Inside the life of Maria Vanderford, from Northwood to UNC to the Carolina Panthers

BY DUCK DUCKSON, News + Record Staff
Posted 6/12/20

PITTSBORO — On every team, there are players whose jobs go largely unnoticed by fans and the public alike.

Yet their essential roles ensure practices and game run smoothly by making sure the …

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Inside the life of Maria Vanderford, from Northwood to UNC to the Carolina Panthers

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PITTSBORO — On every team, there are players whose jobs go largely unnoticed by fans and the public alike.

Yet their essential roles ensure practices and game run smoothly by making sure the needs of coaches and players are met.

Such is the life of a media relations assistant for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. And it’s a role that Maria Vanderford, a former three-sport athlete at Northwood High School from 2010 to 2013, relishes.

Vanderford, who grew up in Chapel Hill, first started playing organized sports in 3rd grade and said basketball was always her favorite. Her dad working for ESPN (as well as NBC) and her mom working as an administrative assistant in UNC football office when she was growing up definitely had an impact on her ultimate career choice, too.

At Northwood, she was a four-year varsity athlete in cross country, earning All-Region recognition in 2012 in addition to All-Conference honors in 2010, 2011 and 2012. She also played one year of junior varsity basketball and soccer for the Chargers before participating on the varsity teams in both of those sports her sophomore through senior seasons.

After graduating from Northwood, Vanderford enrolled at UNC-Wilmington to pursue a career in communications.

“Communications was always my planned course of study,” she said. “Some majors like biology or education are much more specific in what you can do with a degree in those areas, whereas communications is not. I knew that with a degree in communications I wouldn’t be limited to a specific job field upon graduating.”

During her freshman year, she secured a manager position for the Seahawks’ men’s basketball team, then coached by former North Carolina guard Buzz Peterson. When she transferred to UNC her sophomore year, Peterson served as a good reference for her to obtain a position as a manager for the Tar Heels’ varsity basketball squad. After arriving on the campus at Chapel Hill, Vanderford held a manager position for the team from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2018.

Her duties included managing ongoing daily activities including locker room setup and water/towel provision for players; adhering to the needs of visiting teams and providing logistical support to the coaching staff; handling weekly meal catering and placing food orders for team members, coaches and staff; working all practices, home games and most away games; keeping track of player statistics; preparing players and coaches for practices and assisting with workouts; and, she said, “being prepared to help with any team matters at all times.”

During the summer of 2017, Vanderford interviewed for and received a position as a Carolina Panthers training camp communications intern, which led to her becoming a member of the Panthers’ game-day public relations staff for the 2017 NFL season.

“My final year of college, I would drive down to Charlotte and work every Panthers home game that didn’t conflict with my schedule,” she said. “My job was to pass out stats to media members in the press box in between quarters and transcribe post-game quotes from Panthers players as well as players from opposing teams.”

Following her graduation from UNC in the spring of 2018, Vanderford immediately landed a seasonal communications intern position with the Panthers.

“My role in that position was to monitor social and internet media regarding the Carolina Panthers, administer and transcribe weekly conference calls and interviews involving coaches and players, and set up the press box for all home games,” she said. “I also contributed to the weekly media release with written and statistical information in addition to providing content for the game-day program, team yearbook and training camp fan guide.”

In April 2019, she progressed to her current position as a media relations assistant.

“In addition to many of the tasks I did as an intern,” Vanderford said, “I now also serve as point-of-contact for all credential requests, create and produce the game-day program, assist with press conferences, facilitate production meetings with broadcast crews, coordinate and assist with player and coach media availability, serve as PR point-of-contact on the field during away games — when a player gets injured, I’m tasked with touching base with our team trainer and then relaying the injury information to the press box as well as the sideline reporter so he or she can inform the broadcast crew — and assist with production of our media guide.”

One of her crowning achievements has been working the last two Super Bowls (Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta in 2019 and Super Bowl LIV in Miami in 2020) as a member of the NFL’s public relations staff.

“Some of my tasks in this role were to transcribe post-game quotes, administer approximately 5,000 credentials to international and national media members covering Super Bowl events, help assemble the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Hard Rock Stadium auxiliary press boxes and work with other NFL staff to assist players, alumni and celebrities on the red carpet at NFL Honors,” Vanderford said.

Asked to characterize her current position with the Panthers, she said: “The best way to sum up my job is to say I am a liaison between the media and our players and coaches. The on-going COVID-19 quarantine has impacted our day-to-day routine, but we’ve stayed very busy. During the quarantine we had the NFL Draft and the 2020 schedule release, with both events requiring a heavy lift on the PR end. On draft weekend, our team was tasked with getting in contact with our newly drafted players and setting up a Zoom press conference with local media.”

Another endeavor she’s been a part of is a new video series called “Off the Clock.” Rather than being behind the camera or being charged with booking talent, however, Vanderford herself appears on the program.

“The show consists of our Panthers team reporter (Kristen Balboni), our owner’s wife (Nicole Tepper) and myself,” Vanderford said. “Once a week, we get together via Zoom to talk about whatever comes to mind — sometimes it’s sports related, sometimes it’s pop-culture related and other times it’s completely off the wall. During this time, a lot of people are looking for things to watch, and we just wanted to do something different from what other teams across the league are doing.”

So just how much have the current pandemic restrictions affected her job?

“Prior to entering quarantine, there was a large turnover in our team as well as the coaching staff,” Vanderford said. “A lot of my job relies heavily upon my relationships with our staff and team. The most challenging part of the quarantine has been continuing to establish and build on those new relationships without daily face-to-face interaction. If we were in the office right now, there would be a lot more opportunity for in-depth interaction and time to get to know one another.”



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