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A Life Worth Celebrating

SANTA FE, N.M. — He’s traveled to 70 countries and just about every state in the U.S.

But when it comes to the big picture, former CNN sportscaster Nick Charles has his heart in Santa Fe.

That’s where Charles has chosen to live.

And to die.

“Santa Fe’s a jewel, I know that,” Charles, 64, said recently while gazing at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from his living room. “I just wanted my daughter to grow up here.”

Which 5-year-old Giovanna will do. But without her father, who has Stage 4 bladder cancer.

After a two-year battle against the disease, Charles is at peace knowing he has no more fight left.

He’s at peace with his career — for nearly two decades he was at the pinnacle of sportscasting, co-anchoring CNN’s “Sports Tonight,” and winning numerous national awards, including “sexiest sportscaster” by the U.S. Television Fan Association.

He’s at peace with his 14-year marriage to wife, Cory.

And he’s at peace with God.

“My Christian faith didn’t just kick in,” he says. “I trust in God, that He’s going to do what’s right for me.

“It’s the most soothing thing, looking at those mountains and those three peaks,” he says, pointing at the Sangre de Cristos. “I always tell Giovanna, ‘That’s you in the middle, that one’s Mommy, and that’s Daddy. That’s us. God made those, and we will always be there together.’ ”

Cory, an international producer for Atlanta-based CNN who now works out of Santa Fe, says watching Nick and Giovanna is heartwarming.

“I think there’s a real special bond there,” Cory says. “She sees what Nick’s going through, but I think she has this childlike innocence that Daddy’s going to be somewhere and he’s still watching me. That might sound strange to some people, but when you have that faith, you know you’ll be reunited someday.”

Top of the game

Charles made his name as the original sportscaster at CNN. He and Fred Hickman anchored “Sports Tonight” on the network from 1980 to 1997 and gave ESPN’s “SportsCenter” all it could handle for years.

During his time at CNN, Charles hosted the Goodwill Games for Turner Broadcasting in Moscow (1986), Seattle (1990) and St. Petersburg (1994), and he covered boxing for the Games in New York (1998).

Charles was sportscasting’s version of a rock star. He had that man’s man appeal, but his great looks and a silky-smooth delivery turned the heads of many a woman as well.

He covered it all — Super Bowls, the World Series, Final Fours and the Kentucky Derby.

“The best,” he says of the Derby. “The entire week, I just loved getting out there at 5 a.m. every day. The sights, the smells. It is incredible.”

Along the way, he interviewed just about everyone who is anyone in the sports world and made countless friends. Especially in the world of boxing.

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson calls Charles often to check on him.

“The boxing community has been unbelievable,” Charles says. “I hear from so many of them. It’s really special.”

But, as ESPN got larger, “Sports Tonight” took a hit. Fox Broadcasting Co. also moved into the sporting world in the 1990s, and CNN decided to drop “Sports Tonight” in 1997, focusing on news.

Charles did a weekend sports show, “Page One With Nick Charles,” based on features instead of highlights. But when CNN moved sports to the back page, Charles saw it as an opportunity to move forward.

The business had taken its toll on Charles, the son of a Spartan Greek Chicago cab driver and a Sicilian mother. He had married and divorced twice and has three adult children from those marriages.

He says he started to lose his passion for many sports, especially the highlight-show variety.

“It was a great time to turn my career,” he says. “I was in my middle 50s, and there were so many things I had to force that I didn’t like in sports anymore.”

One sport Charles didn’t have to fake his way through was boxing. He was drawn to it more than ever.

Four months after Charles took a buyout from CNN in 2001, he joined Showtime to star in a series about young fighters called ShoBox.

“I like the singularity of it,” he says. “In boxing, you can’t blame the guard for not pulling, the guy who didn’t get out on the wing for a fast break or the shortstop who dropped the relay. It’s all you, and you have to fight through that fear.”

Despite his cancer, which was discovered in August 2009, Charles was still going strong until this year.

He continued to broadcast fights for Showtime — including one in Albuquerque in January 2010 — traveling across much of the country.

And he continued his personal fight as well.

Cancer returns

Charles underwent chemotherapy at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in the summer of 2009. “Brutal stuff,” he says. “The side effects suck. Everything is screwed up gastrointestinally. You’re frozen. It’s horrible.”

In the fall of 2009, the cancer was in partial remission, and Charles was allowed to take three months off from the chemo. There was even hope that he had been cured.

“It was like getting out of San Quentin,” he says. “I drove 700 miles straight to Santa Fe. I was on fire.”

But the cancer returned “with a vengeance” in March 2010. “I still felt hope I could beat it, but I got back into chemo, and nothing was working. It got worse.”

In January, doctors told Charles one more round of chemo would give him about a 10 percent chance of living a little longer.

“I said, ‘I’ll pass.’ ”

So Charles prepared for the end of his life while continuing to live it.

When his body lets him, he plays with Giovanna and gets her to and from school. He also cooks with a passion.

“Any pasta dish,” he says with excitement. “I cook great Italian. My osso buco? The best.”

The small things in life mean a lot more.

“I never put pressure on myself that something great has to happen. … I just want a good quality of life. One of the keys you learn with this disease is to value your happiness every day.”

Charles has recorded numerous videos — and likely left some recipes — for Giovanna, so she can remember him long after he’s gone.

But she will get plenty of help keeping his memory alive.

“He’s touched so many people, so many lives,” says Cory, who is inundated with daily emails and phone calls from well-wishers.

“It’s a little overwhelming at times, but I like to acknowledge every person, because at some time in their life and Nick’s life, Nick was important to them.”

This writer can attest.

Helping a rookie

It was the early 1980s, and I was cutting my teeth as a sportscaster. The cable TV movement was on, and suddenly I had access to the likes of Charles, ESPN’s Chris Berman and NBC’s Marv Albert.

They were godlike for a kid born and raised watching the tube in Albuquerque.

Out of the blue one day, I called Charles to pick his brain about the business. I never expected to reach him — much less have him spend 20 minutes with me on the phone.

It was vintage Charles. Charming, polite and eager to help some rookie kid he didn’t know. It was one of three or four calls I made to him during the ’80s. He was just as courteous every time.

“You can’t fake something like that,” says Steve Farhood, Charles’ broadcast partner on Showtime and close friend. “There’s a lot of insincerity in the TV business, but Nick is so different, and viewers sense that. You can’t fool that camera, especially over 40 years.

“Nick has been so gracious and shown such an interest in everybody in boxing, from the Mike Tysons and Oscar De La Hoyas to the cut men, anonymous trainers and the fans.”

When HBO boxing’s executive producer Rick Bernstein read about Charles’ condition in Sports Illustrated this year, he invited him to do one final broadcast.

Charles answered the bell, calling a fight for HBO’s Boxing After Dark in March.

“I have to say, every person who was involved in that telecast — I can’t even describe how touched everyone was,” Bernstein told the Journal. “It will probably be remembered as the most memorable telecast we’ve ever been a part of.

“I got so many letters and emails from strangers who told me they had family members who are terminally ill, and how much it inspired them to have seen Nick on camera and the message he conveyed.”

Charles says hearing such comments has given him “a chance to validate my life.

“If you get hit by a taxi at 42nd and Broadway, you might get a short eulogy, but you never get to hear these things.”

Charles says he’s been surprised by the attention, and he attributes it to his main philosophy of how to treat others.

“I’ve always asked myself, even as a young man — ‘How do you treat people who can’t do anything in life for you?’ If you can answer that question in your heart, happily — then that, to me, is the key. I think about that all the time.”

‘Dream house’

This week, Charles, Cory and Giovanna moved into their “dream house” in the Las Campanas area of Santa Fe. While the house was being built, the family was living in a rental in Santa Fe — where Cory says “the people have been incredibly supportive.”

What has astonished those who have met Charles in the past two years is his attitude while facing death.

“There’s a saying that I’m convinced of,” Charles says. “ ‘In life, it’s about 20 percent what happens to you and 80 percent how you react to it.’ Whether some guy spills coffee on your pants, you’re in a colossal traffic jam on 285 in Atlanta and you’re late for an appointment, or whether you get cancer. It’s, ‘How will you react?’

“That’s how I live my life. Those are the only things I can control.”

Capsule – Nick and Cory Charles work with World Vision, an organization that tries to prevent child labor in the Philippines. They request donations go to the worldvision.org.

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