Seeing a woman in the early 1980’s reporting sports on television was akin to spotting a unicorn. So, when a station in Columbus, Georgia offered me the sports director’s job, I jumped at it. That I had no idea where Columbus was mattered little. That I had never done live TV nor written a professional sportscast did not enter my mind.
I know what you’re thinking. Why did they hire me? Not only was I a woman, but my only TV experience was taped reports back in college. I’d like to think WRBL-TV went out on a limb because I’d been an amateur sports official in football, baseball, ice hockey, soccer, and basketball, which, one might assume, would make me fairly adept at discussing sports. Or that I’d read every sports page I could find and every issue of Sports Illustrated for the previous six years. But, as it turned out, the reason was actually quite simple. WRBL was the lowest-rated TV station in the market and they needed something different to grab a few ratings points.
After stuffing my stuff into a small U-Haul, I collected my calico cat and drove from Washington D.C. – the center of the universe – to Columbus, Georgia – which was something else entirely. I arrived on a Monday.
“You’ll start on the air Wednesday night,” the news director said. He dismissed me and I stood alone in the newsroom and wondered what exactly I should do. I was lucky that kind people helped me along the way, especially my reporting partner Dan Lynn. Still, I was grateful that I was a thousand miles from anyone I knew. Let’s just say my early broadcasts were rather rocky.
And it wasn’t just the live anchoring that was problematic. Sometimes, it was covering the sports themselves. Because as much as I’d studied the games, some athletic endeavors were out of my realm.
“The WWF is in town. Go down and do a story,” my boss said.
“The wrestlers,” Dan explained.
“No, professional wrestlers. Let’s go.” Dan walked over to the rack of cameras.
“You cover them? On the news? But, Dan, we cover real sports!” I followed him to the news car. “Those guys are just actors.”
We arrived at the Municipal Auditorium and walked inside. We were directed to a gray hallway that boasted not a single sign or decoration and asked to wait. Dan set up the tripod and camera while I struggled to come up with questions to ask.
Then, a giant with long, scraggly wet hair appeared. Dressed in workout clothes, he was maybe in his late twenties. I introduced myself. He did not speak. I waited as Dan fiddled with the camera.
“It’ll just be a moment.” I gave him my prettiest smile, but the man did not smile back nor make any attempt at small talk. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself.
“OK. We’re good.” Dan flicked on the camera.
I lifted the microphone. Then I froze. I could not think of a single question to ask this professional wrestler, who was not an athlete in my eyes. As far as I was concerned, a clown might have better described his profession.
“Here’s the thing, I have to be honest,” I said breezily. “I don’t know what to ask you, since this isn’t real.”
“What isn’t real?” He glared.
“Professional wrestling. It’s just, you know, a show.”
“It isn’t real!” He roared.
I stepped back.
Then he pulled down the collar of his shirt revealing a ragged scar on his shoulder. “Does that look real to you?” He didn’t give me a chance to answer. “How about this one, honey?” He pulled up his pant leg and displayed a similarly gruesome set of stitches on his knee. “Or this one?”
I could not look away as he continued to reveal his scars.
Of course, I was wrong. That the man was an athlete was clear. Because I didn’t believe his vocation was a sport, did not make him any less of a competitor. I would like to tell you that I remember who that wrestler was, but I do not. (If I did, I might hunt him down and apologize.) But I cannot forget what he showed me that day.
Ironically, I would cover other professional wrestling bouts over the years and would become friends with a man who also made his living in that field. The late John William Minton might be better known to his fans as Big John Stud. Despite his crazed performances in the ring, he was a kind and thoughtful man who worked hard, loved his wife and children, and enjoyed discussing history.
I’m glad that first wrestler taught me a lesson. At six-foot-ten and 364 pounds, I would have hated to have John mad at me.
Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group
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