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By R.L. Bynum
Game Day Charlie has lived the dream for more than 30 years
To pursue a dream job, getting paid initially isn’t always as important as getting there.
That was the case for veteran WTVD sports photographer Charlie Mickens well before he became known as Game Day Charlie. He had not yet become the rare TV journalist behind the camera who gets a personal greeting and a handshake from a Hall of Fame coach. That happened as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was walking from the team bus to a Columbia, S.C., arena for an NCAA tournament game in March.
— ABC11Charlie Mickens (@GameDayCharlie) March 21, 2019
Mickens celebrated 30 years at the Triangle’s ABC affiliate earlier this month, living that dream job as a sports photographer in the hotbed of college basketball.
Getting there wasn’t easy, and he wasn’t sure it was possible. First, he had to believe that someone would look at his ability and work ethic and not his skin color.
“As a little kid from Ruther Glen, Virginia, I thought, growing up, that blacks couldn’t get a job in TV, because I didn’t see any blacks on TV,” Mickens said.
That notion was set aside when, shortly after graduating from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), WVEC-TV in Norfolk, Va., hired him as a video editor.
Instead of his familiar spots these days for the big game behind baselines at historic ACC courts, on the sidelines at Carolina Panthers or college football games or rinkside at Carolina Hurricanes games, he was sitting at his Hampton, Va., home in 1984 watching a Washington Redskins-Miami Dolphins game on television.
He saw the station’s sports director, Roger Cawthon, shooting that game at RFK Stadium and recalls thinking at the time, “Man, I’d like to be doing that. I could do that!”
Mickens, now 59, asked Cawthon the next day if he could shoot the next game. The offer surprised Cawthon because the older news photographers had no interest. Mickens wasn’t even working yet as a photographer and would have to shoot the games on one of his days off.
“I’m a young guy; I’m all gung-ho,” Mickens said. “I don’t care if I was getting paid. I just want to shoot the game, shoot the Redskins. The next time I am on the sidelines shooting the Washington Redskins.”
Shooting games for free was the start of pushing his career toward covering sports. A lot of people grow up loving sports but never incorporate that in their career path. Mickens saw the path and kept following it.
“I think he’s just a gigantic, genuine sports fan, who loves the games, and everything around the games every bit as much as he did when he was a kid,” said Mark Armstrong, sports anchor at WTVD for nearly 15 years. “And when you first get into the business, like a lot of us over the course of many years … it becomes more of a job, right? But Charlie still loves it. He loves it. He loves coming to the games, and every part of it.”
Eventually, Mickens became a news photographer at WVEC, working Wednesdays through Sundays from 2:30–11:30 p.m. and actually getting paid to shoot sports as part of his job.
Scott Cash, WVEC’s sports director since January 1986, says Mickens showed the talent and the instincts for the job.
“You have to have a great sense of anticipation,” Cash said. “And I think Charlie was born with it. But not only that, he nourishes it along the way. He really thinks it through. When you’re shooting a game, your mind’s got to be in the game. You’ve got to anticipate each play. You got to know, have a good idea of what’s going to happen with that play. How is it going to end up? You get your legs in the right place. And then you also have an idea with your head, where the ball is going to be going. And he just has a great sense of anticipation.”
That ability has been a gift to WTVD viewers for years.
“He’s obviously highly skilled as a sports photographer,” Armstrong said of Mickens’ ability to get just the right angle on the big plays. “And then there’s the stuff like that where you can call it luck. Or you can call it just kind of knowing he just has that sixth sense. And it doesn’t mean he gets every shot, but he gets most of them.”
Fast thinking south of the border
Being a news photographer at WVEC still wasn’t the job he wanted since only about a third of his work was sports-related and, other than the Redskins, it usually was covering Old Dominion, Norfolk State or Hampton. It’s not exactly the hotbed for top-level college sports.
There were big perks, though.
The Redskins’ 42–10 Super Bowl XXII victory over the Denver Broncos after the 1987 season was the first of four Super Bowls Mickens has shot. He covered both of the Carolina Panthers’ Super Bowl losses (after the 2003 and 2015 seasons) as well as Super Bowl XXXVII (Tampa Bay’s 48-21 blowout of Oakland after the 2002 season) because ABC was televising the game.
Fast thinking allowed Mickens and Cash to make it back to San Diego for an 11 p.m. ET live shot during the Super Bowl week before Washington’s victory. They went on one of the Super Bowl party bus trips to Tijuana and did a couple of feature stories. But the bus to take them back never showed up. When a bus finally showed up, it was going to the next Tijuana party. By that time, it was after 9 o’clock.
“Charlie has an ABC logo on his camera,” Cash said. “And we go to an officer, a Mexican police officer. And he goes, ‘Hey, we’re with ABC News in the United States, we need to somehow get back to the United States and the police said, no problem. He gave us a ride in his car back to the border.”
Despite the cab driver in the U.S. getting lost, they made it back with 15 minutes to spare.
“Thanks to Charlie using a little bit of his wit and wherewithal, he got us back to where we needed to be,” Cash said.
It’s been years since Cash and Mickens worked together, although they help each other out at times since both work at ABC affiliates. But what Cash is reminded of when they do talk is his kindness.
“If Charlie asks you how you’re doing, he cares about what you say,” Cash said. “He’s just so genuine. And that’s what I love about him the most.”
By 1989, Mickens had worked his way up the coveted 9:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday shift, but still wasn’t exclusively shooting sports. He took advantage of those hours for only about a week because WTVD hired him as a sports photographer, putting him back on weekend duty.
I started here at WTVD on September 5, 1989. Thank you to all the co-workers during these 30 years! pic.twitter.com/xfngKNhkTN
— ABC11Charlie Mickens (@GameDayCharlie) September 5, 2019
But that was a welcome tradeoff. Unless there is a hurricane to cover, it’s all sports for him.
“I’ve always been a guy that likes sports,” Mickens said. ”It’s almost like, I just haven’t worked a day in my life because I’m shooting sports, covering sports. This is a dream job that I couldn’t ever fathom to have.”
College internship stoked his interest
It wasn’t his first extended time in North Carolina. Mickens started college at Elon before transferring to Hampton for his junior year to major in mass media arts. He did some public-address announcing while at Hampton, but being in television instead of on television became a goal. That was stoked by an internship with WAVY-TV in Portsmouth, Va., after his junior year.
“The light bulb came on,” he said, remembering that internship. “Because I got to go out with the sports guys there, with the photographer there and got to go out on shoots. And so that’s what really interests me because I wanted to be outside the building, not so much inside the building. If I could be at the games, that’s where I want to be. That’s what I had the best thrill doing: Being out at games.”
When Mickens arrived in the Triangle, he figured he’d stay about three years and then move on to CBS or ESPN. That was the plan despite being well aware of the ACC since he grew up north of Richmond.
“That’s what you kind of say in your mind,” Mickens said. “And then when you get here, and when you’re covering all the events here, especially the college basketball games? I was like, ‘You know what? This is pretty good here.’ This is the place to be for college basketball, you know? The world of college basketball doesn’t move unless Duke and Carolina move.”
Mickens says he’s never pursued another job.
“It just kind of felt right,” he said. “I never had the itch to say, ‘Hey, you know, I wish I would have tried this or wish I tried that.’ I got to cover some significant stuff for the station. I’d have to say that being here at the station, at WTVD, has afforded me the chance to cover a lot of things.”
A Final Four regular
He’s covered 18 Final Fours and seen local teams win nine championships.
“I think I made the right move by coming down here and the right move to stay here,” he said.
His first Final Four, when UNLV blew out Duke in 1990 in Denver, started an amazing stretch. After covering Duke’s back-to-back titles (avenging that loss to UNLV, then beating Kansas in Indianapolis in 1991 and beating Michigan in 1992 in Minneapolis), he was in New Orleans to cover UNC’s victory over Michigan in the 1993 final.
Since he started at WTVD, the only time he didn’t cover a local team in the Final Four was when Duke was in Charlotte in 1994. His father had lost his battle with bone cancer the week before.
He talked to his dad on the phone the morning before covering Duke’s victory over Purdue at the Southeast Regional final in Knoxville, Tenn. When he got back to the WTVD studios about 1 a.m., a message was waiting from his sister to call home. She delivered the crushing news.
“It took him quick,” Mickens said. “I was at least I was glad to have one last conversation with him the day before.”
Not only did he watch that men’s Final Four on TV with his family back home in Virginia, but he also watched the women’s Final Four from there. He was about a 30-minute drive away from where UNC won the women’s NCAA title in 1994 in Richmond. That game was played the day after his dad’s funeral.
Of all the big games he’s covered, the one that stands out is the classic Eastern Regional final in 1992between Duke and Kentucky, which Christian Laettner won on a last-second jumper.
“We all rush down to the locker room, waiting outside the locker room, and me and my reporter, Tony Debo, we were the first ones to run up to Laettner in the locker room,” Mickens said. “And he’s just sitting there at his locker and we were the first ones to get a camera in his face and start interviewing him about the game and the shot and everything. People say that was one of the greatest college games ever. And I’m just lucky to be there for it.”
While he covered the game, he didn’t shoot game action. During NCAA tournament games, video photographers aren’t allowed to shoot games. Instead of sitting behind a baseline as he does for most of the season, he’s not even in the arena but rather in a room somewhere underneath the stands. TV stations can edit game action from the network feed, but Mickens can only shoot practices and interviews.
Prime position to see the game … and to get hit
During the regular season, though, he has a perspective that is the envy of any basketball fan — right behind a baseline.
“That’s it. That’s the fun part about it,” Mickens said. “When you’re sitting on a baseline, you’re talking to your other compadres down there. Especially at places like the Dean Dome and Cameron Indoor, the people are right on you, you’re right on the action. You can hear the coaches, you can hear the players. I mean, there’s nothing like it.
“Whenever I’m finished with this thing, I don’t know if I can sit in a crowd and watch a game, because it’s just not the same when you’ve been right on the floor,” he said. “It’s a thrill.”
Being a photographer on the sidelines can be hazardous, which he learned early in his career while shooting a high school football game in Newport News, Va.
“You learn when you get bowled over, you don’t want to get bowled over again,” Mickens said.
With fewer restrictions on photographers at high school games, he got right up on the sideline as a quarterback went back to throw a long pass.
“And I’m gonna tell you something, it was the best shot video I had,” he said. “I’m getting it right, the ball spinning in the air. And I’m shooting this thing like NFL Films. The ball’s coming on down, and it’s coming down to me. And, next thing I know, the receiver hits me full on. Boom, knocks my batteries out of my pocket, camera down. The coach comes by and says, ‘get out of the players’ way.’
“Ever since then, I kind of back off the sidelines and stay away, because you don’t want to be hit again,” he said, knowing he could get a lot worse than being hit by a high school player. “You don’t want to get hit by a college or an NFL player, because they come faster and harder. You kind of learn to open up your eyes and have your other eye open to see. Because it’s not necessarily the guy that you see — like the ball carrier — that gets you. The defensive back coming from the other side is the one that usually gets you. You’re learning how to shoot with your left eye open, instead of closed.”
There’s no way to retreat when sitting behind a baseline at a basketball game, though, if a player comes right at you. It happened last season with Duke’s Zion Williamson. Luckily, Williamson jumped over Mickens; but it doesn’t always work out like that.
“When you see those guys coming, what I do is, I just kind of just kind of lean on back so I won’t take the brunt of it,” Mickens said. “If I’m already leaning back, it will kind of lessen the blow a little bit because on a baseline, you don’t have room to run, so to speak. I’m sort of like on the corners in a way. That doesn’t happen too often. But every now and then, you’ll get [a player going straight for you]. We told Zion last year, ‘Hey, thanks for not running us over.’ He said, ‘I wasn’t gonna hit you guys, anyway. I saw you.’ ”
Knowing how to minimize the impact of those sorts of confrontations, as well as good health in general, has helped him extend his career so long. It’s as if he’s got Tom Brady-like longevity.
“I joke with him that he was built for the job,” Armstrong said. “Because most people who do that for a living, you know, end up having back trouble or shoulder trouble. And he hasn’t had any of that. This is a young man’s game. And he’s still out there just slamming away and doing it. And yet he hasn’t had any of the debilitating-over-time injuries that most people lugging a camera pick up.”
Equipment, access have changed over the years
The equipment and methods have evolved. For years, he had to go out to his station’s satellite truck outside of the arena or stadium to edit his videos and transmit the reports back to the station. Now, he can do all the editing from his laptop and transmit stories to the station via the internet.
The good part is the convenience. The bad part is that he now has to take a lot more equipment with him, including a live-pack unit that allows WTVD to go live inside arenas.
“Do you remember that ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit when Al Franken used to have that little satellite dish phone on his head? It kind of feels like that’s how I am now,” Mickens said. “We don’t have anything on our heads; but we have our own live units now.”
Mickens misses the old days when it was easier to get to know coaches. When Mickens arrived at WTVD, Mack Brown was in his second season of his first stint at UNC. Each TV station got five minutes to interview Brown from the end zone at Kenan Stadium. These days, there is one press conference on the fifth floor of the Kenan Football Center.
“I remember going over to Duke and, you know, [the day] before the game or something, we would just shoot a little bit of practice. And Coach K will come over and give us all just a couple of sound bites before the next game,” said Mickens, who points out that instead there is a press conference now.
“It’s kind of hard for someone to break through to kind of get to know them on a one-on-one basis,” Mickens said. “It’s a lot harder now for someone coming up now.”
Outside of his normal duties, he interviewed beat writers at The N&O after games during the 2016–17 school year for short videos. But you’ll never find him on the other side of the camera on WTVD.
He’s a regular on Thursdays for Capitol Broadcasting Company’s morning drive-time radio show “The Sports Shop” on Buzz Sports Radio. Hosts Errol Reese and Kevin McClendon rarely call him Charlie. It’s almost always “GameDay.”
Armstrong is just glad to be part of the “GameDay” experience.
“I love working with the guy,” Armstrong said. “I just love seeing how much everybody else loves him, too. That always brings joy to me, seeing everybody else’s face light up when they see Charlie.”
Armstrong also credits Mickens for allowing him to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience hours after the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. Armstrong got a call from Mickens to let him know that he should come back to the arena.
“I’ve always been forever indebted to Charlie for making that phone call,” Armstrong said. “That night, otherwise we would have been slumming around at Glenwood South. Thanks to Charlie, we went back to the arena and spent the night drinking out of the Stanley Cup. He could have just had a grand old time and not even have called.”
The nickname came because of social media
There’s no elaborate story about how he got the name Game Day Charlie.
In August 2009, when Mickens was one of the first people on the WTVD staff to get a Twitter account, a Twitter username had to be selected. It was Sean Daley — WTVD’s director of web operations at the time — who hatched the idea.
“He just said, ‘Hey, Charlie, since you were at the games all the time, I’m gonna just go and just give you the name GameDayCharlie.’ And that’s how it came about. He just gave the name Game Day Charlie and it’s been off and running since. I like it,” said Mickens, recalling colleagues such as News & Observer columnist Luke DeCock using that nickname. “When they start calling you GameDay instead of Charlie, I guess that’s a good thing.”
Photographers generally aren’t in the spotlight. But Mickens isn’t shy about any attention he gets as Game Day Charlie.
“He enjoys the attention,” Armstrong said. “You know, he will purposely put on a fluorescent shirt for the Duke-Carolina game so that people can see Charlie Mickens on the baseline there. He dresses for the big games because he enjoys the notoriety and he enjoys people knowing who he is.”
In addition, media colleagues throughout the area are happy to know him — as well as Hall of Fame coaches.
Labar adds sideline reporter duties
Abby Labar, who Carolina Hurricanes fans will recognize as the Canes’ in-game arena host and as CanesVision web host, is a sideline reporter for at least five ACC football games airing on Fox regional sports networks.
Her first appearance was for last Saturday’s Elon at Wake Forest game and her next game will be the Boston College at Louisville game Oct. 5. Other games could be added if one of the other sideline reporters, Kelsey Wingert, has extended commitments to cover Atlanta Braves playoff games.
She has been a sideline reporter on the Triad version of Friday Night Rivals on WMYV, for ESPN3 broadcasts of Wingate football and basketball and for the South Atlantic Conference basketball tournament. The 2017 N.C. State graduate also worked as an on-air reporter while in college for what now is called Spectrum News.
Labar, who grew up in Denver, N.C., will still have her Canes role this season and contribute weekly videos and articles for Pack Pride.
Pryor changes NFL beats, cities and outlets
After a little more than a year covering the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, UNC alum Brooke Pryor is now covering the Pittsburgh Steelers for ESPN NFL Nation. Particularly with Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury, covering the Steelers this season might be a huge contrast to covering the high-flying Chiefs.
Marcel Louis-Jacques left another McClatchy Company newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, earlier this year to take a similar job covering the Buffalo Bills.
Pryor had not planned to leave the Star but had been talking with ESPN for a few months.
“This one seemed to be the best fit — historic franchise, closer to home and a multimedia role with both plenty of TV and long-form opportunities,” Pryor said via Twitter message.
She expects to appear one or two times a week on ESPN shows such as “NFL Live.”
The former Daily Tar Heel sports editor previously worked at Carolina Blue magazine, The Herald-Sun and North State Journal before covering Oklahoma football for The Oklahoman for three seasons.
She replaced Jeremy Fowler, who became a senior NFL reporter for ESPN.
Garcia retires after nearly 34 years at Asheboro newspaper
Dennis Garcia retired as the sports editor of The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro on Sept. 15 after nearly 34 years. He will be the co-general manager of the Coastal Plain League’s Asheboro Copperheads.
He was a fixture at a wide array of sporting events, from high schools to the ACC to NASCAR, the NHL, the NBA and pro golf events.
He started his career as a news reporter at The Robesonian.
After 34 years with The Courier-Tribune, Dennis Garcia called it a career last night
Here, Dennis, second from the left, is shown with Gray Warren, wife Kelly Garcia and Randleman football coach Shane Handy during a presentation by Randleman High Schoolhttps://t.co/vd48kkLvLd pic.twitter.com/IDeEntezAt
— SportsTone.net (@SportsToneNet) September 14, 2019
In other state-related sports media news:
- After 11 months as a sports writer for The Robesonian, Donnell Coley became sports editor of the Richmond County Daily Journal in August. A 2011 graduate of Old Dominion, he got his master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown in 2017 and did freelance work in Virginia for Prince William Today and Loudon Today. He replaced Leon Hargrove Jr., who is now an online English teacher.
- After seven months as a sports writer at The Courier-Tribune, Chris Stiles joined The Robesonian as a sports writer in August. He previously was a reporter for The Clayton (Ga.) Tribune.
- Noah Schatzer joined The Cherokee Scout, a weekly in Murphy, as a sports writer after completing a communications internship with The South Mountain Partnership in Boiling Springs, Pa.
Olsen to be TV analyst on Week 7
The Carolina Panthers won’t play on Week 7 of the NFL season, but Panthers tight end Greg Olsen still will be working.
Olsen will by an analyst for Fox’s coverage of the Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants game, working with Kenny Albert and Lindsay Czarniak.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In The Athletic, Jourdan Rodrigue wrote about former Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell’s strange routine. She explains why Cockrell, now a member of the Carolina Panthers, chooses to walk 20 minutes to and from work each day, and to walk barefoot on the field before games.
Before UNC’s non-conference game at Wake Forest, David Teel of the Daily Press in Newport News outlined the reason for the game, the scheduling flaws in the expanded ACC and the potential solutions.
On ESPN.com, Katie Barnes wrote about the career odyssey that Diamond DeShields has gone through with injuries and always seeking control. The WNBA star still isn’t saying why she transferred from UNC to Tennessee, which she also left early.
Viv Bernstein’s reporting in Sports Illustrated on accusations of sexual harassment against Jerry Richardson helped lead to the founding owner of the Carolina Panthers selling the team. On Poynter, the former N&O writer wrote about the misguided tweets of an NFL beat writer after a suit was filed against Antonio Brown and what it says about reporters who should be impartial on these sorts of stories but instead take sides.
Does a college athletics director just sit back and watch his school’s football game? In the case of John Currie, in his first school year as AD at Wake Forest, John Dell of the Winston-Salem Journal found out otherwise. Game day for him is hectic.
How will Brandon Ingram adjust as he shifts from the Los Angeles Lakers to the New Orleans Pelicans this season? In The Ringer, Jonathan Tjarks looks at how the former Kinston High and Duke star fits in with the Pelicans and whether they should sign Ingram to a new deal.
In the N&O/Herald-Sun, Jonathan Alexander wrote about how a position change to running back before his senior season at Wallace-Rose Hill, and a big game in front of UNC coaches, ended Javonte Williams’ frustrations and made his dreams come true.