Chick Hernandez is a permanent fixture in a transient profession, working in an even more transient market. While dozens of colleagues of the Comcast SportsNet host, anchor and reporter have come and gone since he accepted a job at Channel 5 in 1994, Hernandez has become one of the most familiar and respected faces in D.C. sports television.
“I know I’m a rarity,” said Hernandez, who will assume a new role as co-host of Comcast SportsNet’s “SportsTalk Live with Brian Mitchell” on Sept. 1. “I understand it and I’m thankful for it. I root for the teams personally and I have personal relations with these guys, but I’m not a homer, and I think most people appreciate that.”
Hernandez has always appreciated the D.C. area. He was born at Providence Hospital, grew up in Silver Spring and graduated as the class clown from Montgomery Blair High in 1981. Two years later, he enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he became the athletic director of the Sigma Chi fraternity. The position empowered Hernandez, whose ability to make people laugh had always masked an underlying bashfulness, especially around adults. Addressing more than 100 brothers at a weekly chapter meeting gave him the confidence to audition for a sports broadcasting position at Maryland’s student radio station, WMUC. He got the gig.
Carlos was Hernandez’s given name, but Geraldine Hernandez, who raised him as a single mother, was the only one who regularly called him that by the time he got to Maryland. Hernandez went by several nicknames in high school, including Los, Hollywood and Dazzle. He figured he needed a more Americanized name to eventually begin a career in broadcasting, so he lopped off parts of his first and last names and adopted the stage name Carl Hern at WMUC.
“It was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” said Hernandez, who interned at Channel 9 with Glenn Brenner and James Brown – two of the biggest influences on his career – while a student at Maryland.
Hernandez was still in school when Larry Michael offered him a job as a weekend producer with Mutual Radio in 1987. On his first day, Dan Miller, now the radio voice of the Detroit Lions, asked “Carl” if he was the illegitimate son of legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn. Hernandez had heard the joke before, but Miller and Hernandez’s other new co-workers, including Earl Forcey and Tod Castleberry, would not stop calling him Chick. It eventually stuck.
Despite never being the biggest player on the field, Hernandez, a three-sport athlete at Blair, excelled in football. He emulated his childhood idol, Cowboys great Drew Pearson, right down to his pigeon-toed gait. A Temple football scout attended one of Hernandez’s games as a junior and promised him he’d have a scholarship waiting for him in two years under one condition – that he grew six inches.
“I don’t believe I grew another inch,” said Hernandez, who played one year of football at Montgomery College in Rockville after graduating high school.
At 5 feet 6, Hernandez was a giant compared to his 4-11 father, Carlos “Patato” Valdés, a legendary Cuban musician who toured with Tito Puente and invented the tunable conga drum. Valdés was never a part of Hernandez’s life growing up, but the two reunited in fortuitous fashion after Hernandez got married and became a father to three children of his own.
Ten years ago, Hernandez received a call from a musician friend who tipped him off that his father would be performing at Blues Alley in Georgetown the next day. Hernandez’s wife encouraged him to go and he ended up taking his mom, who hadn’t talked to Valdés in 30 years.
“My dad walks out and my mom and her friend are horrified because he looks so frail and slow,” Hernandez said of their surprise visit to Blues Alley. “They’re saying, maybe don’t say anything, you might give him a heart attack.”
After Valdés played his first set, Hernandez went up to the stage and greeted D.C.-based jazz musician Paul Hawkins. Hawkins had served as an intermediary between Hernandez and his father – keeping each of them apprised of the other’s activities – for many years, and agreed to facilitate a long overdue reunion.
“My dad looks down and it is a scene out of a comedy,” Hernandez said. “He starts bawling. He’s screaming and crying. He sits down, we talk, and then he takes me upstairs to meet the band. We stayed for the second show and it was as if he’d taken steroids.” Hernandez shared a few good years with his father before he died in 2007.
Despite his mother’s encouragement to take up music, Hernandez always gravitated to a career in sports. He studied radio, TV and film at Maryland and minored in theater. His weekend gig at Mutual Radio turned into a full-time job and led to an anchoring position at Mizlou, a 24-hour sports network. After Mizlou filed for bankruptcy in 1990, Hernandez made his first résumé tape and was hired by the one station to which he applied , WRDW in Augusta, Ga.
“I had a blast and I found out how to do the job,” Hernandez said.
An opportunity to return home arrived in 1994 after Gus Johnson left Channel 5. Hernandez, who had just hired an agent, submitted a résumé tape on a whim. Steve Buckhantz, Channel 5′s sports director at the time, recognized Hernandez’s talents and recommended that he be hired.
“He had a wit and a personality that other people didn’t have,” Buckhantz said. “Not only did he grow up in D.C., but once you started watching him, you were drawn to his personality and his sense of humor. Chick is similar to the way Glenn [Brenner] was. You don’t necessarily have to love sports to watch him and be entertained by him. That’s not something you can teach.”
“Me and Buck on Sunday nights, I’d put us up against anybody,” said Hernandez, who keeps a photo of the late Brenner on his desk. “If I made [Buckhantz] laugh and cackle, I knew that people at home were laughing too. That was my goal, to make the guy to my left laugh.”
Hernandez has been making colleagues and viewers laugh at Comcast SportsNet since the network launched in 2001. He approaches every interview with the goal of humanizing his subject, whether it’s Tiger Woods or an undrafted rookie free agent at Redskins training camp.
“I’m proud of being able to last and being able to innovate,” said Hernandez, who has turned down offers elsewhere, including ESPN, to remain in the area. “I’m still able to do new stuff. It may sound goofy, but I want to end my career with this network. I don’t have aspirations to go anywhere else. I do want to figure out a way to still bring something new to our network and to the viewer. Every now and then I still do something new that gets my juices flowing.”