♪ If ever there was a time to study perseverance, such that we might muster it more readily, this is it.
Long before COVID made quarantining commonplace, Robin Roberts stepped away from her life and isolated for 3 months after a bone marrow transplant to save her life.
That's a lot of time to reflect on family, career, and our innate need for community.
It's also a far cry from saying good morning to America 5 days a week and a singular time to reflect on a future that may or may not come.
I'm Kelly Corrigan.
This is "Tell Me More" and here is my conversation with athlete, broadcaster, survivor, and honorary Harlem Globetrotter Robin Roberts.
♪ ♪ So, you had a killer career at ESPN.
Been at GMA.
You survived a bone marrow transplant.
174 days away from the world.
But I noticed something in your bio that stood out above all the rest, which was that at 12 years old, you were the Mississippi state bowling champion.
You--you have no idea how proud I am of that.
I mean, it was the only sport that they would let a girl play at that time, you know, and I remember going to the library, reading books on bowling, going to the alley.
My father was in the military and so, we were on a military base and for a dollar, 5 cents, I can bowl 3 lines, get a beef jerky and a Coke.
And you were determined to win.
I was determined.
Because I'm saying, I was saying, "OK, if this is the only thing, you'll let me do, by golly, I'm gonna be good at it."
Your dad, speaking of your dad, he was a Tuskegee Airman.
What does that mean to you that you had this person in your inner circle who broke tradition and-- Gosh.
So incredibly proud.
I had to learn elsewhere.
It wasn't my dad getting on a soapbox and "I was a Tuskegee Airman, "the first Black-- Black flying air corps in the military."
He never said it.
It was hearing from others and going to my father and saying, "Dad, were you a Tuskegee Airman?"
And then--then he shared his story.
He just wanted us to see him as Dad and that meant as much as the fact that he was an Airman, but it's interesting because I had 3 older siblings.
Their view is different than mine.
I'm the youngest, so, I got the tail end of it, but I remember my father retired and I was petrified because I didn't know how to be a civilian, because I used to love to answer the phone on base at our house going "Colonel Roberts' quarters," not, you know, not-- not Roberts residence.
I was like, "Colonel Roberts' quarters.
How may I help you?"
How big were sports for you?
Biggest thing in your life.
First of all, I wanted to be a professional athlete.
I wanted to be a pro athlete.
You wanted to go to Wimbledon.
But there's something called-- what is that thing?
[Laughs] And so, I had, I--uhh!
I had the heart and the desire, but it paid for my college education, which is cool.
But no, I didn't get to Wimbledon.
Well, not that way.
Not that way.
Not with a tennis racket.
Well, see, that's the beauty of it, and that's what I've learned through sports.
You got to be creative and you have that end goal, and maybe you lose the game.
Doesn't mean you're gonna lose the championship.
So, I didn't get to Wimbledon as a tennis player, obviously, but I got there as a broadcaster, and I was standing there and I was like, "OK, I don't have a tennis racquet in my hands.
I got this ESPN mic."
But I set this goal of Wimbledon.
So, when you were early days in sports journalism...
you got offered a job at ESPN... Yeah.
and you passed on it.
And the mother of two daughters was like, "Robin."
I mean, I'm reading the book like, "Don't pass.
Like, a guy's gonna take it with less experience.
I really knew.
I--even though it was a goal, had it on my whiteboard, literally on my whiteboard after high school, and set the goal of going to ESPN, and in 1987, they came a-calling.
Went up for the interview.
Met Chris Berman, you know.
I said no because I wasn't ready.
And you felt sure that as a Black woman, if you, if you make one wrong step.
My parents had instilled in me that the margin of error for me was gonna be less.
Something that Kamala Harris has said recently, and my mother said the same thing, once you--to be the first, make sure you're not the last.
And so, I could have been the first, but I might have been the last had I not done well.
And it's not a burden.
It's not something that you take on and you're like, "Ohh."
It was--it was kind of like "Oh, that's right."
It's not just about me.
Yeah, I want to be here, but I don't want to be the only one that's ever here.
So, by golly, I got to do a good job.
And so, I turned him down, went to a local market in Atlanta, GA, covered professional sports for the first time.
Luckily, they came calling again, ESPN.
I'm like, "I'm your girl."
Now I'm ready.
And I was there for 15 years covering every sport imaginable.
And was there any part of you that didn't want to leave for GMA or is that the most plum job?
It was hard.
It was so--I started doing things at "GMA" in the late nineties, like, little sports report here and there.
2002, became the regular news reader.
But I didn't leave ESPN.
And then when I became the co-anchor with Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer in 2005, that's when "GMA" was like, "Come on.
Are you--are you ready?"
And I'm like-- I kept my one foot.
Dance with the one who brung you, you know, and ESPN brung me a long way.
But I was ready at that point.
But it was hard because, you know, I'm an intelligent person.
I would read the headlines.
Of course I'd grab the sports section first, but I knew basically what was going on, but not to the depth that I knew sports.
And so, I was just a little leery of the acceptance of people seeing me.
Nowadays, you can make the transition.
You have athletes that become broadcasters.
You have--but for a sports journalist to become a news anchor was kind of like "How dare you?"
And I'm like, going, "Journalism is journalism."
You know, I have a degree in communications.
So, I was talking about sports before.
Now I'm talking about news.
The approach is the same.
Do your homework.
Know your subject.
Who, what, when, where, why.
There's something about you, though, I think that's special in that you're bringing something very personal.
A huge turning point in your career was the Katrina reporting.
Do you see it that way?
Absolutely, but it was by happenstance, because back then, 2005, it's not like today where TMI.
We just tell you everything everybody says.
But in 2005, as a journalist, as a broadcaster, no, no.
And I was doing the same thing because that's how I was taught.
But to go to the Gulf Coast, where I grew up, my father had passed away less than a year before.
My mother was unable to evacuate.
My sister and her daughter stayed with her.
The storm comes along.
I've only been the co-anchor with Charlie and Diane for a few months at that point, and to go down not knowing because I'd lost contact with my family, and to get there that-- the morning after and have to do a live shot.
I've got the whole live crew.
We flew down from-- from New York and we're making our way to the Gulf Coast and I'll never forget, the more we got closer to the coasts, which I was very familiar with, going--you couldn't imagine what I was-- because I knew what was supposed to be there.
My colleagues didn't know and I was like, "No."
There's--" see the corner right here?
That was a Mexican restaurant right there.
It is completely gone.
And we got to a certain point where they were not gonna let us go any further.
And I stuck my head out the van and the police officer recognized me as Lawrence and Lucimarian Roberts' daughter, not Robin Roberts of "GMA."
That I was a local girl.
And knew who I was and said, "Go find her."
And he let us through.
And so we got through the barricade and I told my producer, "You set up to live shot.
"I've gotta find if, you know, I gotta find my mom."
I can't go on live television until I know my family is safe and I was fortunately able to find them and get back to the live location with just seconds to spare.
And so I get back and I'm like, "OK, 5, 4, 3," And I'm like, oh, you know, little cub reporter.
"Here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast" and just reporting what I saw and I was like, "Back to you, Charlie and Diane."
And it was Charlie Gibson who said, "Robin, when you left here..." You hadn't been able to make contact with your own family yet.
Have you done so?
Robin: They're OK. Charlie: They're OK?
They're fine, and just so many people.
[Sniffles] Kelly, I just, I-- absolutely lost it.
So many people affected by this storm.
And not just because of the gratitude that I found my family, knew that they were well, it was knowing that there were people who were watching that morning, feeling what I had just felt, wondering if their loved one was OK, and I knew what that felt like, and I really thought I was going to lose my job.
I thought, "Here I am crying."
I mean, I mean, a ugly cry.
Not just like [sniffles].
You know, like, the ugly cry.
And I was just taken aback by how the public and the audience embraced me and said, "Thank you for showing us "how truly bad it was there "because you would not have reacted that way "had it not been such a bad situation there after Katrina."
It makes me think that maybe for a long time, we misjudged what the public needs.
That we want-- we assumed that they wanted a more distanced approach, but actually, maybe there's a much deeper need for something more human.
I believe that with all my heart, and I also believe that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness, and people are drawn to that because we all feel that way.
And who wants to see someone on television always put together when we-- we're just, like, trying to get by the best way we can.
I really believe that we don't trust the public enough, and there were many times when I was coming up in television and the news director would feel like their audience wasn't ready to have a Black woman doing sports.
And then the public was like, "Uh, we're OK. "No, you're the one who's not fine.
We're OK with it."
And that was also very telling to me, that those that were in the hiring position were just projecting what the audience wanted and the audience was like, "We can talk for ourselves."
And thankfully, they did.
♪ Wasn't there a day in 2012 where you got a diagnosis and you had a big day at work?
So, it's April 2012.
We had been chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at the "Today" show.
They were the behemoth.
We become number one.
And I remember thinking when we were chipping away and going, "Oh, you know what?
When we become number one, "I'm gonna be so happy and I'm gonna this and that."
You know, you project how you're going to... And you're an athlete, so, you're a fighter.
Yeah, and I love to be number one.
That was the same day that I was told I had one to two years to live because I had myelodysplastic syndrome.
So, that morning we find out we're number one.
I'm very excited.
Go to the doctor.
He realized I wasn't grasping-- and Amber was with me.
I wasn't grasping what he was saying.
He turned his computer to us and there was a graph and there was a dot between one and two and I said, "What's that dot?"
And he goes, "That's your life expectancy if you don't have a successful bone marrow transplant."
And then I have to go to our party that same night and I didn't say anything to anyone.
No one knew.
We worked as a team so hard for this moment and I just remember standing to the side at one point and watching my colleagues dancing and drinking champagne and it taught me, don't project.
Just let life happen.
Here, all these years, I thought I was gonna feel a certain way when this moment was happening and just the opposite was happening to me.
But you did find a donor.
My sister Sally-Ann.
And little did I know, Kelly, at the time, how unlikely that was.
Everyone thinks the family member is gonna be a automatic match and it only happens 30% of the time.
So, 70% of the time, you need somebody off the registry.
My doctors had already checked the registry and there wasn't a match, so, I needed somebody in my family, and my brother was eliminated because of his age.
One sister who I thought was going to be the match, who's closer in age to me, Dorothy, was not a match, so, it just left Sally-Ann, who's 8 years older.
My father had since passed and I went to my mom and I was like, you know, "We're waiting for Sally-Ann "to see if she's a match or not "and I got--I just have to ask you this question, "because I know you and Daddy got married young "and he was very, you know.
"Does he have any more kids out there that can be tested?"
My mother--I was fighting for my life.
And my mother's like, "Oh, mercy, no, Robin."
I'm like, hey, I mean, I love my daddy.
Just turning over every stone.
And she's like, "No!"
And I was like, "OK, just checking."
But Sally-Ann turned out to be not just a match but a perfect match.
And we were-- It must've made her so happy to do that.
I called her and I said, "You know, Sally-Ann, "we got the results.
You're a match.
Do you want to be my donor?"
And she said, "Sister, dear, it's not only "something I want to do.
"I truly believe this is a reason why I was born."
And when you have a sibling who feels that this is their purpose, that this was the reason that they were supposed to be put on this Earth, and I'm just so grateful to her.
The day that you announced your situation, there was an 1,800% increase in people registering, and it did make me think about this new cultural value of going public with things, of destigmatizing things, like you've talked about therapy and meditation and being gay and having cancer and needing a match and, and all to the betterment of all.
That's why my mom's mantra to us was "Make your mess your message" in that, what a great opportunity to be able to teach, and even though as a journalist, you don't want to become the story, there are times that we are able to really be of service and why not look at that as a responsibility and not a burden?
♪ So, I think there's all sorts of things that were big secrets not that long ago.
It was a big secret to be gay.
It was a big secret to have breast cancer.
Like, people wouldn't talk about it.
People kept relationships secret.
And you're in this position now where you're trying to live your own personal life in this public way.
You were in a relationship for 8 years in private.
8 years in public.
How does it compare?
It's so much better.
So much better.
Even though I can say, "Oh, well, my family knows," which they did, "Oh, my bosses know," which they did, if I'm walking down the street with Amber and I introduce her as my girlfriend, so, I'm not hiding, but in a way, I still was.
Once I told my family and they were OK with it, I was like, "Great," especially my mother, who is uber religious, and I was so fearful of saying to her, and--and it's not like I never hid it.
I mean, I brought women home for the holidays, you know, and it was kind of almost like a "don't ask, don't tell" in the early years, and my mom said, and I was like, "I don't want to tell anybody else because "I don't want people to feel I can't be a Christian and I can't be--and gay."
You know, my Christianity is very important to me.
And my mom was like, "Oh, child.
"God loves you because of who He is, "not because of anything you did or don't do.
Go live your life."
And when she said that, I was free, but it wasn't until I publicly told everyone about Amber that I truly felt liberated.
And so, these last 8 years, going on 9 now, because we're almost together 17 years, so much better than the first 8.
How old were you when you talked to your mom?
I was 50.
The actual big conversation, we had little ones before that, the big, big, big one.
[Chuckles] I've never shared this.
For my 50th birthday, I decided I want to dance with Maks.
"Dancing With the Stars."
Like, he was gonna teach me how-- and I was--and so, on "GMA," I was gonna dance.
So, on "GMA," we announced that "Robin's gonna have something really big for her 50th, that she's gonna share something really big."
And I was under the hair dryer at my hairdresser and my sister called me.
She goes, "Girl, Mama's scared you gonna tell everybody you gay."
I'm like, "I'm gonna dance with Maks.
What does she think?"
She goes, "She really, she really," and I said, I said, "Put her on the phone."
I said--it was right around Thanksgiving time, because that's when my birthday is.
I said, "Mom, I'm not-- "that's not what I'm gonna do.
"When I come home for Thanksgiving, we're gonna talk," and she's like, "OK." You know, the little sweet voice.
Like, "OK." Do you think it's getting easier and better for gay people in America?
It's easier and better for them to let others in public.
Is it easier, better for them in the world?
Yeah, it's better.
I mean, I think about when I was a kid and I knew and I wouldn't think about being able to be with someone as I happened to see when I was sitting across from Barack Obama in 2012, the president of the United States, who changed his stance on marriage equality.
That really changed.
I really felt that when the world heard him say that, that there was this-- this--this shift.
♪ There's so much social science right now about grit and perseverance, and I think of you as a real model.
Do you think of yourself that way?
Oh, we're all stronger than we know.
There's this little athlete that's still in me.
You're not gonna defeat me.
I treated cancer as the opponent and my doctors were my coaches.
And the treatment was the game plan.
But I think that I have a lot of my mother and father in me and they both came from very humble beginnings and were able to do great things and really instilled in their 4 children about the attitude of gratitude, and I am an optimistic person, my friend.
You know how some people are like, "Ah, you can't be happy all the time."
I'm not happy all the time, but I can make the choice.
And optimism is like a muscle that gets stronger with use.
You know, the more you do it, the more you get in the habit of doing it.
Like any--anything else that you want to get good at, you work at it.
So, you did 174 days in isolation after your bone marrow transplant.
Did your optimism hold up?
Like, that's a long time to be separated from the world.
Well, I think a lot of people can relate to it now.
After the past two years, seriously.
People were looking to me for tips.
Were saying, "Hey," because I almost went-- had PTSD putting on the mask again, because I had to wear the mask for so long after my transplant, and just the smell of the mask again was, like, bringing me back.
Yeah, I got mad at God.
I sure did.
And God said, "That's OK.
I can take it."
I got mad.
I didn't stay mad.
So, in "Brighter By the Day," you talk about make your tribe your vibe.
You could be part of my tribe.
Everybody in here.
I feel the vibe.
We're all part of the tribe.
No, but it's really-- it's what you put out there, and I really--and I dedicated it to my tribe.
I do a morning message in prayer, and it's really caught on with a lot of folks.
So, it's something that I think people-- and my hope is whether it's the beginning your day or at the end of your day, you just pick it up and it just makes you feel a little brighter.
Yeah, it's really grounded in some ideas that are easily taken away, easily applied, easily recalled each morning.
So, we do a thing here where we want to remind everybody that nobody gets anywhere by themselves, and that we all have this huge impact on one another.
Who is your plus one?
Someone that you wouldn't probably imagine.
Trudy Haynes, in Philadelphia, Black woman On television.
I'm 5 years old.
My sister Sally-Ann is 13.
We're living in an area where we could pick up the Philadelphia station.
My sister sees Trudy Haynes.
At 6:30 this morning, the switchboard at the school administration building started buzzing... First time she's seen a Black woman on television doing the news.
First time she'd ever seen that.
Her eyes get really big.
And she's like, "I--I think that's what I want to do.
I want to do what she's doing.
Calls Mama in there.
Mom's like, "What's going on?"
She's like, "Mom, look at this woman.
"She's doing the news on TV.
I think I can do that.
I want to do that."
The reason I say that's my plus one is because she inspired Sally-Ann, who is the reason I'm doing what I'm doing right now.
And so, if Sally-Ann had not seen Trudy, I don't know what I would be doing, you know, because I wouldn't have that reference point, and I'm just so really grateful.
That's what's so important in doing this.
Like, the ripple effect of that.
That's a ripple effect.
You won't find a photograph of her.
You won't find.
She was my mother's enrichment teacher in the second grade in Akron, Ohio.
She kept in touch with my mother through the years.
Her mom and dad, my grandparents, had dropped out of school fifth, sixth grade.
So, when my mother wanted to apply for college, they didn't know how to help her.
Wilma Schnegg helped my mother write an essay.
She won a scholarship and was able to go to Howard.
Ms. Schnegg didn't know that she didn't just save my mother.
She saved generations.
The children that my mother had, the grandchildren, the great-- all stems from Wilma Schnegg, and that's why it's so important that you just-- you never know the ripple effect of that one person, your plus one, goes so much further than just that one.
It's so cool.
We also have a little speed round here.
Is there a little music when we do that speed round?
You're using ♪ da da da da da ♪ ♪ If your high school did superlatives, what would you have been most likely to become?
Gosh, even then, people were just like, they always looked at me and there's, like, determined.
Just--in whatever it is I was pursuing.
What's your go-to mantra for hard times?
God's delays are not his denials.
Sometimes you just want it, especially when you're younger, and you think it's not gonna happen and it's like, no, no, no, no, no.
It's just delayed.
You're not gonna be denied.
Is there anyone you would like to apologize to?
A gentleman named Charles Green.
He sent me the nicest letter, that he met my mom and dad at a car dealership, and he said that they were so proud of all their children.
I meant to reach out to him, and I wanted to, and before I did, he passed away.
He was older.
And I just-- I apologize that I did not respond to his letter to let him know how much joy he brought me.
The next question is when was the last time you cried?
[Laughs] I think we'll just-- save that answer... You're good.
What's something big you've been wrong about?
Something big I've been wrong about.
I was wrong about that.
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
"I Told You So."
[Laughs] And lastly, if you could say 4 words to anyone, who would you address and what would you say?
Thank you, bless you.
He was all about reconciliation, not retaliation.
I think we need to be reminded of that more.
♪ If you loved this conversation, you might also enjoy related episodes with Steve Kerr and Judy Woodruff.
For more on the science of grit and perseverance that Robin Roberts so exemplifies, please listen to my follow-on podcast at "Kelly Corrigan Wonders" and watch our companion video at pbs.org/kelly.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪