By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009; D01
It's after 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and Joe Gibbs, a man of strong conviction, wants to talk about another man of strong conviction.
"George had such great courage," the former Redskins head coach said of his friend George Michael, who died of cancer Thursday morning at age 70. "The last two years when I would talk to him to see how he was doing, he would have such concern for others." He would often ask about Taylor, Gibbs's grandson, who was fighting leukemia. "By the time we were done, he ended up cheering me up."
Of all the odd couplings on a coach's show, which the two executed for years during both of Gibbs's tours, an iconic sportscaster paired with the most significant and humble sports figure in the city's history had to rank up there.
"I was the milquetoast coach and he would try to shock me by saying things like, 'You don't believe that!' After a while, I'd either laugh or just sit there looking at him."
The coach relates another story on the day George passed away, remembering his scheduled get-togethers with Michael every Thursday after an arduous week of practice. Gibbs wanted no part of these encounters in the beginning. Dog tired, he would sleep in the back of the limousine George sent for him to transport Gibbs and his wife, Pat, from Redskins Park to the NBC studios on Nebraska Avenue in the District. "I'd be dragging and so darned tired from a week of practice. They'd have to put me in makeup. All of a sudden I'd hear George coming down the hall, jabbering.
"I would look at George and say 'What's wrong with you?' "
An over-caffeinated George would reply: "We have to have a great show!"
In his trademark high-pitch cackle, Gibbs came back with: "You gotta have a great show."
Gibbs laughed out loud over the phone. As his voice trailed off, he added "It's Christmas Eve, and I can't believe he's not with us."
I knew him well enough to talk to the people who knew him better, who knew that the bluster and bombast camouflaged the disenfranchised kid who overcame an unspeakably tough upbringing in South St. Louis -- a childhood that helped him identify with the most hardscrabble people in the sports industry, many battling their own demons.
"Above everything else, George was about passion," said Jeff Greenberg, his longtime producer at WRC (Channel 4). "Passion was why he was able to accomplish the things he did."
It's why George Michael wasn't simply about the "get," the prized interview with the popular sports figure at the moment. Oh, he coveted ratings and he craved validation long after he achieved what few in his profession had ever dreamed. Like many of us, the insecurities that made him lash out over perceived slights remained from his youth.
One of my favorite Michael laments was how Roone Arledge and ABC allegedly jobbed him out of a great career, giving the lead sports anchor gig to Al Michaels not long before the 1980 Winter Olympics, when Michaels famously intoned, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!!!" George spoke of getting that call while driving as if he had lost a family member. All I could finally say was: "George, I think things worked out pretty good for you. More people probably grew up with the 'Sports Machine' than 'Wide World of Sports.' " In hindsight, I should have said that Al Michaels's call that night, about a bunch of upstart, no-chance-in-hell kids beating the odds, and the heavily favored Soviets, could have been the question and answer to George Michael's life.
He made it out of South St. Louis. He took us along, around the globe. George was not so much in search of great athletic achievement as he was authentic human majesty -- finding the redeemable piece of a player forever tagged with the label "bad guy."
He never wanted to be thought of as a wealthy, well-heeled man, which he became mostly because of the force of his own will. But he eventually learned to love the finer things in life -- good food, Standard Poodles, beautiful horses to satisfy his equestrian passion, jousting with a certain owner of a local sports team, whom he became great friends with. He loved people who acknowledged him as "The King" of Washington sports media, even after his genuine banter with longtime friend and anchor Jim Vance (man, who doesn't miss those two affectionately going at each other today?) ended at Channel 4 last year.
But at his core, he was still the kid getting knocked down seven times and getting back up to swing again. Many of his interviews were cathartic experiences for him that bore tears from the subject as well as the person asking the questions.
It's why George visited a down-and-out Dexter Manley in Houston -- years after his playing days had ended, knowing that Manley overcoming cocaine addiction was a much larger hurdle than ever getting his hands on a Cowboys quarterback.
"When I saw him down there, I knew he cared about me, I knew George Michael was a person not just a sportscaster," Manley said Thursday morning.
He didn't care that Mercury Morris, the player, was a member of the last unbeaten team in the NFL when he interviewed him a couple of years ago; he cared that Mercury Morris, the recovering addict, had been clean for several years.
Wes Unseld told a story about jumping up on one of George's horses at his farm in Montgomery County once, how upset George was. "I think that man dropped to his knees and prayed that horse would throw me off," Wes said, chuckling, reminiscing.
He didn't just know everyone who mattered the past four decades in Washington sports; George mattered to them.
It almost feels unfair to think that two Washington icons -- two men responsible for cultivating how we think and feel about the games and the people who play them here -- have died in the past month.
First, Abe Pollin, the philanthropic patriarch of much more than a basketball team, and now George Michael, the booming voice and Pepsodent smile beyond all those wins and memories.
"It's sad to lose people like we've lost here recently," Unseld said simply.
Former Redskins vice president for football operations Vinny Cerrato used to bring his young sons over to George's ranch to ride horses. As George's health worsened, Vinny's wife Becky, a physician at Mercy Hospital in Maryland, would help explain George's illness to him in layman's terms. Cerrato was at his bedside Wednesday and was visibly moved by his friend's death. "George was awesome," Cerrato said. "He meant the world to me, Becky and the boys. He was my friend, and my biggest radio critic. Every Friday at 10 a.m. he would call and tell me what I did right, and what I did wrong. I'm gonna miss him."
The more I spoke with people who knew him well, the more most of them came to the same conclusion:
Before he was a good person to know in influence-heavy Washington, George Michael was simply a good person, whom we all should have had the privilege of genuinely getting to know.
Gibbs had more tales, but none of them conveyed what he wanted to most about George. "This is a man who is at peace with his relationship with the Lord, and a man a lot of people drew inspiration from that went way beyond sports."