Melissa Mahler wears many hats as part of her career, but first and foremost, she’s a storyteller.
From her days as a news anchor to her role as a business consultant and now as a woman on a mission to share a unique take on the human experience through her website, storytelling has been a consistent throughout her life.
“There’s no shortage of good stories, but the challenge is to tell them in a way that has impact versus just providing information,” Melissa told me in late November, when we had the opportunity to chat about her career and her athlete-driven site, ProPlayerInsiders.com.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with ProPlayerInsiders, the site gives an insider’s look at the lives and lifestyles of NFL players. The site contains some news and analysis, but what sets it apart is its focus on the players’ personal lives and involvement in the community. Posts are written daily by a collection of athletes and experts on a variety of topics. Their YouTube site contains player interviews, including this gem of a baby-faced and beardless Andrew Luck:
Melissa, as ProPlayerInsiders’ co-founder and editor-in-chief, is responsible for many of the player interviews that end up on the site. Well-spoken, yet down-to-earth, Melissa has the traits of a great storyteller and it’s easy to understand why players and their families open up to her. Developing that trust has been imperative to the success of her site and creation of her NFL network.
“We work with the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association) for certain ideas and we work with the league and the teams as well, [but] most of the relationships come from the players and the wives. Each person that you connect with, your goal is to be true to the story, but to have that trust in the relationship as well,” said Melissa.
The “trust factor” which Melissa frequently referenced during our call, led to ProPlayerInsiders’ recent domestic violence series, which was published as the NFL headlines were exploding with players’ transgressions this past fall. The idea for the series came about a few years ago when Melissa interviewed Johnna Janis, who made the documentary Invisible Scars, and former NFL player Al Chesley, who had been sexually abused as a child. A friend encouraged her to continue with the topic.
“At that point, everyone was still focusing on the headlines – the sensation,” said Melissa. “But the real goal is to be in a place where, 12 months from now, as a society we’ve moved forward and we’re not just having the same conversation.”
When I spoke with Melissa, she had completed four roundtable discussions on the topic and had plans for six more. (Check out this discussion on the role of the NFL and other institutions in response to domestic abuse, which includes NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith.)
“Women don’t play the game, but there are a lot of really strong and amazing women that are the significant others of the players that we all follow. That’s been great for a couple of reasons – one, you can meet other really great women and two, it’s just a different insight. […] That’s been really inspirational for me.”
From talking to Melissa, you can tell that ProPlayerInsiders started out as a bit of a passion project for her. For someone who has accomplished quite a bit in her career (Did I mention she has a law degree?), you get the feeling that the inspiration she draws from these people is the driving force behind her busy schedule.
The Snap: Why did you decide to start ProPlayerInsiders?
Melissa Mahler: Sports was one of those things that I had never really focused on, but it was in the background growing up. I was a cheerleader and had done a little bit of track. My family has a history in sports on the baseball side of things. My great-grandfather was just inducted into the minor league baseball hall of fame and then my grandfather was a sportswriter with a love for baseball too.
From growing up in a little bit of a media family, the thing that was interesting to me was the media, more from news side of it. What became really interesting to me was people and telling stories. The idea of ProPlayerInsiders didn’t really come about from a place of “I’m a big sports fan and I follow the NFL.” It came about from looking around and seeing people and saying, “Wow, that’s such an amazing story, but why didn’t you hear about that?” There wasn’t a lot of focus on a way to tell stories that were about what the players and their families were doing, more than just reading a press release. If I were a sports fanatic, the site wouldn’t have come about in the same way.
The Snap: Has there been anyone that you’ve met in your years of doing ProPlayerInsiders that had an impact on you?
Melissa Mahler: There has been a lot of them and it’s hard just to pick one person. One that surprised me was Ike Taylor. A few years ago, someone had set up the interview with Ike and it was at a time when his contract was up. It was unclear at that point whether he would stay a Steeler or not. Anybody who knows about Ike’s career knows that he wanted to stay a Steeler until he retired. The thing that was interesting and impacted me was that his moniker at the time was “Face Me Ike” and we talked about what that meant.
He had viewed himself as the underdog throughout his career – throughout high school, college. In sharing his story about growing up, he wasn’t saying “feel sorry for me,” but it was very real. He and his brother grew up with a single-mother, seemed pretty poor, moved around. One of the things he said was, “I had clothes to wear and food to eat.” And then he said jokingly, “Not really the kind of clothes a 13-year-old would want to wear, but I had clothes.” He had so many stories about what he overcame and he wasn’t telling them in a way of “oh hey, look how bad my life was” but it was raw and funny and serious at the same time. When we hung up the phone, I just sat there because I was really moved by his story and the way he told it.
The Snap: Do you get the time to watch football?
Melissa Mahler: Oh yeah, I have it on all the time. I don’t watch all day long on Sunday, but I do watch some of the games. This is because I do need to take a break. It’s hard for me to watch and not be thinking that someone should be tweeting that. It’s hard sometimes to switch off and watch for pure enjoyment.
The Snap: What are your future plans for Pro Player Insiders?
Melissa Mahler: One is to expand our coverage into other sports. We’ve done a bit more with NBA players and we want to share the stories of other athletes, other than the NFL, which has been 90% of our focus. We created ProPlayerInsiders and didn’t put football in the name because we planned to expand. Also, technology is another big thing for us – adding new platforms for distribution. We also want to continue to get feedback, asking the fans and other people about what might be interesting.
I can’t thank Melissa enough for taking the time out of her day to chat with me (the girl who says in the first five minutes of the call, “I stalked you on LinkedIn” *face palm*) and share her story. Thanks also to our mutual friend, Chrissy Carew, who introduced us. (If you haven’t read Chrissy’s story, you can do that here.)
Photo in this post via ProPlayerInsiders.