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Stepping off the sidelines (cont.)

Posted: Friday February 17, 2006 1:14PM; Updated: Saturday February 18, 2006 8:04PM
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That said, CBS executives did consider Bernstein's ambitions when pegging her to host the NCAA gymnastics championships and the Emmy-nominated anthology series "Championships of the NCAA." (She also did sideline work for the NCAA basketball championships.) And chances are, she would have kept plugging away at the network had she not been confronted by Borenstein's illness.

Back in high school, the Borensteins and the Bernsteins used to joke that if both Scott and Bonnie were still single by the time they turned 28, they'd get married. "That way," Bernstein says, "I'd have been able to keep my monogrammed towels."

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That never happened, but the two remained exceptionally close. When she learned of her friend's illness, Bernstein reacted with the same intensity she brought to her career, typically visiting Borenstein at the hospital after hours and staying until both were too tired to talk anymore.

"The first round of chemo appeared to work, and the whole time in the hospital he was studying for the bar exam," Bernstein tearfully remembered on Wednesday, pausing several times to collect herself. "But right around the time he was supposed to take it, he had to be readmitted to the hospital. On the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, I was supposed to drive down from New York to take him out for dinner to celebrate his first day of work at his new job. I called and said, 'What time should I pick you up?' He said, 'I can't go. I'm on my way back to the hospital.' And I just had this horrible feeling that he was never going to get out."

Shortly after Borenstein's death on Oct. 18, Bernstein approached executive vice president of CBS Sports Tony Pettiti and made a rather startling plea --  would he release her from the four-year contract she'd signed last June? "I didn't expect him to say yes, and he was under no obligation to do so," Bernstein says. "But a week later, he told me, 'We consider you family here, and we want you to be happy.' After that, we agreed we wouldn't share it with anybody. I didn't want to be considered a lame duck and answer incessant questions as to why I wanted to leave, so I kept it on the D.L. That, I guess, was mistake numero uno.

"What I've learned is that if you're fortunate enough to get to the mountaintop, there's a whole line of people waiting to knock you down. And I think female sportscasters are lumped into two categories: the legitimate ones and the others. If you're fortunate enough to be ranked with the legitimate ones, people are always looking for a reason to lump you into the other one."

Bernstein, who became obsessed with being a sports journalist after visiting the Shea Stadium press box at age 12 -- a security guard let her in to watch the Mets take batting practice and, she recalls, "he sat me down in front of a Sports Illustrated place card, and that was it" -- is now brimming with ambition. She's excited about her Velvet Hammer venture because of the opportunity it will give her to work with young people. "The thrill of covering a Super Bowl," she says, "doesn't compare to the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference in someone's life or in his or her career."

In addition to keeping her more substantive NFL sideline gig for CBS/Westwood One radio, Bernstein plans to pursue avenues that will allow her to showcase her reporting and conversational skills. "She is so much more than just a sideline reporter," says Nantz, CBS's lead NFL play-by-play announcer. "I expect that five years from now we'll be saying, 'Gosh, look at what Bonnie Bernstein is doing with her career. Oh, yeah -- remember when she used to work with CBS way back when?'"

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