Representing The 808
Neil Everett says he owes his career as an ESPN anchor to his years in Hawaii, and expresses his thanks by peppering his national broadcasts with island phrases
In the promotions leading up to his talk at Downtown Athletic Club, ESPN anchor Neil Everett was described as a local boy who made it big. This brought up the expected question: Does the Portland-born and Spokane-raised journalist qualify for the coveted title of “local boy”?
For anyone who has heard him speak of his time in Hawaii and how those 15 years shaped his future, the answer is a resounding yes!
Neil Everett Morfitt – yes, that’s his real name – first arrived in Hawaii while a student at Willamette University. At the time, Williamette was the Northwest campus of choice for many Hawaii residents, and the affable Everett connected with the displaced local boys. Former UH offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Tommy Lee was the football coach, Aloha Stadium manager Scott Chan was the Bearcats’ quarterback, there was a Hawaiian club on campus and his frat brother was a Kaiser High alum who invited him to visit for the summer.
“I couldn’t find Hawaii on a map, and then when I landed it was like, ‘God, why doesn’t everybody live here?'” says Everett with an ever-present smile and boisterous laugh.
Within three years he was back in Hawaii looking to make the 808 his permanent home. He had recently graduated from the University of Oregon and had gotten a “dream job,” making $600 a month at an upstart radio station in the coastal town of Florence, Ore. It was there, while working as the news director at KGBU during the day and bartending at night, where the Neil Everett secret to success blossomed: Work hard and be nice to people. It’s not that hard.
His employer in Eugene had connections on Maui, so Everett had a job on the Valley Isle. Because of his roommate, he had a place to live. Now he just needed to learn the intricacies of a Hawaii music station that required a certain number of Hawaiian music songs per hour. It may have been his toughest test to date.
“I’d be looking at the names, and I played the Gabby Band (as the song cart was labeled) every time because that was the only one I was absolutely convinced I could pronounce every time.”
He learned soon enough.
Honoapiilani, Kalanianaole, Aiea – a big stumper that had him pleading for a consonant – eventually came natural. And just in time. He was about to move on to bigger things, and at a surprisingly higher level of pay. Hawaii Pacific College was looking for a sports information director (SID). Everett applied.
“The job was advertised at $18,000, and I remember they hired me and they said, ‘We are going to pay you 20.’ I was like ‘Yes! I can retire!'” says Everett with a roar of laughter.
Obviously he didn’t strike it rich, but he found a job he adored and the people who not only helped his career but helped him grow as a person. The new SID would attend games, write box scores, handwrite the game story, make five or six copies and rush them around town, trying to get whatever publicity he could for the small university’s sports teams.
“God, I loved it. I would drive to the Advertiser and hand them the information. I would walk over to the Star-Bulletin and I became friends with Ferd (Lewis), Cindy Luis, Al Chase, Randy Caliente. I would drive to the TV stations and hand it to them just hoping (to get something on the air).”
It also was at HPU where he met one of the most influential people in his life, then-basketball coach Tony Sellitto, whose mere mention brings a redness to Everett’s eyes.
“Tony is, to this day, and I’ll get choked up talking about it, but he’s one of the dearest, dearest, dearest people ever.”
Sellitto wasn’t just a friend, he was a mentor and father figure.
“I learned a lot about being a man from Tony. I remember his first day on the job, we were walking down Fort Street Mall and I said something about someone and he said, ‘Don’t ever say something about someone you would never say to their face.’ I use that today when I’m on the air or when I am writing something. I try not to say anything in a highlight or on camera that I wouldn’t say if they were sitting right in the room. I learned a lot from him. I’ve been very blessed to be in his circle.”
While at HPU, and after constant pestering, Everett got a job at KITV, where he was a news writer for the 10 p.m. News. He moved up to weekend assignment editor – where he gave himself the job of covering the sound check at a Van Halen concert – and sports anchor, all while working full time for Hawaii Pacific. The guy who describes himself as anything but a workaholic, and who would like to win the lottery and spend his remaining days on the beach, was working 60-80 hours a week.
Very busy, but very content, Everett had it made. He had a girlfriend, a job and an ever-widening group of friends. He was soon to get the greatest opportunity of a lifetime.
Brendan Murphy, a former HPU basketball player then living in New York, met an agent while working out in a gym. Murphy had some advice for his recent acquaintance: Check out Neil Everett in Honolulu. The agent called and Everett dismissed the idea. He was living in Hawaii and doing just fine, but youth can make oneself bold and he spouted off a massive request: “Get me an interview at ESPN and then we’ll talk.”
“I don’t know what possessed me to tell him that. I in no way thought I had the skill set to work for ESPN, but you have to dream big, and I separated my shoulder reaching for that ring. I don’t even know if I said it seriously, but I said it, and I’m glad I did.”
Everett sent him a tape. Soon he had an agent and an audition at the world’s largest sports broadcasting company. The opportunity was exciting – and humbling.
“I didn’t do my homework. I think I may have been full of myself. I thought, ‘I’m so cool here it will transfer to there,’ but it didn’t. I kicked the interview. I was awful and I knew I was awful. Everyone knew I had this interview, and I wasn’t just going to Connecticut for me, I was going to Connecticut to get a job for Hawaii and I had failed, and that really weighed on me.”
Everett’s chance at the gold ring had slipped through his fingers, but temporarily. A year later his agent called again. ESPN wanted another look. This time he studied, went to Bristol and killed it. He knew the job was his. It took a year. That somehow he might have failed his second audition didn’t stop his friends from applying some good-natured ribbing.
“I remember seeing Jim Leahey, whom I just totally admired, and he just looked at me and shook his head,” says Everett with a booming laugh. “I couldn’t watch SportsCenter after that. It was like seeing your girlfriend make out with someone else.”
Finally, after a painful two-year wait, Everett was headed for the epicenter of sports, Bristol, Conn., to represent his adopted home and spread the unique beauty of pidgin to the world. “Howzit?” became a SportsCenter starter and a staple around the halls. For the first time outside of tourist videos, and maybe the old Hawaii Calls radio show, braddah, da kine and Hawaiian Time time markers made their way into homes throughout the country. He even made SportsCenter commercials, the pinnacle of athletic journalism success, it seems.
“When I had come home to Hawaii after having left to work at ESPN and I started doing SportsCenter, all anybody said was, ‘Brah, when you gonna do a commercial?’ The commercial is really the badge of honor more than doing the premium show.”
Eventually he did, immortalized yet nearly unrecognizable upon the shoulders of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, his okole getting most of the camera time.
Now anchoring the network’s West Coast edition of SportsCenter – five hours closer to Hawaii, he points out – Everett has found his comfort zone. He has a co-anchor with whom he shares a natural chemistry, broadcaster Stan Verrett; a steady work schedule; girlfriend Stephanie Krohn; and a large group of friends he identifies as his greatest accomplishment – one being Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Walton, with whom he attended a RatDog/Allman Brothers concert.
“A friendship is bigger than any story I’ll ever do,” says Everett, who interviewed legendary basketball coach John Wooden shortly before his death.
One day Everett hopes to come full circle by teaching part time at HPU while splitting time between Oregon and Hawaii. Until then, he’ll continue to inform, entertain and bring pidgin to the masses.
“I owe that to Hawaii, at the very least, to keep her in the public eye the best I can,” he says. “If it wasn’t for Hawaii, I wouldn’t be on that stage. I’m not going up there acting Hawaiian. I am just being me, and I just happened to be blessed to have lived in Hawaii for as long as I did, and it transformed me into the man I am and the broadcaster I am.”
At the opening of his address to the athletic club audience, Everett began by thanking the roomful of friends old and new.
“I didn’t come here to do anything but to say thank you. I thank Hawaii for allowing me to be a part of you. You folks are who I work for. ESPN is who the check says, but I work for you. It’s the least I can do for everything you folks have done for me.”
A local boy indeed.