By Donna Cornelius
Teacher Sherri Spears remembers the day a bright ninth grader made a strong case for getting into a
class usually restricted to upperclassmen.
The student, Niki Noto, had her heart set on taking Sherri’s broadcasting class at Oak Mountain High School.
“Niki told me she’d do anything – even take out the trash – if I’d let her take the class,” said Sherri. “She told me, ‘All I want to do is be a sportscaster for ESPN.’”
Today, that’s exactly what Niki is doing.
The 25-year-old Oak Mountain graduate is now in her second season with ESPNU’s “Road Trip,” a weekly half-hour show that takes viewers behind the scenes at college football venues. Niki and co-host Ali Nejad travel to game day sites to interact with tailgaters, explore things to do on and off campus and interview well-known sports figures and other celebrities.
“We get to experience what the normal fan doesn’t,” Niki said. “We find out what makes each campus unique.”
Niki was “born and raised” in the Birmingham area, she said. Her mother and stepfather, Rhonda and Clayton Davie Jr., live in Riverchase, while her dad, Louis Noto, is in Cullman.
Her home base now is Atlanta, but she typically flies out on Wednesdays to game sites and starts work on the show at 8 a.m. on Thursdays. Recently, Niki and Ali were in Dallas for the Cowboys Classic game between Alabama and Michigan and then returned to Texas the following week for the Florida-Texas A&M matchup.
At the Cowboys Classic, Niki got to cover her alma mater, the University of Alabama, as well as the UM Wolverines. She and Ali showed off the massive stadium and chatted with Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. And in one segment of the show, the co-hosts played the NCAA 2013 video game on the stadium’s 160-feet-long JumboTron.
“I’m a girl, but that has to be every guy’s dream,” Niki said.
The co-hosts also had some fun at Six Flags Over Texas on the Texas Giant, a roller coaster that has the world’s steepest drop. They dropped in at Rangers Ballpark to visit with baseball players, most of whom correctly predicted Bama would win the game.
Texas isn’t the only place where Niki has found exciting features for her show.
“I barrel raced with the Nebraska Rodeo Association and went skydiving with the club from Kansas State,” she said.
She interviewed filmmaker Spike Lee at last year’s national championship game and loved talking to beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh “since I played volleyball in high school,” she said.
Sherri Spears, now an eighth grade teacher at Chelsea Middle School, isn’t surprised to see her former student living her dream.
“She was always very enthusiastic and was one of the few teen girls who was comfortable in her own skin,” said Sherri. “She had that competitive, tomboy side, but she could be a ‘girly girl,’ too.”
Sherri has never regretted her decision to let Niki take the high school broadcasting class.
“Her sophomore year, she and two others pretty much led the class,” Sherri said. “They’d come in at 5:30 in the morning or meet me at midnight to get film in. Niki would do her work and then take up time slots that other students failed to do.
“It was just amazing to teach a child like her.”
After high school, Niki headed for the University of Alabama, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications.
“Alabama has a great program,” she said. “And it pays to get to know your professors and to make them your best friends. It’s good to let them know your dreams and aspirations. They’re happy to help you achieve them.”
Niki found this to be true once she’d graduated.
“I was working for the Tennessee Titans’ media relations department, and one of my professors called and said the ESPN crew was coming to Tuscaloosa for the 2009 LSU game,” Niki said. “They needed a production assistant for the show I’m hosting now.”
That gave Niki a foot in the door with ESPN. Between that first experience with “Road Trip” and joining the show as a co-host, she also worked for the Atlanta Falcons.
“I was in Cancun with the Falcons to shoot their cheerleader swimsuit calendar, and a man approached me,” she said. “He thought I was one of the cheerleaders and wanted to interview me.
“It turned out he was with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s sports broadcasting. They took a chance on a 22-year-old and hired me to do high school football games. I still do state championship games and sideline reporting for GPB.”
In the meantime, Niki kept in touch with her contacts at ESPN, which led to her regular gig with “Road Trip.”
“I love the football atmosphere,” she said. “It’s my favorite sport, hands down.”
While Niki couldn’t be happier with her job, she may choose a different direction in the future.
“I want to teach broadcasting in high school one day,” she said. And although she’s not married yet, she already knows “that I want to be involved in my kids’ lives and give them a great home,” she said.
Whatever path Niki chooses, Sherri Spears won’t be surprised to see her former student succeed.
“She always went through her problems, not around them,” Sherri said. “She’s like a little light – she always shines bright.”
ESPNU’s “Road Trip” airs on Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. You can also follow Niki on Twitter and Facebook.