The Austin Chronicle

http://www.austinchronicle.com/features/1999-11-19/74721/

Doing Sports the Craig Way

For the Love of the Game

By Mike Butts, November 19, 1999, Features

Craig Way is out of his sports-crazed mind. It's a Thanksgiving night, and he's foregoing the traditional after-meal living-room couch flop to broadcast a high school football game. From the roof of a pressbox. Without getting paid. Want more proof that Way is nuts? Okay: This game isn't some mammoth clash between two storied prep powerhouses on a 50,000-watt radio broadcast. It's a tiny station's coverage of a playoff game between a couple of schools in the state's lowest classification, 1A. It's Detroit vs. Italy in Royse City, whoever they are and wherever that is.

But for Way it all makes perfect sense. An acquaintance called him the day before, desperate to replace his play-by-play man. Way agreed to help, eschewing compensation, and when he got to the game, the only broadcast booth in the pressbox had been taken. So on to the roof in the out-of-the-way North Texas burg it was.

But on Thanksgiving night?

"I was trying to do the guy a favor," Way explains. "And, yes, I thought it'd be fun to see that game."

For Craig Way it's fun to see just about every game. The problem for the No. 2 voice of the Texas Longhorns and KVET radio talk show co-host is this: Sport is long and life is short. And there just isn't enough time to broadcast every contest. If there were, Way would be here, there, and anywhere with headset affixed.

The Thanksgiving craziness happened in 1990, well after Way had established himself with years of college sports broadcasting and only two seasons before he would become the color analysis for UT, one of the most prominent football programs in the country.

Even with those credentials, Way has maintained an enthusiasm for high school football in Texas that is unsurpassed. He's covered the game for almost 20 years. And since getting KRLD in Dallas to expand their 10-minute Friday night high school scoreboard show to a full hour in the mid-Eighties, he has done more to promote high school football, and other high school sports, than perhaps any single person in the state's history.

Way's love of the high school game only begins to describe the North Carolina native's fervor for sports and sports broadcasting. His Turkey Day pressbox perch rates as just a sampling of the lengths Way will travel, many times literally, to report on or witness "that game."

Way drops into his chair in the broadcast studio at Sports Radio KVET the Zone, across the parking lot from Whole Foods on Lamar, for his afternoon Sports Day show. It's been just over a year since KVET-AM went to an all-sports format. And it's easy to see why the Zone is sometimes referred to as the Testosterone Zone. This is no place for those in touch with their feminine side.

The small studio now contains six men. The on-air conversation, prompted by male callers, poses the burning questions of the day: How good are the New York Yankees, who have just won the World Series, and how bad is Texas A&M football coach R.C. Slocum, whose team has just been embarrassed by Oklahoma?

But the off-air conversation is more interesting.

"We've been told to tone down the word "ass,'" Way says.

Other members of the broadcast crew question the heterosexuality of you-know-who's now-famous nude bongo playing.

"When I heard he was playing the bongos naked with a bong on the table, I thought, "That's cool.' But then when I heard there was a guy in the room -- "

Way fits right in with the KVET sports guys, and then he doesn't. He won't often use the word "ass" on the air. And while his recall of details of games played decades ago inspires hours of story telling around KVET, his interests are relatively well-rounded compared to his jock-world mad coworkers.

"Most guys I know in this business spend their spare time watching ESPN or CNNSI," says KVET sports talk host Jon Madani. "Craig spends a lot of his spare time watching the History Channel -- In high school, Craig would have been the nerd. He would have been the guy who knew everything, who spent his time reading and researching."

But only when there wasn't a game on.

Yes, the word "nerd" does come up in conversation about Way. After finishing high school he did some acting in the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, not a credential that would impress the average middle linebacker. And he says he might have been a history teacher had he not found his way to the microphone. His high school weight managed to reach to only about 130 pounds. He participated in organized sports, as an adequate glove but no-power city-league outfielder, only through his freshman year.

But Way's physical presence and his professional self-assurance eliminate any thoughts of skinny geekdom. He stands at least six feet tall. And the boyish face of the man who became the premier high school sports broadcaster in the state in the Eighties and early Nineties has filled out some with middle age, along with his frame. Still, Way, 39, carries an innocence and awe that weds him to the high school game.

"For most people, the key to success in this business is to find a niche," Madani says. "Craig's niche happens to be high school sports."

Way did the hour long high school football scoreboard show at KRLD for seven years, a program that drew listeners from across the state. He also acted as host for High School Extra, a statewide all-sports features program, for several years. That show, and college stints in Lubbock and Denton, helped familiarize Way with many of the nearly 1,200 schools in the state that play high school football. In an impromptu quiz of random schools across the state, Way correctly identified four out of six mascots, including the Post Antelopes and the Oakwood Panthers.

He still does a weekly high school football game on KVET and football playoff and championship games on radio and television. Way also serves as host for High School Extra Live, Fox Sports Southwest's midnight-1am high school football highlight show on Friday nights.

There probably isn't a high school football coach in the state who doesn't know Way.

"I don't think there is," says Austin's Crockett High School coach Jose Martinez. "There may be some young ones."

As the Longhorns' football and basketball color man and the play-by-play man for UT's Lady Longhorns basketball team, Way could easily have left the high school game behind years ago. But ever since he saw his first Texas version of the game in Dallas in 1980, when he was "totally floored" by the spectacle, he has stayed close to the game.

"It's not the money," Way says to explain his high school habit. "It just still has a hold on me."

Way may have generated some of the state's increased media attention for high school sports.

As a student at the University of North Texas in the early Eighties, he convinced the college's radio station manager to broadcast high school football. The station continues to have students broadcast high school games.

Then at KRLD, Way lobbied for a more comprehensive Friday night football scoreboard and a weekly game. The one-hour show used correspondents around the state to report on games.

"At a time when high school sports were really down in attendance and attention, I really believe [Craig] helped rejuvenate interest," says former Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers broadcaster Bill Mercer, who served as Way's mentor at North Texas.

High School Extra Live is Fox Sports Southwest highest-rated non-event programming, eclipsing pro and college highlight shows televised in earlier time slots. Coaches and fans all over Texas stay up to watch. The show runs a crawl at the bottom of the screen with scores from almost every one of the 500 or so games played on Friday nights. And it airs video highlights of 35-45 games.

"It's like election night," Ways says. "You don't know what's coming in. We're seeing the footage for the first time when it airs. By the time it's over, I'm soaked with sweat."

Way's passion for sports goes well beyond high school football. He takes pride in seeing how much work of any kind he can cram into his schedule.

"He doesn't really vacation," says KVET program manager Chuck Meyer. "His vacations consist of stops along the way to do games."

When the Texas football team had an open date this year, Way took a buddy to Boston to watch a college football game, a baseball playoff, and an NFL game on the same weekend.

Hectic schedules are typical for sports broadcasters, but Way often makes sure his is all the more frenetic. The ultimate Way-style weekend came during the NCAA Basketball Tournament several years ago.

Way and his broadcast partner and voice of the Longhorns Bill Schoening traveled to Salt Lake City to broadcast Texas games played on a Thursday and Saturday. Way had an assignment to do live reports for CBS radio at the Tournament site in Boise on Friday and Sunday. But he couldn't get a flight to the second venue.

No problem. Way just rented a car and drove the 350 miles to Boise overnight for Saturday and Sunday's games. He drove to Boise and back twice in three days, a total of 1,400 miles, for six games in four days.

"We did the Texas game and then went to dinner," Schoening said. "And Craig says, "I got to go to Boise. I have an early tipoff tomorrow.' I go back to the hotel and go to bed. I wake up the next morning, turn on the TV, and see Craig in the background getting ready for the game in Boise. I couldn't do that."

Way remembers details of Longhorn games from years ago that Schoening can hardly recall the scores for; Way can tick off high school football playoff possibilities, tiebreakers, and second tiebreakers for teams Schoening has barely heard of. When a recent aircraft accident took the life of golfer Payne Stewart, Way began reeling off several names of sports figures who died in plane crashes, starting with Knute Rockne in 1931. The thickly mustachioed Schoening, affable and square-jawed, admits to fearing that when Way came to KVET two years ago, he would steer the Sports Day show into a talk-a-thon on high school athletics. That hasn't happened, but Way's overwhelming recall still sometimes grates.

"I can only take Craig three hours at a time," Schoening says, only partly joking. "He's very anal about all this high school stuff -- I don't think anybody who leads a normal life can know all that stuff."

But there's no doubt the high school athletic community in Texas holds Way in great esteem.

"He has [earned] the highest respect from our school people," says Bill Farney, the director for the University Interscholastic League, which oversees high school competition in the state.

On a recent Thursday night, Way sat in a small broadcast booth at Austin's Nelson Field. A smeared window had to be opened to see the field. One of the school bands had less than 20 members. Maybe 1,500 people sat in the stands for a game between Reagan and Lanier, two teams that, while making frequent trips to the playoffs in recent seasons, wouldn't make anyone's state top 20. Only five days earlier, Way had helped broadcast one of the most significant college football games of the season, Texas vs. Nebraska, in front of 84,084 people, the largest crowd ever to view a football game in Texas, at Austin's Royal-Memorial Stadium.

But Way is treating this game like any game he does. Like the Thanksgiving night, press-box roof game or like a major college showdown.

"He treats Lanier-Reagan with the same enthusiasm as Texas-Oklahoma," Schoening said. "It's a very important broadcast to him." end story

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