An internet sensation began with a brainstorm last summer, when NFL Live and SEC Nation host Laura Rutledge and SEC Network coordinating producer Baron Miller were thinking of ways to incorporate kids and pets into the seventh season of SEC Nation, SEC Network’s traveling college football pregame show, which would be off the road due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Miller, the creator of ESPNU’s hit segment “Little Experts,” suggested having Reese, Rutledge’s baby daughter, pick games against Paris Tebow and Jagger Rodgers, the puppies of her teammates, Tim Tebow and Jordan Rodgers.
After that first segment, the fan reaction to Reese was overwhelming, and it was clear to the duo that Reese’s picks would be the plan moving forward. The adorable appearances weren’t without their behind-the-scenes challenges, however.
“At the beginning of the season, she could barely walk and was just crawling along, so I knew it would be hilarious,” Rutledge said. “We started out doing them live on the show, and my husband Josh was a saint getting her ready for her pick every Saturday morning.”
“This was the best part,” Miller said. “While the show was going on, I could hear Josh attempting to wake Reese up from a nap to get her ready. There were a few times that Reese would turn the corner carrying Christmas gifts or whatever she could pick up, or she would sprint past the helmets and go right to the phone to see what was going on. Josh would quickly take her back to try and reset her to do it again. It was hilarious.”
As the season went on, Baby Reese hit two big milestones: turning one and learning to walk. The latter created another technical challenge: Reese was now moving too quickly to do the picks live, and the Rutledge family pivoted to taped helmet picks and upgraded to bigger helmets. But Laura is quick to note that Baby Reese’s remarkable record (11-2 during the college football season) is all her own.
“I got so many questions about how we got her to pick and whether we told her which team to pick,” Rutledge noted. “The funniest part for me is that she just naturally knew what to do, and we always let her pick whatever team she wanted,” which was evidenced by the fact that Baby Reese’s two losses on the season were against her mom’s alma mater, the University of Florida Gators.
“From a technical perspective, the show was not easy on anyone this year, so being able to have Reese join Laura for a few seconds each show was something really cool to see,” Miller said. “It resonated with a lot of folks, too.”
The tiny tot became a social media star of sorts, racking up millions of views over the season following her picks each week, and getting the chance to promote the College Football Playoff across ESPN’s social platforms. Fans even bet on games based on her picks every Saturday morning.
Baby Reese also grew up before viewers’ eyes this fall, crawling toward the camera one weekend and walking to the helmets the next. By the end of the season, she was running down the hallway and even providing cliffhangers and fake-outs as she decided which helmet to choose.
“It’s a little emotional for us to see how much she’s grown just over a football season and to see how her personality has evolved, but I’m so thankful all this was documented,” Rutledge said. “It’s very rare to be truly authentic on TV just because of some of the challenges in place, especially this year.
“Being able to watch my little girl do something related to the sport I love,” she said, “is about as authentic as it will ever get for me. Josh was so cute, too, helping pick out her outfits for the picks. This was all so special for us.”
The obvious question, following Reese’s first NFL pick for the Super Bowl this weekend, is will the hit segment continue?
“Ending up 11-2 is unbelievable,” Miller said. “Getting her back on the show or even on the demo field, if she’s up for it, we’d love to have her.”
Rutledge notes that it’s all Baby Reese’s call: “We’ll have to ask her if she’s interested!”
Whether she continues her career as a college football clairvoyant or leaves her helmet highlights behind as she toddles into toddlerhood, one thing is clear: Baby Reese stole the spotlight in a season unlike any other.
Rutledge is closing out her first season as the host of NFL Live in her backyard, as she hails from the Tampa/St. Pete area.
“It’s surreal to me to be returning to the place where my career started, now hosting a daily show on ESPN. I couldn’t have imagined it in my wildest dreams. While I was the Rays reporter, I lived less than a mile from where our set will be for NFL Live at the Super Bowl. I was often driving all night to cover both high school football games and college games, in addition to baseball. Every single frustrating day then led to where I am so thankful to be now. The other day, Dan Orlovsky asked all of us on NFL Live what our ‘why’ is and what motivates us to keep showing up every day. I said ‘it’s showing up for this team and bringing excellence, because that’s what we demand out of each other.’ This will be special for me personally, but the best part is watching my teammates Mina, Dan and Marcus shine!”