There is a widely held belief among members of the twentysomething generation that Dan Cortese has the best job in America. However, at certain moments it is difficult to convince him of this—such as the time he was fastened by a bungee cord to a hot-air balloon, or the time he was pummeled with a jousting stick on the set of American Gladiators.
"Usually the show is just a lot of fun," says Cortese. The show he is referring to is MTV Sports, and the 25-year-old Cortese is its host. Since first airing in January of this year as a 30-minute filler between music videos, this marriage of rock and jock has soared to those reaches of MTV's ratings usually reserved for Madonna or Metallica. The weekly program features a variety of short clips of offbeat sports set to the latest in pop music. Some of last season's favorites: jet skiing in Maui, an ultimate Frisbee tournament and base jumping, which is parachuting off skyscrapers and bridges—all to the sounds of various artists' rap, hip-hop and rock music.
MTV Sports also includes celebrity guests such as Bo Jackson, golfer John Daly, rapper/underwear hawker Marky Mark and actor Stephen Baldwin, who was featured in a June program racing a motorcycle at 150 mph while attending SuperBike School in California.
Improvisation is the key to the show's success, and Cortese has been improvising for much of his life. Born and raised outside of Pittsburgh, he was a standout quarterback at Quaker Valley High School. When it came time to attend college, he based his decision on a number of factors, including points given for a school's style. For instance, he had long been a North Carolina basketball fan because he thought the team had cool uniforms. "I figured if I couldn't play basketball there," he says, "football was the next best thing."
At the end of his freshman year, after being redshirted, Cortese was converted from quarterback to wideout, and the following year a teammate delivered a bone-rattling blow to Cortese's chin during a practice, which persuaded him to abandon the sport altogether. "I had-never wanted to play pro football anyway," he says. "I always wanted to be a movie star."
And Cortese has the videotapes to prove it. Well before home-video TV programs invaded the airwaves, Cortese, his two brothers and his brother-in-law were producing their own quirky films. Among his most prized: "Golf My Way," a 15-minute sketch in which Cortese is seen at a Pittsburgh country club belting golf balls with a baseball bat.
Recognizing that Pittsburgh was not a likely breeding ground for aspiring celluloid celebs, in June 1990 Cortese packed his car after graduating from college and headed off to Hollywood with $8,000 in his pocket ("It lasted a week," he says). For a while he lived in the basement of a condominium complex, spending his afternoons poolside and his evenings working as a bouncer at a nearby bar. Five months after his arrival in California, he landed a job as a runner in MTV's Los Angeles office.
One day while MTV executives were looking at the videotapes of the 15 finalists they were considering for the host of a new sports show, a network bigwig asked Cortese which finalist he liked. Cortese told the group he thought he should be the host. Within a week he had added his demo to a tape that included those of the other hopefuls. The collection was shipped off to MTV's New York City headquarters, and two days later he was offered the job.
Despite his wraparound shades, gold hoop earrings, Luke Perry-like sideburns and appearances in Burger King TV commercials, Cortese insists he hasn't gone Hollywood. "I'm still just a lucky kid from Pittsburgh," he says, adjusting the volume on his beeper. "With some good ideas."
Several of those ideas—last month, in an empty Giants Stadium, he staged a mock football game using celebrity rappers as players and relying on the Giants' O.J. Anderson and Leonard Marshall to call plays from the sideline—have found their way into this season's episodes. But some of Cortese's brainstorms probably won't make it onto MTV Sports. "How about Dean Smith bungee-jumping off the Dean Dome?" says Cortese, smiling. "I could probably get him on the show, but how would I get him to jump?"