Just as Pat Summerall has John Madden and Al Michaels might have Rush Limbaugh, Ian Herbert and Eli Zigas have each other.
Herbert and Zigas make up the hardest-working and
lowest-paid sports-broadcasting partnership in the city. This week, the lifelong pals and classmates at Wilson High School will wind up their third year on Channel 28 of District Cablevision—which is basically an access channel run by D.C. public-school students—with their coverage of the DCIAA softball championship game.
If, while channel-surfing within city limits, you’ve come across a rather low-tech, high-energy telecast of a prep athletic event, chances are you’ve seen the work of the pair, dubbed “the Channel 28 guys” by fellow students. Since signing on as freshmen, the rising seniors have had their hands in essentially every game the station has broadcast. And rebroadcast. And rebroadcast.
“If you miss a game the first time, it’ll probably be on again,” Zigas says of the channel’s repetitive schedule.
Herbert and Zigas have covered the meaningless (a preseason football matchup between Good Counsel and Wilson), the momentous (three city basketball championships), and scads of contests that fall somewhere in between. They usually ride together from their respective homes in upper Northwest to both the games and the studios in Herbert’s 1985 Volvo wagon. When they work a game, they not only do the play-by-play and color commentary but also provide pregame analysis and postgame interviews. And then, when those tasks are completed, they put together a highlight package, to be broadcast four times daily.
“They’re almost like twins,” says J.D. DiMattio, the station manager at Channel 28. “I always ask a lot of both of them, and they always give it to me. They do it all.”
DiMattio was serving as a judge at the city’s annual History Day competition when he met Zigas, then a ninth-grader. Zigas’ presentation on Nixon’s presidency had earned him a trip to the national finals for the second year of what is now a four-year streak. (“I think I said Nixon had some good foreign and domestic policies, and that he had some policies that weren’t so good,” recalls Zigas with a laugh. “Real radical theories, right?”) The project also brought Zigas an offer from DiMattio to try out for an internship at Channel 28.
Zigas asked Herbert, a fellow alum of Lafayette Elementary and Deal Junior High, to tag along. At the time, DiMattio had upperclassmen doing his channel’s sports, but Herbert and Zigas were invited to be backups. They accepted—but for different reasons: Zigas was looking for a way to meet his public service requirement for graduation; Herbert was most enthused by the sportscentricity of the job. “I love high school sports, as much as I love college or pro sports,” says Herbert. “I’d be going to games even if I wasn’t calling them.”
By the end of the first year, the pair had already amassed enough studio hours to fulfill the public-service requirement. But they enjoyed collaborating, so they came back for another year and DiMattio put them in charge of all Channel 28 sports programming—with no staff and no pay. (They’ve since been given what Zigas describes as “a small stipend” by the station for their services.)
DiMattio, however, provided guidance and support in abundance, and the kids were richly rewarded in good games. In the 1998 DCIAA basketball finals, the first major title game Herbert and Zigas called together, Anacostia used a 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Coolidge by one. And in their first Turkey Bowl, Dunbar needed double overtime to beat Theodore Roosevelt and claim the city’s football championship.
Then there are the social perks.
“I was walking from school to the Metro one day when a guy said to me, ‘You’re the Channel 28 guy! Let me get an autograph!’” Zigas says. “I didn’t have any paper, and he didn’t have any paper, so he says, “‘Just sign my wrist.’ I signed it.”
The workload is heavy. Especially the editing. Even with the studio’s new equipment, Zigas says it takes “at least six hours” to stitch together a three-minute highlights package.
“I really would like to know how George Michael gets it all done,” he says of the vast quantities of highlights the WRC sportscaster crams into each broadcast.
Professional sports journalists, especially in this town, like to exaggerate the closeness of their relationships with the jocks they’re supposed to be covering. Thanks to the city’s truancy laws, Herbert and Zigas are obliged to spend a good portion of each day with Wilson’s finest athletes.
But the partners say they try never to let familiarity pollute their commentary when they’re covering a Wilson game.
“Eli and I hear all sorts of things at lunch that we can’t use,” says Herbert. “We joke about how we’re going to throw in something like, ‘That’s Jon Cohen [star of Wilson’s city championship baseball team], who recently got a 100 on his science exam,’ but we won’t do it.”
Their objectivity has earned the Channel 28 guys plenty of good-natured ribbing from their classmates. One of the Wilson jocks who always prodded Zigas to be truer to his school was Andre Wallace, a senior receiver on the Tigers football team.
Wallace was murdered in February.
“As a football player,” Zigas says, “Andre was OK. But as a guy, he was really fun. He always wanted me to interview him. He loved talking about himself, and he was funny. So that’s been strange. I don’t know what the exact statistics are, but I think you could make a mathematical case that the most dangerous occupation in America is being a student in the D.C. public schools.
“That’s the kind of thing I’ve been thinking about lately,” Zigas adds.
Even with the hours they put in at Channel 28, Herbert and Zigas find room for extracurricular activities away from the studio. Zigas is the second-seeded tennis player on the Wilson team, which won the city championship last week; Herbert is a member of the varsity wrestling squad. And both participate in Model U.N.
When asked how far he’s going to take sports broadcasting, Zigas, though flagrantly wise for his age, gives the answer any 17-year-old should:
“I have no idea,” he says. “I’m not real comfortable just sticking a microphone in some guy’s face and asking, ‘What are you thinking?’ I don’t know if I ever will be. But it’s been great to work with Ian. In a city where everything is underfunded, I know I’m lucky to have Channel 28. And we’ve still got next year.”
Herbert also is looking forward to next year. As for his post-Channel 28 existence, he’s now leaning toward pursuing a broadcasting career. But Herbert knows he still has much to learn. He’s not sure, however, just how much.
“I never watch myself,” he says. “I don’t have cable.” —Dave McKenna