Tough as Steele

ESPN’s Sage Steele is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in, be it antidiscrimination in sports, veterans causes and support for Alzheimer’s sufferers and caregivers.

“It isn’t the prettiest history, for sure, and that is putting it very, very kindly,” she told the Indianapolis Star. “Therefore I feel pressure, maybe self-inflicted. I’ve been nervous. I was nervous about it from the moment I got the assignment. I’m nervous out of responsibility for what it means.”

But Steele is not one to shirk responsibility, particularly when it comes to lending others a hand. She is a member of the board of the Pat Tillman Foundation, named for the former safety for the Arizona Cardinals and Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire in 2004. The foundation works to empower veterans and their families to become tomorrow’s leaders. And on May 19, Steele, a Bristol resident, emceed the Alzheimer’s Association Connecticut Chapter gala at Greenwich’s Belle Haven Club. 

“I think the key word is honor,” she said in her remarks that night. “It is to honor the people who have been diagnosed with, who are suffering from and the supporters of those who have been diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. There are so many people. But here’s the thing:  The bravery, the courage that comes with the people who have been diagnosed and the caregivers as well, it’s something that hits home to probably everyone….The name of the gala to me says everything — ‘Celebrating Hope.’ They are two very different words. We are celebrating the lives of those people who have been affected and we are never losing that hope.”

For Steele, dementia and Alzheimer’s, a specific type of dementia, are personal as her maternal grandmother, Philomena Lena Dipratola O’Neil, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1986. O’Neil was a feisty, glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis look-alike, the kind of woman who wore pearls and red lipstick to the grocery store.

“And to see that disappear was heartbreaking especially as a young teenager,” Steele told an audience that included her mother, Mona Steele, and Aunt Margie, O’Neil’s daughters. “The last time I saw her was in 1999. She was in a home in Westfield, Massachusetts. My mom and Aunt Margie took me to the nursing home. And they said, ‘Listen:  It’s been a few years since you’ve seen your grandmother. You need to realize that things have really changed. She’s not that vibrant personality she once was. You need to be prepared.’ I said, ‘I got this.’ I didn’t have it. 

“So I walked in that room and I’ll never forget the fear because I didn’t know really what to expect. So what did I do? I started talking, which I do too much of, and talk too fast. Just ask my boss. Twenty-four years in the business and I still talk too fast. But I was uncomfortable, so I just started talking and telling her stories: I had graduated from Indiana University. I was about to get married. But there was no focus. She was looking at me but right through me. So I kept talking. At one point though, I was wrapping it up and I just looked at her and said, ‘I love you, Grandma.’ For a split second, something changed. Something came back and I saw this sparkle in her eye. It was literally 2½ to three seconds and it was gone. She went back to staring at the window and chewing on her lip. And that was it. I walked out and I’ll never forget that moment. 

“As an Army brat, we lived all around the world, and I didn’t get to see her much, but when I did it was meaningful. So for that to be the last time I saw her, that was devastating. What it did was it made me mad; it made me angry; it made me sad. It was literally, at that young age, what can we do so no one else has to go through this? And I was just the grandkid. What happens if you’re the daughter, what happens if you’re the son, what happens if you’re the spouse?”

That’s why it was important for Steele to support the association and Alzheimer’s research in other ways as well, like taking her three children on an Alzheimer’s Walk some years ago.

“Sometimes it’s easier to run away when it’s a little uncomfortable and it is, it’s uncomfortable. But is that the right thing? I don’t think so.”

Running away was not part of the code of the Steele household where football and the military were deeply entwined. Born in the Panama Canal Zone, an unincorporated territory of the United States from 1903 to 1979, Steele is the daughter of Col. Gary Steele, the first African-American to play varsity football at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In the Steele home, there were weekend morning room inspections, with infractions for violations. Clothes under the bed would mean 10 pushups.

“My dad made us memorize part of the cadet prayer at West Point….Part of that prayer is ‘Help me to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong. And never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be wrong.’ The easier thing is to say ‘Peace out, I’m leaving, I’m done.’ This hurts. The harder right is to dive in feet first and keep going….” 

Steele has kept going — growing up in Belgium and Greece before landing in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and finishing high school in Carmel, Indiana. It was in South Bend that she began a TV reporting and producing career that took her to Tampa, Florida, and “Comcast SportsNet” in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area, anchoring the flagship “SportsNite” for six years and serving as a beat reporter for the Baltimore Ravens from 2001 to ’05. She joined ESPN in 2007.

It’s not all sports for her, though. Steele has been co-host of ABC’s telecast of the Miss America pageant since 2016, a guest host on ABC’s “The View” and a mommy blogger on the Walt Disney-owned Babble. 

Family is “the reason,” she wrote on Twitter, “I’m able to choose happiness and maintain perspective on everything that comes my way.”

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