By Harry Minium
The first time Jay Harris saw Stephanie Prigmore was during a Labor Day fraternity dance at the Webb Student Center. She walked in on the arm of one of Jay’s good friends and even from across the room, she took his breath away
He walked over and boldly asked her to dance, and she smiled and agreed. She then whispered, “you’re cute.” He asked her to say it again, but all she did was smile and shake her head.
It was the beginning of a love story, although it took a while to play out. She was an Old Dominion University student and a recent transfer from Virginia Union and had a boyfriend. He was an ODU graduate living in Washington, D.C. and was just getting over a tough breakup.
It was a few more months before they began dating, but when they did, they knew it was for life. They were married a few years later.
Jay can’t say how many times he’s thanked God that he was at that dance and looked up when she walked in.
Without Stephanie, he would not have his job at ESPN, where he is a SportsCenter anchor whose name, face and voice has been seen by millions of people. If it seems like he’s been on ESPN forever, he almost has. He’s been there 18 years, a lifetime in the often-perilous world of sports broadcasting.
After Jay was twice offered a job by ESPN and said no, Stephanie took out a yellow pad and wrote down the plusses and minuses of leaving a Pittsburgh TV station and moving to Bristol, Connecticut to try something he’d never done before – sportscasting.
All he’d ever done was hard news on both radio and TV.
“She looked at me with that look that men get when they’re about to mess up, but they don’t know it, but their wife or significant other does,” he said.
“Once she put it all down on paper, it was a no-brainer.”
Nor without Stephanie would he have two beautiful, successful children. Stephanie gave up her job as a bank manager, in part because her husband worked such crazy hours, to become a full-time mom when their son, Bryce was born.
She nearly died in childbirth, and that brought them even closer together, close enough years later to adopt a little girl they named Tyra.
“Family, it means everything to Jay,” said Nancy Lieberman, the former ODU All-American women’s basketball player. “He adores his wife and children. They’ve been through a lot together.”
He also cares for what he calls his second family – the ODU community. Jay is a member of ODU’s Board of Visitors, has spoken at ODU graduations and other events and will do just about anything asked of him to help his alma mater.
That includes joining Lieberman tonight at 8 p.m. in the Big Blue Room of Chartway Arena to host an event intended to promote the ODU women’s basketball program.
Harris will query Lieberman about ODU’s past and head coach DeLisha Milton-Jones about the future of the basketball program, which looks pretty good given that the Monarchs have ten newcomers, including several talented players from the transfer portal.
Milton-Jones was introduced to the media via Zoom during the early stages of the pandemic. Last season, no more than 250 fans could attend a home game. She hasn’t met most of the reporters who were on that Zoom call and hasn’t had a chance to meet many of ODU’s fans.
Tonight’s event is something of a coming out party.
The event is open to the public.
Harris was on campus when the then-Lady Monarchs won their third national title in 1985. He worked for WODU radio and recalls he didn’t do a whole lot on that team.
“I’m a Lady Monarch fan from way back because my mom played basketball,” he said. “But I was so involved in campus life, in Greek life, that I didn’t give that team as much attention as I should have.
“That always bothered me. I’ve been all-in ever since.
“I believe in DeLisha. She’s going to do wonderful things here. I was happy to come here with Nancy to try and properly introduce her to the community.”
Harris was born in Norfolk and lived for several years in Portsmouth. After his parents divorced when he was a child, he moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his mother, Ola Harris, and was raised in the shadows of the University of North Carolina.
He was a good student in high school and had his pick of schools, but chose ODU in part to be closer to his father, Al, a longshoreman who spent much of his life in the Park Place neighborhood just south of ODU.
Al was a philanthropist, albeit of the blue-collar variety. Beyond being a longshoreman, he was a handyman who helped neighbors repair houses. He helped friends and sons and daughters of friends get jobs. He would slip some money to those who were down and out. Jay Harris said he helped hundreds of people over the years.
When Lieberman and Harris gathered in Newport News this summer to dedicate a “Dream Court” at the Newport News YMCA, it was named for Jay Harris.
However, Harris made it clear to everyone there, he wanted people to remember his father Al.
“My name’s on the court,” he said. “But my father’s spirit is there.”
Harris worked at ODU for the campus information center, with the student government and joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. “I was a sports fan,” he said. “But I didn’t go to a whole lot of games.
“I was so involved in campus life. I loved it here. Time just flew by.”
He graduated in 1987 with a degree in speech communications with an emphasis in mass media. But instead of using his degree to get a job, he moved back to Chapel Hill and attempted to make a career in music with high school buddies in a band called “After Six.”
“I had a job, we practiced, and we wrote some original stuff,” he said. “But as with most things like that it didn’t work out.”
Jay Harris with son Bryce
While working at MCI Communications in Washington, D.C., he was inspired to chase his dreams by a co-worker who quit to move to Chicago, as she said, to “become the next Oprah.”
She didn’t succeed but her inspiration led Harris quit and to attempt to live out his dream of becoming a broadcast news reporter.
He called Don Roberts, now a news anchor at WAVY-TV, at radio station WRAP and asked for a job. I’ll hire you, but I can’t pay you, Roberts said.
Harris came to Norfolk anyway, and after a short time, Roberts found some money to pay him.
He did several stories on the Greekfest riots in Virginia Beach for the Sheridan Broadcasting Network, the largest black-owned network in the country at that time.
“That got my foot in the door,” he said.
He moved to Pittsburgh, where he worked for a Sheridan radio station before applying at WPXI-TV, a 24-hour news station, to become a news update anchor. After a few years, he called WPGH-TV, and asked for an on-air reporting job.
“They said I didn’t have enough TV experience,” he said. “But I had been in the market for six years,” he said. “I just needed a shot.
“The first weekend they made me put my report on tape. The next week they let me go live.”
After three months, they asked him to work full-time. That was 1998.
Then, in 2003, he sent a tape to a friend who liked it and showed it to an ESPN executive. Harris loved sports but had never done a sports show before.
“I wasn’t thinking of ESPN as a goal,” he said. “I was thinking more like Good Morning America or the Today Show. That was my dream.”
Jay Harris often comes back to ODU’s campus.
But ESPN officials saw something in Harris that even he didn’t see — the craft he honed during his years on radio and television. He knew how to tell stories well. He knew how to keep viewers engaged.
ESPN had a corral full of opinionated sportscasters but not story tellers like Harris.
He is also referred to as the Swiss Army Knife at ESPN because he’s filled so many roles, including his current job, co-hosting SportsCenter with Hannah Storm.
His first on-air assignment was on ESPNews, and he admits his first time on the air “I was scared to death.”
“My first shifts were in the afternoons, and I was just reading the news,” he said.
But his first show came Saturday nights, from 6 until 9, during the college basketball conference tournament time leading up to March Madness.
“As you might imagine, there was some pretty exciting games with a lot of moving pieces and they were all moving at the same time. I was interviewing coaches after a game I didn’t see. I remember at 9 o’clock, walking off the set by fanning my butt like it was on fire.
“I always tell people, if you can do ESPNews, you can do anything.”
He quickly moved up the ladder and has survived the seemingly unending number of layoffs that have hit the The Worldwide Leader in Sports.
Professionally, life has been a dream. Personally, he and Stephanie have overcome some difficult hurdles.
Stephanie had just given birth to Bryce in a Pittsburgh hospital, and she was so happy as she held him in the bed. Her parents, Barry and Regina Prigmore, who still live in Virginia Beach, beamed at their daughter and grandson.
Then, suddenly, she said she felt very tired and asked someone to take Bryce.
“I knew something was seriously wrong, but I didn’t know what,” she said.
The next thing she remembers is waking up in ICU the next day.
Your uterus is supposed to contract after childbirth, and hers was expanding. And that was causing her to bleed profusely. She almost bled to death. Nurses could not find a vein with enough elasticity to give her an IV so they had to give her anesthesia and through a small incision in her chest.
Because she was unconscious, the doctor had to ask Jay for permission to do emergency surgery. It would mean that she would never be able to have children again.
Without hesitating, Jay said “Do what you need to do to make sure that Bryce has a Mom.”
When she woke up and learned she could not have more children, Stephanie she was devastated.
“It was one of the most horrible feelings I’ve ever had,” she said. “I was crushed.
“Part of my identity was the ability to bear children. It was important to me because Jay’s father was the last male Harris. It took me a very long time to get over not being able to have another child.”
Tyra and Stephanie Harris
They had talked about adopting even before they got married, but rather than go to an adoption agency, they went to a social services agency to inquire about becoming foster parents.
Stephanie wanted a boy but then she got a call about a little girl.
“They told us they realized we asked for a boy, but we have this little baby, who is a month hold, who needs to be moved, that we think would do well with your family,” Stephanie Harris said.
Bryce wanted a sister, and he got a good one.
“We got this 36-day-old baby girl and fell in love with her instantly,” Stephanie Harris said. “She’s now 15. I don’t know what our lives would be without her. She brings so much joy to us.”
Tyra’s birth parents were struggling with personal issues and eventually gave up rights to their daughter. Jay Harris said, “It was a very courageous thing to do, and that the right thing to do for Tyra.”
Both the Harris children are high achievers. Bryce graduated from the University of Hartford and is producing music and doing social justice work on the internet, both on podcasts and websites. A story he wrote after the murder of George Floyd was published in the Hartford Courant.
He is the director of public relations for The Amendment Project, an organization that works for racial reconciliation and is pushing for the federal government to embrace reparations as partial compensation for 400 years of slavery.
Tyra is in the 11th grade where she is a standout student with a pair of interests that don’t seem to mesh – theater and marine biology. She’s scoping out colleges now
Stephanie has sacrificed for both her children. A graduate of Green Run High, she has worked since she was 16. “I enjoyed working,” she said.
But when Bryce was 18 months old, she took on another job, more important than her role as a bank executive. She has been a full-time mom.
They had problems at daycare and, she added, “I never got to see Bryce. I would be one of the last people to leave work and by the time I got him home, fed and bathed him, it was time for him to go to bed.
“And Jay’s schedule was so crazy.
“I had never not worked and that was quite an adjustment for me. But I wanted to do what was best for my children.”
Jay, she said, is an awesome dad.
“He couldn’t be more proud of his kids whether watching Tyra in a show or listening to some music that Bryce has produced,” she said. “He loves his kids.”
Jay is 56 years old with two years left on his ESPN contract. The Harris family will be empty nesters when his contract expires in 2023 and he could move on to other challenges.
But he said he loves what he does and if he finishes his career at ESPN, he will have lived a happy life.
“I haven’t explored anything, and no one has come calling,” he said. “Right now, I’m thinking, if I’m here the rest of my career, that ain’t bad. That’s a pretty good run and I’ve had a lot of fun.”
When students ask him whether they should go into sports or news, he tells them what they need to do is become journalists. Sports reporting and news reporting are essentially the same craft, and that’s something that even a lot of professional journalists don’t quite understand.
“You want to be a storyteller,” he said. “If you master that, you can always work. You can always eat. Just do your research and work hard.”
When you watch SportsCenter, you can tell that Jay Harris and Storm genuinely like each other. She refers to Jay Harris as her “work husband.” Her husband in real life is Jay’s golfing buddy, Dan Hicks.
“Hannah is so good at her job, sometimes when I’m working with her, I’ll take mental notes,” he said.
Hannah Storm calls Jay her “TV husband”
“She’s so thorough. Sometimes, she will see things that I miss. You’re never too old to learn and I’ve learned a lot from her.”
As a woman in sports broadcasting, Storm has had to battle some headwinds.
“She’s a pioneer, and she has worked very hard to get where she is,” Harris said.
Stephanie said she loves watching her husband on TV and that the secret to his success is that the Jay Harris you see on ESPN is the Jay Harris she sees in their living room.
“He doesn’t change when he’s on the television screen,” she said. “He believes that the best way for him to do his job is to have a conversation with one person.
“That’s how he approaches his job, as if he’s with one friend or a group of friends, just chatting about sports.”
Jay recalls his father saying much the same thing.
“My dad would say to me: ‘Son, when I watch you on TV, it’s almost like you don’t have a job. You know what you’re talking about, and you’re laughing and really enjoy what you’re doing. So many people work so hard and they don’t like their jobs.’ “
Harris said “that for me, this is a get-to job, not a have-to job.
“I get to do this. And I love doing this.”
Minium was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in his 39 years at The Virginian-Pilot and won 27 state and national writing awards. He covers ODU athletics for odusports.com Follow him on Twitter @Harry_MiniumODU, Instagram @hbminium1 or email [email protected]