Max Kellerman apologizes to Albert Pujols

For every Kevin Durant, there are dozens of Greg Odens, promising up-and-comers who look the part but never quite reach their potential. But what we forget about are all the Jeff Greens roaming around.

Sports media is littered with these types, useful veterans who always find work but, for whatever reason, fall short of true stardom. For years, Max Kellerman has occupied this space at ESPN, landing prominent roles on major platforms (Around The Horn, SportsNation, First Take, etc.), though never for very long, effectively “friend-zoned” by an employer that doesn’t view him as leading-man material. Always the groomsmen, never the groom, Kellerman has made a career of saying and doing all the right things, patiently biding his time for the perfect opportunity, only for Pat McAfee and Stephen A. Smith to inevitably steal his thunder.

Think of Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, all-time greats who never won the big one, resigned to their cruel fate playing in an era inhabited by the likes of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. There’s no shame in that, though in a single-minded profession where winning is everything, their lack of championship success is often held against them.

Kellerman knows that feeling all too well, trapped in an endless loop of “almost.” Handsome and articulate with coiffed hair and an Ivy League background, Kellerman, at 29, embodied all the familiar traits of a television prodigy, the kind of can’t-miss prospect that networks salivate over. ESPN was the first to recognize that potential, rewarding Kellerman with his own star vehicle, Around the Horn.

Modeled after debate shows like its companion program Pardon the Interruption, ATH, following a period of initial growing pains, quickly became a staple of ESPN’s afternoon lineup, positioning Kellerman as an industry riser with a bright future in media. But Kellerman’s Around the Horn reign was short-lived, resurfacing at Fox Sports after contract negotiations with ESPN fizzled out.

Kellerman’s new show, I, Max, lasted all of one season, while Around the Horn, decades later, is still going strong. Tony Reali has hosted so long that most people forget it was Kellerman’s idea, receiving little credit for birthing a show that, in many respects, reinvented the debate format.

We don’t need to go through Kellerman’s entire resume, though it’s hard not to notice a recurring theme, the culmination of a frustrating career marred by missed opportunities. Let’s face it—whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re all influenced by luck, both good and bad. Imagine an alternate reality where Drew Bledsoe never gets hurt, relegating the greatest quarterback of all-time, Tom Brady, to spectator status.

Kellerman’s luck, at least relative to his peers in sports media, has been especially bad, returning to the limelight as Stephen A. Smith’s sparring partner on First Take, only for Smith to cut his throat years later. With the subtlety of a toddler rummaging through the pantry for Chips Ahoy, Smith relished his role in getting Kellerman demoted to morning radio, recounting their breakup, in painstaking detail, to anyone who would listen.

“I thought it ran its course,” Smith told Jimmy Traina of Sports Illustrated. “I said, ‘We don’t work [well] together and the decision needs to be made.’”

That’s brutal to hear from anyone, let alone a co-worker you shared a studio with for five years. But wait—it gets worse. Presented as a peace offering for being benched by Stephen A., Kellerman was granted a new platform as the host of This Just In, airing daily from 2-3 PM ET. Unfortunately, that time slot will soon belong to newcomer Pat McAfee with Kellerman again feeling the squeeze of ESPN’s high-stakes musical chairs.

Why does this happen so regularly to someone as polished and professional as Kellerman? It’s a question Kellerman must ask himself daily, wondering why, after all these years, ESPN still has no earthly clue what to do with him.

And herein lies the problem. By shuttling from coast to coast, banished to a doomed existence as a sports nomad (albeit one dressed in impeccable designer suits), Kellerman has failed to develop a clear identity, oscillating between hot-take artist and nuanced voice of reason.

Balancing his performative bluster with uncommon insight, it’s hard to know who the real Kellerman is. Does he fancy himself a debater in the mold of Stephen A., defending his takes, no matter how illogical, with the fierceness and determination of a dog who missed breakfast? Or is Kellerman more akin to Mike Greenberg, better suited as a straight man keeping everyone else from going off the rails?

Kellerman, at his core, is probably a little of both. He can spew a doozy of a take when needed, inciting outrage with his scathing critiques of Tom Brady and Kevin Durant. But Kellerman also has at his disposal an encyclopedic knowledge of boxing, romanticizing the sport that inspired his earliest ambitions as a teenager making a name for himself on local public access.

Months shy of his 50th birthday, Kellerman’s legacy is still being written. It’s natural to compare him to the similarly under-appreciated Steve Levy, who was promoted to the Monday Night Football booth in 2020, lasting just two years in that capacity before eventually ceding play-by-play duties to Joe Buck. Calling them failures or even underachievers would be hyperbole, though Kellerman and Levy could, and probably should be bigger stars, victims of circumstance at a company that stunted their professional progress at every turn, never allowing either to truly flourish.

In praising Kellerman following his departure from First Take, Smith came off as almost patronizing, describing his former colleague as “one of the nicest guys in the world.”

While not explicitly stated, the implication is that Smith doesn’t see Kellerman as a “killer,” lacking the ruthlessness required to be a true industry force. Could kindness and a general affability be Kellerman’s Achilles’ heel, a fatal flaw preventing him from being a made man in a cutthroat business rife with backstabbing and board-room politics?

Kellerman may not have the same motivations as Smith, though he still presents a fascinating portrait of an embattled pundit desperately seeking to escape the agonizing monotony of sports media’s middle class.

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.