Alumni Spotlight - Desmond Purnell
By Jamie Kornegay
When we caught up with Grenada High alumnus Desmond Purnell (Class of 1998), he was studying. As a television sports reporter for ESPN, he may spend his weekends at the game, but during the week, Purnell says there are scores, statistics, and player histories to learn.
The Grenada native was preparing for two big sideline gigs — covering the Cactus Bowl in Phoenix and the Music City Bowl in Nashville. Millions watched and listened when the games were held December 26 and 29 respectively.
That's a significantly larger crowd than the ones that watched him as a running back for the Grenada Chargers. Purnell went on to play football at Mississippi State. During his junior year at MSU, he accepted that he didn't have the talent to go pro but didn't see it as a failure. He'd studied hard and developed other interests in high school. He'd played in the band as well as football and graduated with honors. When it came time to pivot, Purnell had something precious — options.
"He's driven, that's what I remember most," said David Aldridge, who coached Purnell at GHS in football and powerlifting. "I'll never forget the first day I met him. I was coaching the powerlifting class, and he was one of the first students to arrive. He asked me how he could get stronger with the deadlift, and I just couldn't believe this kid was so anxious to get better. He was receptive to everything I told him to do."
Aldridge's mentorship remains one of Purnell's bright spots at Grenada. "I wasn't just a player in a position to him," he says of Coach Aldridge. "I was Desmond."
Another eye-opening experience at GHS was Mrs. Donna Gordon's ninth grade English class. She asked the students to create a newscast, and each students chose a role, including host, guest, and producer. Purnell elected to be host. "I've always had a gift for gab. Sometimes teachers found it charming, sometimes I ended up in the principal's office," Purnell joked.
The assignment in Mrs. Gordon's class made an impression. "I thought, Hey man, I think I could do this," Purnell says. "And I always loved watching SportsCenter, but after that assignment, I began to pay closer attention. I began to analyze and study instead of just watching for entertainment."
Of all the inspiring people from his upbringing, none were more critical to Purnell than his parents. He gives them credit for instilling him with the drive and discipline to succeed. They were hard-working, educated people who took factory jobs to give their six kids everything they needed.
"They busted their tails for us," says Purnell. "I mean they worked! We saw them come home and have to rest before they could help us with homework or drive us to practice. To this day, I still don't know how they did it."
Desmond's parents, George and Bobbie Purnell, still live in Grenada. His other five siblings are scattered across the South in their respective careers. "Of course, after watching our parents, we were all gonna go out and work," says Purnell. "We knew we had to give it back or their sacrifice would have been in vain."
After college, Purnell's determination led him through a series of internships and entry-level broadcast jobs, working for local news stations in Winona, Columbus, Greenwood, and Greenville — even a brief stint in Rapid City, South Dakota — before he moved to Texas and began his trajectory to speaking in front of 80 million viewers.
Purnell has worked his way up from news station photographer to sideline reporter and analysis show host for Fox Sports and the NFL Network. Last year he landed with the worldwide leader in sports, ESPN. He has interviewed some of the best in the business — LeBron James, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez — and has won two Emmy Awards for his reporting, along with several nominations.
Along the way he has fostered a work ethic and success principle founded on what he calls the three Cs: consistency, being relentless in your pursuits and your standard of excellence; confidence, knowing you have something special to offer but not being cocky; and Christ, understanding that there is something bigger than you.
In addition to spreading the message of faith, Purnell spreads the good news about fitness and nutrition in his popular exercise classes in his current home of Texas, where he teaches weight-training and cardio dance. His reputation as a positive, inspiring role model, both in front of the camera and behind, further proves he understands the value of giving back.
Said hometown friend and mentor, Coach Aldridge, "He's just got a heart for helping people who want to do the right thing."