In 2000, while Selema "Sal Masekela was interviewing San Diego rock band Blink-182, a bird took a dump straight into his open mouth. It's probably the only bad thing that's ever happened to him when it comes to opening his trap: Since landing a job as the primary X Games host in 1999, the 32-year-old has become one of the most recognizable faces in extreme sports.
When he moved from New York to California 10 years ago, Masekela had hopes of becoming a pro surfer. Instead, a friend got him a job answering phones at TransWorld Snowboarding magazine, and things went well—until he got promoted and had to learn to type. "I could talk, but the talking got in the way of the work part, Masekela chuckles. After helping produce videos for Transworld, he founded Alpha Numeric, a skate-clothing company; co-hosted Fox Sports' Board Wild; and scored an MC job on MTV's Sport and Music Festival. That's when he caught ESPN's eye.
For the past five years, Masekela has been the familiar face of the Winter X Games, the annual gathering of skis, boards, bikes, and 'biles that was telecast live for the first time last year—and was watched by some 500,000 households. And though he also covers sports for NPR and ABC (the NBA on Friday nights), and hosts festivals and awards ceremonies, extreme sports are Masekela's favorite events. "He just has so much passion for our sports. When I get interviewed by anyone else after a contest, I'm like, 'Where's Sal?' says snowboarding gold medalist Tara Dakides.
Masekela plays it down: "I'm just a fan with a big mouth, so the same trait that got me into trouble before has gotten me a good gig. Even so, he's not afraid to speak his mind. In 2002, when the X Games added slopestyle and halfpipe skiing, Masekela cried blasphemy. "I thought it would be a crock. The first year was a debacle, and those guys would admit it. But now that skiers are launching 20 feet out of the pipe, Masekela admits he's eating his words. "I hate to say it, but they're the ones who are pushing the snowboarders now. It's a good thing they aren't the guys who cut my checks.