Randall Cunningham remembers Kenny Mayne at UNLV football practices pretending he was announcing Cunningham or fellow quarterback Sam King running a play.
King remembers working a summer job with Mayne and hearing him announce make-believe horse races from start to finish, including inventing the horses’ names.
Tony Cordasco, who carved out a career as a longtime Rebels broadcaster, remembers the nearly nonstop laughter while working with Mayne on broadcasting assignments when they were UNLV students.
Mayne’s dedication to his craft and a signature dry sense of humor have helped him attract a large and devoted following in several different roles at ESPN.
“Seeing him rise on ESPN has been amazing,” said Cunningham, who played 16 seasons in the NFL. “But Kenny could’ve been a movie star if he wanted to. He could’ve done anything he wanted.”
Break of his career
Mayne was of two minds when he transferred to UNLV in 1979 after becoming an honorable-mention junior college All-America quarterback at Wenatchee Valley in Washington. He had a strong interest in broadcasting, but also hoped to play in the NFL.
Mayne redshirted his first season at UNLV. In 1980, as the backup to Larry Gentry, he was on the sideline for most of the Oct. 25 game at Oregon. With the Rebels on their way to a 32-9 loss, Mayne was inserted for mop-up duty in the fourth quarter.
On the game’s final play, he dropped back to throw a deep pass and was hit on the right ankle after releasing the ball, breaking the bone and shredding ligaments.
Mayne returned from the injury for his senior season but was beaten out by King, who went on to pass for 3,778 yards, still the school record. King said having Mayne back him up pushed him to that kind of success.
“The gunslinger,” Cunningham called Mayne. “He would sling that thing sidearm, oh, my God, a beautiful spiral and everything. The thing was, he was there with Sam King, and we had two great quarterbacks. It’s very, very unfortunate he landed in (that) spot because he could’ve been starting at a major DI.”
Then-UNLV coach Tony Knap convinced the Seattle Seahawks to invite Mayne to training camp, but he failed the physical because of the ankle injury. Broadcasting, it was clear, would be his future.
The injury lingered in other ways, with Mayne coping with chronic pain even after 10 surgeries that made even getting out of bed a challenge. He tried a carbon-fiber brace in November 2017 that was designed to help injured soldiers, and Mayne ran on a treadmill that day pain-free for the first time.
Mayne and his wife, Gretchen, were so inspired that they created a nonprofit called Run Freely to distribute the device to military veterans. “We’re hopeful that this can change some more lives,” Mayne said. “The letters we get afterward are amazing. You’re almost crying reading them.”
Giving back to UNLV
Mayne, who turned 61 on Sept. 1, joined ESPN in 1994, taking on multiple roles, including the 2011 launch of “Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports” that included videos of him traveling the globe.
In addition to his ESPN work, Mayne was a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2006 and has played himself in TV and movie roles.
Through all of that, he never forgot his college roots. Mayne has returned to speak to the Rebels’ football staff. He hosted the Jerry Tarkanian memorial in March 2015 at the Thomas & Mack Center. He hosted a Zoom call this summer for former letter winners. On his most recent visit to Las Vegas in November, he spoke to student broadcasters. What was expected to be a 30-minute session turned into two-plus hours.
“I wish I had the chance to go back more,” Mayne said. “I appreciate everything I got out of that place. You want to keep the place going and keep it at the highest level it can be.”
Mayne has maintained contact with his former teammates as well, including Cunningham and King.
“I’ve seen him go through those times where he struggled to make it,” King said. “We have always loved and supported him. A lot of different guys are just so happy for him.”
The road to ESPN
Cordasco got to know Mayne when both learned under communications professor Allan Padderud. Cordasco not only remembers the constant laughter, but especially Mayne’s talent.
“He was always so creative,” Cordasco said. “He could do things off the cuff. (Padderud) encouraged him to stay with it. He thought he had a future in television, and he was right.”
Mayne grew up watching broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite and the impactful “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and wanted to sit in their chairs. His parents, both politically active, demanded quiet when the evening national news came on TV.
Mayne at first followed that dream when he was hired at Seattle’s KSTW-TV in 1982, working his way up from monitoring the police scanner to writing and producing to appearing on air. His college football experience, however, prompted station executives to move him to sports in 1986.
“I just shifted from that point,” Mayne said. “Going to Seahawk games was more entertaining than city council meetings.”
In addition to working for the Seattle station, Mayne filed freelance reports for ESPN and made several overtures to work full time for the “Worldwide Leader.”
He grew increasingly frustrated over how he was used at KSTW and walked away in 1989.
“I probably was a little full of myself at the time,” Mayne said. “It was such an impetuous move at the time. I didn’t really have a backup. I ended up assembling garbage cans and selling prepaid legal insurance, any kind of job that I needed in order to pay the bills while I figured out what the heck I was doing.”
He kept filing freelance reports and sending videotapes to ESPN, one time including a note that asked about the network’s intentions. The note listed three potential responses:
— Stand by the mailbox, the contract’s on the way.
— Keep up the freelance work.
— We’ll hire you about the time ESPN5 hits the air.
Mayne got the note back with the middle box checked.
“For better or worse, they hired me about a month or two later,” he said.
Lasting and excelling at ESPN
Mayne’s time at ESPN didn’t begin smoothly. On his first “SportsCenter” broadcast, Mayne lost the script on his computer about 20 minutes before air time. He panicked but remembered most of what he had written and quickly retyped the script before the camera’s red light came on.
“There was a moment, ‘If I just run from the building right now, no one will ever know I screwed this up,’ ” Mayne said. “But instead I stayed.”
Mayne stayed and has lasted at ESPN even as others such as well-known TV personalities Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and Robin Roberts made their mark and left — though Olbermann is back at the network.
His offbeat sense of humor is what sets Mayne apart. But his early interest in hard news has served him well, particularly this year when he helped lead the coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death in January and the recent player walkout across several sports as a reaction to a police shooting in Wisconsin.
That versatility has made Mayne invaluable to his bosses.
“Kenny’s been with us a long time and has done a lot of different things for us over the years,” said Norby Williamson, who oversees “SportsCenter” and is ESPN’s executive vice president for event and studio production. “He’s best-known for anchoring ‘SportsCenter,’ and he’s still serving our audience very well every time he does it. His style is all his own, and he can handle anything that comes his way.”
On the No. 1 play on SportsCenter’s top 10: “This play sets the standard by which all plays shall be measured.”
On when a home run is hit: “I don’t know what that pitch was, but it tastes like chicken.”
General quip: “But we all know that games aren’t played on paper; they are played by little men inside our TV sets.”