Former CNN, WJZ anchor Charles making most of final months

Nick Charles is on the phone from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., a nurse and the hospice people working quietly in the background.

"Mike Tyson came out to visit me last week," he says now. "He cried with me. Kept saying: 'I don't want to lose you!' We have a 25-year friendship that dates back to when he didn't trust anyone. The guy wouldn't let me go for 15 minutes."

Now it's Charles who doesn't want to let go of life, not just yet, not at age 64 with another birthday right around the corner.

But the long-time CNN sports anchor and boxing announcer, who worked at WJZ-TV here nearly 40 years ago, is dying of incurable bladder cancer.

The doctors say he has "months, maybe weeks" to live.

So now, Charles says, "my life is a series of short-term goals that really sustain me." Most revolve around his wife, Cory, a director for CNN International and his youngest daughter, Giovanna, 5. (He was married twice before and has three other children.)

"I wanted to be here for my daughter's first piano lesson, and I made it," he says. "I made it for her fifth birthday. . . I feel like I'm going to a better place, and I'm going to join the people I love."

But as he achieves one goal, he sets his sights on another. Now he wants to hang on another three weeks to move into the house that he and Cory are building in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

And when he wistfully mentioned in an interview with Sports Illustrated last month that he dreamed of calling one last fight, HBO made it happen. A few weeks later, there was Charles at ringside in Atlantic City, N.J., looking frail but beaming, his voice three octaves higher from chemotherapy as he called the bout between undefeated featherweights Mikey Garcia and Max Remillard.

"The HBO people were wonderful," Charles says. "They told me it was the most joyous fight call they had ever heard."

He has equally fond memories of working at WJZ from 1972-1976, where he took over as sports anchor for the genial, popular Irishman, John Kennelly.

"When I did my audition, everyone hated my guts, because I was replacing their drinking buddy," he says with a chuckle. "You would get nasty calls from the viewers. Then it became 'You know what? I still don't like you, but at least you're opinionated.' Then it became 'You know, I'm starting to like you.' And finally it was: 'Who was that guy you replaced, anyway?'"

With anchor Jerry Turner and weather guy Bob Turk, Charles was part of the station's top-rated news team. On the set, they wore these god-awful jean jackets and leisure suits the color of every sherbet flavor in the universe.

You look at the old commercials now and with his long, dark hair, Charles looks like he should have been fronting Tony Orlando and Dawn. Except on his best day, Tony Orlando never had Charles' smoldering, movie-star looks.

What a life it was for a young, energetic sports anchor in Baltimore back then.

He flew on the Colts' charter and shagged fly balls in the outfield with the Orioles. He interviewed the great John Unitas and had liquid dinners with Colts owner Bob Irsay. He palled around with legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee in Little Italy and became good friends with Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets before the team de-camped to Washington.

"It was just a wonderful atmosphere," he said. "Baltimore people, to me, what you saw was what you got. I loved it."

Four years after leaving WJZ, Charles became the first sports anchor at CNN, then a fledgling operation desperately seeking credibility in a cut-throat media market. And Charles helped give them credibility, teaming with co-anchor Fred Hickman for 17 years to give the station a strong, authoritative sports presence.

He covered Super Bowls and World Series and heavyweight championship fights. For a guy who grew up as Nicholas Nickeas in a poor neighborhood in Chicago, it was all a dream come true.

"My high school yearbook said 'Nicholas Nickeas: no activities,'" he says now. "I was working all the time as a kid."

The worst job he ever had? Cleaning out a delivery truck covered with rat feces."

"The guy gave me Playtex gloves and rubber boots," he recalled. "He threw a gallon of lye on the floor. And he said 'Clean it up'.

"I'm breathing in this stuff. And I wanted to tell him to take a flying leap. But I couldn't. I needed the job. But I remember thinking: 'I'll never be trapped again in a job like this.'"

Now, nearly two years after his cancer was first diagnosed, he's heartened by the hundreds of e-mails he gets from people who have heard his story and say he's inspiring them. (He'll be featured on a CNN special with Dr. Sanjay Gupta in May.)

"That's what I want to do: inspire people to embrace life," he says. ". . . I've had 20 months that people are validating my life. If I had gotten run over by a bus, it would have been a nice eulogy, yeah, but I would have never heard it."

There are good days and bad days, he says. He was taking Giovanna to school the other day and saw a bluebird alighting on a tree branch, a sight so breath-taking he almost wept.

"Good day," he says. "Great day."

But the bad days are there, too, more and more of them.

He sleeps with oxygen — the cancer is in his lungs and lymph nodes — and a catheter, too, so he's not padding off to the bathroom every 45 minutes. And during many of the long, dark nights, he thinks of what his final days will be like.

"It's going to be real peaceful-like ending," he says now. "It's not going to be agony."

Morphine will help. So, he says, will his strong Christian faith. He pictures himself in bed, surrounded by loves ones, his body shutting down, gradually unable to take nourishment.

"The last few days, you're eating ice chips," he says. "Your organs lose out to the cancer."

And then it'll be over, he says of his "temporal life" here on Earth.

"I'm sustained by my faith in Christ," he says. "I have assurances that salvation is mine."

Before he hangs up, Nick Charles asks if I have any kids. I tell him I do.

"Hug them every day," he says. "Because you never know."

(Listen to Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.)

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