Joe Throwback: My Friend Nick Charles
Date: June 25, 2011.
We stood in his driveway in the fading New Mexico light, exchanging goodbyes, when Nick Charles said something I will never forget. He said: “I wish I knew you before.” His eyes glassed over then, rain on a window pane, and that was the moment when I came closest to crying. There were numerous other moments of crying and near-crying throughout that day because we both knew exactly why I had come.
Nick was dying. And I had come to write his obituary.
“I hope I gave you what you needed,” he said as we tried to stretch out the moment. It’s a strange thing to write about someone who has spent a lifetime writing about others. Nick Charles was the original sports anchor on CNN. If you are of a certain age, you will certainly remember him and Fred Hickman reporting the sports day every night. Keith Olbermann would say that Charles basically invented the cable television sportscast. But, more than his ability to animate sports highlights, more than his talent for passing along the news and color of the sports day, Nick prided himself on his writing.
Nick: “Do you know what you’re going to write about me?”
Me: “No, not yet.”
Nick: “Will the words just come to you?”
Me: “I don’t know. I hope so.”
Nick: “I’ll bet they will. I love it when words come to me.”
He had grown up poor in the inner city of Chicago. His father was a cab driver and distant — Nick actually called him “my old man,” like out of a movie. Nick said that his boldest memory was of shivering under the covers at night when the heat in their home had been turned off.
Those bitterly cold nights inflamed his imagination. They inspired a vision of a certain kind of life and a certain kind of man he wanted to become. It was a vision entirely apart from his shivering life in Chicago. No, he would listen to opera. He would read the classics. He would dress well and be seen. He would chase sports around the world. He would embrace Paris.
Yes, Nick loved sports, but not so much for the competition or the records or even the drama. He loved sports for the humanity. The stories. He loved boxing most of all. He watched men who came from nothing walk into boxing rings alone, wearing nothing but shoes, trunks, gloves and the fear, pain and ambition that their childhoods wrought.
“I think I know how they feel,” he said.
He wanted to give me a story to write. Nick was generous that way.
“You came so far to see me,” he kept saying.
“You have so many other things you could be doing,” he kept saying.
He wanted so much to make my job easier, that was the writer in him, that was the journalist in him. He kept trying to think of ways to push along the story, my story, his story.
Only we would find our conversations drifting to other topics that seemed to have nothing at all to do with the story. We talked for a while about the Barbie movies that our daughters watched. We talked about mutual friends and whether or not they were happy. We talked at length about Mike Tyson, who connected with Nick (“We are not so different,” he said). We talked about how we grew up, and what was important to us as kids, and whether or not we had stayed true to ourselves.
Nick would every now and again stop and say, “But that’s not why you’re here,” as if these fascinating turns were just wasting my time.
Why was I there? The story was the story. Nick had found out in December that the bladder cancer that ravaged his body had won. He had fought hard, taken a few early rounds, but the cancer was relentless and in time the doctors — like trainer Eddie Futch to Joe Frazier at the end of the Thrilla — told Nick that the fight was over.
He knew then, knew as few of us ever know, that he was going to die in the next few days or weeks or months, but soon, too soon. He was not going to see his beautiful 5-year-old daughter Giovanna grow up. He was not going to grow old with his beautiful wife Cory. He was not going to see Paris again.
“But, no regrets,” he said, the words just coming to him. “I’ve seen Paris.”
And then we would be off again, talking about great boxing matches we remembered and the taste of good calamari and the way people consume the news these days. We walked around downtown Santa Fe in the early afternoon, Nick leading a tour, and every few steps he would stumble into me, and I would hold him up for a second, and we would continue on, neither one of us ready to stop.
We stood in front of his living room window overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the late afternoon, and he talked about New Mexico sunsets, the most beautiful sunsets in the country, and he breathed heavy, his body sagged, but he continued on. He did not want the afternoon to end. He was not ready for night.
The nights were the worst.
He talked about the pain — which sometimes felt unbearable — and the exhaustion which often felt worse than the pain. He talked about being in bed and feeling like the blood had been drained from his body and knives stabbed at his brain and almost everything in him wished to be dead.
Almost. He was not ready to die. There was always something, a tiny something — a light, he called it, or a splash of faith — that pushed him on. He wanted to see his daughter’s smile again. He wanted to hear his wife’s voice again. He wanted to listen to a song again. What song? That changed from time to time. But he wanted to hear it.
Nick: “Why did you become a writer?”
Me: “I’m not entirely sure how it happened.”
Nick: “I know what you mean. I sometimes wonder how any of it happened.”
We had not prepared a goodbye. There seemed no reason to prepare one. I did not know Nick Charles before that day we spent together, and he did not know me. I had exchanged an email or two with him. We had talked on the phone twice. But we were not friends, not even acquaintances. I wanted to write about him because his story touched me. He allowed me to come because he was touched that I cared enough to call. This business of storytelling is a curious one. The relationship between a writer and subject can be intense and involved. And then, generally, it ends.
Only, this turned out to be something more. Because we both kept noticing how similarly we felt about things. Little things. Big things. There were recognizable words in each other’s sentences. There were corresponding twists in each other’s stories. Nick kept saying how he felt this connection to me and that we should have been friends years earlier. I told him I felt the same. It was not something that guys often say to each other. But Nick had put that sort of hesitation behind him.
“I don’t have time for the bullshit,” he said. “I just don’t. I’m dying soon.”
So the goodbye turned out to be agonizing. Nick kept repeating the directions from his home to the airport, though my GPS system was visible through the windshield. He kept asking if I had enough material and he kept asking if I could stay a bit longer and I kept delaying my departure.
The day I had spent with Nick was not depressing — I have had a hard time explaining that to people. There were moments of extreme sadness. Seeing his little girl, so much like my own little girl … talking with Cory and seeing how strong she tried to be for him … driving by a cemetery and hearing Nick talk about how he had considered being buried there … yes, there were moments of overpowering heartache.
But mostly, it was uplifting. It was inspiring. We laughed much more than we cried. And in the most unlikely way, Nick Charles became my friend.
Before I left, he said those words: “I wish I knew you before.” I nodded and walked to the car. There was nothing else to say and no more room for delay. Night was coming. I backed out the car while Nick watched and waved. I turned out and Nick walked to the edge of the driveway and watched me drive down the street. I watched him grow smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror. A little while later, I saw Cory driving back home, and she stopped next to my car and rolled down the window.
“Thank you,” she said. “Nick was really happy today.”
Nick Charles died a couple of months after I visited him. He was 64 years old. He received a lot of love in his final days; he even got to do one more boxing match for HBO and he wrote that it was magical. “The message I tried to articulate on that last broadcast,” he wrote to me, “was, ‘Do what you love regardless of the obstacles and circumstances in your life.’”
Now it has been more than 11 years. Astonishing. I still exchange emails with Cory now and again, and I think about how Giovanna must be 16 or 17 by now, just about the same age as our younger daughter. And I think about Nick a lot. We exchanged a couple of emails after the day we said goodbye. The last words he ever wrote to me were: “Get home to your family and squeeze them tight.”