Strike up the 'bandleader': How Curt Menefee keeps Fox's eclectic NFL pregame show rolling
Terry Bradshaw can't stop laughing.
He's trying to get to the heart of what makes "Fox NFL Sunday," regularly the top-rated NFL pregame show, so successful and why its sometimes-overlooked host, Curt Menefee, is such a critical ingredient to their volatile mix.
Bradshaw is running through every metaphor he can muster — musical, military, locomotive, you name it — to pin down everyone's roles and exactly how Menefee elevates the show and keeps it running so smoothly. Bradshaw's thoughts flow endlessly and feverishly about their merry band of pranksters, including Menefee, the unsung glue holding the entire operation together.
"Michael Strahan and Jimmy Johnson are the ringleaders, the instigators," Bradshaw posits. "Jay [Glazer] is the guy on the outside of the circle saying, ‘What about me?! What about me?!’ Howie [Long] would be the guy who always says, ‘No, that’s not going to work,’ all serious, like a second lieutenant. Me, I would just be a private. It’s my job to stay out of everyone’s way.
"Curt’s ... the bandleader. The Black Lawrence Welk? No. Hmm ... Duke Ellington? Maybe that’s it."
Bradshaw even likens Menefee to midcentury actor William Powell, often typecast in debonair, urban-sophisticate roles. He's talking on his wife Tammy's cell phone, and Bradshaw ropes her in to help get his thoughts back on track.
"My wife loves trains," he explains. "Curt is the … (to Tammy) Hey, honey, what’s the part of the train with the engine? … Oh, it’s just called the engine? No fancy name for it? OK, Curt's the engine of the train, pulling us through."
Then Bradshaw gets focused. Menefee might be the least-famous member of the team, which boasts four Hall of Famers, a combined eight Super Bowl rings, dozens of Emmys and even acting roles in movies among it. But in Bradshaw's mind, what they do in their hour-long pregame show could not be done without their 56-year-old Renaissance Man host.
"Curt could do our jobs," Bradshaw says, "but we could not do his. Curt makes us better. We’re a much, much better show than we were before. No disrespect to [former host] James Brown. But [Curt] makes the sum of our parts greater than the whole. He gets the how and when, and he just loves football. He makes it all work.
"I just love the guy. I love being around him. We all do. He’s sincere, honest and a good man. And he's just darned good at his job."
Menefee replaced Brown, one of the industry's giants, as the show's host in 2006 and has helped steer ratings to higher levels than before Brown left for CBS.
"We had to remind ourselves early on, he's not J.B.," producer Bill Richards says. "But he's just so worldly and smart, we knew it wouldn't be long before he found his natural role. He balances everyone out perfectly. It's important to have that complement to all the guys who played football or coached."
Menefee's balance also extends beyond the sport they cover. He plays guitar and bass, is an avid reader and a world traveler, having visited more than 80 countries and all seven continents.
"He’s an amazing guy," Bradshaw says. "He’s extremely talented, so smart and knows football."
Preferring to deflect the attention elsewhere, just as he does as the show's facile bandleader/general/engine, Menefee says he's happy to play the role of pass-first point guard dishing to a talent-rich roster.
"Most of the time when we're doing a segment — let's say, the Aaron Rodgers [vaccine] situation," Menefee says. "We've got four [Hall of Famers]. Who gives a crap what Curt Menefee thinks about Rodgers and his responsibility to his team?
"As long as you remember who you are, it’s not that you have no value. That is your value: understanding your role. ... You don’t try to drive the lane and score every time if you are surrounded by 7-footers. Sometimes it’s better to pass to those guys and get the assist."
That, Bradshaw and Glazer agree, is what makes the show's chemistry so strong. They all like each other, they don't step on each other's toes, and it shows onscreen. Richards credits Menefee for putting in extra time early on in his role, knowing that "instant chemistry just isn't a thing. It takes work, time and patience."
"I hope people can see that our chemistry, what happens on the show, it's real," Menefee says. "If you had a camera on in the green room before we go on, it's the same as what we do on air. Those guys make it easy for me, and it's been that way right from the start.
"The rising tide lifts all boats. They embraced me from Day 1. I can't imagine working with a better group of people."
And now they can't imagine anyone else in Menefee's role.
"Yes, he’s our host," says Glazer, the newest core member of the show. "But he’s also our therapist, our field general and our emotional center."
How Curt Menefee broke in at Fox: Cornish hens and pushup contests
Brown had been Fox's NFL pregame host since its 1994 launch. His departure was a big one for the rising network, which had claimed a strong foothold in the NFL market. Some big names were bandied about to take his spot.
Bradshaw, who along with Brown and Long had been with the show since the start, was given a list of potential candidates. One stuck out.
"Curt Menefee," Bradshaw said. "I saw him on the list, and I said, ‘Well, that’s our guy.’"
Menefee had done NFL play-by-play for the network since 1997, and Bradshaw liked what he'd heard. Once he called around on Menefee, Bradshaw was convinced the network didn't need a drawn-out process to find Brown's replacement.
Menefee ended up the pick, splitting pregame duties in 2006 with Joe Buck before being handed the role full-time the next year. Brown had so much respect for Menefee, he gave him pointers on how the group operated, running through their various strengths and individual preferences.
That cheat sheet helped immensely, Menefee says, but he still felt pressure early on. Brown's shoes were huge. The show's personalities were outsized. The expectations were high. What tone should he strike?
"Let's be honest, this is a very, very tough locker room to break into," Richards says. "They all knew each other, had a way of doing things, and Curt was the new guy."
Just prior to Menefee's first show, then-Fox Sports president David Hill whispered some last-minute advice.
"'Don't F it up,' he said," Menefee says with a laugh, "and he didn’t use the letter 'F.' My thought process was, OK, if this thing goes down, there’s only one thing that changed."
Menefee wanted to do whatever he could to fit in with the show's characters, even if, say, the bombast and bluster of Bradshaw wasn't congruent with his natural style. This became evident right away, before they ever hit the set for their first show together.
The "Fox NFL Sunday" crew, including on-air talent and some members of the production team, had a pre-show tradition that went back to the show's first year, gathering at their hotel the day before the broadcast to watch college football.
They'd order some grub, typically burgers and pizza, maybe slug a few beers, talk some ball. To a man, the members of the show say this is where much of their chemistry has been built over the years.
The day before his very first show as host, Menefee arrived at the suite just after the food orders were placed. He called down to add his order, quickly scanning the menu as he did. Menefee was very careful with his choice, knowing the rest of the crew was within earshot.
"I didn't want to come in slumming it and ordering chicken fingers," Menefee said. "So I saw they had Cornish game hen, and that's what I got."
The move backfired. The guys all howled and gave Menefee an earful as soon as he hung up. And they still bring it up to this day.
"Cornish hen! That's like a tiny little chicken, right?" Bradshaw says by phone, laughing so hard he can barely get the words out. "Here we are ordering burgers and nachos, and the new guy is getting the Cornish hen.
"Just way, way too classy for this group. So, we knew right then he was a little different from us."
Another infamous hotel suite story that remains part of the group's lore: the pushup contest.
This was a few years later, when Strahan was the new new guy, just after he'd retired from playing. As they all chatted, the typically modest Menefee mentioned he was actually pretty good at doing pushups.
The ears of Strahan, still in competitive-player mode, perked up. Six years younger than Menefee, and still in pretty good shape, Strahan wanted to find out just how good.
Immediately a wager was set for the following Saturday: Strahan vs. Menefee, going head to head in a pushup contest. The loser would pay the winner $100 for every pushup fewer than the winner could muster. Of course, the rest of the guys wanted in on the action.
Long bet on Strahan. Bradshaw, Johnson and Glazer put their money on Menefee. When Menefee entered the room, Glazer started humming the "Rocky" theme. Bradshaw draped a hotel robe on Menefee and started rubbing his shoulders, as any good corner man would.
With Strahan claiming he could match any number Menefee put up, Menefee went first. He knocked out an impressive 62, and the room erupted.
Then it was Strahan's turn. He started strong before hitting a wall.
"Michael gets into the forties, and he starts struggling, so I think, I've got this no problem," Menefee says. "Michael hit 50, and he was done."
The room erupted again, mobbing their host. Strahan agreed only to pay $600, arguing that Menefee half-assed his attempts. Long paid up the full $1,200, writing a check with the memo "Winner of the pushup contest" before framing it. Menefee never cashed it; the check became a trophy, hanging proudly on his wall at home.
The next day, as Menefee was finishing his opening off the top of the "Fox NFL Sunday" show, Bradshaw barely could contain himself in ribbing Strahan for the hotel-suite loss.
If he hadn't already, Menefee certainly had won over the group that weekend.
"It’s still an ongoing thorn in somebody’s side," Bradshaw says. "It still comes up to this day, and you just sit back and enjoy it."
Curt Menefee's roots — and how he wants to change society for the better
The Atlanta-raised Menefee attended Coe College in Iowa, having followed in the footsteps of former CNN host Fred Hickman, who served as an early mentor for Menefee during an internship there after his freshman year.
Menefee only knew he wanted to work in sports and TV (although Coe didn't offer either major). But even with the impressive CNN on his resumé, Menefee was turned down by various Cedar Rapids stations, which said they didn't need the help. But he eventually heard from local TV institution John Campbell, who invited Menefee to help lug gear for KCRG at the Iowa and Iowa State spring football games.
"He told me, 'You don’t get to be on TV, you don’t get to be famous,’" Menefee said, initially planning for a career behind the camera, not in front of it. "I was willing to do anything. So I did that."
That included lots of grunt work, namely cutting and editing tape, shooting cameras and yes, lugging more gear.
Campbell liked Menefee's voice and recognized his passion. Campbell asked him to do his own voiceovers for the nightly highlights, and it eventually led to Menefee covering high school and college games for KCRG during school.
After college, he made several jumps in TV — including stops in Des Moines, Madison, Jacksonville and Dallas, building a reputation as a rising star in less than a decade — before landing his first big gig.
At age 29, Menefee went to WNYW Fox5 in New York, where he first met Strahan and Glazer. Strahan was in his third year with the New York Giants. Glazer wrote for the New York Post and did TV with NY1. It was the No. 1 market in the country and not for the faint of heart.
But Glazer recognized immediately that Menefee was not some Johnny-come-lately TV guy.
"He broke the news that Jim Fassel was getting the Giants [head coaching] job early on. That was very unusual for a local news guy," Glazer says. "People may not realize, but even now, Curt is a reporter first. He puts in so much time still, going to training camps, making calls to coaches. He's just a worker and a grinder."
When Glazer got a job at MSG Network a few years later to host a Giants show, they asked him who he wanted as his cohost. The producers wanted a player, such as Strahan, who by that point had become "my best friend," Glazer says.
Instead, Glazer insisted it should be Menefee.
"Curt and I had just kind of latched on together working at Giants Stadium," Glazer says. "So I asked [MSG] if it could be Curt so I could learn how to host. What better way to learn that than from Curt? I’ve hosted a bunch of stuff since then, but I owe him the credit for that."
They've become even closer since teaming up at Fox, serving as each other's best men and godfathers for their children.
"He’s just a cool cat," Glazer says, "He’s the guy you always want to be around."
Glazer also credits Menefee with being his pseudo-therapist on the show. Not shy discussing his past mental health issues, Glazer wants to shine a light on Menefee's other gifts — the ones not always evident on television.
"At Fox, when I had my own mental health breakdowns and issues, [Menefee] was the one to take me into [another] room, and he just calmed me down," he says. "I had some bad days. But he has been there for me so many times."
As a cast, they've mastered irreverence on air. It's in some ways their trademark. But Menefee, Glazer says, helps broaden the show when more serious topics arise.
"If we had a guy who was just a host, we’d be screwed, and I'd definitely be screwed," he says. "I owe him so much."
In October, Glazer conducted a stirring interview with the Philadelphia Eagles' Lane Johnson, who opened up about his struggles with anxiety and depression. After the segment, Glazer and Bradshaw movingly shed light on their own mental health struggles.
"Vulnerability like that is true strength." 💪
In addition to @JayGlazer's powerful sit-down with @LaneJohnson65, the FOX NFL SUNDAY team shared an open and honest dialogue around the importance of #MentalHealth and the need to continue furthering the conversation. pic.twitter.com/p77YstXDkV
— FOX Sports PR (@FOXSportsPR) October 31, 2021
Perhaps the most revealing moment: Strahan mentioning that his close friend Glazer only opened up about those struggles to him a few weeks prior to that.
Menefee mostly sat back and listened as the other cast members spoke. Just as he had previously when Glazer came to him seeking help.
"It's just what you do for your friends, I think," Menefee says. "We go way back before this show. It's a long-term love between us. Sometimes people just need someone to listen, or a pat on the back. He's told me I've helped lift him out of dark places, and I didn't always realize I was doing anything special."
But Menefee's desire to help others isn't restricted to close friends and coworkers. In the midst of the 2020 national debate on race and culture, sparked by the death of George Floyd, Menefee acted on an instinct he first had fresh out of college, wanting to make a bigger impact.
The history major initially enrolled in grad school at the University of Iowa to study public administration immediately after finishing his undergraduate degree, but quickly realized he wasn't ready for that. More than 30 years later, the dream deferred presented itself again.
In the fall of 2020, Menefee decided to enroll in graduate classes at Northwestern to study public policy.
"I was surprised when he first told me, but then I wasn't," Richards says. "It took me a while to adjust to a guy in his 50s not being able to grab a drink because he has five chapters to read and midterms to cram for.
"But he's such a learned guy, and it just made so much sense, knowing how sensitive and smart he is."
One day, Menefee says, he'll apply that degree toward a greater good in society, be it at the local or national level. He takes classes online in the fall and hopes to attend in person as he finishes up his degree this spring, COVID restrictions notwithstanding.
"The events of 2020 made me realize," Menefee says, fearful of sounding too boastful, "that I have a position of influence. I figured I needed to take certain steps to be a part of [making] positive change in this country. ... It came from realizing you can ask people to make change. But now I feel like I can come from this with more information to help bring about that change."
Not yet ready to, say, make a run at Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti's job, Menefee is happy to continue in his on-air role that he calls "the best job I could ever imagine."
As are his fellow show partners.
"I think they should do a 'Last Dance' on us one day," Glazer jokes. "But not too soon because I am enjoying the hell out of all of this. We have the most fun together you could ever dream of."
"Off camera, they're the same as they are on," says Richards, "but with more curse words."
Adds Menefee: "If you put together all the stories of us behind closed doors, first of all, we'd all be fired. But you'd have a hell of a book."
But as they wrap up another successful season, their 16th with Menefee as host and their 13th all together, the eclectic group hopes to ride it out as long as it can.
"We genuinely love each other, all of us do," Glazer says. "We still enjoy hanging out together. We spend so much freaking time together, whether we’re in L.A. or not. We’re still that close.
"I like to call us the first family of football, and if that’s the case, Curt is our soothing dad in that way. Sort of half dad, half big brother. Whatever he is, he can't be replaced."