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The biggest sports story in town last week wasn’t a win or a loss or a trade or an owner’s gaffe. It was a memorial service. George Michael‘s.
The goodbye to the longtime WRC-4 sportscaster also served as a memorial to an era where local news operations were a much bigger deal than today. So even WRC’s competitors, who have all been whittling away at the resources and time devoted to sports in recent years and handing them over to coverage of yesterday’s weather and “American Idol” updates and the like, did strong Michael pieces.
The strongest came from WUSA. After a long segment on the service that had Joe Gibbs and Art Monk‘s remembrances of Michael taped outside the National Cathedral, sports director Brett Haber ad libbed a sweet appreciation of the glory days of DC sportscasting.
Haber had at least one famous run-in with the departed sportscaster, when Michael screamed about a perceived slight and acted like he wanted to drop the gloves with Haber, then at Channel 5, in the parking lot at Redskins Park. But that was years ago, when Michael was wound tighter than a Titleist. All fences had between them were mended before Michael’s death this past Christmas Eve. So Haber, going live from the WUSA desk, didn’t have to fake any of the nice words he said about the recently departed former competitor.
But the best part came when Haber turned to Topper Shutt, the WUSA weatherman who has been at the station since 1988, and paid tribute to one of Shutt’s not-so-recently departed former colleague, Glenn Brenner.
“It’s been  years since we lost Glenn Brenner,” Haber said to Shutt and the viewing audience, “and as a guy who sits in Glenn’s chair every day, I aspire to live up to his legacy.”
For any viewer who was around DC when Brenner ruled – he was at the station from 1977 until just before his 1992 death, and served as the sportscasting equivalent of Mozart to Michael’s Salieri — Haber’s short, sweet speech provided a fabulous Hallmark moment. I worshipped Brenner. Everybody I knew around here when Brenner was on the air worshipped the guy. So Haber’s homage made me weepy.
But Haber hadn’t grown up here — he’s a New York City kid — and I figured while he might have known lots about Michael from “The Sports Machine” hosting, Brenner was DC’s own, and during his 15 years at WUSA I assumed he was as insignificant outside this market as he was dominant in it.
So I called Haber over the weekend to ask how he could talk so heartfelty about a guy he never watched and a guy whose presence here, I thought, has diminished to almost nothingness since 1997, when Haber took his first D.C. job at Fox-5. It all came natural, Haber says.
“Glenn Brenner wasn’t to me what he was to you or anybody who grew up here,” Haber tells me. “I was aware of him, aware that he was the standard for smart funny sportscasters. But when you become a sportscaster in Washington, as I did in 1997, people will teach you about the lore of Washington, and you hear about Bernie Smilovitz and Warner Wolf, and you hear all about Glenn Brenner. If you do what I do where I do it, you know that Glenn and Gordon Peterson built the dynasty that Channel 9 became. So even though I didn’t live through Glenn, I understand what he accomplished and why he was so good. Katie Couric never worked with Walter Cronkite, but she damn near knows where she sits. I feel a special kinship with Glenn’s memory, and I feel a certain responsibility to remember him and what he did, and that he was special.”
Haber says that early in his tenure at Fox-5, producers found a tape of all DC’s rival sportscasters in a roundtable discussion about local sports hosted by that station’s former sports director, Steve Buckhantz. Also on the panel were George Michael, Brenner, and WJLA’s Frank Herzog. “It was amazing,” Haber says. “They were all sitting around throwing zingers, and talking sports. It was fascinating for me, because I don’t think you would have seen anything like that in any other market.”
And Haber says when he moved to WUSA in 2004, Brenner remained a vital presence. “Everybody talked about him,” he says. “And occasionally, my style invokes humor, so when a viewer or coworker would say, ‘Hey, that thing you did tonight reminded me of something Glenn would do!’ That’s about the highest praise you can have in this town. I’m beyond uncomfortable acknowledging any comparison with Glenn Brenner, but it’s beyond flattering. If I touch on his milieu of incorporating humor and smarts and irreverence into what we do, that’s what Glenn mastered, and I’m an apprentice in that field. I’ll spend my career looking to perfect what he did.”
I thanked Haber for his words about Brenner, and then I went to youtube to watch some old clips. Yeah, he was the best.