Della Penna finds his place at Canisius as a Sports Broadcaster
By Hannah Nelson, Features Contributor
Unprompted, Griffin Della Penna described watching Sports Center for the first time with his dad: “I was about six years old. I was sitting in the living room with my dad and he just clicked it on, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Those people get to dress up, be on TV, and talk about sports all day… And they get to get paid for it?’ I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Like, who wouldn’t want to do that?” Twelve years later in June of 2019, he graduated from Batavia High School, set to attend his father’s alma mater — Canisius College — and sat atop his head was a graduation cap decorated not with the dream of a six-year old, but the promise of a young man: “Future Face of ESPN.”
Part of a naturally athletic family, Della Penna’s early fascination with sports was not going to be a passion merely indulged from the comfort of his living room. He entered the Western New York high school sports scene undeniably talented; by his sophomore year in high school, he had established himself as a valuable member of the basketball, football and baseball teams. For a gifted athlete coming off of stellar seasons in both football and baseball, the question wasn’t whether he was going to play at the next level: it was which sport, and where? Having already garnered interest from several Division I baseball programs, he decided to dedicate himself to the diamond. Just months after his decision, an impromptu pregame training drill-turned-freak-accident left him with a broken right collarbone, separated AC joint and torn labrum — an injury that would lead to the devastating conclusion of a promising, yet short, baseball career. By the time he would return to the field after weeks of rehabilitation, he found the recruiting process had moved on without him and the potential for a Division I baseball career had gone along with it.
Where a cap once sat three years ago, a headset now takes its place. Hunched over a folding table haphazardly situated in front of a green screen in the middle of the closet-sized room, he shuffled through the documents strewn across the table. Comically contrasting the organized chaos that surrounded him, he meticulously placed three things directly in front of him: the home team’s roster, the visiting team’s roster and a notebook whose pages boasted more ink than whitespace. As the official sports broadcaster for the 2021 Canisius College women’s soccer team, Della Penna’s countdown to game time begins long before any buzzer, coin toss or warmup. The way he looks at it, his job is to make the games not just easier to understand, but more enjoyable.
“In the grand scheme of things, I’m supposed to not only talk about the game, but make people care about the game and the teams playing, even if they don’t have a dog in the fight. Why is March Madness so big? Do that many people really care about college basketball?” Della Penna asked rhetorically and continued, “Probably not. There’s an entertainment aspect that leaves me responsible for knowing any and every piece of information about the teams, the conference, and — really — whatever that could make someone care about what I have to say.”
More than just a week’s worth of preparation had gone into this game. He’d done more than a week's worth of stat revision, perfecting pronunciations and finding the littlest facts in order to best call the game he was responsible for narrating. He had already contacted the opposing team’s sports information director to inquire about statistics, rosters and other sources of information. He had already printed out those rosters and statistics, for not only the teams contesting but also for other teams in the conference, so that he could give viewers context for the game at hand. He had already annotated and color coded these sheets with phonetic pronunciations of tricky names in pink and starting lineups in yellow, and he would continue to update those statistics as the game continued on. “The biggest thing for me is to try to find talking points by looking at indicators and trends that aren’t necessarily normal,” he explained. “And I like finding ways to make the game more interesting than it already is that still somehow fit the flow of the game.”
As the former director of digital media for the college’s athletic department, Garrett Layton’s job revolved around ensuring the school’s athletic events were effectively broadcasted through its own Golden Griffin Broadcast Network, ESPN3 and ESPN+. “A large part of what I do here at Canisius is utilize students in order to continue to build a broadcasting program,” Layton explained. A school that boasted a total undergraduate population of just 1980 students in the fall of 2020 (as reported by the U.S. News and World Report), the ability to support coverage for 20 Division I teams does not come easily. The entire athletic communications and digital media staff comprises just six people, with only two people — Layton and graduate student assistant Chris Rolfing — officially tasked with assisting production efforts for athletic events. To adequately broadcast games with such a scant support staff, Layton’s camera crew, technical support and even the play-by-play broadcasters are often the same age as those competing on the field, court or track. “We will get a handful of kids that are majoring in journalism to work the broadcast as a requirement for our sports field production class, and then most of the time students will continue to volunteer to come back and work the games in order to gain some experience,” Layton explained.
Unsurprisingly, Della Penna did not wait until after completing that class before he connected with Layton; he wasn’t even a student at Canisius before he reached out to Layton for potential opportunities. Just months after forgoing his dream of playing college baseball, Della Penna introduced himself to Layton at a Canisius open house event as a senior in high school. As he recounted their first meeting, Layton smiled. “You know, I always remember people because of how passionate they are, and ever since that open house he has always been extremely passionate; not just about his end goal, but about the process. He’s always wanting to get more involved, wanting to understand how things work and wanting to get better, which is extremely important when you have goals and dreams as big as he does.” As just a senior in high school, even in the midst of lamenting the death of one dream at such a young age, Della Penna was already hot in pursuit and chasing down another.
And absolutely nothing has changed. This past summer, Della Penna made history as the first-ever voice of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League’s Batavia Muckdogs. In addition to his efforts in the booth, he essentially acted as the team’s media liaison and performed duties far beyond the paygrade of an intern. True to form and ever restless, by summer’s end Della Penna had announced his position as a media and content department intern with Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the multimillion-dollar company behind the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, among countless other successful sports, entertainment and property endeavors.
As just a junior in college, the accomplishments Della Penna has already achieved, coupled with his exuberant self-assuredness, is astounding and at times intimidating. Hellbent to make an impression on sports media like his self-proclaimed sports broadcasting hero, the iconic Stuart Scott, Della Penna is not fueled by aspiring to be like his idols in order to mimic or achieve their successes; he stated simply, “The only person I really want to be like is the best version of myself” — as both a fan and now a friend, I’d say Griffin Della Penna is well on his way.