“The city sweeps you through those last six miles. When it’s getting tough, cheering, yelling, that’s what gets us moving,” the Morning Joe and Sunday TODAY host tells Boardroom ahead of the NYC Marathon.
You probably know Willie Geist as a co-host on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and the host of Sunday TODAY with Willie Geist on NBC. But as he prepares to run the New York City Marathon on Sunday, the first marathon of his life, you may not know his passion and love for sports that dates back to the earliest days of his childhood.
Geist, 46, is running his first-ever marathon in honor of his father, Bill, who’s been fighting Parkinson’s disease for the last 30 years. He’s also raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, with more than $150,000 already donated in conjunction with his maiden 26.2-mile journey.
Geist grew up in suburban New Jersey with sports greatness in his blood. His great-grandfather Herbie Lewis is a Hockey Hall of Famer, a one-time Detroit Red Wings captain who starred on Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1936 and 1937. Geist’s mom tried putting him in figure skates at Fritz Dietl Ice Skating Rink in Westwood, New Jersey near where he grew up, but he gravitated towards basketball as he got taller.
Living in the NYC suburbs in the 1980s and early ’90s, Geist adored the New York Yankees, Knicks, and Giants. He was such a big fan of Hall of Fame slugger Dave Winfield that Geist would write him postcards when the family was on vacation.
“We’d drive to Cape Cod, stay in the motel, and go to the beach. And I would write, ‘Dear Winfield,’” Geist told Boardroom, “it was always, ‘Winfield, we played mini golf today, we went to the beach, it was a pretty good day. Sorry I missed the game last night, Willie Geist.’”
It didn’t occur to Geist until years later that his dad probably didn’t send out those postcards he addressed to “Yankee Stadium, Bronx,” but he was so into Yankee baseball that he thought Winfield would notice that he didn’t catch the WPIX channel 11 broadcast that night. To stay up past his bedtime in third and fourth grade, he used a stall tactic with his parents where he’d ask his parents to wait and see who was due up for the Yanks the next inning.
“I knew I could pick a name,” Geist said, “whether it’s Winfield or Don Mattingly or even Steve Balboni or whatever it was, ‘wait, Winfield’s up the next inning, I gotta stay up and watch him hit.’”
At a recent New York City fundraiser, Geist saw Winfield from across the room and wondered whether he should be that guy.
“I went over to introduce myself,” Geist saw, “and he turned around and said ‘hey, Winnie!’ He knew who I was with no prompting. And that blew my mind.”
While Geist came of age when the Yankees won the American League pennant in 1981, he also grew up with the Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms, Bill Parcels-led Giants teams that won two Super Bowls, and Knicks teams led by Bernard King in the 80s and Patrick Ewing in the 90s. Growing up, he even got a stuffed doll of Ewing that his daughter still has in her collection.
Every spring and early summer when the Knicks would battle Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers, and the rough-and-tumble Miami Heat were special times for a young man in the NYC area. He and a group of friends would always playoff games at someone’s house during high school.
At Ridgewood High in New Jersey, Geist played tight end and outside linebacker for the football team and small forward for the basketball team, captaining the state title-winning football team his junior year in 1991. Instead of continuing his athletic career at a Division 3 school, he chose to attend Vanderbilt. But Geist still inquired with a coach about walking onto the football team as a tight end during his freshman year.
“He said, ‘you can walk on. We’ll put 50 pounds on you,'” Geist said. “‘Our first game’s against Alabama.’”
Instead of trying to line up against the Crimson Tide, he got into sportswriting as a way to stay close to the game. Young Geist started writing for the daily newspaper The Vanderbilt Hustler as a staff sports writer, covering baseball, tennis and gymnastics. He enjoyed it, even if the Commodores never had the most competitive teams.
“I loved to see the RVs roll into Nashville on Wednesday from Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, Athens, Baton Rouge or whoever we were playing that week,” Geist. “Just to feel that experience and fill up our stadium in the SEC was just fun to be around.”
By his senior year, Geist was a columnist at the Hustler, working alongside classmates and future journalistic luminaries like Lee Jenkins and Tyler Kepner. After graduating cum laude in 1997, he moved to Atlanta with a bunch of friends and applied to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN. Geist took, and passed, a sports knowledge quiz as part of an application process he didn’t know he was studying for his entire life and took a production assistant job with 24-hour sports network CNN Sports Illustrated.
“That was my little journalism school,” he said. “I learned everything I know fundamentally about TV working there for six years. That’s what launched me into television. I was bitten with the television bug working there.”
Geist then moved back to New York to produce I, Max, a short-lived Fox Sports Net sports debate show starring Max Kellerman. There, he met people like executive producer Bill Wolff, who later ran The View and The Rachel Maddow Show, along with two others who came over from CNN SI. Unfortunately, the show only lasted nine months, with the final broadcast coming on his wife’s 30th birthday.
“I took her out to dinner on her 30th birthday with no job, no prospects honestly,” Geist said. “No idea what I was gonna do next.”
Geist, Wolff, and his two friends were fishing together for their next opportunity, and MSNBC hired them as freelancers who weren’t even allowed to come into the building in Secaucus. They’d gather at Wolff’s apartment and come up with ideas for a show, sketch a rundown and submit it to an MSNBC boss. Geist ended up being hired full time in 2005, producing Tucker Carlson’s show, which is how he ended up in the news business.
His stint on the show lasted until 2008, at which time he got his first reps in front of the camera. Geist got a two- to three-minute segment from the control room where he got to talk about things viewers may have missed, some other stories, and light banter. From that segment, Geist got more and more on-camera work.
Joe Scarborough, who had a primetime MSNBC show at the time, had him do pieces. So did Keith Olbermann. The Weekend “Today Show” thought Geist’s segments were clever and asked him to do a version of it on their Saturday morning show.
“It wasn’t, in my mind, headed anywhere,” he said. “It was just extra work that they were asking me to do.”
That all changed in 2007 when MSNBC fired Don Imus from his own morning show and brought Scarborough on to do a morning politics show we now know as Morning Joe.
“I still don’t know why exactly, he thought I would be good on the show as a co-host,” Geist said. “I’d never hosted anything or been a regular host on a show. I was shocked by it, to be honest. I thought ‘really? You want me to do it? What time does this show start, 6 a.m.? I have to be in at what time?’ It was such a complete flip of my life, from having worked at night in sports and worked at night in cable news. It was going to totally upend and change my life, and boy did it.”
Geist, Scarborough, and Mika Brzezinski have been the hosts of Morning Joe ever since.
Geist said he never had any preconceived notions of what it meant to be on TV. He was just himself, and it’s worked. He’s ended up being a contributor for NBC News, NBC Sports, and TODAY, earning an Edward R. Murrow Award in 2019 for his breaking news coverage following mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso.
Sunday TODAY with Willie Geist premiered in 2016, but he’ll be a little preoccupied on marathon Sunday. He won’t be able to host, but he’ll still be a guest, doing a live shot from the starting line in Staten Island before he and his fellow runners go over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn.
Though he’s been active and has played sports his entire life, Geist said he’s not a runner. But in April 2020 at the height of the pandemic, he signed up for the NYC Marathon to have some purpose and raise money and awareness for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. But he ran one mile one week and two the next, slowly building himself up. The next thing he knew, he ran a half marathon on the day the 2020 marathon was supposed to be and recently completed a 20-mile training run.
“Twenty is where you top out, so by my math there are still 6.2 more miles I’ll have to run that I’d never run before,” Geist said. “Then the city sweeps you through those last six miles on the route when it’s getting tough, cheering, yelling, [that’s] what gets us moving. I’ve heard that from enough people I trust who said if you could do 20, you’ll be okay. I hope that’s true.”
Geist normally gets millions of people a week out of bed and ready to seize the day each morning on Morning Joe and Sunday TODAY. And on this particular Sunday, it’ll be time for his viewers and the entire city of New York to return the favor, actively watching and rooting for a diehard sports fan from the New Jersey suburbs run the longest and most important race of his life.
Like his rise through the world of cable and news TV, Geist will be ready for the challenge. Because when you’re in his line of work, the marathon never really stops — and he doesn’t look tired yet.