Photo courtesy of the NFL Network
When I’m in my channel-flippin’ mood – which is often – there’s always something that stops my twitching thumb besides The Millionaire Matchmaker, Storage Wars, Hawaii Five-O and CSI Miami.
It’s whenever I come across Charles Davis on the NFL Network.
Charles is now 46 years old. Roll back to 1984 when he was a third-year sophomore defensive back for the University of Tennessee and I was about five years into my writing career.
The Charles I see and hear now is the same Charles I saw and heard back then. He looks the same (not a wrinkle on his face), has that same engaging smile and still knows how to break down a game or a situation in an engaging, smart manner.
He was a four-year starter on teams from 1983-86 that won 32 games, including a 35-7 upset of No. 2 Miami in the Sugar Bowl to cap a 1985 SEC championship season.
Charles had six tackles and an interception in the game, and the next year he finished his college career with 13 interceptions, which is still tied for seventh in Tennessee history.
What Charles didn’t fully realize at the time was his college football career was preparing him more for a future in broadcasting than football.
“Growing up, I read a lot of sports biographies and history and watched a lot of sports interviews,” Charles says. “I was immersed in it, I was studying it like a craft. I was preparing for where I am today from the time I could start to read, and didn’t even know it.”
It’s something then-Tennessee coach Johnny Majors picked upon quickly, and so did the media covering the Vols. Majors totally trusted Charles could correctly give the media what they needed in the quote department without giving away team secrets or firing up opponents.
“After we got beat badly by Florida, I think they scored 43 points on us (a 43-30 loss in 1984),” Charles recalls, “I told reporters, `You can say we should have done this and could have done that, but at the end of the day you can’t explain away 43 points.’
“A couple of days later, Coach Majors said to me, `You’re exactly right – you can’t explain away 43 points.’ ”
Though Charles was a political science major with an undergrad in history – he finished second in voting for UT student body vice-president in the spring of 1985 despite off-season shoulder surgery that had him campaigning from hospital bed – broadcasting began appealing to him.
“My goal really was to become an athletic director,” Charles says. “Broadcasting was something that always interested me.”
The spring after Charles’ senior season, legendary Tennessee play-by-play man John Ward invited Charles to be the color analyst on the Vols’ 1987 spring game radio broadcast.
“Like a dummy, I show up in the booth with nothing,” Charles says. “I figure I already knew the players, I didn’t need to do any preparation.
“But because John Ward knew I would show up with nothing, he made me a spotting board like he had. He handed it to me and talked me through a few things. And without saying a word of reprimand, he gave me the best lesson I could get about being prepared.
“He was always an idol of mine. After we beat Alabama in Birmingham in 1983, he said the nicest thing to me. After the game, he pulled me aside and told me how well I was conducting myself and told me how he liked my mind.
“I could barely get on the plane going home, because I had swelled up to about nine feet tall. I was like, `JOHN WARD THINKS I’M OKAY!’ That’s more than enough.’ ”
Still after Charles’ spring game experience with Ward, he figured his broadcast career was over before it started.
“When I graduated, I sent out a few tapes and I never heard from anyone,” Charles says. “Talk about total crickets. Even when I went to work in the SEC office, (former league commissioner) Dr. (Harvey) Schiller had me sit down and talk with some people from Turner (Broadcasting) and nothing ever came of it. So I never thought it would happen.”
So for the next decade, he excelled in various jobs in athletics, from being an assistant commissioner in the SEC office in Birmingham, to assistant athletic director at Stanford.
Then just before the start of the 1997 football season, when Charles was working at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, he got a phone call from Steve Craddock, then an executive producer with Fox Sports South.
“He wanted me to do a couple of football games as an analyst,” Charles says, “I said, `What?’
Craddock found out about Charles through Mark Whitworth, a longtime SEC associate commissioner who worked with Davis in the league office.
“I owe my broadcasting career to Mark Whitworth and every year before the start of the season I sit down and send him a thank-you card,” Charles says. “Mark told Steve a few years prior that he thought I was someone who would do a good job for him. My name was in Steve’s file for about two years, and I think he called me out of pure desperation with a two-game package eight days before the first game that season.”
So just more than a week later, on Aug. 31, 1997, on a steamy afternoon in Starkville at a place Charles never played at a player – Scott Field – he made his TV debut as analyst on Mississippi State’s last-second 13-10 win over Memphis State.
“It was like 8,000 degrees that day,” Charles says. “The only thing I remember when I finished was, `I hope I did O.K., because I really like this.’ ”
Apparently, Charles did great. Because as soon as he got back to his home in Orlando from Starkville, a Sunshine Network executive named Cathy Weeden was calling him with an offer to call two University of Central Florida football games.
Weeden had watched Charles’ debut and called Craddock asking, `Who’s the new kid?’ ”
“I’m thinking life is pretty good, I’ve picked up four games immediately,” Charles said. “Then, Jimmy Rayburn (executive producer for Jefferson-Pilot TV) called me and asked me to do one of their secondary SEC games on one of the weeks they broadcast two games instead of one. I did it with Tim Brando, a Mississippi State at Alabama game.
“And the thing was that after I agreed to do that game, ESPN called me to do a game the same weekend and I had to turn it down. So I went from having nothing to `Gee, I’m getting offers.’ ”
Three years later, Charles was getting so much broadcast work from so many directions he left his job with Disney as director of the PGA Tour’s Disney Golf Classic.
“My wife and I decided to take a leap of faith,” Charles says. “I was confident that if it didn’t work, that I had enough contacts to get a job somewhere in college athletics.”
Charles hasn’t needed those contacts, except to chase stories. Since switching to broadcasting full-time in 2000, you practically need a hurricane-tracking chart to plot his year-to-year, week-to-week moves.
He’s done SEC baseball, Arena League Football, SEC football, NBA basketball, NCAA basketball tournament, Pac 10 football, the Golf Channel and has been lead analyst on the BCS national championship game on Fox.
He made the move to the NFL Network because that entity was expanding its college coverage and sought Charles’ expertise. But as it evolved, Charles adapted to covering the pro game so quick that he has been used extensively in mostly analyzing the NFL rather than college, except for the draft.
“I’ve adapted to covering sports that I haven’t played, because I’ve always been a sports junkie,” Charles says. “I always crossed over to different sports, especially early in my broadcasting career, because I needed all the reps I could get so I could get better.
“I just kept asking for opportunities. A friend of mine once said, `If you keep asking for stuff, it just gives them the opportunity to say is yes. The worst thing they can say is no.’ ”
While Charles has enjoyed other assignments besides football – “I loved doing the SEC Saturday baseball games, because the stadiums were packed and the atmospheres were great,” he says – football is still his niche.
It should be, considering his career at Tennessee. And how a kid from New Paltz, N.Y. ended up in Knoxville, is as interesting as his journey from the Smokey Mountains to coast-to-coast TV airwaves.
“I saw Condredge Holloway play quarterback for Tennessee in 1974 on national TV against UCLA,” Charles says. “I told my parents that day I was going to go to Tennessee, wear No. 7 and play quarterback.”
Charles was a nifty all-around athlete at New Paltz High. As a senior quarterback/safety/placekicker/punter/kick returner, he threw for 742 yards and six TDs, ran for 738 yards and 11 TDs, intercepted four passes and kicked 15-of-20 extra points and a field goal.
He also averaged 28 points game, coached by his father, and he played baseball.
Word spread about the athletic ability of the 6-3, 185-pound youngster, an exceptional player at small school. So much so that opposing coaches that Charles never met were recommending him to college scouts as far away as Michigan.
Charles’ mother was from Tennessee, the Davis’ visited Tennessee in the summer and he had always liked the school from afar. So it was Charles and his high school coach John Ford that made initial contact with Tennessee.
“My coach sent out letters to two schools I was interested in (Missouri and Tennessee),” Charles says. “In the letter, my coach wrote that our school never had a Division 1 level football player, so he didn’t know what one looked like. He asked those schools that if we sent them tape, could they evaluate me and get back to us.
“We never heard from Missouri. Tennessee said, `Send us film.’ ”
Charles took his six allowed paid official visits to Rutgers, Syracuse, Penn State, Michigan (“I spend an hour alone talking with Bo Schembechler, it was awesome,” Charles recalls), UCLA and Tennessee, which was purposely the last visit Charles scheduled.
“I knew I would be comparing everything else to Tennessee,” Charles says. “So I knew my visit to Tennessee would either confirm or deny what I felt about it.”
The visit to Knoxville confirmed what he thought. He was one of eight quarterbacks the Vols signed and he was immediately moved to defensive back and redshirted.
“George Catavolos, the secondary coach, asked me after the morning practice of one of my first two-a-day workouts if I wanted to move to defensive back,” Charles remembers. “He thought I could get on the field sooner if I played cornerback. I said I wanted to compete to play quarterback and he said, `O.K., but just think about it.’
“So I leave his office, got re-taped, went to lunch, took a nap and came back for the afternoon practice. I got there early, because as a freshman you are always terrified about being late.
“I was in the locker room almost by myself. When I got to my locker, my jersey number had changed, my facemask had changed, my shoulder pads were bigger. They changed me to defensive back. I stood there and thought, `Well, I guess I thought about it and telepathically they knew I wanted to be a defensive back.’ ”
That didn’t sit too well with Charles. So he called coaches at other colleges, expressing his wish to transfer. Such a move was a secondary NCAA violation, because such a request can’t be made until after a player is released from his scholarship.
“Some of those schools I wrote let Tennessee know what I did,” Charles says. “So Coach Majors says to me on a Friday, `Make an appointment with my secretary Jenny Anne (Cary) and see me in my office on Monday.’
“I went upstairs and Jenny Anne says, `Oh Charles, what have you done? Are you leaving us?’ I said, `No.’ She said, `Coach thinks you are.’
“So think about the weekend I had. I called my Dad and he said, `Hey dummy, you think you’re the first kid he’s ever had to deal with who was unhappy? Go in there and tell him the truth. Whatever you do, don’t lie to the man.’
“So on Monday, I go into Coach Majors office sweating bullets. He lets me sweat a bit more and then says, `I’ve got four letters from different schools saying you contacted them about transferring. That’s not true, is it?’
“That was his test to see if I would lie. But I looked him in the eye and said, `Yes Coach, it’s true. I made those calls.’ Once I said that, it was absolutely terrific and we talked about it. He said if I wanted to go through spring practice as a quarterback, I could go to all the QB meetings. But I never did. I already transitioned to defensive back in my head.”
It wasn’t long before Charles was one of Majors’ trusted leaders. So much so that on one occasion when the Vols decided to boycott talking to the media after it was reported players were selling their complimentary game tickets for profit – an NCAA violation – Majors asked Charles to break the silence and address the media.
“He said it wasn’t the way to treat the media and he told me I needed to talk to the media,” Charles recalls. “My teammates said we weren’t talking to the media. The fear of my head coach was way bigger than the fear of my teammates.
“So I became a one-man presser and that didn’t go over well in the locker room. Maybe I should have gone to Coach Majors and have him say at the next team meeting that he ordered me to do to it. I needed some backup.”
Charles still tries his best to keep up with the Vols, but football seasons are a blur. Married to extremely loyal wife Lisa with two understanding kids daughter Taylor and son Parker, he’s at home during football season one day a week.
Not only does he have duties with the NFL Network located in Los Angeles, but he’s also a game analyst for Fox.
In between all that, he peeks to see how the Vols are faring. But every year at this time when Tennessee is about to play Alabama, he has an internal clock that still ramps him up to a different level.
“It’s the most bizarre deal,” says Charles, who was 3-1 (4-1 if you count his redshirt year and he does) against Alabama. “To this day, my body and mind still react to Alabama week. I wake up on Monday and say, `It’s ’Bama week.’
“The bad thing is that my body starts doing this the third week of October, since the game is normally on the third Saturday. When it’s on the fourth Saturday like it is this year, I have to go through two weeks of feeling like this.
“I love that Alabama-Tennessee tradition. Alabama is forever. Any game you play in that (late Alabama) Coach (Bear) Bryant says, `When you beat Tennessee, that’s when you become a man,’ well, that’s good enough for me.
“That’s still my rival game. If I die the week of an Alabama game, they aren’t going to close my coffin until that game is over. I won’t die on ’Bama week, at least until there are all zeroes on the clock.”
It’s why wherever he is this Saturday night, Charles will be watching the Vols and Tide tangle. More than likely, he’ll be in a hotel room on the road preparing his spotting board for a Sunday NFL telecast.
Hey, when John Ward teaches you a lesson, you don’t forget it.