The summer of 2014 was the lowest point of my life. I had just been fired by NBC Sports. I had a wife, three young kids, and a brand-new jumbo mortgage. I spent most of those fun-filled summer days in emotional free-fall, on a sickening roller coaster of fear and shame.
If life has ever knocked you on your ass, be it via firing or divorce or sickness or death of a loved one or what have you, you know that your friends come through for you in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes they act exactly as you hoped, getting right down in the ditch with you, eyes level with yours, muddying themselves up as they clean you off, making sure you can count their fingers before they let you walk a bit on your own. My buddy Frank gave me a new laptop and six grand cash that summer. Just fucking take it, dude. My friend Pete texted me every single day. What’s up? How's the to-do list? You get your run in today?
Some other friends don’t come through so much. Even close friends: people you kind of thought you could count on. From these folks you get the smile, the back-pat, the mouthed offer of lunch, soon; the subtle but unmistakable cold shoulder.
And then, if you're extraordinarily lucky, there are a few people who aren’t even really your friends, but who hear about what you’re going through, through the grapevine. And they just kind of appear.
In late August of that ugly summer - if we’re graphing, class, this would be the mathematical nadir of my emotional parabola - I got a call out of the blue from a woman who, if I’m being really honest, I wouldn’t have even called a friend at all. Her name was Maura Mandt. She was the executive producer of the ESPY Awards. Maura ran a production company in New York called Maggievision.
I'm a filmmaker and sports TV producer. Maura and I worked in similar circles. But we hadn’t worked together in 20 years. When we had worked together, it had been an intense, brief, bunker-like experience.
Fade up on the 1995 ESPY's. I was a disturbingly cocky 24-year-old associate producer. Maura wasn’t running the ESPY's yet, but she was definitely a few rungs above me. I got hired to write and produce the five-minute tearjerker-y “Arthur Ashe Award for Courage” featurette: the ESPY's annual salute to someone in the sports world who demonstrates an Ashe-ian level of courage. 1995’s winner was a Special Olympian named Loretta Claiborne. A few years later, ABC would make a movie-of-the-week about her.
Back in ’95, I thought I was quite the cat’s pajamas, creatively. I was accustomed to producing tearjerker-y five-minute featurettes exactly as I damn well pleased, thank you very much. Maura begged to differ. Maura's idea of giving me the tools I needed to do my job as well as possible was to park herself directly up my ass for a month and push back on every single creative decision I attempted to make, challenging my every instinct with the Detroit blast of her iron will. I fucking hatedMaura Mandt. I felt completely asphyxiated by her. After the job was finished, I more or less sprinted out of her edit room with zero plans ever to work for her again.
Except now here I was, 20 years later, at the bottom of said emotional parabola (op cit), wondering how, exactly, I was going to tell my kids that I was going to have to sell their brand-new house.
And lo, here is Maura Mandt on my Caller ID.
No chit-chat. No catch-up. Never was with Maura. Just a concrete offer of work.
One of her directors needed help on a new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary she was EP'ing. Would I be interested in coming on board and co-directing for a few months?
Would I be interested?
I had never even worked on a full-length documentary, let alone co-directed one. And this wasn't just "a documentary": this was a 30 for 30, perhaps ESPN’s most prestigious series. I had produced a bunch of pieces for SportsCenter and Outside The Lines, and I had made some headway as a screenwriter in Hollywood. But I was no documentarian.
Would I be interested?
JOSH: Um, yes, Maura, I definitely would. Thank you.
MAURA: OK good.
JOSH: So, um, how have you bee-
MAURA: Call Jen in my office. [click]
That 30 for 30 turned into three 30 for 30's over the next three years. All produced under Maura’s watchful eye. My freelance position turned into a full-time job at Maggievision. 401K. Benefits. I did not sell my house. Thanks to Maura, I could refinance my mortgage, pay down my credit cards. My kids got to stay in their rooms. Their lives stabilized, and strengthened. As did mine. With Maura executive producing (and putting up her own cash), I created and directed a documentary that Maura sold to DirecTV, who turned it into a series. In 2016, Maura recommended me to the Clinton Foundation to direct the short film that would introduce Bill Clinton at the 2016 DNC. In 2017 Maura got me on a Princess Diana doc for ABC that was seen by 14.5 quintillion people around the world. After three years in the trenches with Maura, she had completely reinvented me as a pedigreed documentary filmmaker.
At which point she promptly fired me.
Fall, 2017. Maura calls me into her office and said, Go, dude. Start your own company. You're ready. You're too much of a wuss to quit and do it yourself so here's some money and you're fired. Let not my office door strike you in the tenderest part of your ass.
I walked back down the hall, cleared out my space in her lifeboat, and walked out of her office. It was October 30, 2017. I never got a call or text from her again.
Which, I now realize, meant only one thing: that I was OK.
Maura Mandt left this earth without warning last Friday at the wrenchingly wrong age of 53. For a more expansive, gorgeously-written understanding of Maura Mandt's utterly unique gale-force career, I would implore you to read the bullseye of a tribute that my friend Aaron Cohen wrote for The Ringer, right here.
But here's the headline: Maura Mandt was arguably the most important woman ever to work in sports media, and one of the most impactful human beings, full stop. She single-handedly injected ESPN - hardly the most liberal wing of the communications business, FYI - with a thunderous, uncompromising drumbeat of social justice for almost 30 years. If you, O sports TV viewer, think the ESPY's honor radical sociopolitical heroes just because, I don't know, that's just how they do or ESPYS gonna ESPY or whatever, think again. Maura Mandt was the voice behind that wizard. Thanks to Maura, the ESPYs speak - and will continue to speak - not in the golf-clap voice of Disney's C-suite, but in the upraised-fist defiant bark of Colin Kaepernick, Caitlyn Jenner, Arthur Ashe, Megan Rapinoe, Bill Russell, and the 141 Michigan State gymnasts Maura personally tracked down and hauled onstage to receive the Arthur Ashe for Courage Award in 2018. The ESPY Awards are Maura's voice. If you've ever shed a tear or been in awe watching the ESPY's - or, shit, even if they've baffled you, or totally pissed you off - you've been in a room with Maura. She looks way more like the picture below than the picture above.
We love you Maura. We'll try to keep it going for you. We will fail, but we will try. Thanks for saving me along the way.