is still impacting lives right now and will continue to do so for years to come.

“I will forever be grateful for Sigi because of the way that he treated me as a young reporter and then continued to treat me,” she said. “He always went the extra mile.”

And now, making an appearance as part of this weekend’s broadcast team for Fox Sports Ohio before resuming her national work with FS1, Katie will get to be present for Sigi’s induction into the Columbus Crew’s Circle of Honor.

“So appropriate,” she said. “Knowing that he is going to be the third member inducted behind Brian McBride and Frankie Hejduk, I’m so glad it’s happening. It’s so fitting for him.”

 

*****

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
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