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When others were trying to make sourdough bread or upping their social media game last year, Curt Menefee decided it was time to go back to school.
The political system had seized up in recent years thanks to partisanship. The death of George Floyd and the unrest it sparked amplified his concern. The COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc at every turn.
Things seemed broken, and he felt compelled to do something about it.
Which is the short version of how Menefee — the 55-year-old host of Fox Sports’ NFL pregame, halftime and postgame shows — wound up pursuing a graduate degree in public policy and public administration from Northwestern University.
“Rather than tweet something out or go on a podcast and scream about it like everyone else is doing, it may take a little time, but I thought, ‘Let’s find a way to be a part of the change I want to see,’ ” Menefee said.
If all goes well — and he has an A average heading into his second quarter this month — he’ll have earned his master’s degree by the end of 2022.
He’s not sure what he wants to do with what he learns. That, too, might be part of his education.
“If you want some change to happen, you have to do something besides ask for change to happen,” Menefee said. “The way that happens is policy, whether it’s at the local level or the national level, whether it’s at the political level or maybe it’s with a nonprofit or (non-governmental organization) of some type, helping out at a grass-roots level.
“I knew that in order to do those types of things, at least the way I wanted, rather than just being a, quote, ‘celebrity voice’ helping out, I needed to know more about the process. Instead of just saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?’ here are the steps we need to go through to get something done. And I needed to learn that. That was the impetus.”
It’s a noble impulse, but follow-through is everything.
It had been more than 30 years since Menefee attended Iowa’s Coe College, where he graduated in 1987 with a major in American studies and minors in history and physical education. He had been a good college student but not a great one, focused on a TV career he launched while still in school.
That obviously worked out, but it didn’t necessarily make him an ideal grad school candidate of someone who’s at an age more likely to teach at a university than enroll. It wasn’t enough merely to convince himself this was something worth doing.
After all, while serving as moderator and mediator between Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Michael Strahan Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Johnson might qualify someone for a diplomatic posting, it’s not necessarily going to score points in academia.
But the Menefee viewers see each Sunday and Thursday night during football season comes from humble beginnings. His track record shows he channels his smarts, passion and determination into results, dating to growing up poor in Atlanta, a beneficiary of public assistance.
“Without that, we had no food on the table,” he said. “We had times when we didn’t have electricity.”
As a high school junior, Menefee interned for Atlanta Mayor (and future Ambassador to the United Nations) Andrew Young.
So Menefee’s interest in the art of getting things done has been long-gestating. Only recently has it bubbled back to the surface, however, mostly out of frustration.
“Too little gets done only because people don’t want to work together, and that has driven me crazy,” Menefee said.
Looking into the best place to study both public policy and public administration had Menefee quickly zeroing in on Northwestern.
Had Northwestern rejected him, he wasn’t sure if he would apply elsewhere, such as USC. It was easier to think of this as an all-or-nothing roll of the dice.
Menefee had the blessing of his wife, Viollette, but he didn’t tell his agent, his manager or anyone at Fox what he was doing when he submitted his application last summer.
“If I had to apply for a job as an announcer or involved in sports, I’d have all the confidence in the world because I’ve done it time after time after time after time and I know what’s required for it,” he said.
“For this it was: Am I too old? Am I out of the loop? Do I not understand the system? … By keeping it quiet, then people don’t ask me, ‘Hey whatever happened with that application to Northwestern?’ ”
A member of Coe’s board of trustees since 2010, Menefee reached back to his alma mater for guidance and recommendations. He got help from David McInally, president of the college, and Darryl Banks, a fellow trustee with governmental experience.
Northwestern accepted Menefee a month or so later, a few weeks ahead of the start of the fall quarter. He has been taking courses remotely. He believes he’s the oldest student in his classes, although others are in their 30s and 40s.
Between the demands of his Fox duties during NFL season and preference for California winter weather over that of Chicago, he expects to continue to do so half the school year even after pandemic restrictions are limited.
Once a certain normalcy returns, his plan to is to attend spring and summer classes on Northwestern’s Chicago campus. He and his wife, a retired nurse who grew up in Oak Park and has family in the area, will get a place in the city.
During the season, in the fall quarter, he’ll take just one course. Other quarters he’ll double up. This winter he is taking Ethics and Leadership as well as Scope and Theory of Public Policy.
In addition to lectures, there are discussion groups and required group projects. There’s also a good deal of reading and writing, which took some adjustment at first.
“Writing in an academic way was the challenge,” Menefee said. “I’ve spent the last 35 years of my life trying to write in a conversational tone and be humorous and glib and that sort of thing (for TV), and obviously you can’t do that in an academic paper.”
No one expects citations and a bibliography when he turns in a script at Fox. But he’s studying at Northwestern in a bid to be more than a footnote.
“This is what I need to do and what I should be doing, and it’s the right thing to do,” Menefee said. “And I believe that for the next 35 or 40 years, it will be my way of making the world a better place or at least my way of attempting it.”
If he wants sourdough bread, there’s always the store.