Mount Prospect native Decker now an Emmy Award-winning producer, director
A leap of faith and confidence in yourself can go a long way in life sometimes.
Just ask Mount Prospect native Jackie Decker.
Decker, a 2000 Prospect High School graduate and former all-area and all-conference softball and volleyball player, has turned her love of sports into an Emmy Award-winning career as a producer and director of sports documentaries and specials for a variety of networks, including ESPN, NBC and Showtime, among others.
Where it began
Decker decided not to play sports in college in order to concentrate on earning a degree in communications from the University of Wisconsin.
"I was at a bar and was glued to the TV watching Linda Cohn on (ESPN's) SportsCenter," Decker recalled in a Zoom interview. "A friend of mine, John Barnes, came up to me and asked what I was doing and I said, 'I just love ESPN, I love sports and I want to work in sports TV.' He told me his sister, Caroline Davis, worked at ESPN. She emailed me two days later and I started being a runner for ESPN for Big Ten football games."
A career was born, although Decker may not have envisioned at the time what it would become some 20 years down the road.
"That's how I got my foot in the door," she said of the days when her duties included getting coffee for ESPN's staff. "I worked a couple of X Games. I flew myself out there and made zero money. But people liked me and I was eager.
"As soon as I graduated I applied for a job (with ESPN). I did a phone interview and got hired. I packed up my car and drove out there (to ESPN's headquarters in Connecticut). I learned a lot."
ESPN assigned Decker the NASCAR beat as an associate producer.
"I traveled every weekend. I knew then I wanted to get my hand in not so much the live events and sitting in the truck," she said. "I wanted to be involved in the creative and editorial stuff. It was tough but I started to grow and did more and more features."
Sweet home Chicago
After six years at ESPN, Decker decided it was time for that leap of faith.
"In 2011, after the NASCAR grind, I was burned out and I missed Chicago," said Decker, whose parents Gene and Judy now live outside Lake Geneva.
"I wouldn't take back my time at ESPN for a second. I learned so much. My friends and co-workers told me I was nuts (for leaving to become a freelancer). It was terrifying. It was risky at the time but I look back and it was perfect timing for me and the industry."
Leaving ESPN on good terms and with a ton of contacts, Decker moved to Wrigleyville and embarked on a freelance career.
"I didn't burn any bridges," Decker said of her amicable departure from ESPN. "A couple of months later I got my first phone call and I went to Wimbledon. I've been freelancing for ESPN tennis consistently ever since."
Being a producer for major tennis events for ESPN landed Decker trips to not only Wimbledon for eight straight years but also to the Australian Open (she calls Melbourne the favorite city she's visited), the U.S. Open and events in Miami.
But there was more to do than just tennis.
"My big transition out of the ESPN world came in 2012," Decker said. "I did the London Olympics and NBC became my first client outside of ESPN. I worked in the studio where I was doing features with Mary Carillo and John McEnroe."
That work earned Decker her first Emmy, in the Outstanding Live Event Turnaround category. The experience earned Decker two more Olympic gigs -- producing figure skating in Sochi in 2014 and tennis in Rio in 2016.
Off to the Big Apple
In 2013, Decker got a call asking if she'd be interested in producing a documentary style program for Showtime's "All Access" on the Floyd Mayweather vs. Robert Guerrero boxing match. The catch was she had to spend two months in New York City.
"After that I made the choice to move to New York," said Decker, who has lived there ever since and resides on the Upper East Side.
The work on that documentary earned Decker her second Emmy and sparked two more Emmy-winning documentaries on boxing.
The move to New York opened more doors, and she's worked on projects for ESPN, NBC ("Quest for the Stanley Cup"), Showtime, HBO (The "24/7" show on Tiger vs. Phil) ... and the list goes on. In 2017 she was supervising producer for "A Season With," a Showtime special on Navy football.
"That was my first big-bucks sort of thing," she said.
Most recently, Decker landed her first directing job, a project airing on ESPN+ called "My Name is Ada Hegerberg," a documentary on the Norwegian-born soccer star, which she directed with her longtime partner Tim Mullen.
"Tim and I did it all with a very small crew. We filmed from August to November all over the world," said Decker, noting most of the filming was done in France, Norway and North Carolina.
"A lot of my career has been working for other people, and finally this was a moment for me where we didn't have people making changes and people telling us we should do this or that. This was ours."
Decker said she can't be 100 percent sure what the future holds as sports struggle to return during a pandemic. She's living in the moment and looking forward with the same positivity that's been her trademark since high school.
"I'm cherishing it," she said. "It took awhile to get here and I'm so excited to be hitting the next level, where more and more of these opportunities come along where I have a bigger role and more control."
All it took was a leap of faith, and a whole lot of confidence.