ESPN sports broadcaster Lauren Sisler visited Samford University on March 28 and shared the experiences that led her to become a broadcaster and storyteller.
Sports have dominated Sisler’s life since she was a child growing up in Roanoke, Virginia. Her father coached for various sports while her brother alternated between baseball, basketball and football. On weekends, Sisler watched NASCAR with her family and sometimes visited racetracks. Her brother even joined a pit crew.
“If we were not playing sports, we were watching them. Sports were part of my family and upbringing but I never knew I was headed in this direction as a sports broadcaster,” Sisler said during the event.
Although she didn’t see herself as a sports report until much later, a significant family tragedy caused her search for a greater purpose both in her career and life.
Sisler discovered her passion for sports at age 3 when her parents enrolled her in gymnastic classes. Her love for gymnastics continued throughout her childhood and she began training for national competitions and eventually earned a spot at a national gymnastic competition in Florida.
For Sisler’s first competition, she had to walk across a balance beam. While she waited for her turn, nervousness overtook her.
“My nerves were running rampant,” Sisler said. “I just wanted to compete and do good on the national stage.”
Sisler’s turn arrived and she mounted the balance beam. She trudged across it and right before her dismount, she wobbled and fell. She slammed into the mat and a wave of disappointment rushed over her.
“In that moment, I had disappointed my coaches and my parents. Here I am on the national stage and I fall off this balance beam,” she said. “I was heartbroken.”
Amidst the silent crowd, Sisler’s mother suddenly leaped up and told her they were still going to Disney World.
“That stuck with me because my parents were always supportive and part of my life every single day,” Sisler said.
Sisler said her parents and sports have been her biggest influencers throughout her life.
Even after falling at her first national competition, Sisler persisted and continued honing her gymnastic skills. She eventually applied for college gymnastic scholarships.
She applied to universities across the U.S. before finally attending the New Jersey-based Rutgers University. At 17, Sisler left her family to start her first semester. Despite being three states apart, Sisler called her parents every day.
On March 23, 2003, during her second semester, Sisler called her parents while studying. Their conversation drifted from gymnastic practice to school and then life. As they said goodbye, Sisler told her parents that she loved them. She hung up and went to bed.
During the middle of the night, Sisler woke to her phone ringing and saw that it was her parents. She knew this could not be good but answered the phone. It was her father.
“My heart was pounding as I answered the phone. He was in so much distress and you could the hear the pain and distress in his voice,” she said.
Sisler’s begged her father to tell her what had happened. Sisler’s father told her that her mother had died.
“Those words pierced me like a knife,” she said.
Sisler’s father told her to pack and head home that night and said he would pick her up from the airport when she arrived.
After landing in Roanoke, Sisler sprinted through the airport terminal until she reached the parking lot. Her eyes darted across the lot as she searched for her father.
“All I wanted to do at that moment was jump into my dad’s arms. I needed answers. I needed to know what was wrong right then and there,” she said.
Her father never arrived. Sisler’s uncle and cousin picked her up instead. She assumed her father was at home or the hospital. During the ride, Sisler finally asked where her father was. Her uncle slammed on the brakes and parked on the side of the road. Sisler’s uncle told her that her father had died as well.
“With those words, my entire world flipped upside down. Two seemingly healthy people, in my mind, had passed away within hours of each other,”she said. “How could this happen to my family?”
Months passed before Sisler discovered that both her parents had died from prescription drug overdoses. Both had suffered from chronic pain and had been requesting stronger medications. At first, their doctor had been prescribing them 90-day supplies of Oxycontin and eventually Fentanyl, a pain patch only given to terminally ill patients. However, neither of Sisler’s parents were terminally ill.
“What started as them coping with their chronic pain became abusing their prescription drugs,” she said.
Her parents’ death hit her the hardest when her family’s belongings were repossessed for auction later that year. As the moving truck sped away, Sisler stood in her empty house cradling a few family photos.
“Every single tangible memory I had of my parents was gone in that moment. When you think that your world has stopped spinning, you just want to give up,” she said. “You have these dreams … set forth and then it is all taken away from you. Everything you do in your life has changed because of this drug and because of this addiction.”
With the school semester approaching, Sisler considered quitting college. Her aunt and uncle encouraged her to continue, however, arguing she had made a commitment to her university, teammates, coaches and herself.
“That was the best advice and the best thing that happened to me. It was what I needed but it was a rollercoaster ride,” she said.
Sisler returned to school but began failing classes, neglected exercise and struggled in gymnastics. Instead of calling her parents before bed, she now cried herself to sleep.
As the school year progressed, Sisler tried moving on. She focused on becoming a sports doctor, a childhood dream, and majored in sports medicine. However, she was still unhappy, her parents’ deaths continuously weighed on her.
She began searching for a greater purpose and found it not in a hospital but on the playing field. So, Sisler switched her major to sports broadcasting.
“I realized I was sulking in this tragedy and ultimately knew I had to regain control. Nobody was going to do this for me,” she said. It was up to me to make that decision and change my path and that started with my career path.”
In 2006, Sisler graduated from Rutgers with a degree in communications and bounced between TV stations until she landed at ESPN in Birmingham. Throughout her career, Sisler said, she learned the power of storytelling.
“It is not just about the wins and losses, the big interviews or the national championships. It’s about the stories,” she said. “It’s about giving back to the community and being a public service for other people.”
Sisler said becoming a storyteller helped her be more open about her parents’ story. For seven years, Sisler refused to discuss their deaths due to the stigma surrounding addiction.
“My ability to tell stories was blurred because of my own misguidance and my inability to face my own truth. I was so ashamed because for me it seemed like my parents were failures,” she said. “People would think they had failed me.”
However, Sisler then utilized her parents story to help her community. She has spoken publicly on college campuses and has become an advocate for families battling drug addiction.
“I realized addiction impacts so many people and their families. I was able to share my parents’ story more truthfully and say this is what happened to my parents but how they died does not define how they lived,” she said.
Sisler continues to struggle coping with her parents’ deaths even 16 years later.
“The hardest part for me is all the milestones my parents have now missed. They were there for my high school graduation, but they weren’t there for my college graduation,” she said. “I got engaged a few months ago. They won’t be at my wedding to walk me down the aisle. Those are the things that hurt me the most.”
However, from this tragedy, Sisler said she discovered her purpose.
“This tragedy has molded me into the person I am today and it is why I chose the path I did for my career,” she said. “Go into a career not because you’re just passionate but go into it with a purpose.”