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written by R.L. Bynum
Marks had good reasons to give up an NFL beat
Many sports writers dream about covering an NFL team, and would never voluntarily give up that beat.
But those writers don’t have family-related emotions tugging at their hearts — and didn’t spend their teen years in the heart of ACC country.
Last summer, at 24, Brendan Marks became the full-time lead Carolina Panthers beat writer for the Charlotte Observer. By early November, he decided to leave a job he loved to cover North Carolina and Duke basketball for The Athletic, two highly coveted beats.
It wasn’t the first time that family considerations influenced a career move for the Leesville Road High School graduate.
About six weeks after Marks graduated with a journalism degree from UNC in May 2017, his dad passed away following a short illness. Marks was an intern in New York at the time with Sports Illustrated, and it offered him a full-time job. With his mom in north Raleigh, he didn’t want to be that far away and opted instead to take a job at the Observer.
“My mom and I have become so much closer since my dad passed away just because we’ve got each other, but I’ve learned so much more about her and about him,” said Marks, who lives with his girlfriend in Durham. “But I still want to make sure that she’s taken care of, and she’s had some health issues of her own. You’ve only got so much time with the people you care about. And an opportunity came up to do something I loved, close to the people that I love. That was sort of the tipping point; you don’t get many chances like that.”
After his mom had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and needed some light bulbs changed, he only had to make a quick drive to help.
“Those are the little things that I couldn’t do before that I can now and just being able to go and see her randomly for dinner on a Wednesday. That’s part of what, again, makes it worthwhile for me to have done this,” said Marks, whose older half-sister Darcy lives in San Antonio.
The Athletic wasn’t the first media outlet to seek his services.
“There have been other jobs that have come along,” Marks said. “And I’ve always said no because I was so happy at the Observer. This is the one thing that could have gotten me to leave.”
Marks says that covering the NFL made him a better reporter but he was ready for a different challenge. As amazing as covering pro sports can be, he is more attracted to college sports.
“To some level, I’ve missed the imperfection of colleges,” he said. “I watched so many NBA games where there’s a corner three and it’s wide open, it’s going in. It’s going in a hundred percent of the time. That to me is much less interesting than a guy who has a wide-open corner 3 for Duke or UNC and he doesn’t make it or a guy who never makes those shots and then randomly one night does six of eight from three. Those are the sorts of stories that I think are so interesting.”
He’s seen more than his share of imperfections on the UNC beat considering that the Tar Heels have lost all four games he’s covered. He didn’t cover the team in the Bahamas.
Marks also sees different levels of passion on a college beat with the energy from the fans and the players and the smaller venues. He loves covering players who will go on to different occupations after college and are playing for the love of the game instead of a paycheck.
“It’s a different sort of love,” he said. “And, for me — maybe it’s just the way I’m wired — that’s what really gets my heart pounding. I love covering the Panthers, though, don’t get me wrong. But I felt more excitement in the last five minutes of the Duke-Stephen F. Austin game — literally my first night on the job — than I did during any Panthers game this year, which sort of validated my choice.”
Fond memories of Observer, Panthers beat
Marks has nothing but praise for the Observer and the Panthers beat, calling former coach Ron Rivera an amazing coach to cover.
“Just a nice guy, but also someone who knew I was coming in with relatively little experience, and he made time for me and got to know me about my family and everything,’ Marks said. “So, I had it really good.
“This wasn’t a situation where I left because I wasn’t happy. It was a situation where I get to cover the thing I’m most passionate about. Get to cover something where you’ve got two Hall of Fame coaches, you’ve got the best programs in the world. I got to go to a situation where I can see my mom regularly where I can live with my girlfriend instead of having to worry about driving to and from Charlotte all the time.”
He still respects the work of the Observer, including on important issues outside of sports. He remembers seeing journalists in the newsroom such as Elizabeth Leland, Fred Clasen-Kelly, Gary Schwab, Mike Persinger and Harry Pickett for the first time and wondering if he belonged there.
“They were always nothing but nice to me. I learned so much from just the work that they do in Charlotte. Fred, especially, has done so much important work,” said Marks, who still is a subscriber, pointing to the Observer’s coverage of affordable housing, food deserts and segregation issues. “At the end of the day, what we do, it’s an entertainment business. But what they do is so important and valuable to the community.”
Marks also helped with coverage of the Charlotte Hornets and college basketball his first year at the Observer. He filled in on the Panthers beat during the 2018 season between the time Joe Person left in August for The Athletic and when Marcel Louis-Jaques filled that spot in late October.
Marks’ focus is entirely on UNC and Duke basketball, unlike C.L. Brown, who covered college basketball and the ACC a little more broadly for The Athletic until September. When The News & Observer’s Andrew Carter talked to The Athletic about a job a couple of years ago, that would have included covering football and basketball for the three Triangle ACC schools.
The Athletic had talked to Marks in 2018 and renewed discussions when he was on the road covering the Panthers. He got a call from a New York area code number he didn’t recognize. It was The Athletic’s Seth Davis, who Marks grew up reading and watching on television, adding a wow factor to the call. Davis asked if he’d be interested and, after Marks talked to other higher-ups at The Athletic, he was offered the job.
Difficult time to change beats
Then came the odd transition of leaving one beat in the middle of the season to taking on two beats for teams that already had played several games. Marks, of course, has nothing to do with it, but the Panthers lost his last game on the beat and haven’t won since he left.
“Just jumping into a new job in the middle of a season is always going to be tough,” Marks said. “There are things that you’ve missed. There are opportunities to meet players and coaches and start to build that relationship that I wasn’t here for. So, you’ve got to do your best to work over time and pick it up in the middle of the season. But, hopefully, you can create that stuff by showing [my] face and being around and doing good work. And so that’s really my main focus right now.”
Marks’ direct editors are Hugh Kellenberger and Mark Godich. Kellenberger, the executive editor of The Athletic College Basketball, is an Appalachian State graduate who was a Rocky Mount Telegram sports writer for nearly three years until 2008. He previously was sports editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. Godich, a senior editor, is a veteran in the business who came to The Athletic after more than 22 years at Sports Illustrated.
“They’re terrific editors,” Marks said. “Having the breadth of a team that The Athletic does? It has been super cool to take advantage of so far.”
He got quite an introduction to the Duke beat with the Blue Devils’ stunning loss on his first day on the job.
“Those are the sorts of things that you want to happen on your first game in some way because it forces you to adjust and do your best work,” Marks said. “And I would actually say that that experience was probably a lot more helpful for me in terms of learning the team and learning the players. I learned — at the worst possible time for them — what these guys are like, and everyone in that locker room was incredibly courteous and respectful and honest. That’s something that I really appreciate. It also teaches you a lot about basketball. You see what the flaws are.”
He’ll cover the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels at home and on the road. When there is a conflict, he’ll cover the more compelling game, even if it means choosing a road game for one team instead of a home game for the other. He covered UNC’s game at Gonzaga and will be in Las Vegas for the UCLA game Saturday, so he missed Duke’s Thursday home game with Wofford.
In just a few weeks at The Athletic, he’s shown the ability to analyze the X’s and O’s, nicely convey what’s going well with 10 thoughts through 10 games for Duke and UNC and produce more feature-like approaches to stories he files after games.
“If I could, I would just write features,” said Marks, who remembers growing up reading great sports writers in SI such as Gary Smith, Frank Deford and Rick Reilly. “Those are always the jobs I wanted. … One of the most exciting things about The Athletic to me is the ability to write these features all the time and also unconventional features.”
While this is his first time covering Duke, he covered UNC for two Final Four seasons while at The Daily Tar Heel. He wasn’t in Houston for the loss to Villanova in 2016 but was in Glendale, Ariz., for the 2017 victory over Gonzaga.
His only journalism experience before arriving in Chapel Hill was as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Leesville Road. But there, he wrote about subjects such as teenage pregnancy in addition to writing about sports.
“It was really eye-opening,” Marks said, remembering that as a time that stoked his interest in journalism. “You get to go, and you get to ask people questions for a living. You get to find out about different people in their lives that makes them tick and what they’re going through. That seems really cool. I think it was just a natural curiosity about things that I realized what journalism really meant, and I sort of latched on to it.”
He didn’t grow up as a Carolina fan but chose UNC for the proximity, affordability and the journalism program.
During his Carolina years, in addition to working with The DTH, he was a stringer for The Herald-Sun, writing about high school football, and wrote stories for The Boston Globe. Between his junior and senior years, he had an internship with the Observer and was one of the UNC journalism students who were reporters for Olympic News at the Rio Olympics.
He got quotes from Olympic athletes, wrote game stories and even got two minutes with Michael Phelps.
“It was the coolest thing in the world,” Marks said. “I was there when he won the gold. I was there the night that Katie Ledecky won one of her golds, when [Usain] Bolt won one of his final medals. We also got to cover weird things like shooting and field hockey. So that was cool. That was a great experience.”
Starting to love sports while on the move a lot
He developed a passion for sports from his dad, who was the chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration. Since his dad, who grew up around the corner from Fenway Park in Boston, was a frustrated Washington Redskins fan, they tended to watch more basketball than football. And, obviously, he was a Red Sox fan.
“I really fell in love with sports during the 2004 World Series when the Red Sox finally broke the curse,” Marks said. “I remember that night so vividly. But, yeah, from there, it just sort of grew.”
He played Little League baseball and soccer in high school. But when it was evident that playing wouldn’t produce a career, he turned to writing.
Until high school, Marks, who was born in New Jersey, never lived in one place for very long. He’s lived in New York and Connecticut. His family moved to North Carolina while he was in elementary school, and he lived in Mebane, Cary, Apex and in five houses in Raleigh. He was in five schools before spending every high school year at Leesville Road. It was about that time that he fell in love with college basketball.
Constantly moving wasn’t ideal and he admits it was a pain. But Marks said there were positives.
“It taught me to make new connections and meet new friends and that sort of thing. And the communication skills that you gain inherently have helped me a lot, especially like making the transition that I am now because I have no problem ever going up to anybody and saying, ‘Hi, how are you,’ and start a conversation,” he said. “And I think a large part of that is because we were always on the road and always moving around. You never knew how long you were going to be in a place. You just want to jump right in.”
Learning stock-car racing on the fly
Being able to quickly adapt was helpful for Marks, particularly when he started covering NASCAR during his first fall at the Observer in 2017.
“I knew nothing about NASCAR, like literally nothing,” Marks said. “I could have told you who Dale Jr. was and who Jeff Gordon was, that was about it.”
For the first race Marks covered at Darlington Raceway, he had NASCAR officials explain the rules to him.
“I remember going in and I walked right by Dale Jr., just sort of waved and said hello. And I had no idea how big that was,” Marks said.
When you’re covering racing and you didn’t previously know what a caution was, it makes for a steep learning curve.
“Imagine if you woke up out of a coma after 20 years, and you didn’t know what professional basketball looked like today. You would have to start from scratch,” Marks said. “It was wild. But that’s cool, though, because it meant that I was coming in with a different eye and a different perspective. There were things that didn’t make sense to me. And I could go, ‘Well, why are we doing it that way?’ And, boom, there was a great story. Whereas there were a lot of other people who had been entrenched in the sport forever, and sort of had their predispositions and ideas of how things worked. And I just didn’t have that experience. I was constantly questioning things.”
Skills doing videos showed versatility
Based on advice from Grace Raynor, a fellow UNC alum and now colleague at The Athletic (and a two-time National Sports Media Association South Carolina sports writer of the year), Marks graduated from journalism school with a degree in electronic broadcasting instead of writing to make himself more marketable.
He put those skills to work at the Observer with a pair of video series: “(RE)MARKS” and “Amateur Hour.”
There were 3-minute “(RE)MARKS” episodes that were wrapups after games. But then there were longer videos during the week that featured analysis, such as what the defense had to do against the Saints or what was next with Cam Newton out. It was an idea Marks, video editor Matt Walsh and social media editor Mike McRae hatched.
“Those are really cool,” Marks said. “We got a lot of positive feedback on those. And I think at a time when there is so much emphasis on video and pivoting to video, having smart stuff that goes along goes hand in hand with your stories, making it so that if I’m a reader, I go, and I click on the Observer story on Cam Newton. But, at the same time, I’ve got a supplemental video that’s going to explain something else about Cam Newton. I just thought that it made a lot of sense.”
The idea for “Amateur Hour” was for him to participate in some aspect of a pro sport. He played goalie against Charlotte Checkers center Morgan Geekie, drove a race car 170 mph and worked on a pit-crew before a broken hand suffered during a pick-up basketball game derailed further episodes that he had planned involving football and basketball.
Marks said that the pit-crew competition “almost killed me. That is so hard. The fitness part of that is unreal,” he said.
Now, he’ll stick to covering two of the country’s blue-blood college basketball programs.
AP lays off veteran writer McCreary
On Dec. 13, The Associated Press laid off veteran sports writer Joedy McCreary, who covered a variety of ACC sports and was its principal Carolina Hurricanes writer. On the same day, AP also laid off Iowa-based sports writer Luke Ryan Meredith.
One of the nicest guys you’ll ever run into in a press room, the diehard West Virginia and Pittsburgh Pirates fan had been with AP for 17 years since leaving the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where he was a copy editor, page designer and writer.
McCreary, who graduated from West Virginia and got his master’s at Northwestern, first worked for AP for 18 months as a reporter in West Virginia, then for 2.5 years as a sports writer in Mississippi and had been based in Raleigh since 2006.
His wife, Kathy Hanrahan, also is in the media as the Out & About editor at WRAL.
With Aaron Beard the only remaining Triangle-based AP sports writer, the news service is likely to lean heavily on stringers, including former Herald-Sun writers Nolan Hayes and Neil Amato and former Charlotte Observer writer Ken Tysiac. Current N&O/H-S writers Joe Johnson and Joe Giglio have also covered Canes games for AP.
Indianapolis Star lays off veteran writer Berardino
On Dec. 9, the Indianapolis Star laid off Mike Berardino, a UNC alum who wrote for The Herald-Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Baseball America in the early 1990s. His last day was Thursday.
He had been with the Star since September 2018, covering Notre Dame football and doing enterprise reporting. Before that, he was at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for nearly six years covering the Minnesota Twins.
He was one of several laid off at the Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper in anticipation of a Gannett merger with GateHouse Media. In addition, five Star sports clerks also were laid off.
Familiar NSMA finalists for North Carolina awards
The finalists for the National Sports Media Association’s 2019 North Carolina sportscaster of the year are both former winners: John Forslund, the voice of the Carolina Hurricanes, who won it for 2018, and Dave Glenn of The David Glenn Show, who shared the 2013 award with East Carolina play-by-play announcer Jeff Charles.
Two of the NSMA’s four finalists for North Carolina sports writer of the year are two-time winners: Luke DeCock of The News & Observer/Herald-Sun and Ed Hardin of the News & Record of Greensboro. The two shared the 2016 award. DeCock shared the 2017 award with Carter and Hardin won it in 2014. They also are two of the only three remaining full-time newspaper sports columnists in the state, along with the Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler.
The other two finalists for the N.C. sports writer award are Rick Bonnell, the Charlotte Observer’s Charlotte Hornets beat writer, and Jourdan Rodrigue, one of two Carolina Panthers beat writers for The Athletic.
Two finalists outside of North Carolina with state ties are Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga (District of Columbia, a former N&O sports writer) and Steve Selby (Tennessee, the voice of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds who was the voice of the Class A Carolina League Durham Bulls from 1987–90).
Nominated in Massachusetts is Dave O’Brien, the ACC Network’s lead play-by-play announcer who also is a TV voice of the Boston Red Sox.
Gravley’s last WRAL newscast Friday
In early August, veteran WRAL sports anchor Jeff Gravley announced that he’s leaving the station after nearly 35 years. Friday’s 6 p.m. newscast will be his last one at the station.
The next stop for Gravley, an Oxford native and N.C. State graduate, isn’t clear.
“I’m still working to lock down my future,” Gravley said via text.
Gravley’s time covering sports in the state have led to a number of send-off tributes, including NC State football, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and being visited by some former colleagues on his final appearance of WRAL’s Football Friday.
Some very appropriate acknowledgment of Jeff Gravley’s 30 plus years of outstanding TV work by NC State and the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Friday at 6 is Jeff’s final show on WRAL. It will be memorable pic.twitter.com/9v0TsQtcHP
— Bob Holliday (@WRALBobHolliday) December 20, 2019
Canes TV ratings up
The Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff run last season has obviously increased interest in the team, and that’s reflected in the television ratings.
TV ratings for October and November were double what they were in 2018, despite none of the games airing on Dish Network. The regional sports networks have been off the Dish menu nationwide in a dispute with Sinclair since last summer.
In addition, Hurricanes streams on the Fox Sports Go app are up 40%.
This is the second season that the TV broadcasts have been simulcast on the radio.
Hanks starts eastern N.C. radio show
Bryan Hanks, who wears many hats, including media director for the John Wall Holiday Invitational for a 13th consecutive year, is host of “The Bryan Hanks Show,” weekdays on several eastern North Carolina radio stations.
The show, which debuted Dec. 2, airs from 7–8 a.m. on Kinston’s WRNS (960 The Bull) and 960TheBull.com, re-airing from 3–4 p.m. It also airs weeknights from 6–7 p.m. on ESPN Radio affiliates 104.3 FM/1490 AM in New Bern, 107.5 FM/1570 AM in Greenville and on 252espn.com.
Among his guests so far have been Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse, a former Kinston High School and UNC star, and former Kinston Indians general manager North Johnson.
Hanks, the former editor of the Kinston Free Press, also is the PA announcer for the Class A Carolina League Down East Wood Ducks and Kinston High basketball and is the part-time public information officer for Lenoir and Jones counties.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In the Chicago Tribune, former Fayetteville Observer sports writer Dan Wiederer wrote about the bond forged between Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a huge fan of Chicago sports, and Bears coach Matt Nagy. They’ve picked each other’s brains, and Nagy got an up-close look at the Blue Devils’ home game last season against North Carolina.
In the Charlotte Observer, Fowler wrote about the significant health problems former Carolina Panther Winslow Oliver faces on a daily basis after suffering 10 concussions during his football career.
What’s it like when small rural communities — where poverty is high, test scores are low and the population is shrinking — come together as their high schools vie for a spot in the state Class 1-A football championship? In The N&O and Herald-Sun, Carter beautifully brings the scene in the tiny Edgecombe County town of Leggett to life.
In The Athletic, Dan Pompei wrote a poignant feature on Brian Piccolo, the former ACC player of the year at Wake Forest, who lost a battle with cancer while with the Chicago Bears. He documents the struggles of his widow and how the Bears did so much for her since Brian passed away. His final season with the Bears was 50 years ago.
For Inside Carolina, Matt Morgan wrote about the last regular-season UNC’s men’s game (before this month’s Wofford game) in Carmichael and remembered the old arena. He also noted how N.C. State coach Jim Valvano made himself a small part of history.
In the N&O/H-S, retired preps writer Tim Stevens remembered Bruce Phillips, the former Raleigh Times sports editor who died Dec. 8.
Former N&O sports writer Steve Politi, a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., was the guest on the Dec. 2 episode of Jeff Pearlman’s “Two Writers Slinging Yang” podcast. The whole episode is interesting. But there is a particularly amusing story from his time covering the Hurricanes when enforcer Stu Grimson didn’t care for how Politi characterized his goal. That story starts at 33:49.