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Sports writer and columnist Marla Ridenour reflects on 23 years at the Akron Beacon Journal

Marla browns.jpg
Marla Ridenour
Ridenour became the first female sportswriter to cover the Cleveland Browns in 1981, before the NFL mandated equal locker room access. She was working for the Dayton Daily News at the time. The team recently presented her with a jersey during her final game in the press box.

After 23 years as a sports writer and columnist at the Akron Beacon Journal and more than 40 years covering everything from professional to high school sports in Ohio, Marla Ridenour is stepping away from the daily grind. Ridenour recently announced she had accepted a buyout from the paper.

Ridenour said the “24/7 digital world” had her working many days until 6 a.m. And she said she was torn because she was really enjoying being on the Cavs beat.

“I love the joy they have for the game. And it really kind of energized me over the last couple of years. But [it’s] just the constant physical and mental demand. You're a writer, you're an editor [and] you're a digital whiz master on the publishing side,” she said.

She said what she’ll miss the most is traveling to cover the NFL Combine, which is held in Indianapolis each February. It’s where NFL prospects come to show off their skills to prospective teams, meet coaches and talk with the media.

“I like interviewing the guys on my own, sizing them up, [learning] what makes them tick and find a guy that I like and follow him for the rest of his career.”

A trailblazer

Ridenour has been covering the NFL -- specifically the Browns -- since 1981, when she became the first female sportswriter to cover the team when she worked for the Dayton Daily News. That was before the NFL mandated equal locker room access.

She remembers that first season well, when Sam Rutigliano was the head coach and training camp was held at Kent State University.

“He calls me into this tiny little office there and he says Art Modell had a decided that he was fine with me covering the team and coming into the locker room. But Sam laid out this whole sort of like to-do list of what he expected. He prefaced it with the fact that ‘I will expect you to act like I would expect my daughter to act when you're in the locker room.’ And that included, ‘I want you to yell woman in the locker room the minute you step in the door.’ So, I did that faithfully as long as Sam was the coach.”

And she says she had to navigate that environment carefully.

“I learned how to scan the top of the locker room. I would look at you from the nose up. I would scan. I could case the room, so to speak, trying my best to not see anything.”

"I don't know if I even realized how big a deal it was back then to be the first woman in the Browns locker room.”
Marla Ridenour

There was another memory from that time that stood out.

“My first game was a Pro Football Hall of Fame game in Canton. The Browns locker room was in the gym, and they had strung clothesline across the gym with these sheets so their dressing area would be closed off from where I was. I don't know if I even realized how big a deal it was back then to be the first woman in the Browns locker room.”

Ridenour said storytelling has always been her focus – talking with the players and getting them to open up.

“I've always just tried to make my style more like a conversation than an inquisition. And I always wanted to ask personal nuggets. I've always been more involved in the personal than the X's and O's.”

Remembering “Buckeye Bebe”

One of her favorite stories she wrote at the Akron Beacon Journal wasn’t about an athlete. It was about an Akron woman who went by the name “Buckeye Bebe.”

“She loved Jim Tressel when he got the [head football coaching] job at Ohio State. She was a Buckeye fanatic. They were getting ready to play Michigan. And she decides to write Tressel and say, ‘be careful about the Statue of Liberty play because the Wolverines have used that to hurt the Buckeyes in the past.’ So, he gets this note. He decided to put it in the Buckeyes game plan. It's a close game and Antonio Pittman runs for 26 yards in a key play in the in the fourth quarter and the Buckeyes win. And in his postgame press conference, Tressel talks about this note from this lady from Akron, Bebe.

Ridenour said she tracked down Bebe, and the two became friends. And Ridenour saw an opportunity for Bebe to meet Tressel at an annual event at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

“I sit her down at the media table next to me, and when he leaves, I introduce them. She had just turned 80 and she said in the car on the way back, ‘this was better than my 80th birthday festivities.’ So that was just something that was really special, and I felt like it encapsulated what I was about. Tressel came to her memorial service. That was big.”

Marla cavs.jpg
Marla Ridenour
Marla Ridenour was the longtime Cavs beat reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal.

The joy of seeing your team win

Another highlight was the Cavs winning the NBA Championship in 2016. Specifically, the celebration parade through downtown Cleveland. She was one of a few journalists permitted to walk behind the convertible that LeBron James was riding in.

LeBron James surrounded by journalists including Akron Beacon Journal's Marla Ridenour in 2015.
Mark Urycki
Marla Ridenour in a scrum of journalists surrounding then-Cavalier LeBron James in 2015.

“I just felt like that was the culmination of everything that you'd wanted to cover. And you want to cover a championship when you devote your life to Cleveland sports. And you're right there to just see how crazy everyone was, hanging out of parking garages and climbing on light posts and street signs. And I mean, that was the most caught up I've ever been in an event.”

And she got teary-eyed reflecting on the moment.

“I think it's a little sadness because, yeah, I'm going to be able to tell stories, but you're probably not going to be in those positions celebrating. I doubt that I will be that up close and almost a part of it. I'm sure I'll miss that.”

Sharing a secret

In March, Ridenour made national headlines when she wrote an Akron Beacon Journal column revealing that she was a victim of sexual assault when she was in college in Kentucky. She wrote that the memories of her rape came “flooding back” when the Browns signed quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson faced dozens of lawsuits from Texas women who claimed Watson sexually assaulted them during massage therapy appointments. He has settled most of the suits and has not been criminally charged.

Ridenour’s announcement that she would be leaving the Beacon came weeks before Watson was set to return to play for the Browns following an 11-game suspension on Dec. 4.

She said that was not part of her decision.

“But I guess a part of me did wonder, will I have some kind of reaction or flashback or triggers or something when I see him on a daily basis?”

She elaborated on why she wrote the column.

“My platform was never going to be bigger and to reach as many people as it was right now. I wanted to help people who were going through the same thing I was going through when they found out that Watson was coming. I was outraged before they even got the trade done because they were talking to him.”

Ridenour said she had kept the rape a secret from most everyone in her life for many years. Sharing it with the world was empowering.

“Every time the story comes up on Google for someone, I was getting emails, you know, even a few recently. I didn't even think about the silence part of it and keeping the secret for so long part of it. And that resonated with a lot of people that even though they hadn't been through something like that.”

Ridenour’s legacy and future

Ridenour reflected on what legacy she hopes she leaves at the Akron Beacon Journal.

“My fearlessness. I mean, not just about [Watson], but my willingness to criticize when necessary and to be the fans’ defender. And it's funny because when I got into this business, I was not this outgoing. It's almost mind boggling that this is me. The fact that I was able to become a columnist and then was able to sort of ramp it up to have this voice in this role that I never envisioned for myself. But I mean, that is what I felt like I was meant to do. I went for it.”

But she wants to make it clear she’s not retiring.

“I want to write people's stories still. I'm hoping there's a few avenues in Northeast Ohio that will allow me to do that. The daily grind is just too much, but I still have stories to tell, and I'm going to try to find as many ways possible to do that.”

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.