The George Michael Sports Machine went off the air ten years ago this March, after a nearly 30-year run. George Michael’s legacy lives on via the many ESPN sportscasters he mentored, including Lindsay Czarniak and Michael Wilbon. He also had a recent cameo appearance in the hit spy show The Americans, which takes place in Washington DC in the 1980s when the The Sports Machine first launched. Michael’s interviews inspired several movies including The Rookie and Tin Cup.
But few know the personal story of George Michael himself, his rise to fame and the impact that fame had on his family. My father did not trust journalists, particularly after one harsh article in The Washington Post just as he was transitioning from disc jockey to sportscaster. He created a public persona and only revealed the parts of his personal life that helped boost that image. To an extent, all famous people have to do this, and yet, I think people would have found his true back story so much more inspiring.
Here are five things you may not have known about my father, George Michael, some of which are in my memoir, The Sportscaster’s Daughter, some are not:
- He Failed Before He Succeeded
My father was a rock ‘n roll disc jockey in New York before he became Washington, DC’s most revered sportscaster. At the height of his disc jockey career, he was rated the top disc jockey in the country by Billboard magazine. In November, 1979, he was fired from WABC. Ironically, it was on his first wedding anniversary to my stepmother, and the surprise party I had planned for them that night was not as festive as I had hoped. My father tried to hold back tears that night as he said, “I’ll never make this kind of money again.” When you are at the top in the biggest media market in the country, the only place to go is down. This was the same year he was being considered as a host for the Olympics, the Miracle on Ice game my father did not get to announce. At one point, his best prospects looked to be announcing the Islanders hockey games in winter and the Mets in spring, an even tougher travel schedule than he already had. Fortunately, he started as the sports director at WRC-TV in DC that April, five months after getting fired from WABC.
It was a difficult year for our family, but clearly, my father reached new heights in his career. I have always told my children to dream big dreams, and to work them from every angle, because that’s exactly what my father did. His first sports rejection came shortly after he graduated college when he did not get his dream job of announcing Cardinal’s baseball games, his beloved hometown team. So ultimately, it took him another 20 years to achieve his next dream job.
- His Aunt Was a Pioneer in TV
My dad was a pioneer in sports broadcasting, creating his show in 1980 with video highlights from around the country. Sports highlights are the norm today, with people streaming content from phones and TVs. But in the 1980s, few people had cable or satellite dishes. The video highlights from sports teams around the country were one-of-a-kind. Some say he inspired ESPN Sports Center, and for sure, many reporters trained under my father. But he was not the only pioneer in our family. His Aunt Alice had her own cooking show on ABC in the 1960s, known to viewers as Nancy Craig.
- He Didn’t Grow Up Poor
After my father died, a reporter asked me a lot of questions that I had never before contemplated: did he really grow up poor? Did he or didn’t he play soccer in college? These were some of the stories that he apparently had told as part of his public image. As a child, I had never heard him talk about growing up poor. As for soccer, I remember going to some of his neighborhood games when I was a child, and even recall his last game, when he injured his leg and was carted off in an ambulance. But all that was before his college days. After my father died, I journeyed to St. Louis to find out the truth. I visited his childhood home, that, by today’s standards, I would describe as middle class or even upper middle class. He didn’t grow up rich, but he most certainly didn’t grow up poor. As for his soccer, it seems he played some in high school, but never in college.
I wonder why he needed to paint this image of having grown up “on the wrong side of the tracks.” For sure, he was the first in his family to go to college, and to me, that is enough of a success story. His father was a butcher and owned a small grocery story, passing on a work ethic that influenced my father and me.
- He Never Healed Family Rifts
My grandfather, Pop, had four wives. I have heard that my grandmother —my father’s mother—was a cold-hearted woman and a perfectionist. Dad was the baby of the family and his mother’s favorite. When my father was five year’s old, Pop disowned his oldest daughter, my father’s half-sister, for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Although Pop and his daughter reconciled before his death, my father never spoke to that sister again nor had any contact with her.
When my father died, he hadn’t spoken to me in nearly twenty years, repeating a painful family pattern. Our first estrangement began when I was in college, when in a burst of anger my father told me never to come home again. We reconciled for a period, but my father stopped speaking to me again when I moved to Switzerland, to marry my high school sweetheart, a man my father adored. I still can’t say for sure why this hurt him to the point that he refused to talk to me. He never explained things, and here, I can only speculate that it goes back to his own traumatic childhood. I also think his rising fame made his narcissism worse. It was “his way or the highway.”
- He Was the First to Interview Priscilla Presley After Elvis Died
This past Christmas was a strange one, with George Michael the pop star dying unexpectedly Christmas day, seven years after my father died unexpectedly Christmas Eve. It was hard to read tributes to a different George Michael at a time of year I mourn my father’s loss more intensely. There are several tributes planned for the pop singer, and it reminds me of the tributes my father did for Elvis. He did a makeshift tribute the day Elvis died that people can still hear online (musicradio77wabc.com). My father knew the details of Elvis’s career like no other disc jockey or fan. But my father wanted the human side of Elvis, the back story, and for that, he needed Priscilla Presley. Initially, she had refused to talk to the press. I still recall my father’s phone call to her in 1977. I was in the kitchen, probably coloring or writing poems as I did in those days, as he said to Priscilla, “You owe it to your daughter. She’ll want to know about her father.” On the one year anniversary of Elvis’s death, my father’s multi-hour tribute aired around the country, with dozens of interviews from Elvis’s friends, co-workers, and Priscilla. People in the industry thought such a long radio tribute would never succeed, but it did, kind of like the syndicated Sports Machine that had also been met with skepticism. Priscilla, like so many sports celebrities after, trusted my father. He was exceptional in his ability to reveal their human side and unearth their stories. I wish somebody could have done the same for my father.
Cindi Michael is the author of The Sportscaster’s Daughter, selected by Redbook Magazine as one of the best books of 2016.