JEEZ, THAT VOICE. It was so ... unmistakable. One minute you were dozing on the couch, waiting for the West Coast scores, and then that disembodied voice came pouring out of your 24-inch TV, the one that was three feet deep and weighed close to a ton. It was Southern and as rich and creamy as a scoop of Ben & Jerry's, which the world was just discovering. But it wasn't just the aural quality that rousted you from your slumber. Don't forget the unusual locutions. The Dodgers played in Looos An-ge-leeeeees. The trilling of the r's in Andrés Galarraga went on nearly in perpetuity. A kind of frat-boy patois occasionally crept in too. Basketball players didn't merely dunk, they rocked the rim! In a bang-bang play at the plate, the tagged-out runner became meat at the dish!
Yes, Van Earl Wright's voice was famous before anyone knew what he looked like. He was sports broadcasting's answer to the rock stars in KISS. This was late 1989 and the early '90s, when his voice was the star of the sports highlights on CNN Headline News. Before the Internet and smartphones, at a time when the next day's sports page was still king and SportsCenter aired only three times a night for—gasp!—half an hour, Headline was a lifeline for fans desperate for data. At 19 and 49 minutes after every hour, Headline ran rapid-fire two- and three-minute sports updates. No anchor appeared on-screen, the highlights set only to a voice-of-god narration.
The mystery of the voice's identity only added to the fascination with Wright's over-the-top enthusiasm. "The business was so different back then," says Scott Roberts, Wright's onetime roommate, who spent 25 years in broadcasting. "It was a parade of nameless, faceless sportscasters just giving the scores in monotone. All of a sudden there was Van Earl. Practically overnight he was getting reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, and everyone in the country was going nuts on this guy."
When Wright finally appeared on-camera, in mid-1990, as a cohost on Sports Tonight and Sports Late Night, he turned out to have a glint of mischief in his eye, and perfectly feathered blond hair that would have made Don Johnson jealous. Putting this face to that voice only increased his popularity.
It's not a coincidence that the emergence of Wright's idiosyncratic style overlapped with a cultural shift at SportsCenter, in which the anchors, not the athletes they were celebrating, became the stars of the show. "None of us had any way of knowing how influential Van Earl would be," says Art Rogers, the programming director at Atlanta's WSB, who met Wright when he had a summer job as a cameraman in 1983. "He is one of the guys who shaped what sportscasters have become: a distinct presence that is almost a necessity to cut through the clutter and get the viewer's attention."
Wright is a deeply proud man, but he pooh-poohs talk about his enduring influence. "I don't know about any of that," he says. "I was just trying to do the job as well as I could, night after night. If what I did freed up [anchors] to be more themselves, well, that's great. But I can't take credit for the work they did."
This isn't false modesty but rather the enlarged perspective of a 52-year-old divorced father of three who has seen his star fall and is now desperately clawing to get back into the industry he helped to shape. As his former CNN colleague Gary Miller says, "If Van Earl can make it back to where he was, it would be one of the greatest comebacks ever in this business." And as every sports fan knows, it's the comebacks that are most compelling.
WRIGHT DIDN'T have much choice on where to go to college; 18 relatives before him had matriculated at South Carolina, so he became the 19th. CNN was two years old in 1982, and that summer Wright nabbed an internship at the network with the princely pay of $1.66 an hour. He was instantly hooked by the jocularity in the sports department.
Naturally gregarious, Wright had no trouble ingratiating himself with a group of up-and-coming sportscasters who included Miller, Nick Charles and Fred Hickman. "A lot of kids in that role," says Miller, "we never even knew their names, but Van Earl would go out with us after work. Without invitation this cocky little intern made himself part of everything."
After graduating, Wright was the studio sports guy at TV stations in Charleston, S.C.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Beaumont, Texas. All the while he was brazenly sending tapes of his work back to Bill MacPhail, the TV visionary who had created CNN Sports. In October 1989, MacPhail brought Wright back to Atlanta to do late-night voice-overs on Headline News. A skeleton crew would work into the wee hours, updating West Coast results as they trickled in. Juvenile high jinks were common behind the scenes. "One time when I was recording," says Wright, "my coworkers were hassling me through the glass door. I yelled back at them without realizing that my microphone was on. In my haste to get out of there, I didn't bother to check the tape." Pause. "Always check the tape."
The next day MacPhail cued up Wright's 3:19 a.m. report, which was broadcast nationwide: "Sunday night at the Forum, the L.A. Kings. Eat me!" Luckily for Wright this was pre-YouTube, and his indiscretion disappeared into the ether.
A year into Wright's tenure, MacPhail told him he was generating more viewer response than anybody else in CNN's history. Wright can still recite from memory his favorite piece of hate mail: "Since your a------ is connected to your larynx, why don't you gargle with Pepto Bismol, you schmuck."
In May 1993, Wright married Shari Freas—they had met in the CNN building, where she worked in marketing—and a few months later WDIV in Detroit came calling with a salary offer of $180,000, five times Wright's CNN pay. He couldn't say no, so he decamped to Motown to report on Barry Sanders, the Alan Trammell--Lou Whitaker Tigers and Steve Yzerman's Red Wings. After three years in Detroit he was wooed to Los Angeles by the fledgling Fox Sports Network. He performed a variety of roles in 11 years there but frequently clashed with management. In hindsight, he says, "my ego got in the way."
Wright also got caught up in the bright lights, big-city whirlwind. Miller, who has been doing sports for L.A.'s KCAL since 2006, recognized some of the symptoms. "A lot of us got in the habit of having too much fun," he says. "It's a job fueled by adrenaline, and when you're done, it's late at night but you're not ready to go to sleep. Many of us had our struggles later perpetuating that lifestyle and finding out it didn't work."
Wright prefers not to go into detail, but allows, "I made poor choices, and I needed some help and I got it. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. After two months of treatment I didn't want to go back to television because it scared the hell out of me that I was going to get right back into what I had been doing before. And part of me didn't want to be defined just as a TV guy. I wanted to do something that maybe had a little bit more meaning in life."
He began volunteering at a drug rehabilitation center in Long Beach, Calif., in August 2007, which ultimately led to a marketing position at Cirque Lodge, a treatment facility near Salt Lake City. The Wrights' marriage had long been troubled, but seeking a fresh start. Shari joined Van Earl in Utah, along with their children: Ali, Bishop and Lizzie. (They're now 18, 16 and 13, respectively.) Wright's position was eliminated after six months, and his marriage collapsed in '12.
The Wrights moved back to Atlanta that November, to separate homes. Desperate to feed his family, he took a job at Mary Mac's restaurant as what he calls a "greeter and seater." Says his friend Roberts, "When you talk about a guy hitting rock bottom, this was a textbook case." Wright eventually concluded that his road to redemption was through TV. "It's what I knew and what I was good at," he says. "What I couldn't figure out was how to break in again."
HAD YOU BEEN surfing the WSB website on Friday nights in fall 2013, you would have come across an unmistakable voice calling high school football games. After a lifetime in the studio, Wright was hoping to recast himself as a play-by-play man, and this was the only work he could get, a favor from his old boss Rogers. Wright's decision to focus on play-by-play was pragmatic. "There's a lot of ageism in this industry," he says. "They want younger faces on the screen for studio work, but that's not as much a factor for the guys in the booth."
For high school games he was paired with former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley, who admits he had never heard of Wright. "But I did a little research," he says, "and come to find out he's a legend in this industry. It says a lot about Van Earl's character that he was willing to humble himself and start at the bottom. I learned a lot from him, just in the enthusiasm he brought to the booth every week. It might be Millcreek versus North Gwinnett with only a few thousand viewers, but he was hootin' and hollerin' like it was the Super Bowl."
Wright will reprise the role in the fall, and this summer he'll call 10 games for the Gwinnett Braves, Atlanta's Triple A farm team, and do 15 games as an on-field reporter. "I'll do anything, anywhere, anytime," he says. His dream job is to be the voice of a big-time college football team, ideally his alma mater's.
While Wright labors to reinvent himself, he's enjoying a period of personal growth. He admits that he is still healing from the divorce, which was finalized in January. He's become a passionate student of presidential history and is training to run his first marathon in more than a decade. He has also worked as a volunteer assistant coach for his son's lacrosse team.
Given the time to reflect on an up-and-down career, Wright has realized that what sustains him is an enduring love of sports, which he never lost along the way. "If I would presume to give any young broadcaster advice, it would be to not take it so seriously, which goes hand in hand with not taking ourselves so seriously," he says. "For fans it's their outlet to have fun. For us as sportscasters, why not have fun along with them? There are many serious issues in sports, which need to be addressed and discussed. But the games"—here Wright pauses for emphasis, as if composing his own epitaph—"they're supposed to be fun."
DAN & DAVE
VAN EARL WRIGHT
LIFE AFTER SPORTS
Photograph by CHRISTOPHER STANFORD For Sports Illustrated
FUN WITH THE GAMES Now 52, Wright has learned not to takehimself too seriously, a helpful outlook when covering less than reverential Triple A players.
COURTESY OF VAN EARL WRIGHT
COURTESY OF VAN EARL WRIGHT
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS Wright covered some of sport's biggest names, including, from the far left: Yzerman, Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Deion Sanders.
IT'S NOT A COINCIDENCE THAT WRIGHT'S EMERGENCE OVERLAPPED WITH A CULTURAL SHIFT AT SPORTSCENTER.