I had the good fortune of discovering sportscaster George Michael not once, but twice.
For a short time of my early life, almost 30 years ago, my family lived in northern Virginia. And back then — and just like it is now — only one TV station mattered for local news — Channel 4, WRC-TV, out of D.C.
Michael was the lead sports anchor at the time, back in the days when local newscasts granted sports more than 90 seconds each night, and well before Doplar Radar and the weather took up 97.8 percent of any newscast.
And there was Michael, covering all the bases for the big boys — the Redskins, Bullets and Capitals, but also always devoting time to anything that caught his eye and piqued his varied interest. He covered NASCAR, for instance, before any of the mainstream media did, as well as other forms of auto racing. He was perhaps most brilliant in the offbeat feature story, the one about the rodeo, or the high school kid, or the pro wrestler, or whatever.
Michael was the go-to guy for me as a young Redskins fan, or anything else that mattered in sports. Where else was I going to get it? ESPN was a fledging network on something nobody had yet — cable.
I even wrote him a letter once, about something called the “Skins Dirt Band,” a local group that did songs about the Skins and for one of Michael’s many offshoots, “The Joe Theismann Show.” Michael responded with a black and white glossy photo and a few words and a autograph. I still have it in an old scrapbook somewhere.
My family moved from the northern Virginia area when I was 8, and with the move came our first foray into cable. I found ESPN and SportsCenter, as well as WGN and the Cubs. I can’t say I ever forgot about George Michael, but I didn’t need him in my daily life anymore, either.
And then I did.
Fast-forward to my freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill — to dorm life, new friends, girls I was still too scared to talk to — and a glaring lack of cable. Here I was, living on a major college campus, studying and planning for my future, and the TV was wired to the dark ages. Sure, we had a remote, but we only had three channels to peruse, and one of them was PBS.
And one was NBC.
Flipping through our three lonely channels one Sunday night and early Monday morning, my roommate and I stumbled onto the most glorious thing — “The George Michael Sports Machine.”
In an era when most of our friends were thankful they had a fuzzy NBC so they could hold “Friends” parties, Neil and I felt blessed to have George and the Sports Machine. He was our weekly SportsCenter, and it couldn’t have come on a better day — Sunday. After being unable to tune in any of the NFL games, George was there to give us the highlights.
“The Sports Machine” looked primitive next to Keith and Dan on the Big Show, but that was partly the point. Standing next to his podium with these weird flashing buttons, Michael’s show was a local entity in D.C. until NBC decided to try it as a nationally syndicated show. Somehow, even with the emerging behemoth of ESPN, it worked.
And so for us, “The George Michael Sports Machine” was must-see TV.
And now he’s gone.
Michael passed away on Christmas Eve. He was a true trailblazer in sports journalism, respected immensely by his peers and beloved by his viewers.
Michael stepped away from his anchor position on Channel 4 a couple of years ago, and “The Sports Machine” made its final broadcast on March 25, 2007 — nearly 10 years after I graduated from UNC.
I was saddened to hear about his passing, but grateful that I was able to say I saw him at his best.