For about a week now Christopher Sign has been referred to in the national media as either a “local ABC reporter” or a “reporter from Phoenix”, as if he was just an anonymous footnote to a major news story involving a former United States President, a current presidential candidate, and the current Attorney General of the United States.
For those who know Sign and the facts of the story, that’s a little bit like talking about Alabama football’s recent success and referring to Nick Saban as “a local coach in Tuscaloosa” or “a football coach in the South”.
The facts are that Sign wasn’t a bit player in the story, he was the headliner who uncovered it and broke the news of a secret meeting between two of America’s most powerful figures. And he’s not just a local reporter; he’s an anchor on ABC15 in Phoenix. And when you talk to Sign, what he makes sure you really know about him is that he had the privilege of playing football for the University of Alabama under legendary coach Gene Stallings.
“My college football experience on and off the field prepared me for moments like this,” Sign says of the intense media scrutiny surrounding his breaking news report. “Being under pressure. Being under stress and under the microscope. These are things Coach Stallings prepared us for. He used to always say, ‘do your job and everything else will be fine’. I thought about that a lot as things were unfolding after we broke the story.”
The story, for those who may not be familiar, involved ex-President Bill Clinton attempting to have a secret meeting with US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, while Mr. Clinton’s wife, Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, could have potentially been prosecuted by Lynch and the Department of Justice for the mishandling of classified information.
The above information is merely the facts of the story. Sign, as he points out, did not break the news with any specific political intent or agenda. His intent was to inform the American public about the events that were unfolding involving some very high level players in the government and a very serious story about a presidential candidate.
“Sources tipped me off about the meeting taking place and from that moment on, my goal was to report the facts,” Sign says. “I didn’t mention anything about Republicans or Democrats. I kept things as simple as possible and reported that there was a secret meeting going on that we were able to expose.”
Sign was well aware of the importance and implications of the story when he first got the tip about the meeting and he says he immediately relied on his football background to stay focused.
“There was a tremendous amount of stress because of the possible ramifications of the story,” Sign says. “I wanted to make sure that I had every ‘I’ dotted and ‘T’ crossed. I visualized going on air for the story like I would before games. I knew once it was on tape, there was no going back. I had to make sure things went exactly as planned. I got hyper focused, just like I used to do on the football field.”
Sign, who played on two SEC West Championship teams at Alabama and was a back-up left guard and center, says that the mentality he learned on the football field was crucial to his navigation of this story.
“In football, you learn that you’re only as good as your last play,” he said. “The idea is that you need to give maximum effort in everything that you do and not take a play off. Always do your job. In my job as a reporter, you’re only as good as your last story. As I was working on this feature, I went right back to how I was trained and how I was raised. I was very strategic and methodical about how I wanted to present the facts of what I knew was going to be a big story.”
‘Big’ would turn out to be an understatement. The story based on Sign’s reporting would dominate the national news cycle for well over 48 hours. He would be subjected to an onslaught of partisan accusations, emails, phone calls, and social media attacks. And like Sign has done throughout his life, he relied on his football background and football buddies to help him get through it all.
“Of all the things I’ve covered in my fifteen-year career, from serial killers and hostage situations to hurricanes and tornadoes and other natural disasters, this generated the most overwhelming response by far,” he said. “And the people who got me through it were my wife, my kids, my family and my football family. The first people to congratulate me on the story were my former Alabama teammates, and on the flip side, when things were getting intense, the first people to reach out to check on me were those same teammates. During my highs and lows in life I’ve found myself relying so much on my teammates. Playing for Gene Stalling will do that for you.”
As the story continues to develop, Sign maintains the mindset that he learned at Alabama. Namely, do your job the right way, don’t cut corners and take pride in your work.
“ABC15 in Phoenix hired me to do a job and that’s what I’m doing,” Sign says. “Just like I did on the football field. I’ve always said that playing team sports sets you up to do well in life and this is proof.”
[Full Disclosure: Christopher Sign is the brother of the National Football Foundation’s Chief Operating Officer Matthew Sign.]