Ex-Irish softballer knows show business
If you happen to be talking to Jen Sharron and you really don’t like Notre Dame, by the end of the conversation, you will.
When it comes to Notre Dame, she is the perfect winning play being drawn on the chalkboard. Only you might imagine Father Hesburgh (the former University President) doing the Xs and Os, rather than Lou Holtz.
She was a star pitcher at Notre Dame. But her athletic success is only part of her emotional connection to her school.
“Going to Notre Dame is not like a four-year decision,” she says. “It is a lifetime decision.”
She also says, “Notre Dame shapes people. There are two typical kinds of college graduates. The kind that take and the kind that want to give back. The majority of Notre Dame grads want to give back.”
Sharron, a 2001 graduate, is a living recruitment poster, a lady who is unabashedly positive about the University of Our Lady.
She is also, as you might imagine, a fast-rising success story in that big world that so quickly confronts graduates. At age 31, she is a field producer for ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live. Her life is as fast-moving as the medium she works in. Others shy away from such high pressure. Sharron never did when it was time for her to take the mound for the Fighting Irish softball team, nor does she now.
“I want them to give me the ball,” she says. “They give me the chaos and I organize it.”
At Notre Dame, the lefty pitcher was the first, and the only, player to be named BIG EAST Conference pitcher of the year four straight years. Her statistics attest to an excellence that also got her Academic All-American honors, as well as a second-team and third-team spot on overall All-American teams. When Sharron was playing, Notre Dame won four straight BIG EAST titles and made trips to the NCAA tournament her last three years.
Individually, she was 88-29 as a pitcher, hit .314 and drove in 37 runs, had 76 complete games and struck out 728. She also pitched a no-hitter and after college, threw a perfect game for Team USA against Brazil in the Pan Am Games in Caracas.
But it is the statistic they don’t keep, and one she badly wants, that indicates the further personality traits — beyond competitive to feisty.
“Hit by pitch,” she says. “I must have led in that. I hit a lot of them. Why wouldn’t they keep that? I’d like to know.”
The chances of Sharron attending Notre Dame were somewhat nonexistent when the call came that day to her home in the Los Angeles suburb of Agoura Hills. It was Irish softball coach Liz Miller. Sharron’s father Matt, who answered the phone, had long been inflicted with that dreaded Southern California disease known as I-Am-A-USC-Football-Fan. Almost always, it is incurable.
Matt Sharron wasn’t interested. But when he heard there might be a scholarship offer forthcoming, he decided to go along for the fun of it, make the trip, humor his oldest daughter and get back home in time for the next playing of “Conquest.” But then, in September of 1996, the family went to a pep rally. It was the night before an unbeaten Irish team was to play Ohio State. A leprechaun named Lou Holtz electrified the place, the Golden Dome glowed in the distant light and somewhere along the way, Matt Sharron turned to his wife Joan, and said, “She’s going here.”
“Before we took that trip,” Jen Sharron says, “my father always said that we root for USC and anybody who plays Notre Dame. Now, of course, we root for Notre Dame and anybody who plays USC.”
She got good grades, had snowball fights on the quad, ordered lots of late-night pizza, never missed a home Notre Dame football game and did all the normal things that Notre Dame students do. But her graduation ceremony was far from normal.
While President George W. Bush made the commencement speech in South Bend, Sharron and her softball team were in Iowa City, where they would fall just one game shy of getting to the College World Series. They had lost to Iowa, 6-2, in a game that started with Sharron hitting a home run over the fence.
Graduation took place at the Hampton Inn in Iowa City. Full caps and gowns. Alumni Association executive director Chuck Lennon did the presentations. Each graduate spoke. Many would think of a remote graduation ceremony as a downer. Not Sharron.
“It was intimate,” she says. “My family was all there. I was so close to the girls on the team. It is a wonderful memory.”
She spent some time after graduation as an intern in the Irish athletics department. But eventually, it was time to head back to California and face the tough task that every graduate must face: finding a real job.
For most, even in good economic times, this can be a nightmare. But Sharron, an FTT (film, television and theatre) major, isn’t like most and probably never will be. This is how it went for her:
She had a friend who knew somebody in high places at Fox Sports and called ahead. Sharron called, identified herself and was soon greeted on the other end by senior vice president Jack Simmons and the following: “While her loyal sons are marching, onward to victory.”
She got the job, obviously.
Sharron became a production assistant on the NFL’s pregame show, the one featuring Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson.
“Later, I bought Simmons a Notre Dame cap,” she says, “and he still wears it.”
An on-air guest prognosticator in those days was Jimmy Kimmel, with whom Sharron worked. Later, when he got his own network late-night comedy/variety show, Kimmel asked her to come along. She did, and remains an integral part of the show today.
She had taken her shot at Olympic softball, made some preliminary cuts, played alongside the likes of Jeannie Finch, Crystal Bustos and Lisa Fernandez — all eventually part of the U.S. gold-medal team in Athens in 2004. But she quickly understood that the pre-Athens commitment, with no guarantee of making the final team, would mean extended stays in either Italy or Japan.
Sharron decided to get on with her life.
And now, that life includes daily spontaneity, which is the very definition of live television.
One day, she showed up at work in a skirt and sandals and was told to get on a plane and head to Boston for a remote shot for that night’s show.
“It was St. Patrick’s Day, warm and sunny in Los Angeles,” she says. “In Boston, it was 40 degrees and freezing.”
She found a bar named Sully’s in Charlestown, Mass., paraded on in, set it all up and there they were, crowds of Boston Irish, celebrating for Kimmel’s audience.
She got sent back to Boston again in the fall of 2004, when the Red Sox were rallying from 3-0 down against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
“I waited at LAX for the end of the sixth game,” she says. “If the Red Sox won and tied it at 3-3, I was to get on a plane. If not, I would just go back home.”
The Red Sox won, she flew in again, it was freezing cold again — at least to Sharron’s California thermostat — and she went to work.
“I went to Radio Shack and bought a big television,” she says. “Then I put it up in a street near the Fenway parking lots (the game was in New York) and got electricity strung to it. Some fans came and watched with me, and we had our shot, right there from Boston.”
Like so many Notre Dame graduates, Sharron has departed the premises. But she will never really totally leave.
“I met Jerome Bettis one time,” she says. “I introduced myself, told him I went to Notre Dame and the first question he asked was what dorm I had been in. There is so much common ground. Notre Dame is just a huge family network.”
She lives in Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, in a condominium she shares with her sister Jessica, 29, also a former Notre Dame pitcher. She commutes into Hollywood every day, except those when she is sent off to parts unknown for remote television shots as yet organized.
And she couldn’t be happier, while never forgetting how grateful she is about the decision she made back in 1996 about her school of choice.
“Every day that I get up, I am fired up to get to work,” she says. “After I finished with school, I knew that I needed to find that feeling again, the one that puts fire in your stomach every day.
“Well, I did.”