This ran in Sunday’s paper, after Scott Van Pelt did his radio show in the District last week. This is a slightly expanded version.
For the last several years, it’s become a sports-media cliche: well-known Washington sports broadcaster heads to Bristol for a job at ESPN.
Comcast SportsNet anchor Sage Steele joined the network in 2007. WTEM’s Bram Weinstein left for ESPN in 2008. WUSA’s Sara Walsh headed north in 2010. Steve Weissman, a graduate of Montgomery County’s Springbrook High, went to ESPN in the same year. Jorge Andres left D.C.’s WZDC Telemundo Sports for Bristol in 2011. That was the same year that Lindsay Czarniak departed WRC for ESPN. Former WRC colleague Hakem Dermish soon joined her.
But before the ESPNEWS and SportsCenter sets began hosting daily D.C. reunions, there was Scott Van Pelt, drawing on his experience as a former intern for Steve Buckhantz at WTTG, mentioning College Park bars on SportsCenter, and frequently discussing his Washington roots on his ESPN Radio show.
“It means a lot to come home,” Van Pelt told a downtown audience at The Hamilton last week, after his first live radio show in the District. “Because I’ll never get to do this [full time] from home. My job will never bring me back home. So to get to do this today was neat.”
Van Pelt, of course, grew up in Montgomery County, attended Maryland and frequently comes back to College Park, where he’s a fixture at football and basketball games. But after more than a decade in Bristol, is Washington really home?
“Absolutely,” he told me in the venue’s green room, before beginning his show. “To this day, when people say where are you from, I say D.C.”
“Oh, where do you live?” people will ask, and Van Pelt will tell them he lives in Connecticut.
“I thought you said D.C.?” they’ll respond.
“I did, because you asked me where I’m from, and that’s where I’m from,” he’ll explain. “I was in Clemson last week. I’ll be in Alabama [soon]. When I land, I have to get my app out, punch in where I’m going, and some lady, some disembodied voice tells me where to go. When I land here, it’s like the Swallows of Capistrano — I just start driving and I know where I am. It always, ALWAYS feels like home.”
That feeling informs Van Pelt’s frequent on-air excursions into the realm of Washington sports. When he interviewed Mike Shanahan in May, for example, he talked to the Redskins coach about the local sports-radio mania surrounding all things burgundy and gold – “as a guy who grew up in the Washington area, I’m acutely aware of how the Redskins dominate conversation,” he said during the interview.
“I think about this often,” Van Pelt told me. “The Redskins blot out the sun here, in a way that feels unique. That’s not the right word, because unique means the only one, but there’s a unique-NESS to it. Put it this way, if you told people in Denver you could keep the Broncos but you’d have to give up the Rockies, the Nuggets and the Avalanche, there’d be some pushback. If you told Washington D.C. you could keep the Redskins, but you’d have to give up the Nats, the Wizards and the Caps? Done.”
The Redskins mania expanded during the past few months, when national programs seemed as anxious as the locals to discuss RGIII. Monday Night Football brought Van Pelt’s program to D.C., and RGIII’s “Operation Patience” gave him frequent opportunities to call on his background.
“To the degree that the Redskins are a national topic and this comes up, I try to frame it by explaining what I understand about this place,” he said. “I think it’s context, and I think it’s real. Explaining that to somebody that’s from a different really passionate place, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s like that here too.’ Is it? But even so, it’s like trying to explain to somebody about pizza. ‘Oh, you’ve got to have this pizza!’ Unless you’ve had it, I’m just telling you about something that you kind of understand, but you don’t really.”
And so, of course I had to ask about the RGIII mania. (Bear in mind, this was before the 2013 regular season started.)
“I think what’s happened in the time since the Redskins were good is we’ve become intoxicated more than anything else by the possibility of something that might be,” Van Pelt said. “If you had an 18 [at a blackjack table], that’s a good hand. You might win with that. It’s not blackjack, but it’s 18. Redskins fans would [instead] take the ace and whatever’s underneath. It might be a king, it might be a 2. They don’t care. Robert Griffin is the ace, and anything else is an unknown — but there’s a chance that it’s blackjack, you see what I’m saying? That’s the best way I can describe what he represents to the Redskins.
“If you said to Redskins fans right now, you could have Ben Roethlisberger — a guy that won two Super Bowls, big tough. He’s an 18. But Robert Griffin, he might be better. We don’t know that he’s better. But he might be. And the possibility of what might be, I think, is more intoxicating to sports fans than a safe, known entity.”
Van Pelt and I talked about Buckhantz, whom he sees annually at the beach. He saw Chris Cooley and talked about the former tight end’s radio work. He talked about Andy Pollin’s new show, and the legacy of Glenn Brenner and George Michael, and he talked about Maryland football’s upcoming recruiting class.
A few minutes later, Van Pelt began his show. A couple dozen students, seated in the back, marked the occasion with chants of “Let’s Goooooo, Maryland!” The host smiled.