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How a failed attempt at the NFL created a successful animator at Nickelodeon

Salisbury is the series director for two early-education cartoons on Nickelodeon, including Bubble Guppies, which uses music, cute characters, and humor to teach children about teamwork and friendship. Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon.

On the first day of each semester, Mark Salisbury stands at the front the class he teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York and says, “Listen, I’m here because of a failed attempt at an NFL career.”

It’s not exactly the most inspirational speech to give new students. But after two decades as an award-winning animation producer for Nickelodeon, Salisbury credits his success not to his failure on the football field, but how he learned to handle it while he was an athlete at Northeastern.

“Baseball and football were microcosms of life itself,” he said. “They gave us the tools to work towards a goal, taught us how to deal with failure, and how to push past it.”

Salisbury is the series director for two early-education cartoons on Nickelodeon, Bubble Guppies and Butterbean’s Cafe. Both shows use music, cute characters, and humor to teach children about teamwork and friendship, qualities Salisbury said were an essential part of his football days.

The athlete turned animator graduated from Northeastern in 1995 and worked hard to turn his college football career into one at the professional level. When he didn’t make it into the National Football League, he turned his ambitions toward a different lifelong passion: cartoons.

Mark Salisbury says that being a student-athlete at Northeastern helped prepare him for an animation career at Nickelodeon. Photo courtesy of Mark Salisbury.

“My kids joke that I’m not really an adult, I’m just a grown-up kid, because my house is full of drawings,” said Salisbury, who grew up watching Looney Toons before he started working for Nickelodeon in 1998.

He said his Northeastern experience prepared him for long hours in the animation studio, where he approached each day with a similar philosophy to the one he learned as an athlete.

“Everyone has ten thousand bad drawings in them, get them out as soon as you can,” he said.  “It’s the same in sportsat some point, everyone is going to fail. But if you keep practicing, eventually you’ll get better.”

Northeastern inducted Salisbury into the university’s Varsity Club Hall of Fame in 2012 for his achievements in football, including the fourth-most interceptions in program history.  This achievement, Salisbury said, meant more to him than winning a Daytime Emmy in 2004 for his work on Nickelodeon’s Little Bill, which won the award for Outstanding Animated Children’s Program.  

“You know, I really tried to make it to the next level, so it was a bit of a disappointment that I came up short,” he said. “So that award helped put a period at the end of my athletic career, and I’ll take it.”

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