Yogi Roth on the Power of Finding Free Fun

Yogi Roth has been driven by the power of sports and story for over 20 years, as an on-air college football analyst, Elite 11 coach, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, New York Times best-selling author, and an Amazon best-selling author. He is also a former Pitt wide receiver and USC coach, a motivational speaker, TV and event host, and world traveler. But if that list of accomplishments and credentials weren’t enough, Yogi has a new one to add: children’s book author. His new book, Finding Free Fun (also available in print on Amazon and Barnes & Noble) was inspired by his father’s philosophy, which was instilled in him and his siblings at an early age. We caught up with this Venice Beach-based husband and father of two to talk about free fun, his impressive background, and more.

Tell us about your impressive background.

I grew up in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania called Dalton—population: 2500 people with no stoplights. All we had, or so it seemed, was a core group of friends, a ball, and countless games to play. At night, I would often find myself playing basketball until my mom would call me in for bed. Looking back, I recall “broadcasting” my own games on that asphalt, and that this small town, my core friends, and our constant competition allowed me to fall in love with sports and feel that anything was possible. As a fourth grader, I vividly remember my Mom looking at me when I got home from basketball practice one winter afternoon and out of nowhere saying, “Yogi, you’re a writer.” I promptly replied, “No, I’m a basketball player.” But as I’ve learned, she was onto something…

What has been the most surprising thing about your career so far? What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

I always felt like I would be telling stories in sports, but I never knew how I would get there. One story that surprised me was the lesson I learned from being on a massive stage.

I was working the ESPYs for Entertainment Tonight as their red carpet correspondent while also auditioning for their co-host role. Someone called in sick and I got the opportunity to work my first red carpet event. Candidly, I had never been on a red carpet and had zero clue regarding the rules of entertainment television at an event like this. As I stood on the platform awaiting celebrities and elite athletes, the producer told me to ask them two basic questions: “Would you rather win a championship in sports or an award in entertainment?” and “What are you wearing?”

After 45 minutes, we both could tell that the evening wasn’t going smoothly as the answers were just ok and my desire to ask those questions was worse than that. I asked him point blank, “Can I just do my thing?” He said yes, assuming things couldn’t get much worse.

I began to ask questions around the humanity of sports, the power of inclusion in sports, and the impact of cancer to each celebrity guest. Their answers were amazing, as was the night. That year the ESPYs were honoring Michael Sam, who was the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL, and Stuart Scott, who was competing against cancer. Simultaneously, my father was competing against prostate cancer and my brother had been openly gay since 2003. Both issues are important to me and that night I learned a critical lesson in storytelling—ask questions that you are interested in and the person on the other side of the microphone will be interested, too. I’ve carried that with me ever since that evening.

And no, I did not get the job at ET, but will forever be indebted to that show for the opportunity and subsequent lesson it provided me.

What inspired Finding Free Fun?

As a child our dad, Will, would often say the phrase, “Let’s find some free fun!” I had zero clue what he meant, but as I got older and began to travel around the globe, I quickly learned. We would talk in my early 20s when I’d be in a hostel or on a train and he would remind me to be on the lookout for the beauty in each country and that the best things in life are often free. Once I became a father, I began to recognize that this generation of children have access to much more than I did and feelings of jealousy can come to the surface. So instead of combating those desires with a hard, “No,” my wife and I chose to follow my dad’s advice and pivot and begin to talk about all of the free fun available in the world. So much so that we would overly use the phrase when going to the beach, hiking, biking, running, watching fireworks, jumping into waves, skipping rocks, and more. It became a common phrase and as the years have passed and my son, Zayn has turned 7, we hope that phrase is embedded within him as we spend our time, and resources, on things in nature that are free.

Have there been any similarities between creating a children’s story and your career in sports, either as a player or a coach?

100%. In sports you always have a vision for your career, or a game. As an author, I also had a vision for this book. Once those were laid out, I then had to throw myself entirely into the sport or the creative process of the book. When truly “in it,” I would find joy and flow, whether that was catching passes as a football player or writing deep into the night. There was a drive, focus, and joy that came from both experiences and I truly feel that is a main reason I continue to come back to sports and writing as my two favorite crafts.

What has it been like seeing your book come to life with animation?

To watch a Google doc become images, and then have those images get animated is something I never knew was possible. The team at Vooks has been just that—a team. The collaborative experience has been my most enjoyable as a storyteller. This book is extremely intimate for me, as the inspiration of the book is our 7-year-old son, Zayn. The entire team understood that from day one without me ever having to say it. I’m so looking forward to our son reading this book. The pandemic was a challenge for all of us, children included, and he was at the age when reading begins when school shifted from in-person to zoom. At times, reading has been frustrating, but to be able to build this book alongside him and watch him be a true part of the creative process has been a joy. It’s allowed reading to be fun during a time when school was particularly stressful.

What’s some of your favorite free fun?

What’s beautiful about free fun is that there are endless things to do. Explore, surf (my favorite), get lost on a bike ride, read a cool book, paint, shoot hoops (my second favorite), work out, etc. We also feel like one can make a task, or a chore, a form of free fun, too. That could be mowing the lawn or raking the leaves and then playing in the grass or diving into the leaf pile. But above all, what I hope this concept does is remind people, young and old, that we’re all made to move and we move through things in life. Recently, play therapy has become a popular topic in psychology and I completely agree with the claim that when we meet a challenge or adversity shows up, moving through it will help all of us process our emotions and come to some sort of conclusion. For instance, when I was a child I vividly recall a girlfriend breaking up with me. To process it, I played basketball for hours upon hours. As I got older and met critical moments in life and in sports, sweating and movement allowed me to process those thoughts and emotions. I hope the concept of free fun elicits play therapy in anyone who reads it.

You’ve achieved so much in your career, and it seems like you’re only just getting started. What advice would you offer young kids about chasing their dreams?

I often get asked this question and there are so many great ways to answer it, but I net out on this piece of advice: our only goal in life should be to give everything away. But to give anything away you have to gain it first. So go gain experiences, relationships, knowledge, moments of triumph and complete failure. Then take those lessons, put them into your life’s story, and find a way to give them all away.

In addition, I once read that adults should pause when thinking to ask a child the common question, “What do you want to do when you get older?” And pivot to “How do you want to feel when you get older?” That statement gave me tremendous pause and I think there is something to that. I believe that kids should have a childhood and, I’d argue, a life full of play. Same for adults. And play can be fun, serious, intense, competitive, collaborative, joyful, dirty, happy, sad, and much more. It’s all about mindset when it comes to play vs. work. If we choose play, we may be able to live with flames of wonderment and imagination that rarely dim, and can even roar.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The other side of the unknown can be a magical experience. When we are coming to a moment in life when we don’t know what is coming next, embrace it, feel every part of your body that is switched on, and seek what is on the other side—it might just change your life.

Surfing photograph by Aimee Nelson