It is tempting to view everything Schultz does through the lens of football. In part this is because at heart, he is a natural athlete: a large-hearted exhibitionist who, having little interest in the vagaries of politics, operates on a field with clear allies and enemies, and thrives on the notion of a crowd rallying behind him. But part of it, too, is that Schultz often sounds like an ex-jock when he talks about himself and his career. “Aha, you bastards, I made it!” is how Schultz described his reaction to the growing success of his radio show. “It was that old jockstrap starting to come out again, you know? And I just had that fight and determination and belief that gritting the teeth and keeping going was winning for us.”

His satisfaction was soon replaced by that familiar restlessness—that desire to, as his high-school friend had put it, “be somebody.” Schultz’s ambitions naturally turned to television. After a day of fulminating at the radio station in Fargo, he says he would return to his lakeside home in rural Minnesota and redirect his ire at the cable-news shows. “I just would scream at the TV set: ‘Why can’t I get a chance to do that?’”

In 2007, Schultz bought a $150,000 satellite camera and had it installed in the Fargo radio station. Now the playing field between the heartland and the coasts was a bit more level, and Schultz began appearing as a talking head on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. “I had to make Ed Schultz a bigger brand if I was gonna do this,” he says.

In the Democratic presidential primary in 2008, Schultz went early for Obama, a decision he attributes in part to having grown up in Virginia during the civil rights era. “I carried a lot of water for Obama,” he says of his broadcasts during that time. “I pounded for him hard. I went after the Clintons. I went after every Democratic challenger.”

He’s convinced his support did not go unnoticed. After Obama won, Schultz put his name on the list to attend the first presidential press conference. He arrived at the event and learned that he had been assigned a seat in the front row, right next to Helen Thomas. “That was the Obama people saying thanks,” he says. “I know it was. I know it was.”

Phil Griffin was watching that press conference, and was surprised to see Big Eddie, who had pitched him to get on the network in the past, front and center. Griffin had his assistant set up a meeting in Georgetown, which, as he had with the Senate Democrats, Schultz turned into an audition. “I came out of that conversation pumped up about what Ed was saying and about what he could bring to the network,” Griffin says. “I wanted a voice like that.”

The Ed Show debuted in April 2009. In early meetings about the show, Schultz says he told MSNBC management, “I want to tell a story about what America needs. And what America needs right now is a voice for the middle class.”

Throughout the first year of his show, Schultz brought his fire-breathing style to the debate over healthcare reform, hammering relentlessly for the public option and quickly establishing his progressive bona fides. Years later, his audience still remembers him for it. Every Schultz fan I talk to brings up healthcare—and Schultz’s mother, who died of Alzheimer’s, and his wife, whose battle with cancer Schultz discussed on the air. The personal connection people feel to the man is undeniable. As Schultz put it, in his industry “they’ve gotta like the talent.”

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer.